Dismayed at the lack of support across the board for professional cyclists at the top of their sport, former pro cyclist Will Dugan decided to take matters into his own hands.
Along with a board of directors, Dugan created the Pro Cyclist Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to serve as a hub of support for athletes as they navigate the often volatile and highly competitive world of pro cycling. The foundation is being supported by Black Swift Group LLC, an independent investment manager in Denver, Colorado. The group’s chief investment officer, Greg Casals, is also a founder of the Pro Cyclist Foundation.
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Cyclists will be able to come to the organization for help with legal, health, and career matters through a referral network of resources that Dugan is currently building. Dugan—who rode for Team Type 1, a pro continental team, from 2010 to 2012—understands the many difficulties they can face both during their sports career and once it’s over.
“Athletes are mostly independent contractors, and it’s very much the wild west of careers,” Dugan told Bicycling. “You’re expected to review your contract on your own, you’re doing your taxes on your own … there’s very little financial support.”
Some similar organizations do currently exist, at various levels. Two notable ones include the Cyclistes Professionnels Associés (CPA), an international nonprofit and “the only association for riders recognized by the UCI,” and The Cyclists’ Alliance, which is specifically for women pro cyclists.
“The CPA is supported primarily by the UCI, and that’s obviously a raging conflict. And they seem to not be able to make a lot of headway with salary minimums,” Dugan said. “I don’t intend this to be a union, but I do intend this to be an advocacy group and a lobbying group for the wellbeing of cyclists.”
American pro cyclist Kiel Reijnen of Trek-Segafredo has served on the North American branch of the CPA for more than five years; he recognizes that there are limitations to what the cyclist’s union can do and, hence, the need for a foundation like this one. Though Reijnen did not have a hand in getting the Pro Cyclist Foundation on its feet, he’s now a vocal advocate for its mission.
“I know how effective and ineffective [the CPA] can be. And that has led me to sort of consider how we could be more effective as a voice for the riders, and how we could better support riders,” Reijnen told Bicycling. “What I like about this is we’re not going to war with any existing organization, we’re not trying to replace any organization, we’re just trying to create a better safety net for pros.”
Among the biggest issues that pro cyclists face is low salaries. The current minimum salary for Pro Continental-level “neo-pro” men cyclists is around $31,500, per UCI regulation; WorldTour neo-pro men cyclists have a minimum salary of $38,000. By comparison, this is the first year that WorldTour-level women pro cyclists have even had a minimum salary, and it’s only around $17,600; that figure will increase annually until it hits $34,000 in 2023.
While the foundation won’t be able to impact cyclists’ salaries directly, it will be able to help provide legal guidance for contract negotiation. Plus, low salaries make it harder for cyclists to better other areas of their life and career; the foundation can step in and help by offsetting some of those costs.
Many pro cyclists are also sometimes expected to cover their own flight, hotel, and other traveling expenses when racing abroad. And they struggle to find help when it comes to contract negotiation. Often, the one answering their salary and contract questions is the same person controlling those very things—their team director.
Health, both physical and mental, is also another area of a pro cyclist’s life where they may face challenges. From dealing with major injuries like concussions, to battling depression and eating disorders, access to better healthcare and other wellbeing resources is another pillar of the foundation’s mission. Dugan said he was scared to pay $400 a month or more for a comprehensive healthcare plan, instead opting for insurance that only covered accidents.
“There were many moments in my career that I struggled to find the medical experts I needed,” Reijnen said.
Then to top it off, the professional career of a cyclist can be short-lived. Going from spending hours every day on the bike to a standard 9-to-5 job isn’t exactly an easy switch, Dugan noted, and injuries or other unforeseen circumstances can force an early retirement. This is where career services through an organization like the Pro Cyclist Foundation could help athletes transition into another career path.
“We’d like to be able to issue need-based grants for legal assistance and career guidance and wellbeing support, so that pro riders can access the support they need,” Dugan said.
“We race on teams that offer some support, but unless you are fortunate enough to be on a top tier team, there are guaranteed to be massive holes and shortcomings in what a team can offer in the pursuit of performance, health and life balance,” American pro cyclist Brent Bookwalter of team Mitchelton-Scott told Bicycling. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have been part of the best teams in the world at the sports top level, but even there, there is still a void that the Pro Cyclist Foundation can help fill.”
One big thing that sets the Pro Cyclist Foundation apart from other organizations is its fundraising strategy. Most nonprofits rely heavily on traditional private donors and government grants, but the foundation is foregoing that route entirely (though donations will still be gladly accepted).
Instead, funds will be collected through management fees for a private investment fund managed by Black Swift Group called the Pro Cyclist Fund. Roughly half of that management fee, or about one percent overall, will go be used for the foundation’s operating expenses. Since it’s a hedge fund, there are currently only 100 spots available for investors, so they’re looking specifically for high net-worth individuals interested in the cycling industry.
“The primary action here is to look at larger contributions to the fund that can provide recurring support to the foundation annually,” he said, and that sustainable funding is key.
The Black Swift Group has also been managing a similar, three-year-old hedge fund called Healthier Focus, which won an industry award for its performance in 2018. Like this new fund for the foundation, the Healthier Focus fund supports the mission of a nonprofit, called Healthier Colorado. The Pro Cyclist Fund will mimic the successful Healthier Focus fund.
“Essentially, this is very much a win-win-win situation. You still get all of the returns that the fund would incur. Black Swift Group accepts a smaller return than usual, they have incentive to perform well, and the foundation also benefits,” Dugan said. “That’s what makes this so exciting.”
In discussing the state of pro cycling, Dugan also acknowledged the role and importance of the ongoing bike boom, incited by the coronavirus pandemic. He wants his foundation to “be a different organization and support the top of sport, so that people—recreational riders, collegiate cyclists, and elite amateurs—have someone to look forward to for longer,” he said. “Without that type of inspiration level, we start to see the cycling industry as a whole fall apart.”
“But what happens next? What happens in 2021 and 2022, when there’s no Tour of California, when there’s no premier rides?” Dugan speculated. “This shift is real. We very much see a need to act and support the professional level now.”
“This is still a popular sport,” Reijnen said. “We’re just ineffectively managed.”
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