By Helen Bridgman
What do you get when you bring together a group of smart, dynamic and knowledgeable people involved in professional women’s cycling united by their passion to make the industry a better place? The Cyclists Alliance Mentor Programme (TCAMP) – an exciting collaboration between riders and industry where the sky’s the limit.
When The Cyclists Alliance (TCA) launched its new mentor programme in May this year, I’m not sure that many people quite understood the magnitude of what it could do for women’s cycling and the industry at large. I have to hold my hands up as I was definitely in that category myself, until I got to speak to some of the driving forces behind the programme.
Let’s take a deeper look into what TCAMP is all about and how it could be a real game changer for women’s cycling.
How it started
Gracie Elvin and Roos Hoogeboom, both of whom work for TCA, were coming up for retirement last year and discussing new projects. Between them they decided to reinvigorate the TCA’s original mentor programme, which was started in 2017 by Carmen Small (ex-pro cyclist and one of the founding members of TCA). The mentor programme has quickly become a passion project as well as a learning experience for them both.
“I’m really proud to create something that I always thought was missing,” Elvin told me. “I’ve had some good unofficial mentors in the peloton throughout my career, but I always knew that I wanted to figure out a way to give back and a way to keep more riders in the peloton.”
Whilst Elvin herself is still trying to figure out what’s next for her after she finishes the science degree she’s working towards, she’s finding the process as well as the content of the programme useful herself. Unsurprisingly, she’s also a rider mentor, which she says is a big learning curve.
Elvin and Hoogeboom are keen to create a world class programme that will endure. They did a lot of research and took many learnings from Small and participants in the original TCA mentor programme before developing the new one. One key element they took away is that, to make it successful, the mentors need support.
“There were quite a few experienced riders that in their own right could give you advice on almost anything,” shared Elvin. “But because they’d never been an official mentor before, they weren’t quite sure how to go about communicating, the consistency of communication and how to give advice. So we’ve definitely geared most of our support towards the mentors.”
They also introduced an innovative new concept of ‘Podium Partners’. Cannondale, Liv Cycling, Specialized, SRAM and Trek have all come on board to help develop and support the programme. The long term plan is for them to help riders move into roles in the industry and become future leaders once they retire.
In the pro peloton “we have so much knowledge and a unique group of people that has a unique set of skills,” reflects Hoogeboom. “If I look at it from a riders perspective, they aren’t always aware of all the skills they have, or the careers open to them.” And this is where the mentors and Podium Partners can step in and bring great value. It’s where the programme moves away from the realms of mentoring and into the sphere of game changer.
How it’s going
The programme itself is split into three pillars to help riders during the key stages in their professional cycling careers; pre-, mid- and post-career. Given this broad scope, the desire to start small and the needs of the first wave of applicants, there is an initial focus on the mid-career stages, whilst TCA works with the Podium Partners on some concrete elements of the post-career stage.
TCA has initially paired inexperienced pro riders with more established riders for 12 months to help the mentees learn how to better navigate some of the challenges facing them in the pro peloton. The Podium Partners, as well as wider industry experts, such as psychologists and agents, will be there to help participants develop leadership skills and expand their knowledge. Workshops are planned on CV building, while webinars from industry experts will give riders an insight into the types of roles that could be open to them later in their careers.
This first 2021 cohort contains 32 participants, details of whom are of course confidential, but around 40% are from Europe. Then around 25% are from North America and the rest is split equally between the UK, South America, Australia and South Africa.
Elvin was responsible for putting the pairings together, using her intuition and her insider knowledge of the majority of the applicants. “It took me quite a lot longer than I was expecting,” she told me. “It felt almost like a puzzle.”
Each applicant had to respond to a survey that also helped Elvin piece all the parts of the jigsaw together. In addition to personal information, riders had to detail what kind of support they were looking for. Some mentees had quite specific requests. For example, a non-European rider was looking to be paired with a European rider to help guide them through some of the unknowns when it comes to European racing.
The programme will run until the end of the year, with pairs committing to communicating at least six times within 12 months. TCA’s role now that the pairs are up and running is as intermediary and facilitator, supporting the mentors, providing structure and consistent guidance to help keep everything on track and make it a success. They’ve themed each month to give riders suggested topics to discuss and they are setting up webinars that match the themes.
We’ve only really just started to see more women coming to the fore in leadership roles in teams and the wider cycling industry. As sad as it will be to lose them from the peloton, many of us are eagerly awaiting Anna van der Breggen and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak’s moves into team management at SD Worx next year. And who can forget the famous duo of Ina-Yoko Teutenberg and Georgia Bronzini who are already blazing the trail at Trek. But these examples currently tend to be the exceptions rather than the rule in women’s cycling.
Elvin and Hoogeboom reflected on this a lot in their development of TCAMP, pondering how to get more women to continue to be involved in cycling after they finish racing. Elvin reflected, “I really noticed that in my whole career they just kind of drop off the radar. And there’s lots of reasons for that. But I think one of the reasons is that a lot of us don’t see the opportunities, so you don’t really factor a job in cycling into your bigger plan.
“Female cyclists are quite smart,” continued Elvin. “They’re mostly very well educated, they have a great emotional intelligence, and they could bring so much value to brands and teams, in any kind of position.” And when you put it like that, it’s a no-brainer to keep them involved at the cutting edge of the sport and industry.
For Podium Partner, Liv Cycling, having women in leadership roles is part of the company’s DNA and they are always looking for new ways to support women in the industry. Brook Hopper, Director of Global Marketing at Liv tells me “The purpose of our sports marketing programmes is to create more opportunities for women in professional racing. That includes everyone from our team manager to hiring female mechanics, really making sure that we are creating space for women where otherwise it doesn’t exist. At Liv we are never about just accepting things, because that’s the way it’s been.”
It comes as no surprise with Bonnie Tu at the helm of Liv and people like Hopper in leadership roles at the company that they jumped on board to support TCAMP.
TCAMP gives the Podium Partners, competitor brands for all intents and purposes, the opportunity to collaborate on a project with a greater purpose at its core. Hopper muses, “it’s about bringing everybody into the fold to work on something that is much bigger than any of our individual brands. Collaboration is how we’re going to win, and we don’t have enough of it in the bike space. At Liv we firmly believe that more opportunities for everyone is better, more women on bikes will be better for everyone and more women in the sport at every level, is going to be a win-win for the industry.”
Hopper’s excited by the energy on the calls with her fellow Partners. Between them, they are still figuring out exactly how they can best collaborate and invest in supporting the programme. She tells me, “we all bring these diverse points of view as we’re all from different backgrounds, but we’re all committed to making it happen.”
Creating a lasting impact
One thing that’s blatantly clear from my conversations is that everyone involved isn’t paying lip service here, they want to create something that has a real impact on the future of the industry and a long lasting legacy.
“I don’t think we could even guess what’s going to happen, but I think it can be really exciting,” Hopper enthuses. “How do we really create an opportunity that is meaningful, and not just scratching the surface of what’s possible. We all want to make sure that it’s something that’s embedded into the culture of the brands and not something that’s a PR or marketing effort only.”
Kate Powlinson, Marketing Manager at SRAM, echoes Hopper’s excitement and vision for the project. She tells me, “What intrigues us is that there are efforts to build parity in women’s sport that are reactionary, that are tokenising that might even be cool and exciting but don’t make a difference at the end of the day and it feels like TCAMP is one of those sustainable things that really can change over time the composition of the industry I work for.” Powerful stuff.
Powlinson also tells me that many of the Podium Partners are looking to learn from the programme themselves, to improve their own internship programme and diversity and inclusion initiatives. “It’s not just up to TCA to run this programme. We want it to become baked into the way that we all attract, develop and retain talent.”
And what does TCA hope the programme will bring? Back to Elvin, to elaborate, “I’d really love it to create that nice momentum of women supporting women, and riders able to have that extra support in their career. I’d love to see more women in DS roles, as journalists, as rider agents, more women working for brands in all different kinds of areas, and just creating a better diversity, better representation. I think that’s going to help the sport of women’s cycling overall. Just better exposure, better products, better leadership.”
So what’s next?
You can guarantee that where this dynamic group is concerned they won’t rest until the job is done and they are already looking at broadening the scope to include the pre-career pillar.
Hopper comments “I see a great need for support on the development side of the sport. I think that on the men’s side you have a lot more development teams that are helping to identify young up and coming riders and giving them that experience before they maybe join a world tour team. So I see that as a big need for investment in support in the future.”
Elvin also sees a great need for the programme at the pre-career stage. She tells me, “Ultimately we would like to support juniors and under 23s, even club level riders. That’s where another whole lot of work comes into it; networking with clubs and Federations and getting that groundswell at the grassroots level. So hopefully that can be on the cards for the next year or two. I think we still have our work cut out for us. But I think we’re up to the challenge.” Grand plans and big aspirations, but I certainly believe they are up to the job.
And if you’re still in any doubt, I’ll leave the final battle cry to Hopper. “If we were making widgets, you know, it would be different. We don’t punch clocks, we’re trying to change the world.”