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WorldTour teamsters

A true riders' union could upend cycling's power structure, writes Andrew Hood.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the January issue of Velo magazine.

Of the many lessons to be learned from the football player strike at the University of Missouri in November, one that gets overlooked is this: Coaches, officials, and politicians can talk all they want, but when the athletes refuse to show up for work, change happens overnight. (Well, almost: The resignation of the university’s president, which is what the players were calling for, came two days after they walked out.)

Compare that to the glacial changes in cycling, which are locked in a years-long battle involving race organizers like ASO and RCS, the teams, and the UCI over things like revenue sharing, guaranteed team licenses, and the racing calendar.

This mostly comes down to a battle between the UCI and ASO that has drawn the various parties into opposing camps. But one very important party — one that could probably accelerate things — has been missing: Professional riders have been largely locked out of discussions that will reshape their sport.

They do have nominal representation, via the CPA (Cyclistes Professionnels Associés), as well as by rider reps, such as Bernhard Eisel and the retired Marco Pinotti, who sit on UCI-sanctioned panels. But these representatives can merely voice their concerns to the sport’s powerbrokers, who then meet to decide their fate. Without a strong union, the riders get little, if any, say in things. Imagine how much the NBA players union could accomplish if it weren’t able to threaten strikes.

“We have the feeling that the decisions are already made by the time we walk into the room,” says one current pro who’s participated in some of the negotiations.

For the first time in cycling history, however, top professionals are starting to take control of their collective destiny. Riders around the world have been quietly laying the groundwork for a true union that could forever alter the balance of power inside the sport.

Don’t expect a walkout anytime soon, but pro riders are organizing like never before.

How is it that professional cyclists don’t already have a strong union? Riders are vulnerable on many levels, from short careers that might last only a few seasons, to fear of getting ostracized if they speak up, to results-driven contracts that are rarely doled out for more than two or three years. Then there’s the international makeup of the peloton. Unionizing a national soccer league is one thing. Unionizing a sport whose riders and events involve multiple countries is much more difficult. So the fragmentation and uncertainty that a union would ostensibly help combat made it difficult to assemble a union in the first place.

To give riders a voice, the UCI created the CPA in 1999. While not officially a union, the group gave the racers a mechanism to promote their interests within the UCI structure.

The CPA is funded by a two-percent slice of prize money as well as $100,000 from WorldTour fees. In addition to representing riders during negotiations, it underwrites a retirement fund, supported by another slice of prize money, that has so far extended payments of up to $13,000 apiece to more than 400 ex-pros. The CPA also signs off on a “joint agreement” between teams and riders that outlines details like minimum wages and insurance, but it has little power to change the terms.

And until recently, the CPA spoke mainly for the riders from its seven original member countries: Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Portugal, and the Netherlands. Representation for riders from Germany, Australia, the U.S., and all the other countries that make up an increasingly big chunk of the peloton was largely symbolic — in a group that wasn’t all that effective for the riders who were members in the first place.

But if the CPA wasn’t a true union, its existence also stood in the way of the formation of one. So in late 2013, a group of North American riders started meeting before and after races to explore other options. In early 2014, they created ANAPRC (the Association of North American Professional Road Cyclists), a group that could provide a template for working from within the CPA to turn it into a true union.

“A lot of us had been talking, but we never did anything about it,” says Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing), a member of the ANAPRC board of directors. “We would like to be a better voice for riders in general.”

To understand how ANAPRC could change things, it helps to know how the CPA runs. The group has seven board members—one from each member country. The board sets the agenda. But once a year there’s an international congress at which all professional riders can show up and vote on agenda items. One rider, one vote.

Fair enough, except that the vote of each of the seven board members counts for as many votes as that country has licensed riders. Even if Peter Sagan, Alexander Kristoff, or André Greipel took the trouble to find out when the congress was and made their own arrangements to get there, they wouldn’t be able to make a difference.

In order to have a voting board member, riders must organize a national riders’ association. (This is something completely separate from national governing bodies.) Doing so requires quite a bit of back-end legal footwork to create a non-profit group, register with tax authorities, create bylaws, and set up accounts. That model might work for nations with a lot of pro riders who can share resources and expertise. But it all but guarantees smaller nations won’t get a board seat.

ANAPRC is the CPA’s first multinational association. That’s an important precedent. Create multinational seats for other smaller countries, and you would have a body that wasn’t just more reflective of modern cycling but one where enough riders were represented (via their board members) to affect change through the annual congress. The CPA would be a true union.

Nearly every top North American pro has signed on with ANAPRC, meaning three-dozen WorldTour and Pro Continental riders now have a seat at the CPA table. Ex-pro Christian Vande Velde was named president, and the group hired Boulder, Colorado, risk manager Michael Carcaise as executive director.

“We are encouraging riders to create their national associations, or at least be in contact with us,” says CPA president Gianni Bugno. “We want to speak not for the majority of the peloton, but the entire peloton.”

The North American contingent didn’t come in guns blazing. Instead, the group started by setting pragmatic, short-term goals, foremost of which was making rider safety more of a priority.

Extreme weather dogged the peloton in 2015, from dangerous heat at the Tour of Oman in February, when riders refused to race in the high winds and heat of the desert, to hurricane-level winds at Gent-Wevelgem, which blew Belgian veteran Gert Steegmans (Trek Factory Racing) into a ditch in April. The Giro d’Italia was lucky that it didn’t see a repeat of the snow-bound debacle over the Passo dello Stelvio from 2014, but the decisive mountain stage at Tirreno-Adriatico was nearly snowed out in March.
“There needs to be some limits set on weather,” says Tyler Farrar (Team Dimension Data), a member of ANAPRC. “It doesn’t have to be, ‘Oh, it’s raining, we stop’… There needs to be a protocol, so it eliminates all the drama.”

Those incidents gave the CPA a cause to rally around. Nudged by ANAPRC, the group got the UCI to enact an “extreme weather protocol” for 2016. Instead of leaving weather decisions up to race organizers — who have every reason to try to make a race go on — the protocol sets broad, weather-related triggers that require a pre-race, no-or-go meeting between teams, riders, the UCI, and race organizers.

While it was a far cry from something like an athlete strike, the CPA has started to show what even a bit of organization around an issue can accomplish.

Other riders from non-CPA nations have taken notice. Marcel Kittel, Tony Martin, and John Degenkolb have expressed support for the creation of a pan-German-speaking group that would include Germany and Austria. Michael Rogers and Adam Hansen are getting things organized in Australia. And Daniel Martin and Nicolas Roche are building up a group in Ireland.

Adam Hansen (Lotto-Soudal), who wrote software to help his team organize logistics, has offered to lend his computer acumen to improve communications among the pros about key issues.

“We need to stop complaining and do something,” says Eisel, who’s been a UCI riders’ rep for five years. “We need to organize, come up with suggestions and constructive ideas. Then we can start working to truly improve conditions.”

Cycling has a history of rider protests over concerns like weather or drug testing. Bernard Hinault famously led a strike during the 1978 Tour de France over split stages. But it’s one thing to get angry about race conditions on the day of the event; it’s something else entirely to sit at the table during the offseason with lawyers and advisors and have the entire peloton at your back. In place of reflexive, piecemeal, and largely ineffective battles, the riders would have a strategic, organized voice that could affect real change.

ANAPRC is already looking further down the road. The much-discussed calendar reforms that will roll out in 2017 are part of an agreement that will be in place until 2020. If riders can effectively organize themselves under the CPA by then, they’ll have a seat at the table when the sport’s various stakeholders sit down to hammer out cycling’s next chapter.