"We can change the culture of the sport": Iris Slappendel interview
The Cyclists Alliance has been instrumental in bringing about key changes in women's cycling in recent years. But, as Executive Director Iris Slappendel explains, there is still a long way to go on the road to equality
Take a quick glance at Instagram posts showing rolling, sunny training roads in southern Spain or new drops of the finest bikes and kit, and you might feel envious of the seemingly blissful lives of full-time cyclists. However, for the majority of female riders outside of the UCI Women’s World Tour, the reality is a much bleaker picture.
From irregular pay and no maternity leave, to abusive and untrustworthy managerial staff, you’d be forgiven for wondering if what most female cyclists are dedicating their lives towards can even be classed as a profession.
After a 13 year career in the women’s peloton, Iris Slappendel is only too familiar with these challenges. As the Executive Director of The Cyclists Alliance (TCA), she is working hard to make positive steps on the road to equality.
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The work of the TCA can be split into two sections: the collective change that the Alliance advocates for as a union, like maternity leave, minimum salaries for continental teams, better race safety and more visibility of women's cycling; and more individual support such as contract negations, salaries and insurance.
Iris Slappendel also runs clothing brand IRIS (Photo credit: Maarten de Groot)
With three lawyers as a part of the organisation, the TCA is well equipped to advise riders. “We’re seeing a trend of riders checking their contract before the season,” Iris explains. “They don’t just think oh s*it, this has happened, next year I'll be in a better team and it will all be better, they’re becoming more proactive. Awareness is growing and they are talking amongst themselves.”
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Added to legal support, the TCA also offers nutritional help, medical advice and a rider mentor programme. Iris explains, “These are things that teams should really provide themselves, but the level of professionalism in women’s cycling means not all teams can do this. It all comes back to supporting riders and giving them confidence, making sure they know they are not alone in this.
“Our main aim is for 100% of female riders in the pro peloton to have a safe and stable economic environment and working conditions,” Iris says. In most employment sectors today, this would be something we would take for granted.
However, as a survey carried out by the TCA last year showed, many teams still don’t offer basic working rights to their riders. Some of the most alarming findings were that 25% of professional female riders received no salary last year, while 32% of riders earned less than €15,000. Many teams asked riders to reimburse them for medical or equipment costs, even riders who weren’t earning a living.
Rider surveys are a crucial part of the work that the TCA does. Lack of engagement from male riders giving feedback on new UCI rules made headlines recently, with Matteo Trentin urging his colleagues to spend more time reading emails from the CPA (Cyclistes Professionnels Associés) and less time on Tiktok.
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The Cyclists Alliance hasn’t faced the same problems with rider response rate. Over 100 athletes completed their recent survey. The Rider Council, a board of riders from 10 different continents and teams is a key factor in keeping a strong connection between the TCA and teams. “They are our voice within the peloton,” Iris explains.
“In general, in women’s sport, we have more shared goals and we are less divided. I think in some ways, women feel more responsibility to work on their own future, maybe male riders have already been disappointed by their union.” Iris believes we are seeing a strong athlete movement across all sports at the moment, a positive step towards change.
Last year witnessed the creation of women's WorldTeams like Trek-Segafredo (Photo credit: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)
When the TCA were able to present the 2017 survey to the UCI, this played a crucial role in encouraging them to make the reforms that followed. “I think it was an eye-opener to a lot of people, there is a lot to improve,” she says.
In 2020, the UCI introduced a new tier system for professional women’s teams, including the creation of women’s WorldTeams. As part of this, a minimum salary was introduced for teams who have this status. Other reforms included a maximum number of race days, holiday pay, sickness cover, maternity cover and pension schemes.
Although this was a great show of commitment from the UCI to improve the working conditions of female cyclists, these reforms have been met with some criticism. It could be said that these rules put too much pressure on teams who lack the budget to adhere to the new regulations, potentially forcing them out of the peloton. Although the TCA welcomes these positive changes, Iris explains, “Before speaking about a minimum salary, there needs to be a safe and professional environment to perform your sport. The problem is that it is harder to monitor and check this… the only thing we can have a hard check on is money or salaries, that’s what makes it difficult.”
Out of 46 UCI women’s teams, only eight are part of the Women’s WorldTour.This means that only these eight teams have to adhere to the rules implemented by the UCI. “We’re seeing a progression in salaries at the top end, but on the lower end there is still not much change, this is leading to bigger disparities between riders,” Iris explains.
The UCI’s focus on the front end of the sport, such as the Women’s WorldTour, is a good first step, but the TCA believes that there needs to be a vision for the development of women’s cycling as a whole. Problems like the lack of an U23 race series or U23 Road World Championship for women means that many many riders drop out of the sport aged 18-22. “They end up on a crappy team where they feel unhappy and the level is too high, so they are disappointed,” Iris explains.
A lack of specific U23 racing is one issue Iris believes forces young women out of the sport (Photo credit: Velofocus)
Whilst some women’s teams like Parkhotel Valkenburg or NXTG profile themselves as development teams, they have problems gaining access to the bigger races, which only strengthens the argument for a U23 race series.
“It’s not just development,” Iris believes.“It's also thinking about how we can make the sport bigger with people from different continents like Africa and South America. It’s still a Europe-centred sport and it’s so difficult for riders to come here. There needs to be a bigger vision.”
As women’s racing has grown, we are beginning to see more male WorldTour teams creating female partner teams, Jumbo Visma being the most recent example. With female teams requiring bigger budgets and with pressure increasing on them to supply better working conditions for their riders, men’s World Tour teams who already have the infrastructure in place to provide these services, could be seen as a good option going forwards.
But Iris advises caution. “The biggest mistake you can make is to copy men’s sport into women’s sports, women’s cycling is a different sport with its own potential… Some teams do it very well, such as Trek-Segafredo. They see the value of the female riders and what they can bring. If that’s the case, it’s a good development, but it shouldn’t be mandatory. It should be the true intention of the team. Boels and Canyon-Sram are great examples of how to create a stand alone women’s team and create a good fan base and professional environment.”
The Cyclist’s Alliance has also actively campaigned against the sort of abuse that the #MeToo movement has highlighted. The power imbalance between team managers and riders is something that has been an ongoing issue in women’s cycling, especially when underfunded riders have to be so reliant on their employers.
“You see the most problems in the lower ranked teams as these are the most desperate riders. Educating them on what is normal or not helps,” Iris says. Ex-riders like Giorgia Bronzini and Anna van der Breggen (as of next year) moving from athlete roles into Director Sportif positions will help have more professional people in the sport.
“We need to move away from just sticking to people who have been around for 100 years just because of the fact they are around,” Iris says.“It’s not okay to make comments about someone's weight if you have no background in the sport. If you can drive a team car, this doesn’t mean you have knowledge about nutrition, for example. That’s definitely what we have to get away from.”
The Cyclists Alliance is funded by rider memberships, donations and additional partners such as the Rapha Foundation. As women’s cycling grows, so does the demand for the crucial services that the TCA provide and they have big plans for the future of their organisation. To name just a few: expanding into a more diverse membership, making the sport more visible in the media in general and expanding their mentor and after career programme.
“Together we can change the culture of the sport by informing and educating riders,” Slappendel says, “The more of that we do, the stronger our voice is.”