Cycling’s #MeToo moment – part one

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Orla Chennaoui uncovers abuse and harassment at the highest level of women’s pro cycling

Photographs: Eugene Kim
MeToo at Vargarda, Eugene Kim

 

 

The following article is an edited extract from issue 19.6 of Rouleur Magazine, out now and available to buy here.

Lying on the massage table after her first UCI stage race, everything still felt unreal to “Rosa”. She should have been spending that spring studying alongside her high school friends back home, preparing for one of the seminal moments in a North American teenager’s life, graduation. Instead, she had one hand on her dream and one foot in the professional peloton, fitting studies around a first season racing in Europe.


Having been spotted while riding for her national team the year before, Rosa was racing with the development squad of a Women’s WorldTour team. Far from home, far from her parents, it was an opportunity to prove she had what it took to make it at the top level of the sport. Now, after her first day competing in a top European junior stage race, she was preparing for one of the professional luxuries she had yet to become accustomed to, the post-race massage.


The bubble quickly burst. “His hands went way up,” says Rosa, describing the massage. “I was wearing underwear but he touched up there. I was on a team of 16 and 17 year olds and he would brush along the whole length of our vaginas with his thumb, as he ran his hands up our legs.”


At first, Rosa simply didn’t know what to do. “I was thinking maybe it was a mistake and maybe he didn’t mean to run that high. I was naïve. I was excited to be over in Europe racing. A part of me at that stage wasn’t sure if that was a normal occurrence because I’d never really worked with a team whose soigneur gave massage.”

MeToo by Eugene Kim


As the only English speaker on a team of Belgian and Dutch girls, communication with the other riders was limited. “I remember having a brief discussion with one of them, saying that massage was really weird, that it went really high,” she says. “Then it would just become through looks and whatnot. It became more of an unspoken thing. We wouldn’t be alone with him.”


The nature of the massages continued for the duration of the race and seemingly without fear of recrimination: “He would give massages like that even though we’d all be in the room together.” The soigneur also began sending text messages to Rosa in the evenings, adding to her discomfort. “We would all eat together in this dining hall and he would start taking pictures of me across the table and messaging them to me, which was really weird.


“He would message me in the evening, from their house, and say things like, ‘oh I wish I could come back home with you and be your personal soigneur.’


“I just wasn’t sure at this point what to do. I was being polite and answering him because I thought, if I make things weird, he’s in charge of nutrition, he’s in charge of massage, our success in the race depends on him.


“By the end of the tour, I was just disgusted and put up a block. If he puts a hand on your back, you try to ignore it mentally. I thought maybe this is just what it has to be when you’re racing over here. Maybe they are more cosy and touchy over in Europe, who knows? I never had any experience of sexual assault in the past so didn’t really know how to compare it.”

Rosa did, however, complain to team management when she went back to North America after the race. While not feeling ready to specifically address the physical sexual assault, she had hoped that flagging her discomfort over the nature of the text messages and the general demeanour of the soigneur would suffice. But the team directors brushed it off.


“Sending those messages, I was scared. I thought, what if it’s really nothing? What if I lose my spot on the team? How bad would it be to keep it a secret? But talking to my parents we just decided that no, we had to tell the team. I wasn’t going to be there for a couple of months while I graduated from high school, so for the other riders who were going to be there for those months, I had to tell them. I was quite shocked that they dismissed something like that. I was shocked that a professional women’s team wouldn’t take that seriously. It just didn’t seem right.”


The soigneur in question was eventually sacked from the team, but only after a complaint from the elite squad, and not before Rosa was instructed she would have to live in the same house as him when she came back to Europe to race after graduation.


“I was freaking out. I wasn’t sure what to do,” she says. “My aim was to get there and address it in person.”

Vargarda MeToo, by Eugene Kim


When she landed, Rosa was informed that the soigneur had finally been dismissed. Rosa doesn’t know if the complaints from the senior team were of a similar nature: “It annoyed me that they didn’t take me seriously and the word of the elite rider was more valid than mine – more of an excuse to fire him.”


Rosa’s story is not only deeply disturbing, but appears to speak of a wider problem within women’s cycling.


While researching this article, I was told of an atmosphere on several second-tier teams which, if not permissive of sexual harassment and power abuse, at the very least seem to turn a blind eye to it. I have also been told concerns from the WorldTour that the problem could be more widespread than is suspected.


Stories of abuse in cycling are nothing new. Last year, a report by the Dutch Cycling Federation found that more than a quarter of top female Dutch riders said they had felt unsafe in the sport. Some 13 per cent said they had been on the receiving end of inappropriate sexual behaviour, including “touching” and comments.


Until now, victims of abuse in the sport – be it sexual, verbal or otherwise – have tended to stay silent. The innately secretive nature of the issue is compounded by the fact that jobs and livelihoods are at stake, and there can be confusion over where the boundaries of power and personal relationships lie. Speaking out isn’t easy.


This is an extract from issue 19.6 of Rouleur Magazine, out now and available to buy here.


Any rider, whether they are a member of The Cyclists’ Alliance or not, can contact the association if they are experiencing abuse within the sport. As is the case with the UCI Ethics Commission, for purposes of confidentiality, any discussions surrounding such cases will remain confidential. Contact:  iris.slappendel@cyclistsalliance.org