A Short History of Rider Unions

David Millar is running to become the next President of the CPA, the union of pro cyclists. He’s got a mountain to climb, he launched his bid just weeks before the vote and the voting system is likely to hinder him but whether you like him, loathe him or feel indifferent having a contest is a good thing. We’ll look at this contest tomorrow but for now here’s a brief history of rider unions which helps set the scene.

Yes, there is a rider’s union. It’s not that well know, even some riders don’t know much about it. The CPA (Cyclistes Professionels Associés) was founded in 1999 but there’s a fractious history to past attempts to unite the peloton.

The first rider union was started in 1898. Various organisations have come and gone, often being run on national lines so they never represented the pro peloton as a whole, you had a French union alongside an Italian union all while riders were moving across borders in search of a team from the earliest of days. Finances have also been a problem, for decades riders were not paid much, in fact a regular salary is relatively new so raising money to fund a union has long been awkward. Combine the disparate peloton with the lack of money and it’s been easy for team owners and races to play divide and rule over the peloton.

Various attempts to organise internationally have tried and failed. “International” had largely meant France, Belgium and Italy with these three nations providing the bulk of pro riders for decades – they still do – but this small circle still struggled to get on. In the 1920s the first international union appeared, le Cercle International des Routiers Cyclistes but it didn’t last long. More came and went.

In 1978 riders protested during the Tour de France. They were fed up with “split stages”, effectively one stage in the morning and another in the afternoon. This allowed the race to collect more money from host towns but it meant the riders were paying the price with late nights and early starts on top of having to race twice a day. This strike was the first ever in the Tour de France and it galvanised the disparate national unions to join together in the form of the Association Internationale des Cyclistes Professionnels (AICPRO). It worked as split stages soon fell away and the group got a seat at top table in talks with the UCI. However whether the split stages fell away because of union work or simply a sulking Bernard Hinault isn’t clear.

Over time the international coordination of AICPRO seems to have fallen away with national union on the rise again. Again the work of these local outfits has been useful but modest, campaigns to ensure promised prize money gets paid is fine but little more than contractual follow-up, there weren’t trying to influence the structure of the sport as a whole.

The next big flare-up came in 1998 when police raids in the wake of the Festina affair angered a large share of the peloton. It might be more recent but still seems unfathomable that riders were protesting in the wake of doping raids on the Tour de France, giving the impression they lived in a bubble immune to national laws which prevented the trafficking of medicines or prescription fraud. “We are fed up with being treated like cattle. So we are going to behave like cattle” said rider ringleader Laurent Jalabert. Riders organised several protests during the race but it was a farce because of the cacophony: in one instance riders sat down on the start line to make a protest while others rode off. All while a bemused public looked on. This showed the trouble of entrusting a protest to a patron, a strongman who stands up, because they were voicing their views but didn’t have the backing of the whole peloton, they didn’t prepare the ground for their stance, nor did they have the resources and skills to communicate with others, whether colleagues or the media.

CPA union syndicat

Come 1999 and many riders refused doping controls in the Giro and the Italian union along with the foreign riders present on the race came together to form Coureurs Professionnels Associés under the chair of ex-pro Francesco Moser. It wasn’t a promising start to base a union on such defensive premises but in time the CPA has helped raise rider wages and install a common rider contract across the teams. After Moser, ex-pro Cédric Vasseur in charge for a while but he left to become a TV pundit and is now Cofidis’s manager.

Gianni Bugno

Former double world champion, helicopter pilot and budding politician Gianni Bugno is in charge and works with David Chassot (brother of Richard Chassot, the Tour de Romandie director). It also demands improvements in safety, secures guaranteed time off work and ensures riders get a certificate stating how many day’s racing they did each year. There’s now a minimum wage too although bemusingly some impetus for this advance came from the teams themselves, odd to see employers calling for a high minimum wage. Still rather than being inward-looking as the 1999 genesis suggested it’s done some good. More recently the Extreme Weather Protocol has been agreed and accepted thanks to the work of the CPA’s US chapter, the ANAPRC. There’s been work on the safety in the final three kilometres of road race courses too although we saw the public complaints over a stage finish in the Vuelta which shows there’s more to be done.

CPA Funding: 7% of all prize money goes to the union before it goes to riders, split 5% for a retirement/solidarity fund and the other 2% covers the CPA’s work and expenses. It’s hard to find out much more, the CPA does have a website (but it has an error message at the moment) but there are no accounts made public, presumably they’re shared at the annual meeting which riders can attend.that

The CPA is an umbrella group for national unions, for example the ACCPI in Italy, the UNCP in France and so on, although these national chapters only exist for some countries, typically those with lots of pros and a long heritage although recently a branch in the US, called the ANAPRC has formed.

If you’ve read the history above you’ll see the theme of splits and breakdowns in past incarnations. The CPA isn’t immune either. It has a women’s branch but that looks to be displaced by The Cyclist’s Alliance, a start-up rider union for women. Recently the Dutch chapter of the CPA, men included, has quit the CPA and joined The Cyclists Alliance, saying its voice wasn’t being heard. Now David Millar’s candidacy can be seen in this light where a large share of the peloton resent paying for a union but, rightly or wrongly, don’t feel it’s by their side that often.

As well as this there is the UCI Athletes’ Commission, a committee of cyclists but this is made up of all sorts of riders, eg indoor cycling, MTB, trials etc and does not have much clout. It probably means well but it is a forum, a committee inside the UCI rather than an organisation with full time staff working for the pro peloton.

When something goes wrong we tend to see riders share frustration on social media, understandable but ineffective and proof they can lack the official channels. Over the years rider unions have come and gone and in their absence a peloton patron can emerge but this is dysfunction: what is needed is a stronger union. The CPA has had some good achievements behind the scenes in recent but it’s not the go-to voice for the peloton for safety disputes and other concerns.

36 thoughts on “A Short History of Rider Unions”

  1. Millar puts himself forward as a reformed individual as a savior of the sport. But only after being caught red handed by the authorities. For all the hype and hot air, as far as I am aware Millar took the rap and in the way of crooks kept stum about the involvement of many others.

    I don’t consider Millar suitable for the job of representing a hopefully new generation of riders. He has already displayed breathtaking double standards that make him totally unfit for such a responsibility.

    The present incumbent is almost certainly no more fit for purpose than Millar !

      • I don’t think it’s entirely personality based. He’s given multiple interviews recently where he’s given what I’ll call “the Armstrong excuse” for Chris Froome & Sky. That they are the most tested, and the testing is foolproof and everything is just so much noise and bullshit surrounding them and they’re totally clean.

        If I a pro rider I wouldn’t want a person with views like that as my representative.

    • I haven’t seen any confirmation either way regarding the legitimacy of Millar’s reformation, so I’ll hold back from commenting on that aspect.

      Even if his reformation is 100% for real, I’m concerned about the optics of elevating him to such a high leadership position. I think he should serve the sport at a lower level before ascending to executive/leadership level positions in any of the sport’s national/international bodies.

      • Millar has served the sport and riders at a lower level: Millar was the riders rep for the UCI Working Group that developed the Extreme Weather Protocol in 2015 with J-F Pescheux and Mauro Vegni. He has attended CPA meetings in the past on behalf of GB & Ireland riders. Millar has been on WADA Athletes Committee. He is (or was) on contract with British Cycling as a mentor to junior athletes in their program.

    • Honestly, 99% of ex-riders are not qualified for this post. In many other sports, the head of the union is a lawyer. Lawyers have a much better skillset for this type of work. Obviously a cyclist knows more what it’s like to be a cyclist, but they have zero training to handle the responsibilities of this role.

      • I think in most sports the president/ chairman of the players’ union is an ex-player (or sometimes current player).
        Otherwise I think they would struggle to get support from the members, given their lack of experience of the sport and conditions.

        • In the U.S. Big 4 sports leagues it’s almost always a lawyer, like the current heads of the NFL, NBA and NHL players unions. Of course they need to be well-acquainted with playing conditions etc, but the main job of those union executive is negotiating contracts and then making sure the league/owners stick to those contracts, which calls for lawyers, especially as their negotiating opponents will definitely be and/or employ other, very high-powered lawyers.

          Now for cycling where the “league” structure is much looser/haphazard, the financial model is wholly different (and precarious), and crucially the regulatory body is much weaker, perhaps an ex-athlete is more appropriate, I don’t know.

          • Just checking Google, current presidents of the NHL, NFL and NBA are all current/ ex players. So the same post as Miller is running for.
            The top administrator is often a lawyer but I would assume that is the same in cycling as well.

          • As noted below I should have distinguished between president and executive director

            I’m pretty certain that’s what CA also meant in the original post

          • Ah, fair enough.
            I am not sure what CA’s point would be in that case though, given Miller is running for the job filled by athletes in most comparable organisations rather than to be hired as a CEO.

        • Whether an ex rider or not the person must have many of the qualities required of a lawyer: organisational and negotiation skills, capacity to consult and create concensus, ability to understand and draw up contracts, some accounting knowledge… I’m not sure that these qualities are to be found in a former pro cyclist prepared to be candidates for the post, or does the CPA have a structure where these skills are already available in-house?

          As for the Cancellara idea (below), he would require respect in the peloton. Does he have that?

        • The president/chair role is ideally filled by a former/current player, but the CEO role is one best filled by a lawyer.

          In the case of a new cycling union to replace the broken CPA, I would suggest the primary qualification for the CEO would be previous experience in a similar role within a different sport.

  2. ” this light where a large share of the peloton resent paying for a union but, rightly or wrongly, don’t feel it’s by their side that often.”

    Sounds about right – IIRC Phil Gaimon’s book “Draft Animals” talks about when the ANAPRC was set up and mentions some of the fairly salty replies received on the mailing list from riders hitting “reply all”.

  3. For me, Millar is a good choice. he was a long-time rider in an era that had its issues. He may be a poacher turned possible gamekeeper but at least he knows how the system works. He is articulate and well presented

  4. Your top photo says it all. Each time there’s a drama one might think the riders will finally show some solidarity but it never lasts for long. I have a hard time believing David Millar is going to improve things if he manages to get in. English-speakers will get all excited like they did with Cookson only for it all to end in tears,,,except for the fact the odious “Mad Hatter” was ousted, though he’s still out there yapping “the sky is falling” each time ASO or the UCI announces anything about change.

      • I usually ignore your comments but RACIST? Really? English-speakers are a race in your mind? My complaint with so many of them (and I guess this includes you) is their late-on-the-scene (in any real numbers anyway) but sanctimonious, know-it-all attitude when it comes to fixing pro cycling – which is almost always in opposition to what I’d call the real cycle racing countries — Western Europe. It’s like the concept of American exceptionalism but lots of Brits fall into this camp as well.
        Too many seem to think that if some guy who speaks English can just be in charge (like Cookson) things will automatically be much, much better. I think Pat McQuaid proved this theory to be BS. These are the same folks who often denigrate riders and others who don’t speak much (if any) English, especially if they happen to be Italian or Spanish. But unlike you, I wouldn’t call them racist or their comments rubbish – xenophobic and uninformed might be more like it.
        Have nice day!

  5. Quick technical question for Mr Inrng, does the VVBW switch from CPA to The Cyclists Alliance mean that the tax on prizes won by Dutch riders also switch across?

    • No, the levy on prize money (2%) is paid to the CPA for its operations from every race on the calendar, regardless of who wins the race, and whether a rider has a national union as a CPA member or not. Marcel Kittel, and Chris Froome pay a lot (2% of their price money) to the CPA but they do not have a national union. Same for the dutch riders now, they still pay the CPA the same as the French riders.

  6. It appears the difficulty, as with most unions, is to firstly get its members united behind key issues which affect everyone and secondly wield enough influence to implement change. As soon as parties feel underrepresented they become disenchanted and look for other options. This will only harm the sport in the long run as it will descend into bitter infighting and fragmentation.
    In my view, the issue of safety regarding support vehicles and crowd control should be at the forefront of the conversation and with the right, influential figure, could be a way to bring the pro Peloton together in a united front as everyone has a vested interest. Trouble is very few people involved in cycle sport command sufficient respect for riders to back them. in my view David Millar does not have these credentials….Does anyone have Jens Voigt’s number?

    • I don’t know whether Millar has / hasn’t that universal respect.
      I like him as a pundit, and I find him very knowledgeable and intelligent. I feel he has the experience to offer something back to the sport, and I am certainly of the opinion that past mistakes should not disqualify him for life.
      I also disagree with CA above, in that lawyers make the best union leaders. I find that a very curious point of view. A union leader should intimately know the job/s that the members do, and an ex-pro cyclist seems like an essential requirement. The rest can be picked up through training and experience.
      Certainly Millar’s candidacy gives for a choice anyway.

      Inner Ring mentioned the peloton’s patrons, and someone like Cancellara springs to mind. If someone of that ilk could be persuaded to stand also, you’d feel as if they could make a very good union leader.

      • See my other reply above, but CA is right. The main job of a player union executive is negotiating contracts, and making sure management honors them. Obviously contracts are a very big part of the legal profession, and not something that can just be picked up on the job.

        Again, perhaps for cycling right now, a charismatic ex-pro is more appropriate – it does seem that the first task is to forge a strong, working union out of the mishmash that currently exists.

        • Understanding the difference between the executive roles and governance roles is key.

          The president (or board chair) of a reconstituted cycling union should be a current or recently retired rider, as should the majority of the board. The model which would suit cycling best would be a board with 7-9 members elected by the riders, 1-2 co-opted members with current/recent experience in another sport’s union, and the CEO (ex-officio).

          The CEO role is certainly not suited to a former rider at this point in time, because the expertise simply doesn’t exist within the cycling world. The primary qualification for this person would be prior successful experience in such an executive role within a different sport’s union, and this should probably apply to the second CEO as well.

          • I understand the point, but we’re talking of a relatively small and specialist organisation here, with a limited sphere of objectives and interest.
            Does the role not require someone with that intimate knowledge of the sport and all its inherent politics?

          • That is an important distinction. I was definitely referring to the latter CEO role which here at least is generally far more prominent and doubles as the public face of the union.

            It is still true that executive directors (i.e. CEOs) of major U.S. sports unions are virtually all lawyers and not ex-pros.

            It also seems like it doesn’t really matter what ex-cyclist is president of the CPA as long it’s a barely functional non-entity.

  7. It would appear that the CPA is due for a shake up especially as Bugno is a largely absent president.

    The impact of this is evidenced by the chaotic raft of organisations that have started up because they do not believe they are being represented effectively. Fundamentally there is something very wrong about an employer deciding that a minimum wage was required in advance of union guidance, pressure or agreement.

    It is all the more concerning that a relatively small group of riders in a new organisation (ANAPRC) seemed to drive the extreme weather protocol and have more influence on the UCI than the established union.

    The central problem is that Bugno has been more of a figurehead than a mover and a shaker. In my opinion, the CPA president needs to be proactive with the fundamental changes being tabled by the UCI (through its now close alignment with ASO). To fully interrogate the impact of these changes and how they will be implemented I would suggest the CPA president needs to be a full time role and therefore paid. I’m not sure how Millar will be that much different in this respect with the other commercial interests he has.

    • I think the president should be on an office holder paid only an honorarium and elected for a single term only, and the real money instead spent on a full-time CEO appointed to do the leg work.

      Get a good CEO with successful experience negotiating for players in another sport’s union and the president’s role would quickly be reduced to signing agreements and chairing the board meetings.

  8. Father of three, a sport commentator, a journalist, personal commercial business if any, one has to be a Superman to squeeze in more interests. Why do we have to keep ourselves that busy instead of enjoying some home sweet home hours, do some country yard cycling, hang in with your kids more… can’t make all things perfect in life but having a family united is foremost important. Look at all those reality shows in US, divorce is the name of the game in the end. To name one the Long Island mum.

  9. Brexit would make all contracts and negotiations even more complicated than ever. I do appreciate reading this article though. Imagine Mark Cav having all bad luck and who knows to what extent his insurance covers.

    • Thankfully this is simplified by the fact that riders can spread around their various forms of ‘nationality’ (citizenship, racing licence registration, national team affiliation, tax residency and actual residency) to as many different nations as they so desire.

      Cav won’t need to worry about this, he pays a manager to work out that stuff for him.

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