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In February of 2021, the UCI Disciplinary Commission levied a nearly three-year ban against Belgian cycling director Patrick Van Gansen — former director of the Team Health Mate women’s pro team — following an investigation into allegations of abuse by former riders. The ban was applied retroactively on April 16, 2020; Van Gansen can return to cycling after December 31, 2022.
For former pro Geneviève Jeanson, the sentencing — considered inappropriately mild by many in the sport — hit too close to home. So, she wrote a letter to the UCI.
“When I decided to write that letter, I could not not speak,” Jeanson told VeloNews. “I had to get it off my chest. I had never spoken that loudly about it. But, cycling is my favorite sport. And abuse is still happening, it’s gonna keep happening. Abuse happens in every sport, in every country. I said, ‘yes I’m retired, but if I don’t do anything I’m going to regret it. And this is the time.'”
A decade and a half ago, Jeanson, then one of pro cycling’s greatest talents, tested positive for EPO. A 10-year ban led to her virtual disappearance from the sport altogether. For years, Jeanson let the doping charge frame the narrative of her abrupt exit from cycling. However, in a 2015 interview with Cyclingnews, Jeanson opened up about what she claimed was the reason that she used EPO in the first place: she was being abused physically and psychologically by her former coach Andre Aubut.
In the letter she wrote to the UCI in April of 2021, Jeanson referenced her own experiences of abuse as a young racer but also delved into topics like re-offense rates for abusers, the disparity in how cases of performance-enhancing drugs versus harassment are handled, and what an athlete risks when speaking out against misconduct.
She also suggested that professional cycling needed an independent agency to handle cases related to abuse.
Less than a month after Jeanson sent her letter to the UCI, she received an email from Morgan Gaultier, the deputy sports director at the UCI, inviting Jeanson to a video call with herself, the UCI’s director general Amina Lanaya, and president David Lappartient.
“They asked what they could do and if I had any insights,” Jeanson said. “They want to make it better and they want to get rid of it. They were aware of the way the complaints were going to the UCI and how long it took to come to the decision. I felt heard, I felt appreciated, I felt like I was on their level. I really felt like I was part of the the team. It was super positive for me.”
After the call, the UCI posted a job description for an integrity and education manager. Jeanson said the role would include both responding to reports of abuse and misconduct as well as creating safeguarding and educational materials. While she felt unqualified for the position, she also felt empowered by her interaction with the UCI. She applied in June.
In August, Jeanson learned that she did not get the job. Nevertheless, during those few months of waiting, Jeanson had begun to ask herself what else she could do to help victims of abuse.
“A little change for abuse victims, for women cyclists, for people that have had a hard life and some point thought that they would never get out of it,” she said. “How could I make a difference if I’m not working at the UCI?”
Through the process, Jeanson landed on gravel. She was curious to see if she could race competitively again and also saw meaningful opportunity within the personal challenge.
“Maybe by the association, it might help other people that were in my situation,” she said.
Although Jeanson didn’t have a gravel bike at the time, she reached out to Patrice Lemieux, the founder and CEO Squad Cycles in Montreal. Her interest in purchasing a bike led to a conversation about sponsorship which led to Floyd Landis’ new off-road bike team, Floyd’s of Leadville Racing.
Jeanson said that she wasn’t looking for a team to help her race gravel but that the mission and philosophy of the new FLR squad resonated with her. In addition to competition, each of the five athletes on the team will use the team’s platform to share stories from off-the-bike, focusing especially on mental health.
For Jeanson, it presented an opportunity to revisit the sport she loved, on her own terms. That notion would not have crossed her mind were it not for the UCI letter.
“If you would asked me a year ago if I thought I would be here now I would have said no,” she said. “It all stemmed from that letter I wrote and the good it gave me to speak out and be well received by the UCI. Kris Westwood from the Canadian Cycling Association called me and said, ‘Gen, I just want to apologize. We never protected you. We didn’t know how. Now after all these years, you decide to speak up when you could have stayed silent.’ It made me think, you know what, maybe I could go back and have a career in the sport. The fact that I failed the drug test will never be erased, but there’s context around it. I have a lot of things to bring. Racing is a vehicle for me to bring that experience. It’s possible to have lived really bad shit and think you’re never gonna get out of it and have a fulfilling life. But it’s not out of reach. I’d like to find a way to share that with people and be involved in making it better. But I’m going back to racing for myself first.”