Shifting gears: How a stronger union could change pro cycling

The Outer Line suggests a stronger, more influential riders' union may actually be the first, most important step to improving pro cycling.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of an article on The Outer Line. In it, Steve Maxwell and Joe Harris consider the current state of pro cycling’s riders’ union and how it affects myriad issues in the sport.

Stronger athlete representation is a critical need in professional cycling today. The examples from almost all other professional sports show that the players must have a spot at the table in order for overall conditions to improve. Although the influential Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) report dedicated a mere five lines out of 200 pages to this issue in March 2015, it did recommend that the UCI facilitate the creation of a strong riders’ union “to give riders a collective voice, particularly on the issues of ownership, revenue sharing, the racing calendar, and anti-doping.”

Despite all the grand statements and intentions, not much has changed. There has always been an unspoken rule that the team owners and race organizers could treat the athletes however they pleased, and if the riders didn’t want to play by their rules, there was always an endless supply of other aspiring racers out there, itching to get into the sport. The riders themselves are still reluctant to step forward and speak out; off-the-record, some more-cynical riders suggest that the current situation of an existing but relatively weak union structure — the Cycliste Professionnels Associés (CPA) — actually reinforces the feudal agenda of the organizers and UCI. One prominent ex-racer put it this way: “Whenever there is a rider concern or grievance, all the officials can just say, ‘Fine, you already have a union; go ask them to do something about it.’ A weak union fits their purposes perfectly.”

There are some unique reasons why a strong and all-inclusive riders’ union has never formed. Professional cyclists come from a wide variety of economic situations and cultural backgrounds, they speak many different languages, and they may have widely differing financial expectations. Furthermore, the economic insecurity of the overall sport and generally low average rider salaries reduce the funding sources needed to support such an organization.

But a strong union is needed more today than ever before. Highly-visible health and safety issues have become too common, like the race moto that crashed out Greg Van Avermaet during the recent Clásica San Sebastián, or the dangerous snow conditions in the 2014 Giro d’Italia. Additional issues include requirements for minimum salaries, and a limit on the number of expected racing days per year. Other more-controversial issues include compensation for “image rights,” and privacy protection with respect to anti-doping testing.

Cycling powerhouses like France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain have had some form of national riders’ association for many years — decades in some cases — but these different organizations often overlapped or simply focused on their own national issues. Hence, the CPA was formed in 1999, to act as an umbrella organization that could coordinate these various national groups. The CPA has had some successes, but it is still small, and by general consensus it remains seriously under-funded and under-staffed. One of its most important activities is to manage the “Solidarity Fund,” a small endowment set up to provide certain qualifying pro riders with a minimal retirement payment. It also maintains an ongoing joint agreement with the teams’ association, the AIGCP, which is supposed to cover such items as minimum salaries, maximum required days of racing, and other team/athlete issues.

While the general intent of the CPA may be noble, its limited impact is predictable given its modest funding and organizational structure; it is simply not positioned to be a very powerful voice or to sway key decisions at pro cycling’s table. But there are also other new efforts to organize and represent members of the pro peloton. The newly formed Association of North American Professional Road Cyclists (ANAPRC) recently joined the CPA, through the efforts of several active or retired American riders. Another relatively new organization, the Women’s Cycling Association (WCA) has spent the last two years getting organized and attempting to create the same kind of momentum for the women’s sport.

There are many challenges beyond a stronger athlete association that pro cycling must resolve: the historical doping stigma; the sport’s economic sustainability; the need to attract more fans and stronger sponsors; a more logical and sensible calendar — to name just a few. But viewed from a different perspective, perhaps a stronger athlete union should not be viewed as just one item on this “list.” Perhaps stronger rider representation should in fact be viewed as the single item on this “to-do list” which might actually help to drive and achieve all of the other objectives.

A stronger association could force simultaneous progress on all these issues, following the path of other sports like football and baseball, which made their greatest leaps in popularity and revenues following the development of a more powerful voice for the athletes. When they are better able to harness their collective power, pro cyclists will also be able to enjoy higher wages, more stable employment, safer racing conditions, and a more secure long-term future — all of which will contribute to a more robust and sustainable sport.