I like Peter Sagan. He’s young, he’s an athlete, he’s gutsy and kind of a dork. He appears to have that charismatic personality that the cameras and cycling fans love. His wacky, winning celebrations help lighten up the tensions between all the fiery egos out there. He’s a bit of a show off and rightly so, looking at his consistent wins and podium placements, but when he lost to Fabian Cancellara in the Tour of Flanders, he showed us all just how idiotic he could be.
I was hardly surprised, but still sourly disappointed, as I watched my Facebook news feed fill up with share after share of the photo of Sagan pinching Maja Leye’s behind (see below). Each post was captioned with simple phrases like “Sagan is the man!” or “This is hilarious,” all written light heartedly by several male acquaintances I have in the Los Angeles cycling community. These are young men that are around the same age as Sagan, some older, some younger, trying to do well on the track, trying to do their best in road racing, who all look up to this 23 year-old in one way or another. It’s not Sagan’s fault they’re just as thoughtless, but it is his example they’re following as they condone sexual harassment at the highest level of professional cycling.
Take a look at one “MexicanSongBird,” a member of the Long Beach, California cycling community. This swell character published a fun little blog post about the “FemiNazi” backlash to Sagan’s action, using the same illogical argument we’ve heard time and time again: that it’s the victim’s fault for wearing skimpy clothes, that it’s the woman’s fault for placing herself in a compromising situation in the first place.
MexicanSongBird rants, “Have you ever known of a Podium Girl who didn’t volunteer for the job (with the full understanding of the implications of the spectacle)?” attempting to justify Sagan’s behavior. Just because a woman volunteers to be a race host does not mean she is handing over the rights to her body. Any supporter of this “rather cute” incident is further condoning this illogical and astoundingly harmful fallacy that is used on a daily basis to justify rape and sexual harassment.
The idiocy trickles down. If MexicanSongBird, clearly an enthusiastic bike advocate with ties to the local non-profit Bikeable Communities and Wolfpack Hustle of Los Angeles, (see this poorly written post) can comfortably condone the harassment of Maja Leye, then who’s going to stop this cycling groper, accused of assaulting dozens of women? I know hundreds of people who would, but oh, wait, they’ve already been harassed by men who believe they have a right to a woman’s body.
I hope Sagan doesn’t see the controversy over pinching Maja Leye’s “bum” as a method for gaining more attention in the future. While it’s not a far stretch to assume Sagan is unaware of the inequalities facing female cyclists and professional female cyclists, this little cry for attention could not have come at a worse time. When women’s cycling is struggling, flapping around and swimming upstream, for even the smallest bit of recognition and respect. Olympic cyclist Nicole Cooke gave her retirement speech in January, which you can read here, as an example of just how slanted the scale is. Simon Hattenstone of The Guardian states plainly the inequalities facing even a top athlete like Cooke:
“Cooke, 29, has won everything there is to win in her career – the women’s Tour de France twice, the Italian equivalent, the world championship, Olympic gold. She was the first woman to dominate both long-distance tours and day races. While Armstrong is still worth an estimated $100m, Cooke leaves with little more than her pride and a pile of prestigious jerseys. In the months leading up to last year’s Olympics she wasn’t even paid her wage by her cycling team.”
Yes, Sagan apologized, but the way in which he did was so deadening and lackluster, it was like watching a child forced by his mother to apologize to the girl next door for throwing a water balloon at her face. He was distracted, a sad puppy putting on a performance to avoid the ridicule of his angered owner. Perhaps it’s the language barrier (he’s Slovak), but it did not seem genuine. “Naughty” Sagan shows all his male supporters, the boys and young men that look up to his incredible athleticism, that it is okay be actively sexist by harassing the race host, and that the only consequences for their actions will be recording a droll, somewhat apologetic video and “writing” a short-lived apology tweet.
Despite the lack of genuine remorse, Sagan’s idiocy may have started an even more important conversation with even larger implications. Gregory Colby (@grolby), a professed “cyclist, free thinker, and aspiring opinionator” from Nashville, TN tweeted in response to the incident:
“The podium girl tradition, however, is one of many cultural messages that tell Sagan and other men that they ARE entitled to women’s bodies.”
What’s even more of a shock, besides the blatant sexism of this tradition, is the hostesses are often top cyclists themselves. In major events like The Tour of Britain and the Tour de France, Hattenstone writes, “the only way women can participate is through capitalizing on their looks and handing out awards.” Should this tradition be banned? I think so. I think that women should not be seen as bodily prizes rewarding men for their athletic accomplishments. Female cyclists don’t have men rewarding them for their accomplishments or kissing their cheeks on the podium. Such an imbalance sends a message, especially to the less thoughtful cyclists like Sagan, that it’s okay to grope the female body without her consent.
For example, when he signed a female fan’s upper breast, an action that was clearly uninvited and a huge violation of privacy, he received praise, instead of scorn, by an Italian reporter attempting to interview him. These kinds of instances should not go unpunished, as he has been encouraged by other misogynists to continue taking what has never been his. These moments could all be opportunities to change our attitude towards harassment and how the male cycling culture views women. We just need to get the idiots to start thinking.
With that being said, here is my direct letter to you, Mr. Sagan.
Please realize that in this moment, you have a small window of opportunity to redefine yourself as a gentleman respectful of women’s rights, a thoughtful, distinguished, considerate athlete with a basic knowledge of how well you are taken care of as a male professional cyclist. I would encourage you to please refrain from performing acts of sexist stupidity for the entertainment of your quickly growing fan base. Instead, you could start treating women with the respect they deserve and in doing so, regain the respect of the many fans you have lost.
You have become a detriment to female cyclists and their accomplishments in the sport as well as women in general. You are a leading man in the spotlight and you have chosen to disgrace yourself and others by abusing your fame. I can’t possibly watch you win another stage without thinking about how young and stupid and undeserving you really are. Please, please, please prove me wrong. Keep your goofy sense of humor and your ability to make people laugh, keep whip skidding in front of the cameras, keep impressing us with your astounding athleticism and dedication, but please, please don’t make it okay for a future generation of twenty something year-old cyclists to treat women so thoughtlessly and disrespectfully for the sake of a chuckle.
Asia Morris, a Scripps College graduate and bike advocate, is a journalist and creative writer living in Long Beach, California. Asia began cycling five years ago as a college freshman and entered her first race in March 2013. She has since joined the Engine11 racing team and placed 2nd in the Los Angeles-based Wolfpack Hustle Unified Title Series in September 2013. Asia is currently working on achieving her goal of publishing a novel by the time she turns 25 and is hoping to find a new road bike in the near future. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.