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The Cyclists’ Alliance: Women’s cycling faced unique set of challenges due to COVID-19

A new survey conducted by advocacy group The Cyclists' Alliance shows inequity in medical support for women's teams.

With only one major race left on the calendar, it’s safe to say that the women’s peloton made it through the tumultuous 2020 race season relatively unscathed.

However, the results of a survey conducted by the advocacy group The Cyclists’ Alliance (TCA) show that many riders were concerned and challenged by the conditions wrought by the COVID-19 crisis.

While crowded hotels with buffet dining and maskless spectators have emerged as serious concerns across the entire professional peloton, the results of the TCA survey show that many female pros also had an additional stressor during the season.

“What we asked about testing was maybe the most important info,” TCA co-founder Iris Slappendel told VeloNews. “All those things we’ve heard here and there around travel and lodging are important, but look at the fact that 30 percent of riders don’t have access to a team doctor. Or, they have one but can’t access her, only on paper. Or, they simply don’t have one. So, that’s quite a big number. Especially when the UCI is assuming all teams have a team doctor, and all team doctors have to upload test results.”

Furthermore, Slappendel said that 25 percent of respondents had to arrange their own COVID-19 testing, and 10 percent reported having to pay for it themselves. With already limited budgets, some women’s teams simply couldn’t shoulder the extra cost.

And then, there was the confusion around when, where, and how to test.

“We got a lot of emails from riders saying ‘I’m not sure when to do the test,'” Slappendel said. “‘For example, I have a race in Italy this Saturday, I have to fly on Wednesday, and I have to do the test on Wednesday.’ For example, in the Netherlands, if you have to use the national testing system, you have to make an appointment in advance but you have to also have symptoms. These are all really stressful factors for riders. If you’re riding the Tour de France and you’re in this bubble with your team, it’s not so complicated. But the last two months, when its classics and riders go home in between, it becomes much more complicated.”

The Cyclists’ Alliance tried to preempt some of the potential issues surrounding COVID-19 protocol throughout the season. Working with Dr. Claire Rose and a handful of team physicians, the organization conducted a risk assessment before each race. They would start by asking questions like, ‘How many infections are in that region? What’s the ranking of infection? Is everything communicated to the teams?’

“If it wasn’t, we would contact the race organizer and ask for all the protocols and its dedicated person,” Slappendel said. “Then we rang the races so we could already see which organizer seemed very prepared and which was very last minute or didn’t seem prepared. Except for the race in Navarra, there was always a way to gather all the information, and they did seem prepared although yes, some other than others. That’s also what you can see in the results — it’s more the big organizations that were applying the protocols very well and others like Ardeche, which is smaller, are not providing all the protocols in place.” 

Although the pre-race assessments were especially useful early in the season when teams and riders were all faced with the same uncertainty regarding protocol, Slappendel said that the results of the survey showed that most riders’ main concern was simply their own health.

“We asked the question – ‘What worried you most during races and what worries you the most around racing?'” she said. “Getting infected during traveling and in accommodation were the main things. They focused on – ‘Is our hotel safe, are spectators wearing PPE, are there clean bathrooms, the possibility to wash hands?'”

81 percent of riders reported that they were worried about getting infected during travel to races, and 64.6 percent worried about their bubble being compromised by their race accommodation.

With the 2021 race season scheduled to begin as early as late January and no abatement of the pandemic in sight, the TCA’s activation around COVID-19 concerns should be prescient.

Furthermore, Slappendel believes that most riders feel comfortable coming to the TCA with their questions and concerns, which is why she hopes that the survey results are taken seriously by the UCI.

“If not, I think it’s a waste of an opportunity,” she said. “We provide them with lots of info. Even if they don’t want to take our work as information, most of the riders come to us with their questions. I think it would be super good if we ask riders questions and then we could show the UCI and they could give us feedback. I’m sure the UCI is doing stuff, it would just help if the riders knew about it. I think it would also be more motivating to do the surveys and keep asking questions if we knew the UCI was listening.”