Dear Mr Lefevere,
I wanted to say that I was shocked that a waitress in San Juan, Argentina was forced to file a police complaint following the actions of Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Iljo Keisse. But shocked, I am not.
I want to make clear, that while your response to date now that Keisse has been removed by race organisers from the Tour of San Juan has been disappointing at the very least, there is a compelling opportunity within your grasp should you consider it worthy of your time.
Mr Lefevere, you are considered the best of the best when it comes to running a cycling team. Let’s face it; Deceuninck-Quick Step has managed to stick around while many other teams have bitten the dust. That’s no accident. As a journalist who once covered professional cycling full-time, I was troubled when your outfit – easily the most successful and consistent last season with over 70 victories and, on a streak for the most wins over a season for seven years in a row – had difficulty finding a new sponsor for 2019.
Given the time I’ve spent following the fortunes of teams just like yours, I know that the hunt for sponsorship funding can be tricky. It can be a never-ending battle and survival can be a year-to-year proposition. It seems laughable that with the all accolades, the headlines that tell the story of your team’s powerhouse performances in the oldest and most prestigious races in Europe, the rainbow jerseys, stage and classification wins at the Tour de France that delivers you world-wide attention and fan engagement, that your team’s future could be on shaky ground. Doesn’t it?
How could this be? I’m glad you ask because I think some deeper issues might have contributed. I’ll get straight to it. Pro cycling has got a bit of a problem with women.
Now, I know female professional cyclists compete on many of the same roads that your team does, but they don’t earn anywhere near the same amount of money that your riders do, despite training and racing just as hard. Then again, some women are so generous with their time that they race for free. Also, women in your sport don’t seem to get the same amount of media attention that your team does, either, even at the biggest races.
It takes gumption to take some of those first steps towards change Mr Lefevere, so I can understand that you feel as if maybe, as one of the sport’s most powerful men it shouldn’t just be about you. I’m aware that cycling’s governing body didn’t endorse the removal of podium hostesses from post-race ceremonies. Given the fact that your riders are on the podium on so many races and they’re all mostly the same, maybe your team could take the lead a explain that you don’t need an escort to the centre of the stage, or to ensure they know where to look to have their picture taken?
Podiums can be precarious places. We all remember when Peter Sagan assaulted a podium hostess in her place of work. Then a few years later a Belgian race, Dwars door Vlaanderen decided to use a ‘fun and playful’ take on the incident to promote their event. Jan Bakelants also made some vulgar remarks about podium hostesses on the eve of the Tour de France not far back. I can’t speak for these professional sportsmen with their privileged way of life, travelling the world, but are they okay with women? Perhaps you could have a chat with your riders.
You have said yourself that you are not happy with the actions of Keisse. As the team’s CEO did you approve of your communications unit’s comments that according to Keisse: “The pose was meant as a joke…”? I ask because I wonder if the same action toward one of your family members, or female staff would be treated as such? If one of your family members or female staff made a complaint and then spoke about it in the media, would they too “want money” as you asserted the 18-year old waitress in Argentina does?
I can guess that your new sponsor, Deceuninck isn’t pleased either. When you announced that your team’s future had been secured with the signature of Deceuninck you are quoted as saying you were “delighted to have such an international company, with whom we share so many values, by our side.” Are the values towards women, there for all to see in the image at the heart of the complaint, also shared with the company? Deceuninck was excited to be involved with your team, the lure of “continuous media attention” a major selling point when coming on board. It looks like the relationship is off to a great start.
As one of the most professional outfits that men’s cycling has to offer, I do not doubt that in the coming days and weeks team management will look over the Keisse incident. You'll review the statements that have been issued to the press, your communications with your stakeholders, your team culture - and I know that as the “Wolfpack” you have an aggressive attitude to team matters. Just as importantly, check in with your female staff to ensure they feel you’re providing a safe and inclusive working environment. Women are rare commodities in men’s professional cycling and where they appear, it’s often to massage, wash bottles, or book flights. My lasting impression is that it’s an unfriendly and intimidating environment for many women in every single aspect of the sport.
There’s been a lot of change over recent years when it comes to men’s behaviour towards women. Think about all those women who took to the streets when a man who doesn’t respect women was elected President of the United States of America. The sort of behaviour your rider displayed this week has never been okay, Mr Lefevere – that’s not what has changed. Instead, it’s women’s willingness to be ridiculed, objectified, condemned as a joke and ultimately disrespected.
Men, worldwide, are learning that despite their achievements, contemptuous behaviour towards women has resulted in them being consigned to the history books. I sincerely hope the same doesn’t happen to you and your team.
Thank you in advance for your consideration.