When six-time American national champion Missy Erickson came forward earlier this month about the sexual abuse she endured as a junior racer, she became the third female pro cyclist within a month to do so (read her story here). In December, Dutch cyclists Petra de Bruin and Marijn de Vries spoke out separately about managers, soigneurs, and team mechanics harassing and abusing them. The Dutch cycling federation reacted quickly to those allegations, launching an investigation to see how systemic sexual misconduct is within the country’s competitive cycling ranks.
Now, some are wondering whether there could be more unreported cases similar to Erickson’s in the United States. Immediately after Erickson revealed her abuse, she says, several cyclists connected with her through social media and claimed to have similar experiences. Because few reports exist, however, it’s difficult to know just how many American cyclists may have been victims of sexual abuse. USA Cycling officials told Bicycling that since 2014, when the organization implemented policies to make recognizing and reporting abuse easier under the SafeSport initiative, multiple sexual misconduct claims have been made (only one has been against a coach), but they would not discuss details of the claims.
SafeSport involves a broad set of abuse mitigation guidelines adopted by many Olympic sports after the USA Olympic Committee started the program in 2010. In the case of USA Gymnastics, a 2016 Indianapolis Star investigation found that in the span of 10 years, 368 gymnasts had reported some level of sexual misconduct, and 54 different coaches had been accused of misconduct. When Outside magazine investigated abuse in USA Swimming in 2014, it found that more than 100 coaches had been dismissed for sexual-abuse allegations. There is evidence that both governing bodies knew about the abuse but let accused coaches continue their work.
No one has made that claim against USA Cycling and officials at the organization said they have opened an investigation into Erickson’s allegations, even though she has not formally reported her abuse to USA Cycling or authorities. Should USA Cycling find evidence that a violation had occurred, they say they will file a formal complaint and appoint an independent investigator. “The athlete’s welfare is paramount to USA Cycling. We have a zero-tolerance policy for abuse and misconduct,” Derek Bouchard-Hall, the organization’s CEO, wrote in an email to Bicycling. “We encourage any others who have fallen victim to or have suspicions of any kind of abuse to contact USA Cycling’s SafeSport program.”
In the United States, one in six women have been victims of rape, or attempted rape, according to RAINN, an anti-sexual violence organization. None of the experts Bicycling spoke with knew of studies done to determine the extent of abuse among athletes in the US, but other countries have investigated the issue. A 2008 study of more than 300 athletes in Australia found that as many as 21 percent of male athletes and 31 percent of female athletes endured some unwanted sexual advances by coaches or other authority figures.
The rate of abuse for elite athletes could be even higher—as much as 46.4 percent according to the International Olympic Committee’s Consensus Statement on Harassment and Abuse in Sport published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. “While we do not know why [rates are higher], we believe that it revolves around the higher stakes in elite sport—there is more to gain and also more to lose,” the paper’s author, Margo Mountjoy, MD, PhD, wrote in an email.
That dynamic was present in the cases involving USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming, where coaches sometimes threatened the loss of priviliges or led athletes to believe that enduring mental, physical, and sexual abuse was a sign of commitment to reaching their competitive goals. Cycling differs from swimming and gymnastics in some ways, so comparisons are not perfect. Notably, those sports have greater numbers of young female athletes than cycling does. According to demographic numbers from USA Gymnastics, the sport has more than 4 million female participants, with most under the age of 18. USAC, meanwhile, has fewer than 4,000 female license holders in the US. But cycling does have some structural similarities to those sports which can contribute to abuse, or make it trying for victims to report abuse after it happens. As with many youth sports, a team manager or coach wields most of the power, setting up an environment ripe for abuse.
That scenario feels familiar to retired professional cyclist Kathryn Bertine. In her five years as a pro, Bertine says she never experienced abuse, but saw many of the forces that make it possible. “There are people who promise that they can open doors for you and promote their ability to help young riders,” she says. “Many of these authority figures are still in the ranks of pro cycling and that’s not okay.”
Equally problematic, Bertine says, is how difficult it is for cyclists to come forward if they have experienced sexual abuse or misconduct. “On top of all the emotional and physical damage already done, there’s an added dynamic for many pro athletes—their careers,” she says. “If sexual misconduct comes from a coach, manager or sponsor, many women also believe their job, goals, and future are at stake.”
USA Cycling’s adoption of SafeSport reporting guidelines is a positive step, but it will take more cyclists like Missy Erickson to come forward before we get close to a true accounting of the problem.