Surviving the women’s professional peloton: Big dreams, harsh realities

At the start of the year I signed my first professional road cycling contract for the 2016 European racing season – an Australian competing in Europe on an Italian team whilst residing in Spain. To prepare for the big journey I reached out to fellow Australian cyclists, who before my time had also found their way to Europe outside the mainstream route of Cycling Australia’s development pathway. In the process I received mixed responses – the best and worst experiences of the pro peloton. Little did I imagine that in my time overseas I would experience both extremes …

Upon returning home the most commonly asked question is: “How has your year been?” and in response I have my standard replies; “it was a roller coaster, an up and down year” or “I just had to ride the waves, you know?”

It was a frustrating year, to live month-by-month in a constant state of uncertainty – holding out to be raced, hoping to still have a contract and for weeks at a time I wouldn’t know. I took a faithful leap into the unknown world of professional bike racing and unfortunately did not achieve what I set out to do in Europe. Instead I spent the year trying to gain surety, breaking down communication barriers and battling team politics. Who was going to understand when I came home?

Women's cycling, Cittiglio - Italia - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Skerritt Ellen (Australia / Ale - Cipollini) pictured during the Women's World Tour cycling race Trofeo Alfredo Binda - Comune di Cittiglio 2016 (1.WWT) - photo Anton Vos/Cor Vos © 2016

So what did I really take from 2016? I’d have to say a new perspective.

Now the season has ended I have reflected on events from this and prior years in the sport and realised that sharing my experiences frankly may not only give readers an understanding of the challenges women face in pursuit of a cycling career, but could also be used as a powerful tool for cyclists wanting to reach the professional level in cycling.  Here are some of the things I had to cope with and the observations I made in my time signed with an international team:

1. The groundwork

Let’s start with the basics. In late 2015 I went from struggling to lock down a team to the excitement of signing a professional contract, which left a short two-month window to set up life overseas. In regard to requirements of living and working abroad there was little communication from the team so I ventured on a sort of self-discovery into the big wide world of documentation that is visa’s and residencies. So many questions: What kind of Visa will you need? Working or non-working? Where is your place of residence? What type of residency will you require? Temporary or permanent? Is an identification number necessary? Are you opening a bank account and do you have the papers to do this? Do you have ALL the insurance you need?

Assurance on insurance: That last question actually deserves it’s own point, because you really need to know your insurance. Enquire about the team’s policy. Do not make assumptions. This was a grey area coming onto the team and in the end required taking out personal high-risk insurance. Another personal cost. More $$$.

Living conditions: As a cyclist you may receive the option of living in a team house (free) or choose your own place of residence (expense). My team failed to communicate that not a single team member lived in the provided accommodation. I stayed for a single night in the team’s basic housing which was located outside a small town with few facilities. To buy groceries I would have to travel each day to the next town by bike. The closest point of significance was the train station, six kilometres away. I was left with one viable option, expensed living. My base became Girona, Spain: an accessible town with world-class training grounds.

roca-corba-girona-2

To rationalise this decision I described it as an investment. It was a place I built life-long connections (definitely one of the huge ups of my roller coaster year) and somewhere I now call my second home.

2. One step ahead

It was clear from the beginning of the season, despite going overseas with a team, that I was very much alone. This made it crucially important to be continually thinking ahead, to be on the ball at all times, as there was no one else that would do this for you. Any sort of problem encountered overseas is exaggerated by the fact you are VERY far from home. The ability to assert oneself and recognise limitations are an important foundation. Additionally qualities such as independence and self-reliance are key to survival.

The nature of living abroad: Regardless of location of residence there will always be a degree of isolation living abroad. The time I spent overseas can be broken into three phases. For the first three months I was eagerly trying to meet people – to set up a new support network. This was an extremely lonely time despite my motivation to build connections and, for days at a time there would be periods where I would not experience a genuine conversation.

Over the following months I pushed myself to avoid the ‘bubble that is Girona’ to expand my network. I started attending language classes, becoming involved in community events, exploring outside my hometown. This created a platform to meet varying groups of friends. In the final couple months of my cycling contract I relished the support network I was surrounded with. The effort put into setting up connections had paid off, helping to balance the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ of each day. I strongly believe this is an aspect worth recognising as it could be the difference between surviving the season and heading home early.

girona-training

Know and communicate limitations: Let me reinforce that team priorities may not have individual team members best interests at heart. As an athlete communicating set boundaries and acknowledging personal needs is key to maximising the long-European season. An example is avoiding burnout due to isolating conditions by surrounding oneself with a support network.

Preparation: Don’t assume that because you are in an organised race with a team that you will not end up having to be self-reliant anyway. Readers that have seen the story of my first classic of the season have probably got a pretty good idea of where I’m coming from with this point, for others the title, Lost and stranded at Ronde van Drenthe should give you a pretty big clue. It was a race that quickly turned from competing against rivals to a race of survival. Little did I know at the time that this is the normality of racing in the Netherlands (I was later out done by a Data Dimension rider who was lost for over 15 hours).

This was a quick lesson to learn. From then on I always knew the answer to these questions: Where is the location of the hotel? Do I have a contact number for emergencies? How can I make contact with the team? The point I’m trying to make is do not overlook the details, they may seem minor at the time but they become pretty major when you are lost with no phone, no money and only a sketchy idea of where you are meant to be in a foreign country.

3. Team cultures

It is important to be conscious of how international teams operate and the differences that appear. For the short time I was contracted there was only going to be so much progress in terms of my abilities. My previous team experiences did little to prepare me for what turned out to be a year of accelerated learning as I picked up most skills on the run. There was little room to grow as a person or rider adjusting into a new team culture and unrealistic expectations were a clear barrier here.

Keep it real: My expectation of an international team was that there would be a level of understanding and acceptance of differences, especially in regards to native languages. The team’s belief was I should be fluent in Italian within the first two months. This was obviously not achievable nor a constructive goal with so much new going on. Although these natural limitations were present, they were not readily identified.

Communication differences: Over the course of the year there was a clear breakdown in communication due to a collision of differences. This breakdown appeared partly due to my inability to speak the chosen language of the team and the management’s lack of desire to converse in English. There were times of up to three weeks where zero contact would be made by the team in spite of my best efforts. The purpose of why I was in Europe during these periods was questionable and it was particularly challenging to continue training (I could only assume I still had a contract?).

Drentse Acht van Westerveld

What is left unsaid: Cultural sensitivity is the basic skill of adjusting to new environments, however adapting to a team’s unstated rules is a challenge. These are a set of laws built upon the culture of a team to be learnt through trial-and-error. I spent the year picking up rules and battling punishments for reasons I cannot explain. It didn’t matter if I believed a decision was right or wrong it was simply the way of the team. There were several key aspects of the team’s culture to pick up such as recognising strict eating patterns, understanding the leadership style and being aware of cultural traditions present. I guess the question is, to conform or stand-alone?

4. Expect financial surprises

As a professional female cyclist a lack of income is of major concern. The inability to establish security is present from the base all the way through to the top (but more about that later).

Plan for hidden costs: Whether this issue was unique to the team I signed with or a problem across the sport, I felt the mindset of management was that I deserved my salary when I was racing well, however if issues surfaced my income for that month would be cut off. There was a failure to recognise that this was my only form of income to support myself with whilst abroad.

Money

Have a back-up: The year away was brought down with a feeling of guilt about how much I needed my parents to support me. In the women’s peloton irregular wages are not an uncommon experience and an issue to be expected and will continue until regulations are created and enforced.

No clear pathway = no guarantees: With little being done in terms of governance over the women’s pro peloton it was a bit of a free-for-all. This intensified feelings of isolation: who could be there for me when finances became a concern? Are teams held accountable by the UCI? Or is it vice versa? Who is responsible?

From what I am aware the UCI governing body has done an excellent job pointing the finger at teams to make the step up. This can be seen in the women’s pro peloton with the introduction of newer and bigger races, often alongside the men. This has had its advantages and disadvantages. Racing alongside the men’s field raises the bar for teams with large budgets to step up, however, this is still unreachable for smaller, lower budget women teams, which make up the most part of the peloton. The clear disadvantage is the UCI has transferred pressure onto professional teams causing a large degree of disparity, in terms of support and money across the women’s peloton.

5. Check expectations

Maybe the time spent overseas was a let down because my expectations had so far to fall. I realised my time racing in Europe had been no different from all those stories I heard from cyclists who before me were in a similar position. I anticipated with all this hyped forward-momentum there had been progress made in women’s professional cycling, now I have experienced that it still has a long way to go.

A key to change: Women’s cycling as a profession not a privilege

What is a professional? A failure to enforce minimum wage constructs a blurry, confusing line of who or what is professional, and can be little more than a title. It’s a title that does reflect competency and conduct, however in most cases does not guarantee income, or a regulated profession with longevity. There are top-level riders in the sport barely making ends meet on a low wage – do they still count as professional? Time in the sport does not guarantee financial return either: one year an athlete could be barely surviving and the next making enough to sustain ones own lifestyle.

The sporadic nature of income makes it difficult to choose this as a career option. For that to change it is important for the top level of cycling to be seen as profession rather than a ‘privilege’. The difference allows a level field of control, where athletes have rights and responsibilities and management a duty of care and accountability. Women in cycling remain voiceless and unable to speak as they are living to the ethical standards of the sport – remaining silent for fear of jeopardising their place in it. I encourage others to talk about issues openly, as until then change is limited.

A year I had to experience to believe

Although in some aspects it has been a disappointing year I do not regret going overseas and experiencing the world of professional bike racing. Like the saying goes ‘I had to experience it, to believe it’. I recognise cyclists have made their own success via the alternate pathway and reached the top rank in cycling, I’m simply writing this article to make known the difficulties along the way.

I have now returned home and am enjoying being back on the bike with a shift of focus looking into 2017. In the sport I look to remain a member in the cycling community, to continue achieving personal goals and offer a viewpoint promoting growth in the sport. My immediate goals are to continue racing in Australia whilst balancing other priorities. I think a part of me will always crave the thrill of racing.

Women's World tour Ronde van Drenthe 2016

I share this information with the hope that it will not be a timeless guide for future female cyclists pursuing a career in professional cycling. There is room for the sport of cycling to grow, however its only achievable through a concerted effort from those who govern and manage the sport, and the athletes who compete. We must all play our part.

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