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The Outer Line: Will the CPA riders’ union survive?

One of the most glaring deficiencies in men’s professional cycling is the lack of athlete input and influence in the sport — particularly in terms of critical economic and structural decisions made at the highest level. No sport has ever made significant economic progress without a strong athlete’s union driving change from within. The Cycliste Professionnels Associés (CPA) — the formal riders’ association — was founded in 1999, ostensibly to provide this representation for professional bike racers. However, the CPA has never had a major impact on the sport and has been unable to shift the balance of power over the course of its 20-year history.

Over the years The Outer Line has made several efforts to contact the CPA, both directly and through key intermediaries. The organization responded only once, saying that it had no interest in participating or cooperating with any review of its operations or performance. Nevertheless, we have also offered the CPA an opportunity to formally respond to this article.

To its credit, the CPA has taken some evolutionary steps in the last three years, notably adding an influential association from North America (ANAPRC) a few years ago, and belatedly announcing a women’s chapter. It has successfully introduced some safety and bad weather initiatives on behalf of the athletes. And it has negotiated and loosely maintained a “Joint Agreement” with the men’s teams that defines some basic standards, including a minimum wage for Pro Continental and WorldTour riders.

However, riders are increasingly questioning the CPA’s ability to manage its financial obligations and longer-term economic stability. The most important of these is the Solidarity Fund, created to provide a one-time payment to qualified retiring riders. There are reports that this fund (supported by a percentage of race prize monies) has not grown fast enough to meet its obligations. However, as has typically been the situation historically, no one at the CPA will comment on how the fund is actually managed, its solvency or if it can meet these commitments.

Riders are increasingly questioning the CPA’s ability to manage its financial obligations and longer-term economic stability.

One of the fundamental concerns about the CPA is that it may not have been organized properly to drive forward progress in the first place. Rather than representing the riders directly, it acts as a loose umbrella organization to coordinate the activities of cycling’s many long-standing national rider groups — an association of associations. While It may provide an important voice on some issues, other issues are sometimes deeply split along national lines.

And despite the CPA’s recent efforts to form a women’s division, many of the top 50 female riders — and representatives from every single team — have instead rallied to participate in The Cyclists’ Alliance new women’s union. In fact, a number of men riders have also taken notice of the structure, format, and message of The Cyclists’ Alliance. For example, Mark Cavendish recently tweeted a message of support while others have reportedly even inquired about joining the organization — though it was originally set up to respond to the needs of women riders only.

Now, word is coming from different sources that the CPA is suffering from new structural fractures and that its future direction may be even more uncertain. The Dutch association for professional riders, also known as the VVWB, recently elected to withdraw from the CPA altogether — a dramatic statement of lack of faith in the organization by one of the world’s dominant cycling nations. Other apprehensive national associations could follow suit.

In light of these recent changes, The Outer Line has revisited our detailed review and audit of the strengths and weaknesses of the CPA, first published in 2016. The conclusions of this report, which are just as relevant today as they were 16 months ago, highlight some of the key decision criteria as to why the Dutch association may be choosing a different direction. With more riders reaching minimum eligibility for a payout, and more riders aging out of the peloton, there is genuine concern that the Solidarity Fund could run dry. This is especially disconcerting for riders in the ProConti ranks, who earn a far lower salary and for whom a retirement payout is a significant bridge to adjusting to life after racing. Many riders are worried that they are paying more in (in terms of reduced prize monies) than they are getting back.

Whether the CPA can rally and stay together after losing the important Dutch association, whether it can refocus and become a more influential player, and whether new leadership is needed remains to be seen. And with so many other competitive, structural, and financial stresses acting upon professional cycling at the moment, the CPA finds itself at a difficult crossroads.

Read the executive summary of our review below, and see our full report on the performance and effectiveness of the CPA here >>

The Cycliste Professionnels Associés (CPA) was formed in 1999, to better coordinate professional cycling’s pre-existing national rider associations, to “act as a reference point” in the case of issues which went beyond national borders, and more generally to protect the rights and interests of riders. Among its important early accomplishments, the CPA developed a “Joint Agreement” with the teams’ organization — to help govern the relationship between teams and their riders; and a riders’ “Solidarity Fund” — to provide limited financial support to certain retiring riders.

Most of the CPA’s financial matters are conducted in the shadows, without the informed oversight of its own steering committee, and well beyond any public transparency.

It was hoped that the organization would gradually gain political and financial strength and that it would be able to speak with an increasingly influential voice for the riders. However, the CPA has struggled to grow or expand its influence in pro cycling over the intervening fifteen years. The retiring rider payment is no larger today than it was fifteen years ago, the Joint Agreement has not been revisited since 2012, and tragically, riders are still being seriously injured or even dying as a result of safety failures in top-level races. As we reported earlier, today’s CPA consists of only two part-time officials supported by a small staff. Although its visibility has improved over the last year or two, many riders are barely even aware of the CPA’s existence. The organization is technically governed by a “steering committee” — representatives from its eight member-nation associations. It derives its primary funding from a 2 percent share of the total prize money from major races, and a small annual bequest from the UCI, for a total annual budget of about €320,000.

The CPA has a set of bylaws to guide its operations, the key components of which are reviewed in our report. While we found the CPA to be generally conforming with most of the standard administrative by-laws, it falls short in several other critical areas, including (i) membership criteria — in particular the inclusion of women’s racers; (ii) the full inclusion of all professional male racers; and (iii) adequately addressing various specific concerns of the athletes, or what the CPA calls “necessary tasks.” In addition, the CPA apparently fails to comply with various financial controls, reporting, and auditing requirements, as well as the general transparency of its operations. Most of the CPA’s financial matters are conducted in the shadows, without the informed oversight of its own steering committee, and well beyond any public transparency.

To provide a broader perspective, we also benchmarked the CPA against the management and governance guidelines established by the Sports Governance Observer (published by the Danish Institute of Sports Studies). This document cites four different criteria by which to evaluate the governance of sports organizations — transparency, democratic processes, checks and balances, and “solidarity” or sustainability. The CPA performs poorly when judged against most of these external guidelines. Particularly in terms of the transparency and checks/balances criteria, the CPA does not conform to most of the recommendations. Nor does the CPA appear to meet any of the suggested checks and balances recommended for a sporting organization. There is no public information to suggest that the organization follows explicit internal financial checks or controls, or external financial auditing of the organization’s books. There is also no specific ethics code, nor is there any mechanism to monitor or police management conflicts of interest.

Our review also looks at some of the larger and more established sporting unions, which provide models toward which the CPA might strive over the longer term. In particular, we look at the Major League Soccer Players Union and the NFL Players Association as two successful examples. While the CPA might eventually grow to incorporate some of the standards illustrated by these more advanced unions, it clearly has a long way to go.

In fairness, there are several valid reasons why a strong and all-inclusive riders union has not yet developed within pro cycling. Professional cyclists come from a wide variety of economic situations and cultural backgrounds, they speak many different languages, and they have widely differing financial expectations. There has been no obvious source of consistent financing for the organization; there is no single entity with which the union can negotiate on behalf of the riders; and pro cycling’s overall management remains so fractured and uncooperative that the CPA (or any alternative future union effort) faces a steep uphill battle in addressing these challenges. Yet, according to most athletes interviewed for this analysis, a stronger riders’ union is needed more today than ever before.

At the end of the day, little is likely to happen on any of these issues until the riders themselves step forward to demand a louder voice.

There is one final, fundamental concern. At the end of the day, little is likely to happen on any of these issues until the riders themselves step forward to demand a louder voice. Unfortunately, there is still a largely unspoken but significant fear of standing up and speaking out. Riders still worry about being black-balled or replaced if they challenge their teams or the status quo. Worse, some riders appear to simply not care much about the whole issue. The tough Darwinian economics of the sport forces many riders to focus strictly on themselves — their training, racing, and maintaining their employment. One can hardly lay the blame at the feet of the CPA if the riders are not themselves more involved and behind the effort. If things are ever really going to change, the riders must become more informed and more invested in future reform negotiations.

We argue that a stronger union would strengthen the overall sport, and would actually be good for the other key stakeholders in the sport — the AIGCP, Velon, ASO, and the UCI. Many other pro sports like football and baseball made their greatest leaps in popularity and revenue following the development of a more powerful voice for the athletes, which in turn forced rapid evolution in the business of those respective sports. Strong athlete organizations in women’s sports like tennis and golf led to dramatic growth, and rapidly increased the earning power of both athletes and event organizers. A strong collective bargaining agreement, which clearly spells out binding expectations for rider and team ethics, combined with strict regulatory oversight and enforcement could also help the peloton to better police itself and help resolve the legacy doping challenge.

Pro cycling is one of the few global sports today in which the athletes do not have a direct vote at the governance table to determine the financial, safety, or labor standards of their profession. The UCI itself told us that the CPA is “one of the essential stakeholders as we prepare cycling for tomorrow.” But the CPA has to live up to that role. It cannot drive change by hoping that the governing body will read its memos and public statements. It must strive for equal footing — and the ability to negotiate with strong countermeasures — if it is to fully represent its athletes’ interests and help to determine the future of the sport.

Given this background, we suggest the following recommendations:

1.) The CPA needs to collect more timely data and develop a more accurate idea of where it actually stands with the riders today before it can effectively map out a realistic longer-term strategy. Only by clearly understanding what is on the minds of the riders today can it map out a logical path to progress and growth.

2.) The CPA must investigate new sources of funding, from all potential sources, to support and sustain a larger and more intensive effort – to begin to address the gaps and shortfalls mentioned above.

3.) The CPA should work more aggressively to build more influential relationships with the other key stakeholders in the sport – particularly the UCI, AIGCP, and Velon. At this point in time, the CPA is clearly the weak party at the table with these other stakeholders; it must find ways of developing greater power at the highest levels and negotiating tables of the sport.

4.) The CPA needs to put in place a full-time and more broadly experienced business management and executive team.

5.) The CPA needs to develop a more formal strategic and tactical planning process.

6.) The CPA should also clearly identify its three most critical current objectives — whether they be race safety, health benefits, post-career assistance or the like — and develop a short-term, specific and tactical plan by which it will make incremental progress on those singular most critical issues.

7.) The CPA must find a way to better represent all the riders — to bring all professional level riders under its umbrella on an equal basis.

8.) Finally, the individual members of the steering committee — as well as the riders themselves — must be encouraged to take a more aggressive role, to help force some of the above changes to occur.

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