With Van Gansen’s slap on the wrist, the UCI failed the entire women’s peloton

Ten riders accused their manager of abuse. He can return to cycling at the end of 2022.

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After more than a year of deliberation, the UCI ruled this week that Patrick Van Gansen, accused of abuse by ten of his former Health Mate riders, has received a retroactive suspension of three years, meaning he will be allowed to return to cycling at the end of December 2022. All he has to do is take a class about sexual harassment in the workplace. 

There are a multitude of things wrong with this outcome, so let’s start at the beginning. 

Three sources filed formal accusations of abuse against Van Gansen before June 11, 2019. The first accusation was filed in the spring of 2019. Within three days of these accusations hitting the news sites, six additional current and former riders wrote an open letter to WielerFlits.nl, the Dutch cycling news website, corroborating the accusations. A tenth rider wrote a letter to Cyclingnews to tell her story of riding for Van Gansen. In total, ten riders or former riders stepped forward with their experiences riding for Van Gansen.

Ten. Ten riders.

It is important to note that only four formal accusations were filed with the UCI Ethics Commission, so the additional six riders involved, while brave in speaking out, did not file official complaints. The Cyclists’ Alliance, a women’s cycling union, advised riders to file formal accusations in order for the UCI to get the whole picture.

Van Gansen immediately claimed his accusers were lying, stating that he would take all the accusations to court to prove his innocence. He threatened defamation suits.

The UCI began a formal investigation into the accusations on June 28, 2019, specifically pertaining to the Code of Ethics: Appendix 1 which includes physical and mental integrity and sexual harassment and abuse. 

Within a few weeks, Health Mate announced they would end sponsorship of the team at the end of 2019. That still left Van Gansen in charge of the women’s team to the end of the 2019 season. Van Gansen was fully intending to find new sponsorship and continue running the team into 2020. In fact, Van Gansen told Het Nieuwsblad, “there are already plans to continue in a different structure with other sponsors.”

In a case rife with structural failures, this is the first big one.

Unlike, say, a doping case, the UCI does not currently have the ability to provisionally suspend someone while they investigate allegations of abuse. The fact that Van Gansen was not immediately removed from his position is a result of the system currently in place. When ten people come forward with accusations of abuse specifically stating the person should not be allowed around young women, should that person be allowed to continue running a women’s team through the year-long process? The balance between due process and athlete safety here is a difficult one, but the current solution doesn’t feel like a solution at all.

In April of 2020, ten months after the abuse claims were initially filed, UCI ruled that Van Gansen was guilty of abusing his riders. The decision was delayed after another official charge of violence and inappropriate behavior was filed. At that point, the case was handed over to the UCI Disciplinary Commission to determine his punishment.

The final verdict of his suspension was released on February 22, 2021. A retroactive ban stretching from April 2020 to December 2022 means his effective suspension is only 22 months long. At the very least, the UCI could have given him three years from the date of a decision by the UCI Disciplinary Commission. 

There are no rules, like there are with doping, about how long someone should be suspended based on their crimes. If you dope, you get 4 years for a first offense and a lifetime ban for your second, barring mitigating circumstances like accidental ingestion. For systematically abusing young women who rely on you for their livelihood, 22 months is apparently enough.

It’s a punch in the gut that Van Gansen is allowed to return to working in cycling at the end of 2022, if he so chooses. All he has to do is take a class about sexual harassment in the workplace and prove he passed to the UCI. 

An ongoing problem in women’s cycling is that men in powerful positions, like coaches, directors, doctors, etc., are rarely held accountable for their actions.

This failure to act is the exact reason women don’t speak out. Time and time again, stories are whispered behind closed doors and the conversation always ends with “what’s the point.” What’s the point when the governing body fails to protect the riders that literally make the sport possible? Riders are scared to have their names in the headlines connected with the word “complaints.” They don’t want to be seen as trouble because they believe it could harm, or end, their career.

The balance of power tilts heavily against riders in the women’s peloton. Wages are low, teams are scarce. To follow their dreams, many riders end up sacrificing their health, well-being, even their safety. Time and time again, those who have put their hand up and said “Stop” have not been supported by their governing body.

These directors, managers, coaches, doctors, etc. take advantage of their positions of power, and the system currently in place in cycling allows them to do so. Since the Me Too movement, I’ve been wondering when there will be a Me Too movement in cycling. It will never happen if abusers like Patrick van Gansen continue to get slapped on the wrist.

This is why women who could make real change to this sport simply leave. This is why riders with experience don’t want to take on leadership roles within the sport once they’re done racing. The mental damage that is done whilst racing can be crippling. It’s hard to fight back from. 

In the real world, away from professional cycling, there have been steps towards believing the victims of abuse instead of shrugging aside their brave attempts to make the world a safer place for fellow women. In cycling, we are still living in the pre-Me Too movement world, where ten women can tell their story and the guy in power keeps his job for another year, only forced to leave when sponsors don’t give him the money to continue holding power. Where the only punishment is a little over a year off and one class about sexual harassment.

One of the formal accusations against Van Gansen included physical abuse, witnessed by multiple people outside of cycling. The rider, who wished to remain anonymous, testified that Van Gansen slapped her across the face in the parking lot of a hotel after the 2016 edition of Fleche Wallonne. At the time, the rider did not file a formal complaint and did not alert the local authorities because she was afraid.

Fear of the abuser is the same reason half of the women who went to the UCI about other team managers withdrew their accusation when they found out they could not speak out anonymously. The UCI has since amended the Code of Ethics to include the anonymity of the plaintiff, allowing riders to file complaints anonymously. That’s a good step, but it’s just one step.

The UCI could have used this abuse case to set an example of what will happen if a person in power takes advantage of those they hold power over. Instead, it is yet another example of why the sport will not change any time soon. This can not be another instance of applauding the UCI for doing the bare minimum.

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