On Saturday the last Grand Tour of the year kicked off in Barcelona, Spain. Like all Grand Tours, La Vuelta had garnered a lot of attention leading in, partly because of its status on the cycling calendar, but mostly because of the incredible start list. remco evenepoel, Jonas Vingegaard, Sepp Kuss, Primož Roglič, Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal, Filippo Ganna. But Sunday’s headlines weren’t dominated by the battle that had just commenced between these giants of the sport, or even by the team who won the opening team time trial. Instead, media headlines and social media were dominated by the conditions the riders raced in – wet, oily roads and almost completely dark streets. The headlines were quotes of frustration and disapproval from some of the sport's biggest names, with former world road race champion, Evenepoel being one of the most vocal; “Sometimes we stay an amateur sport”, “How much more of this shit do we need to put up with?”, “They treat us like monkeys”. I couldn’t help but think, what if these giants had refused to race?
Discontent in the cycling world has been bubbling away for years but has boiled over on several occasions in 2023. In May, at the first Grand Tour of the season, the Giro d’Italia, the men’s peloton activated the extreme weather protocol and neutralised part of stage 10. In June, at the CIC-Tour Féminin International des Pyrénées after two days of safety concerns caused by oncoming traffic, parked cars and other traffic hazards the female peloton protested and ultimately refused to race the final stage.
Despite these examples, there is no consistent, collective voice within the peloton.
Former professional cyclist and Tour de France stage winner Dan Martin summed it up on the platform formally known as Twitter after Saturday’s TTT, stating, “The embarrassing broken record that is professional cycling. The rain was forecast. The sunset time was definitely known before, as was the course but then the complaints come after the event. Feel sorry for the riders affected but this won’t be the last time.”
But why shouldn’t it be?
One of the professional cycling unions is currently negotiating a new Joint Agreement for cyclists. Riders and union officials should be seriously considering what they believe should be in the agreement and how strongly they are willing to fight for it. It is now, while a new agreement is being negotiated that riders and their unions can and should be campaigning and advocating for changes in the sport.
The most comprehensive rider survey that I know of, conducted by The Cyclists’ Alliance, recently released the top three most important concerns for female riders. These were:
1. The need for all riders to earn a minimum salary.
2. Increased race safety protocols.
3. Increased television coverage of races.
At the very minimum you would expect that these issues are being raised and negotiated in the current round of bargaining between rider representatives, teams and the sport's governing bodies.
Traditionally, people associate bargaining with economic incentives and insurance, but workplace health and safety is also a legitimate bargaining issue. For instance, riders could consider writing into the new Joint Agreement that they will stop work in unsafe conditions.
The actions taken in cycling right now are reactive. Like striking when the roads are open and speaking out when your team time trial finishes in the dark. This approach leads to gaps and inconsistences in workplace protection, exactly like what we saw on Saturday.
In the broader landscape of sports, the power of united advocacy has proven time and again to be a catalyst for transformative change. Sporting unions across disciplines have emerged as formidable forces, championing the cause of athlete safety with remarkable success.
American sporting unions are some of the strongest and most effective in the world when it comes to representing their members – the athletes. Take, for instance, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), which relentlessly pressed for enhanced player safety protocols in American football, leading to significant rule changes that prioritised concussion management and injury prevention.
Closer to home, just earlier this month the Rugby League Players Association negotiated an in principle Collective Bargaining Agreement with the National Rugby League which, contrary to what many people might expect wasn’t all about money. The agreement focused on improved protections for the most vulnerable players in the game, sought to increase player transition support and injury funds and sought a fairer revenue share between players and the National Rugby Union. And it was negotiated for NRL and NRLW players.
Outside the sporting arena, unions like labour organisations have left an indelible mark by securing safer working conditions and fair treatment for their members. The Australian Stonemasons famously won the eight-hour-workday for workers in Australia in 1856.
Professional cycling should look to other sports and industries to see how their unions are cultivating a stronger sense of solidarity and collaboration among their athletes and workers to navigate critical issues that extend far beyond a bank account.
As a society, we purport to prioritise safe workplaces and protective measures, yet this ethos isn't always extend
ed to the cycling arena. Just as employees can refuse unsafe work, riders should have the agency to say "no" when faced with unsafe work (racing) conditions.
The opening stage of the Vuelta presented a pivotal moment for cyclists to seize, a chance to drive towards a safer cycling world. Regrettably, such opportunities are often missed and are quickly forgotten. Internal dynamics and self-interest can dilute the collective voice. Only through purposeful collaboration can cyclists and their unions push for the safer cycling landscape they are calling for, and quite frankly that they deserve.