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Maggie Coles-Lyster’s story brings attention to sexual abuse in women’s cycling

'It makes me angry how many people think this doesn't happen in cycling'

In April 2017, Canadian cyclist Maggie Coles-Lyster was an 18-year-old junior rider. She had just signed on to race with Lares–Waowdeals (now Doltcini – Van Eyck) a Belgian UCI women’s continental team. For her first competition with Lares–Waowdeals, she flew to the Netherlands for a multi-day stage race.

“I was super excited to be going to the Netherlands to race with my new team,” says Coles-Lyster. “The year before I had gone to Europe for a couple weeks with the national team. It was my first time racing road in Europe and I was immediately hooked on the fast, aggressive racing style.”

Racing on a European team was a new opportunity for Coles-Lyster. After Day 1 of the stage race, she had her first post-race massage with the team’s assistant (who also worked as a soigneur). But instead of relaxing her muscles in preparation for the next day, the experience left her feeling uncomfortable and confused.

A situation no woman should be in

The soigneur had sexually assaulted her during her massage. He continued to sexually assault her during every post-race massage session that week. Although there was a language barrier, speaking with some of the other women Coles-Lyster learned that teammates had also experienced the same abuse during his massages.

“I was uncomfortable,” said Coles-Lyster, “but I had the opportunity to be on this team. I felt like I had to totally embrace it–not cause a disruption or a disturbance or put it in any kind of jeopardy.”

During team dinners the soigneur would take photos of Coles-Lyster and text them to her. He would send her intimate messages and take her by the arm before she raced. She didn’t know what to do.

Back in Canada

After the race, Coles-Lyster came home to finish her last semester of high school. She was scheduled to return to Europe to race with Lares–Waowdeals that summer. Coles-Lyster knew she would have to live in the same house as the soigneur from July to September and she confided in her parents what had happened on her first trip. They helped her write an email to team director Marc Bracke.

“I explained how I was uncomfortable with the inappropriate messages the soigneur was sending,” says Coles-Lyster. “I said that I felt the way he was acting with me was unprofessional and that his actions were inappropriate.”

The email had no effect.

Bracke told her not to be afraid of the soigneur. “He basically blamed it on a language barrier,” says Coles-Lyster. “He said he talked to the soigneur and told him to give the riders space. He said that the soigneur understood. That was it. No followup.”

Coles-Lyster and her mother began planning how she would handle living in the same house as a man who had sexually abused her.

“We would strategize ways of how I would deal with,” says Coles-Lyster. “I had to plan what I would do if something happened.”

In the end, the soigneur was let go for unknown reasons the week Coles-Lyster arrived in Europe.

Coming to terms with what happened

Coles-Lyster says it took her time to process the experience. “Nothing like that had ever happened to me before,” She says. “I think it took up until last year for me to actually wrap my mind around it—to just understand and come to terms with what actually happened.”

She tried to shove the memory under the rug–forget about it and move on with racing. She continued to grow in cycling and went on to earn a track junior world championships title, raced for Canadian team Macogep-Argon18, Pickle Juice Pro Cycling and DNA Pro Cycling and she won two track medals at Pan Ams.

But in the past year, as women in the cycling world began to come forward with their experiences of verbal and sexual abuse, Coles-Lyster knew she had to share her story.

Not an isolated incident

In February, the UCI opened a formal investigation into Doltcini-Van Eyck Sport women’s team. During contract negotiations, Marc Bracke, who is still the director of the team, had asked U.S. cyclist Sara Youmans to send him images of herself “in panties and bras.”

“Don’t be shy,” he said. “This is the start of a relationship of trust.”

In June 2019, three women from UCI women’s team Health Mate Ladies Team filed complaints against the team’s general manager Patrick Van Gansen. They left the team because of his abusive treatment and inappropriate behaviour. After they filed complaints, six other riders confirmed they had experienced similar situations on the team.

A report released last year by the Dutch Cycling Federation found that more than a quarter of top female Dutch riders said they had felt unsafe in the sport. Thirteen per cent said they had experienced inappropriate sexual behaviour, including touching and comments.

“It makes me angry how many people think this doesn’t happens in cycling,” says Coles-Lyster. “Who knows why that is? Maybe because it’s a male-dominated sport, but the number of people who are shocked that this goes on is quite surprising.”

Coles-Lyster notes that many of these cases happen with young women, who are away from their families, are put in one-on-one situations with adults.

Sexual harassment education

Currently, there are no UCI-mandated sexual-harassment seminars. Coles-Lyster thinks that cycling organizations and the UCI need to focus on sexual-harassment education at all levels.

“We need sexual-harassment seminars,” she says. “Everybody needs to be educated on what sexual harassment actually looks like. That’s the biggest thing, when something like that actually happens to you, you wonder, is this the way massages are supposed to be? As a junior you don’t necessarily have the life experience to know what is normal.”

Coles-Lyster says that until she publicly spoke about her story, she didn’t know what steps to take to report abuse to the UCI. She believes these channels need more visibility and riders need to feel safe going to them.

“Sexual harassment is the extreme of it, but organizations and teams need to look at how they treat women,” says Coles-Lyste. “They need to strive for equality between women and men and create equal opportunities for both.”

A necessary conversation

“As a female in such a male-dominated sport—really just as a female in sport in general—when this happens your career is really your first thought,” says Coles-Lyster. “What are the repercussions? What will people say? How could this affect me in my career?”

Her goal in coming forward with her story was to spark a conversation.

“The more people who talk about this, the more stories that will come out and the more action that will hopefully be taken.”

So far, Coles-Lyster says the outcome has been positive.”It’s been super empowering,” she says. “The connections it’s created between other female cyclists and supporters of the sport is what needs to happen.”

“I just really hope this will just inspire and empower more people to come forward with their own stories.”