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Sexism in Cycling

When asked for a photo by a fan, Belgian cyclist Iljo Keisse pulled a porn-star pose. And the reaction was just as depressing

Oh cycling, why are we here again? Haven’t we had our share of learning and teaching and actionable moments? We’ve had the sexist poster debacle, the podium girls in bikinis, the cyclist who needed a packet of condoms for podium “chicks”, the women who were shamed for a kit that was supposedly “unacceptable by any standard of decency”. And we’re still here, still riding the dinosaur tail of misogyny and sexism, still blaming the victim and issuing non-apology apologies.

This time the culprit is Belgian cyclist Iljo Keisse, who decided that a young woman’s request for a photo with a team she admires was shorthand for “fuck me baby”. Keisse and his Deceuninck–Quick-Step teammates were enjoying some downtime in a cafe during their preparations for the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina when an 18-year-old waitress asked them for a photograph. While the young fan smiled for the camera, Keisse leant back beside his teammates and pretended he was having sex with her from behind.

“I am very angry,” she told Argentinian newspaper Telesol Diario after she saw the photo. “They disrespected me. I was working. They cannot come to another country and treat women as things, as something insignificant and worthless.” It really shouldn’t need repeating but let’s do it anyway: when a woman approaches you for a picture, she is not a groupie and neither is she giving you consent to pretend to sexually assault her. See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

At 36, Keisse really ought to know better. After hearing from the police about the matter, he apologised, of course, to “everyone” because he didn’t want to “offend anybody”. It was “a mistake”, he said of his porn-star pose, a deliberate decision he made to disrespect another human being for his own amusement.

The intervention from Keisse’s father, a former cyclist himself, was entirely depressing. “That woman is also very suggestive with her ass,” said Ronny Keisse. Clearly the victim blaming is strong in this one. “Who says that Iljo should not file a complaint against her? It should not have happened, but he apologised and will have to bear the consequences. Now we must wait until the storm blows over.” So far those consequences have amounted to being thrown off the race because his own team refused to take disciplinary action and being fined 3,000 pesos (£60) by a local judge.

When asked what men could learn from the case, the judge in question, Enrique Mattar, said: “That things have to change, whether you are a French or Italian tourist, or someone from San Juan, a construction worker, an engineer or a lawyer. Change. A woman has to be allowed to walk peacefully along the street, she must be left at peace at work or at home. Socially, things have changed. Enough with sexist jokes and macho attitudes that are no longer socially acceptable.”

As the world of cycling facepalmed and hoped Keisse would apologise in person, maybe make a donation to an appropriate charity and not just say sorry but actually be sorry, up popped Pat Lefevere, the bullish boss of the Deceuninck-QuickStep squad, to fan the flames. “If it were up to me, the whole team would leave the Vuelta a San Juan,” he raged as the team boycotted the podium presentation in protest at Keisse’s disqualification.

When a calm and dignified apology was required, Lefevre tried to put out a domestic fire with a flamethrower. He even suggested the waitress had complained for personal gain: “I’m not happy with Iljo’s pose. That is wrong, he knows that himself. But he paid a $70 fine and the police closed the case. And yet that woman continues to make a game about it. She will want money, right?” It seems unlikely that Deceuninck-QuickStep will be shaving their legs with Gillette anytime soon.

This is about more than a photograph. It’s about a culture in which a 19-year-old Remco Evenepoel stands grinning beside his teammate and mentor while he is pretending to assault a woman who just asked for a photo. And a culture in which the press officer for another Belgian team was left to fend for herself in the pouring rain because she wasn’t allowed on to the team bus to watch the race and do her job. And a culture in which asceticism alternates with hedonism and frightening levels of testosterone are too often left unchecked.

The real problem is what we don’t talk about when we talk about the wolfpack. We don’t talk about Sanne Cant’s imperious third straight victory in the cyclocross worlds at Bogense. And we don’t talk about why there still isn’t a women’s Grand Tour on the scale of the Tour de France. When we talk about misogyny in the men’s sport, we don’t talk about the women who are blazing trails and the issues they face to blaze them.

With sponsors Specialized and Deceuninck both making deeply unhappy noises about the kind of product placement any business dreads in the 21st century, the team issued a statement. In it they promise to “implement in the near future specific conduct training protocols for all riders and staff to ensure our values and make sure this kind of thing won’t happen again.” It’s hard to suspend cynicism when you realise such common-sense protocols aren’t already in place in one of the biggest teams in the sport.

Every year the cycling media reports that Lefevre is struggling to find a sponsor for the coming season. This won’t have made his search any easier. Maybe he should call Gillette.

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