Riders Need a Stronger Union

There’s a pressing need for a rider union. In fact there is a union, so what’s needed is a strong one that’s visible, in regular contact with riders and demonstrably acting on their behalf. Take the topical tale of disc brakes, they’re coming and the CPA union has decided to poll its members about it… days after the UCI press release saying disc brakes trials will continue for 2016 “with a view to definitively allowing them to be used in professional road cycling from 2017”.

It reminds me of the Woody Allen joke:

And my parents finally realize I’m kidnapped and they snap into action immediately: They rent out my room.”

It looks like the CPA finally wakes up to the introduction of disc brakes once they’re a fait accompli. The UCI has an equipment commission to decide on what material is suitable which even includes a rep for the fans but none for the riders expected to actually use it. Braking systems are topical but just one example of a symptomatic problem where the rider union is often slow to react and at times not even part of the conversation. Take all the demands by teams for revenue sharing, these are based on the ability of teams to deliver their star riders to a race: the money should follow the riders. If this is true then shouldn’t the union have its foot on the door here?

Compulsory Funding: there’s resentment and misunderstanding among some too given the CPA is paid for by all riders thanks to a charge on prize money. Every time you see a cash prize reported it’s a gross sum subjected to a series of levies, for example 2% goes on anti-doping. But the largest slice goes to the CPA.

The screengrab from the UCI website says 7% of all prize money is paid to the “End Of Career Fund” managed by the CPA but visit the CPA website and its handy PDF briefing it’s 5% for the fund and the CPA takes the other 2% to cover its admin and expenses. As you’ll know cycling isn’t the new golf because the prizes are so small so 2% of the prize pot is not a vast sum of money. Prizes for the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España add up to about €4.4m, 2% of this is €88,000. Of course these three races account for 60 days on a calendar of 600 days but these races have some of the biggest prizes so the CPA budget isn’t huge. It’s certainly not funding new helicopters for Gianni Bugno, the CPA President.

More thrust needed

Split: as much as riders resent giving up the money perhaps they should be giving away more? Instead of 2% on the prize pot, a sum of 2% on the wage bill would soon make the CPA indispensable. Funding is nice but the fundamental problem is the disparate, multilingual peloton where the union is tasked with representing Monaco millionaires and Pro Conti journeymen at the same time. The peloton is scattered around the world and members, tired from racing and training, struggle for time with the family or leisure and the CPA itself is an association, the structure operates as a federation of various national unions under its umbrella. It makes decision-making harder as consensus has to be sought among the various national union leaders. It’s just not the same as a factory workforce all under the same roof.

No choice: The current system sees the CPA entrenched as the default union, a natural monopoly provided by the sport rather. Scenarios like this cause institutional laziness because nobody has to fight for their place at the table; although riders can vote for their delegates of course. A few years ago when the minimum wage for World Tour riders was raised it came about thanks to the AIGCP, the representative group for pro teams. Think about it, the employer’s lobby group leading the charge to raise the minimum wage for workers? The CPA surely lobbied for this but it speaks to the position of the rider union when the employers claimed the credit.

Competition? One option would be to create a second union where pros taking out their licence every year have the option to tick two boxes, the CPA or an alternative union. Competition between the established union and an upstart one could keep rider delegates on their toes as members vote to back the body that represents their interests most aggressively or most skilfully. Of course this could be a chance to divide and rule for others but given the CPA appears weak it’s reasonable to imagine competition leads to increased muscle.

Wait and see: The other option is time. Right now the CPA does seem to be increasing in presence, with the strong positioning of the US association, the ANAPRC, seeming to stimulate everyone. There are CPA delegates attending races which didn’t happen before. If this trend continues then riders could get stronger representation they want.

The CPA does a useful job but a share of riders wonder what job it does and many resent paying the large levy. The union does a good job but needs to do more. In the short term it needs to be more vocal about what it’s doing and work on a plan to make it stronger and more central the sport. Otherwise its monopoly on rider representation should be questioned and possibly revised. Until then riders can expect a survey on disc brakes.

  • Update: these tweets from the US rider union in response to the piece are worth adding as they show the lack of rider rider representation. All riders are paying via prize money yet only half can even vote if they want…

21 thoughts on “Riders Need a Stronger Union”

  1. I think the riders probably need (and deserve) better representation, but a competing union just plays into the “divide and conquer” scheme which UCI, race organizers and Velon will simply exploit. With modern video communication and translation services the riders have little excuse for not having regular meetings where their views are shared. Sadly, history has shown they can only demonstrate solidarity when it comes to resisting anti-doping measures, helmet use, etc.

    • The majority of money that flows into cycling is brought in by the teams. Most of what the teams bring in ends up as riders’ salaries, which will not change if team revenues can be increased. With very few exceptions, the only individuals in cycling who are making real money are the riders. In general, World Tour riders are extremely well looked after by their teams. Juxtapose that with teams. Even teams with highly competent management and staff have a hard time surviving. The biggest problem in the bike racing business is the short life expectancy of pro teams. The riders and CPA need to connect the dots and understand that they will benefit most if teams are healthy and prosperous. CPA would advance the interests of riders most by fully backing teams’ efforts to achieve financial stability. The riders are doing fine now, and they’ll do even better if teams are more stable.

      • How do you figure riders are: a) making real money and b) looked after by their teams? It’d be interesting to hear how you quantify/measure this. Do you compare this to other professional sports?

        I thought the opposite. Aren’t the average career lengths super short, with lower average salaries and some of the toughest athletic conditions out of any other sport?

        Riders operate usually on one-year contracts, sometimes with 2-3 years, but usually only 1. Average salary in the World Tour is 70,000-90,000 Euro, with starting salaries around 50,000. Plus, riders have to usually pay for their own travel to races and race way more days per year than other athletes have to compete. Even the races themselves are way more difficult than in other sports, so each day of racing is worth 2-3 days of another sport. Athletes have maybe 1-2 months off a year, and most of this time they have to maintain fitness, so they’re barely “off”. Etc.

        • WT riders generally make more than you state unless they’re just breaking into the WT. And by well looked after I mean good travel arrangements, excellent support at events, extraordinary equipment support, frequent (often daily) support from trainers, nutritionists, doctors, sport directors and administrators. When they need legal support, in most cases it’s there. The riders have the opportunity to make input on their racing schedule, their travel arrangements and their staff. Riders do not pay for their own travel to races on WT teams. Those rumors are around, but it’s hard to believe that would be possible in the WT. Indeed a 10 month season is long, but the only riders that actually race ten months are the ones who want to (many riders actually prefer to race a lot). If a rider only wants to race 60 days per year, and the perform well doing it, the team will usually allow it. Generally it’s harder to get riders to actually stop racing in the off season — they want to race track, cross, etc.. Their responsibilities are different in the off season, shifting toward wind tunnel, other types of fitness development, etc., but it’s still a full time job and that’s okay. Maybe it’s different in the PCT teams, but the WT riders are usually thankful for their level of compensation and the many layers of support behind them, without which they could not maintain WT performance. The support level is comparable to other top sport teams, and the compensation would be closer if the teams could afford it, because the market would strengthen. If teams can bring more value to sponsors and broadcasters, the trend will move that direction.

          But are the riders really complaining about the teams anyway? Mostly they’re worried about safety, severe weather and course control. But who is behind the scenes actually putting the effort into improving those things? The CPA dabbles. And it’s not the riders themselves. It’s the teams, and they do it mostly because they care about their riders. Frankly, the teams could use a little help from the CPA on those matters.

          • I said average salary… not maximum salary. The average salary is way lower than other major pro sports. That’s in part because the union sucks.

  2. INRNG – Absolutely, the players have to get together to protect each other. Unfortunately, like most parts of cycling (organisers, UCI, teams, etc.), riders don’t get along enough to make this type of structure work.

  3. Surely the riders should help fund their union directly from their salaries? That’s how it works elsewhere – you join the union, you pay your subs.

    • Absolutely agreed, that would make a huge difference and get the riders qualified help, rather than a former racer with no formal legal/negotiating background. No offense to Gianni Bugno, the man is a legend, but he’s not qualified to lead the CPA.

      If each rider paid 2% of their gross salary, CPA could have over $500k* per year to spend on representing the athletes at races, salary negotiations, long-term health benefits, etc.

      * I calculated this using assumptions of average salary of $60k, 25 riders for the 18 World Tour teams only. Of course this is not a final figure, but it’s a good place to start.

      • DMC, I see a possible problem with your example of 2% of salaries, that may cause problems as individuals who earn more may expect a stronger voice in how the union is managed and run.

        A governance profile with no members having a voting advantages may work.

        • Othersteve – higher paid individuals MAY EXPECT better treatment, but that’s not how this works. Professional unions in every sport (and walk of life) represent the group as a whole.

          The whole point is, for example, for the CPA to protect the riders’ interests on a wide range of issues, not individually lobby for 1 or 2 high profile athletes.

      • Might be so and the CPA need to improve their visibility and level of information about their work.
        On the other hand it would be prudent to move towards paying a fee (fixed, not a percentage, that is how it works in my country at least) instead of a percentage of pricemoney. Paying from pricemoney surely only allows for the winners to have a say and that is not the leverage the CPA can sustain on. They obivously cannot have the confidence of lower payed domestiques that almost never take any prices, no?

      • haha, it makes sense now when you see an Italian team jersey that there are a million tiny logos… one for each rider’s “salary”… They should have to put the rider’s name as a salary for the poor kids who can’t find a sponsor to cover his salary!

  4. I’m struggling to think of an effective multi-national athletes/sportspersons union that the CPA can learn lessons from. E.g. The GPDA struggles to get agreement and traction and, even with a much smaller cadre to draw from, not all F1 drivers are members of it.
    Very interesting to hear though that the riders are not even at the table on the equipment commission which will evalute disk brakes. In terms of other rider safety issues, do you know if there is a group whose remit is look at the issue of crashes? There seem to be plenty of opinions that there are an increased incidents caused by peleton size, presence of smaller teams with less experienced riders, more road furniture etc, but is anyone actually studying the issue to determine if there is a commonality? It’d be very difficult to do given that you’d probably be wading through a lot of anecdotal evidence, even where you did have footage to assist you, but it’d be interesting to know if anyone was taking a look at it.

    • The crashes was probably the Road Commission (cyclists represented by Marianne Vos) or the Pro Cycling Council (Bernhard Eisel) and there are riders on it but we’re talking one or two riders who attend a few meetings a year. Oddly the current UCI Athlete’s Commission doesn’t have any World Tour riders.

      I remember Sven Nys complaining about the UCI’s rules on CX points not being valid for road teams, thus depressing his market value back in the days when UCI points were a strong currency. Only he was wrong ant CX ranking points counted for a road team’s ranking… and Nys sat on the UCI’s CX commission. If he didn’t know what was going on it suggests just how important these commissions are.

      • Agreed, I don’t think anyone is really looking at this issue. I mean, a few meetings each year isn’t really investigative analysis on what’s causing the issue.

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