Interview: World Cup Downhill Riders’ Union Rep Emilie Siegenthaler

Discontent has been brewing among the riders at the World Cups for a little while now. First and foremost on their list of grievances – rider safety. Brook Macdonald’s crash at Mont-Sainte-Anne Worlds and his 5-hour evacuation put it at the front of many minds. Track features like the finish bridge in Andorra this year only served to keep these concerns current. There is a feeling in the paddock that the voices of those who are risking their lives for our enjoyment are not being listened to enough. While every rider who lines up at a World Cup understands the risks they are taking, none of them want to be forced into taking unnecessary risks, like racing on an unsafe track.

Changes are coming to World Cup racing next year. Discovery, one of the world’s biggest media businesses, has bought the rights to organise and stream the World Cup from 2023 for the next eight years. However, it is hard to get the party hats out yet as, aside from a recently released calendar, there are few to no details released on how the series will look next year. That uncertainty put the push to have the riders’ voices heard to the forefront, and during this season there have been a series of rider-organized meetings to try and organize a response.

After the World Championships in Les Gets, the riders held a vote and Emilie Siegenthaler and Neko Mullaly were elected the riders’ representatives. We sat down with Emilie (Neko was due to join too, but needed to get stitches after a qualifying crash) to hear more about what the emerging riders’ union is, who it represents and what they are hoping to achieve.

How did the riders decide that they want to have a collective voice?

I’m not really sure about that, maybe you should ask someone like Loic or Finn that question because I got involved at this point when they started thinking they need someone that is not a rider to represent them. There were a few meetings through the season, there was one in Andorra, which I went to for a listen, and there was one maybe before that as well. There was one more in Mont-Sainte-Anne and then they started to realize that we can’t meet like this all the time – it was really costly in terms of time. We need to get organized and communicate clearly. But to answer your question, I think that as soon as the Discovery news came out at the beginning of the season, they started to think that maybe it would be good if there are changes to get together and try to have a united voice, which was never really the case before.

How did you decide who would vote on a given issue?

We decided that it is going to be the overall standings for the previous year that will decide it. So we don’t have to change every time.

That makes sense, it’s purely based on the classifications?

It was voted on that it would be the top 30 men, top ten women, and four wild cards voting – that’s how they decided to try and make it easier and more efficient. For example, Aaron Gwin was not in the top 30 from last year. That is why he is one of the wild cards, and there are a few more. I have nothing to do with that decision because I’m not allowed to vote as I’m not a rider anymore. They wanted to get a survey system organized, but no one had the time to do it, you know? So before I was elected, I was like, “Okay, I’m going to do it for you guys.” I organised the survey and I think because of this I was elected as the rep along with Neko. It’s all a process. None of us did it before, and I’m just here to try to help with everything that the riders want to achieve, and on all the admin stuff as well. We want to make an agreement that people are going to sign to be part of this union. It’s about having someone that can work, who does the reports and all the admin stuff, and who goes to the meetings with a neutral position.

So riders will sign up for the union?

Yeah, we’re working on an agreement now and it’s kind of a rush. It was voted on to make a union contract so people can’t flip when a vote has happened and the majority takes it. If it’s a really important subject and it’s not a big majority, we might have to reconsider, but usually, if an issue has more than 65% agreement, then it should be done.

How militant are the riders feeling at the moment, would you say?

The goal of this union is for the riders to have a voice and that they are asked about decisions that are going to be made next year. They feel like they’ve not been listened to enough in the past, especially for stuff that affects them directly, like safety. It’s the organizers and UCI that decide everything. Riders have some feedback on the tracks, but they’re not really considered for decision-making for prize money or anything. Downhill’s prize money at the World Champs was split in two when e-bike was added to the program. No one asked anyone about this, and no one even knew before. They got the prize money back and they were like, “Oh, it’s half of usual.” Stuff like that, it shouldn’t be decided for the riders without even telling them, today they have no way to say they don’t agree with this. And a lot of things are going to happen next year, so yeah…

When you say about the tracks, all I can think about is that that finish ramp in Andorra.

Yeah, the bad thing with that situation is that people told them they should not to do it this way, and they still did it. Officials told them this is not a good idea, “Please do it differently.” And the architects that designed these bridges, ignored everyone. If that sort of thing happens in the future, the riders could say, “Okay, if that’s the case, we’re not racing. You need to change this.” And I’m pretty sure they will, pretty fast. Because one day, something really bad is going to happen and then they’re going to change things. You almost saw this with Remy Meier-Smith going headfirst into the concrete on that bridge…

I didn’t know that happened… Shit…

Yeah. He clipped a mat on the side of a mat that was not tied properly because, obviously, everyone was hitting it because that turn was horrible and that bridge was not made for riding. He got knocked out in his race run, and he’s ok now, but a lot of things like that have happened over the years, and we can see it coming, but the riders don’t feel like they have the power to make it stop. I think that was the motivation for Loic and Finn at the start. If the riders have a voice, and if the team managers get organized as well, and we get together as one, then I think ESO [the Enduro Sport Organisation, who run the Enduro World Series and are part-owed by Discovery], or whoever is going to be in charge next year, needs to work with both the riders and the managers to negotiate us. Because if they’re going to change a big part of the sport, the riders and the teams are going to have to be asked on a few issues, because otherwise no one’s going to be happy. We all want the sport to get better but it needs some changes and we need to have a voice because no one knows anything now, it’s all rumours.

That was going to be my next question because I’ve been chasing Chris Ball for an interview since May. And last month I got a reply saying, “No, we’re not talking to anyone at the moment.” It’s been six months now… I was curious how much more you know than me or do you have the same level of information?

For now, we haven’t. I think that’s the purpose of this interview, to try to make sure that people know that this union exists now, that it is going to be officialized with a collective agreement between the riders that are in it. And I represent all the riders that can be part of the World Cup. If someone has a problem who is not in the voting pool, they can still come to the riders’ rep and I will still try to help them. To try to get the other entities that work within the community to get stuff done, or bring it to the voting pool and say, “Okay, someone spoke to me about this, what do you guys think?” But I guess concerning your question, I think ESO knows that this union exists and that me and Neko are reps, but they don’t want to recognize it yet because our interests don’t really align on some of the aspects. For us, it’s important, that people know that this union exists and that we, the riders, want to be a part of the discussion. That’s the main thing.

That’s why I’m doing this, because I have no interest in me being Emilie Siegenthaler, union rep. It doesn’t matter who it is actually, it’s just because I have the time to do it because I’m not racing 100% like everyone else is. I have the time to put the work in through the winter. That’s why I think the riders elected me and Neko. It all started from a safety point of view, the riders wanted to have a say in the safety aspects, but then this whole Discovery thing happened. An important meeting about next year happened on Tuesday, and the riders’ union reps were not invited. Maybe it’s because we didn’t communicate on it yet because the vote only just happened. I think it was after Les Gets, so not a long time ago. The goal is to try and raise some attention to this, the cause of the riders, and try to get this right. I’m going to be here to help and represent their opinions.

Did you say that ESO isn’t keen on recognizing this kind of representation?

Not yet, but I haven’t asked to be in the meeting, but as soon as this interview is out and I’m going to talk to one of the cross country riders, Maxime Marotte. He was at that meeting and he said that they’re talking about some stuff that directly affects downhill.

The situation you describe makes it sound like the riders aren’t involved at all at the moment.

There are two reps with the UCI, Myriam Nicole, and Greg Minnaar, they attend official meetings on behalf of the riders and the idea is that they would pass that information on to us, but we never really hear much back from that process. They are racing to the highest level, so it it reasonable to expect them to have time to do all this on a race weekend? That’s why the union was created, because the riders are not happy with the way communication is working and we think we can help make the communication better.

Sounds like a tricky situation.

I think the communication has not been great. I think also some of the riders have the feeling that they express their opinions, and they don’t ask anyone else, and that is not working for the union. Issues should be voted on every time. For example, we had an issue about potentially reducing the number of riders in the final. So that’s something that’s been voted on because we want everyone to know what position we’re taking. Then you can say, “The riders don’t agree with the reduction of the of the field. They might agree with the reduction of entries, but they also most of them think they should go back to 20 girls,” that’s what the riders think. If nobody is asking anyone else for an opinion, and the UCI rep says, “We should go to ten girls,” that is just his opinion but the UCI now thinks that this is what the riders think. That’s a problem.

I’d have thought having an inclusive voice from the riders would be a positive for the organizers in the long run.

Exactly. Although I don’t know if it’s in the interest of the broadcaster, because it’s going to raise a little bit of adversity on some subjects. So it’s not going to be easier for UCI or ESO to have the riders in there, but it will make it 100% better for everyone. The goal is that they involve everybody. The riders have almost no information and the team managers are just starting to get involved now. It feels like maybe they could get away with a lot of stuff if we don’t get together. Like I said, I’ll know more when we open the union and try to be part of the next meeting, hopefully. Even Jolanda Neff told me today, because she feels close downhill because of Luca, “I had a talk with Maxime Marotte today and it doesn’t feel like downhillers were present at this working group meeting with ESO Tuesday.” I told her I thought downhill reps were there, and she told me that no one said anything. They discussed really important stuff, like top three podiums instead of five, and the riders received no communication.

I guess I didn’t realize how shut out of the process the riders are at the moment.

The riders were never really asked. It was always through the team managers, but on certain safety aspects, I don’t think that team managers are as invested about safety aspects, you know what I mean? They maybe don’t know as much. The riders are willing to give feedback, go on pre-race track walks with the UCI, or whoever is doing it, and try to make it work for everybody. At events, maybe go two weeks in advance to a track to give some advice something that would really make a difference and make it safer, but also make it look good, you know?

I can’t help thinking when you say about the team managers, because if you look at the economics of it, the team managers, their interests don’t 100% align with the athletes if you take something like concussion. Just to play devil’s advocate here, but the rider can come and say, “I don’t know if I should be on track.” But there’s a hypothetical situation where the team manager is more worried about the team’s income than rider safety.

It’s normal that riders care more about track safety, we are the ones racing the track. So for sure, for track safety, we would like more independence, but for financial aspects, like prize money, media rights, and stuff like that, I think it’s in the interest of the riders to have someone helping them negotiate. And the team managers also have their own representative, Sean Heimdall. He has a lot of experience and I think he will be a great representative for the team managers, but I think for them it’s hard to organize because there are so many of them and they have strong positions. I feel like the riders are a little bit more united on most subjects.

So where is the union right now?

What we did so far, it’s making the first decision about who is voting in the union and who are the reps. Also going on track walk with UCI trying to make sure everything is safe and doing a track report. Maybe we will try to accumulate the track reports from this year so the riders’ union can develop a safety checklist for every track we visit. The riders always had a good feedback opportunity through Jorge Garcia, but maybe we could try to prevent some of the issues to happen in the first place with a safety checklist. So people know, for example, they shouldn’t consider a bridge with a 90-degree turn on it like in Andorra. A bridge is fine, but it needs to be straight and have paint on it, and not weird rubber or whatever else. There needs to be at least one helicopter, on standby. It sounds very basic, but Mont-Sainte-Anne didn’t have a helicopter on standby. It’s scary, you know?

And the second step, what the union wants to achieve now is being part of the discussions for next year. And that’s why people must know the union exists and the riders want to have a seat at the table through Neko and me.

I suppose the big question has to be, how bad would things need to be for you to consider not being there at the first race in June?

We are trying to do everything to avoid this situation. The riders believe that together with the team managers we are in a position to negotiate some stuff, and we’ll try to make it happen as smoothly as possible. But there is a possibility that if something really bad happens, that everyone finds outrageous, that the riders and the team managers together might say, “We’re not signing up.” But right now, we have no information. I think everybody is stoked that this huge company could make the sport great, but they can only do it if we work together. And everyone in the union thinks that way.

Yeah, I think that sounds fair because I was thinking that Chris Ball has got the track record of pushing the sport into new areas, it is the EWS that has taken racing Tasmania and New Zealand, Chile and Argentina, while the World Cup’s not done that since when?

Some people would love to go all over the world, but some teams wouldn’t have enough budget for that. If everything costs more, who wants to double their expenditure for $3,750 prize money (minus taxes) for the win? I don’t think it’s fair for the riders to have prize money that low. If the company organising the series is making millions, it just doesn’t add up. If the team managers have to increase their fees for space, registration, and everything, they have to have something in return. And the riders do too. That’s something that maybe riders are reluctant to discuss because they’re putting themselves at risk by taking that position.

This feels like the sport growing up in some ways, it was much more serious than in the past.

Yeah. A lot of different sports have that and it’s only positive that everyone’s happy. When riders turn up they’re stoked, everything looks professional, and it would be great.

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