Meet the Billie Jean King of Cycling

24 Jul

On April 18, 2017, in front of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) road commission in Brussels, Iris Slappendel presented the findings from a survey of the women’s peloton. Slappendel, a 34-year-old retired professional road cyclist and former Dutch national champion, was in Brussels to educate the sport’s governing body about the realities of being a female bike racer.

The findings from the survey of nearly 200 riders—roughly half the women’s peloton—were stark. One-third of respondents made $5,670 or less a year, and a majority reported working a second job in order to continue racing. Of those who made a salary, 51 percent paid some of it back to their team in order to compete—for mechanic fees, travel, race kit, event entry fees, and even gas money to get to the airport. Most respondents listed affordable medical care, a minimum salary, and standardized contracts as important issues they faced. When asked if there was a need for an independent association or union to “represent their career interests,” 85 percent responded yes.

The attendees were shocked. No one at the UCI had ever bothered to survey its female riders. As someone who was still serving on a UCI athlete commission, Slappendel doubted the ability of the sport’s leadership to fix the problems. Three months earlier, after she spoke to the men’s union, the Cyclistes Professionnels Associés (CPA), a male official approached Slappendel and asked, “Do you really think women are professional cyclists?”

Few should be surprised that such an attitude still exists in cycling. Ever since Billie Jean King famously went rogue in 1973, defying tennis’s male-dominated governing body to launch her own Women’s Tennis Association, female professional athletes have been waging a battle for equality in nearly every major sport. The past few years have produced watershed wins. After filing a wage-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team signed a new collective-bargaining agreement, dramatically closing the pay gap between men and women players. Last year the World Surf League announced that it would finally award equal prize money to men and women at all of its events.

In contrast, cycling has remained in the dark ages. The UCI’s 18-member management committee includes only two women, so it’s little wonder that the governing body has never made it a priority to give women cyclists a platform to help grow the sport. There are no stage races longer than a week outside of the Giro Rosa, no parity in race length, and little coverage online or on TV—a factor that all but eliminates major sponsorship deals.

Slappendel’s leadership is finally forcing some changes. Eight months after her meeting with the UCI, along with pro riders Carmen Small and Gracie Elvin, she helped launch the Cyclists’ Alliance (TCA), the first independent labor union for women’s cycling. More than 100 cyclists have signed up so far.

“In the Netherlands, women are more mouthy, disagreeable, and there is less of a hierarchy—because of that, we are more equal,” says Slappendel, who is now the executive director of the new union.

In its first year, the group negotiated supplemental health-insurance packages for cyclists and their families, offered standardized contract templates and legal help for racers, created a mentoring program linking experienced racers with rookies, and mediated 12 disputes between riders and their teams. In January, with a nudge from TCA, the UCI announced that the 2020 Women’s WorldTour would offer a minimum salary of around $17,000 to start, rising to match men’s Continental Teams salaries of $33,000 by 2023, as well as maternity contract clauses, health insurance, and eventually a pension.

The men’s peloton took notice. In the past year, two professional riders associations have pulled out of the men’s union, unhappy with the lack of reform, diversity, and athlete voices in the CPA. In March, British racer Mark Cavendish tweeted about TCA, writing, “I reckon the unity our female colleagues show is something us male riders could aspire to. Massive respect and support to everyone that’s put in to build @Cyclists_All to where it’s at.” Several high-profile male riders and national riders associations have approached TCA to see if they can join. Others are trying to find a way to model a new union for the men based on TCA’s efforts.

But Slappendel wants to go one step further and remake cycling’s infrastructure. Like King, who eventually bypassed the United States Tennis Association in her fight to fix the sport’s 12-to-1 gender pay ratio, Slappendel envisions one day going around the UCI, allowing women’s cycling to strike its own deals for TV rights, sponsorships, racecourses, and coverage in a way that benefits women cyclists, not their governing body. With the current unity of the women’s peloton, TCA could potentially negotiate with the organizer of the Tour de France, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), about finally putting on a comparable women’s event.

“Iris is a force of nature,” says Joe Harris, coauthor of the blog the Outer Line, which covers the structure, governance, and economics of professional cycling. He and his writing partner, Steve Maxwell, advised Slappendel as she pulled together her early vision. “She’s like no one else in the sport,” Harris says. “She sees the whole picture. How do you change cycling, which has a solidified identity as a men’s sport, with a specific market and a concrete band of leaders? You scrap it all.”

We need a cultural change,” says Slappendel, who spoke to me via Skype while recuperating from a concussion and two broken vertebrae after getting hit in the head by a falling rock during a hike. “Billie Jean needed to convince eight players. I have to convince 300 riders. Some of the women believe in our vision, but some see themselves as individuals who are there to race and get paid—well, until something goes wrong. We have 100 riders signed up. I want more.”

Slappendel insists that the success of her sport comes down to media attention and live-streaming races. The UCI can ask the ASO to organize a Tour de France for women, but that’s not her priority, she says, arguing that clinging to the old grand-tour model may be futile. She cites the growing popularity of other racing formats, like the short closed-circuit events called criteriums. “In the end, we shouldn’t be afraid of an entirely new concept,” Slappendel says. “We can’t wait around for the UCI to change.”