The Riders Union Gets Ready for Kick-Off

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As an independent, athlete-funded organization, its structure is similar to successful unions in other sports, and it clearly represents a new and improved avenue for the men’s peloton to build a stronger voice. The framework is finally in place, but TRU’s ultimate success will depend on the resolve of the riders.

The newly-formed Riders Union (TRU) announced plans to form a new professional bike racers’ representation group in November 2020, and over the ensuing months, there has been a good deal of anticipation and media speculation – as to how it might interact with the UCI and the current CPA organization, its membership strategy, and what it should do to achieve long term success. There were even some speculations from the UCI that the effort was somehow part of a shadowy conspiracy to destabilize the sport. Despite these rumors and uncertainties, TRU is operationally ready. It has incorporated in Switzerland and will hold its first (virtual) general assembly meeting on March 4. Indeed, members are already in the process of electronic voting to approve the organization’s by-laws and budget, and to elect a board of directors and executive staff.

The Outer Line spoke with founder Luuc Eisenga, who has been driving TRU’s formation over the past few months. Eisenga is an experienced leader in cycling, having previously served as the head of AIGCP – the association of pro cycling teams – and is one of two candidates to become the initial CEO of the new organization. He indicated that the organization is building momentum and is poised to take on a more important role in the sport.

As of this writing, 203 professional riders from the WorldTeam and ProTeam ranks have joined TRU, representing more than 30 teams (out of the total 38 registered professional teams) and 35 different nationalities. Some teams have many individual members, while others have just a few. After the general assembly meetings and the formal kick-off, Eisenga will encourage a team-by-team effort to attract more members and hopes that the organization’s numbers will steadily increase over the coming months. Though he declined to name specific athletes, Eisenga also indicated that a number of top – and presumably more influential – riders have already committed to the effort.

Most members will be paying a monthly fee of €50 or €600 per year to support the efforts of the union. However, in an effort to balance the equity of the fee schedule, those riders who rank in the top 100 in terms of UCI racing points will pay double that amount, while riders for ProTeam level squads will pay just half that amount.

Eisenga says that a “rider’s council” is also starting to form, wherein each team will designate one rider to represent its interests or concerns within the organization. Although this hasn’t been formalized yet, there is a working group already prioritizing rider issues and concerns. This group will eventually be a major component of the organization, and a key contributor to its operations and strategic direction. Among the early initiatives of TRU will be specific issues around race safety, retirement support for riders, and greater participation for athletes in the day-to-day management and governance of the sport.

Eisenga has continually emphasized the TRU’s focus on the “one rider, one vote” principle as the guiding force of the organization. This is a stark contrast to the current CPA organization, wherein national rider association heads cast votes “on behalf of” their own riders, with the dominant nations of France, Italy, and Spain controlling a disproportionate amount of the voting power. Despite considerable recent rider dissatisfaction with the activities of the CPA, Eisenga goes to some lengths to insist that TRU does not represent a protest voice against the status quo, saying that he just wants to more effectively and honestly represent the interests of the riders.

Going into more detail, Eisenga said that the board will consist of five members, each one of whom will bring a specific expertise and experience in one of the following areas: (1) the management of pro cycling; (2) financial and legal skills; (3) marketing and public relations; (4) health and medical issues; and (5) sports governance. All members, as well as other external parties, were encouraged to nominate candidates for each of these positions, and TRU will announce its board and its CEO as soon as the voting is complete.

There has been speculation about the level of support that TRU could expect from the key power-brokers in the sport, including the major race organizers, and in particular the UCI. A recent and heavily-promoted initiative by the UCI to prop up the weak finances of the CPA retirement fund – with an unprecedented “gift” of €400,000 – was widely interpreted as a swipe at the legitimacy of the new union, perhaps to deter riders and national assemblies from leaving the CPA. The timing of the grant seems especially dubious, given that the CPA’s “solidarity fund” has been insolvent for years.

Eisenga declined to comment on this, saying that he is working to keep all parties, including the CPA and UCI, informed of the status of the TRU activities, and insisting that “our recognition will have to be earned; we cannot enforce, or invent, or buy it.” He says he has had two good meetings with UCI president Lappartient, and that he hopes for a productive relationship going forward. “We exchanged views and confirmed that we are both in this for the same reasons – to make the sport better. And we welcome their understanding of our approach – that riders must be instrumental in the management and development of the sport.” Eisenga said they plan to meet with the UCI again once all of the board and executive staff positions are formalized.

Eisenga also projects a conciliatory tone towards the existing CPA riders association. He says that TRU is not about creating competition with the CPA. “Riders, just like other employees, should be free to choose whatever union they want to support. We will reach out to Gianni [Bugno, president of the CPA]. Our goal is to work together.”

The TRU’s founding principles reflect the widely-held conventional wisdom that in order to truly reflect the real concerns of the athletes, sports unions need to be funded by the athletes themselves. Hence, the structure and a workable framework are now in place for the athletes to request a bigger voice in the sport. However, as we have discussed in the past, success will ultimately still depend upon the actual resolve of the athletes to stand collectively and speak with a single voice. And this is not an attribute which the pro peloton has always demonstrated in the past.

Pro cyclists come from a variety of economic backgrounds, and from a number of different countries and cultures. They speak many different languages. And they have historically been plagued with a fear that standing up and making demands could jeopardize their future in the sport. More influential and powerful riders tend to be economically more secure, and hence have less motivation to speak out on behalf of the peloton. Lower-level and more overlooked athletes don’t have the same public platform or moral authority from which to demand change. Hence, many previous efforts at collective action have fallen flat; indeed, it sometimes appears that many pro racers have become dispirited, or convinced that nothing is ever really going to change.

Just a few weeks ago, Italian pro Matteo Trentin accused his compatriots in the peloton of not even bothering to participate in a UCI safety reform forum where they might have made their voices heard, saying “If you want to change something as a rider, you also have to dare to open your mouth at the moments that serve that purpose, such as last week’s meeting.” A clearly frustrated Trentin added, “Maybe riders should spend less time on TikTok and be more proactive when it comes to making their workplace a safer place.”

Trentin’s frustration and sentiment concisely sums up the real challenge facing the riders. The beginnings of a workable union framework are now in place, and there is a viable opportunity to move forward. But unless the peloton steps up and grasps that opportunity – preferably led a coordinated cadre of influential riders – there is a chance that the opportunity will pass again. How the TRU is able to grow and operate over the next few months will largely depend upon whether the athletes themselves finally agree to step up and act together – and put their money where their mouths.

Written by Steve Maxwell, March 3rd, 2021