Vindicated: Van Gansen's guilty verdict gives validation to abused Health Mate riders

Kirsten Frattini
Health Mate Ladies Team (UCI Women's Team)

The UCI’s announcement that its Ethics Commission had found Health Mate-Cyclelive team manager Patrick Van Gansen guilty of violations of its Code of Ethics brought vindication to the women who filed formal abuse complaints against him. 

Cyclingnews reached out to Esther Meisels, Sara Mustonen and Chloë Turblin to reflect on the final verdict. Each expressed feelings of validation, and for some, a sense of relief along with hope for the future development and safety in women's professional cycling. There were also mixed emotions, feelings of being brushed aside during their initial complaint processes, and for some, there remains an unseen scarring that can often come with emotional trauma. 

For all of the women who filed complaints, there was some semblance of closure as a year-long investigation into their formal abuse complaints has come to an end. 

Cyclingnews also spoke with the rider who filed the fourth complaint, who wishes to remain anonymous, following the verdict. She declined to make a formal statement at this time due to a separate ongoing case.

It was first reported last June that Meisels, Mustonen and the father of Turblin - separately filed complaints with the UCI Ethics Commission, reporting abuses by Van Gansen. A fourth formal complaint was filed nearly a year later by a rider on the team who wished to remain anonymous. All of their complaints centered around the UCI Code of Ethics: Appendix 1, which covers protection of physical and mental integrity, sexual harassment and abuse. In the wake of these formal complaints, six more riders came forward in the press to corroborate the abuse claims with their own personal experiences and testimony while racing for Van Gansen's past teams. 

Although the UCI began a formal investigation last summer, it later hired an external agency, UK-based Sport Resolutions, to conduct an independent investigation. The sport governing body said the case had high demands that included the seriousness of the accusations, the complaints that spanned several years, and because there were a large number of people involved. The Ethics Commission based its guilty verdict on the Sport Resolutions’ final report.

Van Gansen has denied all of the allegations and threatened to take legal action against the women who alleged abuse while they raced for his team or worked for his other businesses. He is no longer registered as a staff member of a UCI team for 2020. The UCI told Cyclingnews that Van Gansen was notified of its decision and that any sanctions would be handled by the Disciplinary Commission within the coming weeks. Cyclingnews requested a comment from Van Gansen regarding the UCI Ethics Commission's decision, however, he declined to comment citing that the case was still ongoing and a confidential matter.

The Cyclists’ Alliance (TCA), an association for women’s professional cycling, provided guidance to the four riders on how to file their complaints properly at the Ethics Commission, and on what information, evidence and testimony would be required to strengthen their claims. TCA founder Iris Slappendel told Cyclingnews that the outcome of this case provided validation for the riders who filed complaints. In addition, the handling of the case by the Ethics Commission served to show how serious it deemed complaints of this nature.

"This decision was important because if Van Gansen wasn’t found guilty then no rider would ever take the steps to file a complaint at the Ethics Commission again. It tells everyone that the Ethics Commission takes these kinds of complaints seriously and they listened to the statements. It should be encouragement to other riders to speak out if they find themselves in a similar situation. We still need to find out how the Disciplinary Commission will sanction Van Gansen but the [guilty] verdict alone does show that people who don’t have the right intention [in the sport] cannot just get away with it anymore," Slappendel told Cyclingnews.

Esther Meisels

Meisels, 24, is a professional cyclist from Israel and started competing internationally in 2017. After a successful 2018 season, where she was seventh at the UCI White Spot Delta Road Race, she joined the Belgian-based Health Mate-Cyclelive Team at the start of 2019. She left the team in May of 2019 and filed a formal complaint with the Ethics Commission against Van Gansen citing abusive and inappropriate behaviour.

Statement

I was happy to read the UCI's announcement. On a personal level, it offers me and my teammates closure, but more importantly, it makes us hopeful for the future of our sport - which was the whole point of speaking out in the first place.

Given the complexity and sensitivity of this case, I appreciate the effort made by the UCI to investigate every complaint fairly and thoroughly. 

I'd also like to thank The Cyclists' Alliance who were a great source of support throughout it all. And everyone else who cared enough to send a message or follow up, it means a lot. 

What I hope other riders can take from this is that even in a demanding sport like ours, some behaviors are never OK and should not be tolerated in the name of "mental toughness". 

And if you find yourself in that situation, know that you can do something about it.

Sara Mustonen

Mustonen, 39, joined Health Mate-Cyclelive team in 2019, and her experience in the sport gave her a leadership role while she was also there to support the younger riders. She turned professional in 2008 and has raced for teams Liv-Plantur, Hitec Products, Team Virtu Cycling and Experza-Footlogix. Mustonen officially left the team in April of 2019 citing inappropriate behaviour and psychological abuse in her formal complaint against Van Gansen.

Statement:

It's been a long awaited decision but now we can hopefully put this whole ordeal behind us. 

It's a relief knowing Van Gansen will be held accountable for his actions and that perhaps the future of women's cycling will be a better and more professional environment. 

Hopefully this sends the signal to all riders out there that you shouldn't accept being mistreated or abused, and that there's help out there when needed. 

A big thanks to The Cyclists’ Alliance during this period, they have been a great support.

Chloë Turblin

Turblin, 24, turn professional with the Health Mate-Cyclelive team in 2018. Turblin’s father filed a formal complaint with the UCI Ethics Commission in February of 2019 initially citing bad treatment and illegal work conditions, but then escalated to include inappropriate behaviour. Turblin officially left the team in May of 2019. 

She is currently racing with the Massi-Tactic Women’s Team and is a registered physiotherapist. 

Turblin has since taken her complaint to the local law enforcement near her home in France. She confirmed to Cyclingnews that she filed the report with the Gendarmerie nationale à Saint Estève citing psychological and physical harassment, abuse of weakness, intimidation and defamation against Van Gansen.

Statement:

We received an e-mail a week before the decision was announced indicating that the Secretariat of the UCI Ethics Commission had submitted the final report of the panel of the UCI Ethics Commission on its open investigation to the UCI Disciplinary Commission on April 3, 2020.

However, the final verdict had not yet been pronounced [to me], but it is true that according to the UCI's press release, and the media of all kinds, things seem to be going our way.

Simply by noting the UCI's statement, I had the deep feeling that I no longer feel like a "bitch".

I can't say that it's a relief, nor that in one evening all the feelings that have haunted me for a year have disappeared since we haven't yet had the final verdict [UCI Disciplinary Commission has not announced Patrick Van Gansen’s penalty for violations to the Code of Ethics - ed].

I remain realistic because I know very well that the coming weeks are going to be very complicated for all of us, because Patrick Van Gansen risks throwing his last stray bullets in the press, to try and destroy us further, by continuing to deny all the accusations against him. 

Guilt, embarrassment, and shame. These are the three feelings that have long shared my daily life for the past year. 

Do you know what it's like when nobody listens to you, and doesn't pay attention to what you say?  To the point where you start to convince yourself that the problem is yours? Well, it's been my daily life, and I sincerely wish no one else has to go through that.

I was the first to denounce the facts [of abuse to the UCI Ethics Commission] with the help of my father. Why did my father take sides in this story? Beyond his personal confrontation with Patrick Van Gansen, I think he's seen me in states no father would want his daughter in. So, with my agreement, he took the first steps, as well as supporting me by making his own statements, because I felt personally unable to make them alone. 

During the majority of this period, Patrick Van Gansen sent me threatening messages, trying to contact me very late at night, and even sometimes with a masked appeal. He systematically included mine and my father's email addresses as hidden copies when he sent his defence files to the UCI. It was a form of torture, for several weeks he demeaned me, and turned me against my own father, trying to destroy our family, and to divide us. Little by little, he destroyed my self-esteem. 

Until then, all the mental energy that I had invested in my sport, my passion, I did it in a determined, convinced, and in a relentless way, and have been doing it like this since I was 12 years old. Of course, I never had world-class results, I am also not among the best French [riders], but should that make me a person whose testimonies are ignored? Is our [the victims'] consideration really proportional to our palmares? This is the feeling I have had, in the face of the looks and disparaging remarks of some people, during my dealings with the UCI.

I hope that the case of the Health Mate team will further enhance the balance and development of women's cycling. I don't want the women's cycling community to take offence, close their eyes, or be ashamed of this kind of case. As you know, even though I am aware that these kinds of problems are unfortunately sometimes present, I do not wish to make a generalization either. Some women's teams have an equal balance, the same opportunities, the same respect as our male counterparts. Women's cycling is evolving, there's no denying it.

Unfortunately or "fortunately" this kind of thing [abuse of riders] happens more easily in small teams, since instability and financial precariousness can create unhealthy situations. But should we have to go through these small steps, in order to increase our capacities, and our chances of getting into the best teams? This is what many directors abuse/take advantage of: the weakness of young riders faced with their dreams of becoming professionals.

At the present time, I still find it hard to look at my sport the way I used to look at it. For months now, my coach and I have been looking for every possible strategy to recreate my balance and motivation, in vain. Every day I am still able to give the same energy, rigour, motivation and conviction as before to my sport. 

However, I am facing [what feels like] a profound failure, despite being one of the only girls, among the ones to denounce the faults that took place at HealthMate, to have signed a contract with a UCI team for 2020.

I know that my statement may surprise some people, the season has not yet started and yet I am not motivated. For the moment, I have lost all illusions and desire to evolve in my sport. I thought it would come back, but no, it's not coming back. Cycling no longer makes me dream or shine, and it's a deep feeling of personal failure that I cannot have the motivation and drive that I had before all this. 

The 2020 season, if it takes place, will be my last high level road season. Of course, I would like to proudly honour the Catalan colours of my team Massi Tactic until December 31, 2020. I have taken the decision to retire from this [road cycling] world at the end of this season.

This [cycling] environment has brought me so much, and has also destroyed me so much throughout this year, between my statements [formal complaint] and the [UCI Ethics Commission’s] judgment - although the [penalty] still has not been proclaimed, I wish to remind.

My goals for 2021 will be quite different, and I wish to practice, for pleasure, disciplines radically different from the one I have been practicing for years. I will devote myself to mountain biking, and ski mountaineering, complete to my professional beginnings in working life. I am a physiotherapist.

Related reading

Since Cyclingnews broke this story in 2019 Kirsten Frattini has gone on to write several exclusive and important stories on the subject. You can find all the coverage in the links below:

Riders file abuse complaints against Health Mate-Cyclelive manager

Six riders corroborate abuse allegations against Patrick Van Gansen

10th rider details unsettling environment at Health Mate Ladies Team

UCI begins investigation into abuse complaints against Van Gansen

Slappendel urges cyclists to file formal complaints with UCI against abusers

Health Mate to end title sponsorship amid Van Gansen investigation

Patrick Van Gansen to take legal action against women who allege abuse

UCI hires external agency to investigate abuse complaints against Patrick Van Gansen

Exclusive: Van Gansen faces new allegations of abuse as UCI delays Health Mate decision

Patrick Van Gansen found guilty of ethics violations in Health Mate abuse case