The Keisse crisis: dumb mistakes and a sport that needs to grow up

It’s the end of March 2013, and Fabian Cancellara’s just soloed to another impressive win at Tour of Flanders. A minute and a half back, Peter Sagan takes the sprint for second. The young Slovakian’s been around for a while, so long that he feels like a fixture, but his star’s still on the rise. In a couple of years, he’ll be a household name, then a three-time world champion, and at some loosely defined point in there somewhere, become the most beloved pro cyclist in the world.

But on that brisk Belgian afternoon six years ago, Sagan’s not yet any of those things. Instead, he’s a dumb 23-year-old who decides to pinch the bottom of Maya Leye, one of the podium hostesses, reaching up with a smug grin whilst Cancellara is getting kissed on both cheeks. “Suddenly, I felt this hand. I hadn’t seen it coming because I had my back to him. I understood quickly what had happened. I was frozen to the spot,” she later said.

Cycling’s a backward-looking sport that still features podium girls, so naturally enough the response is conspicuously muted from some parties. The race organiser’s inclination is to write it off as a roguish prank, even going so far as to add the hashtag ‘player’:

Plenty of fans, meanwhile seem perfectly content bundling the incident into Sagan’s popular larrikin persona. But there’s sufficient outcry – or pressure from sponsors, or both – for Sagan to issue an apology the next day.

“I sincerely apologise to Maya for what I did on the podium yesterday after the race… I never should have done it,” Sagan said. “I’m so sorry and I hope that Maya and anyone else I have offended knows how sorry I am and accept my apology. I promise to act more respectfully in the future.”

The cycling world moved on – but as we’ve seen over the last week, not as far or as fast as it should have.

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It’s late January, 2019, at the Vuelta a San Juan. You’ve probably heard the sordid story, but if not, here’s how it goes. Iljo Keisse and four of his Deceuninck-QuickStep team-mates stop at a cafe, where they’re asked by a waitress for a photo.

Standing behind the waitress, Keisse raises one hand to his head feigning a sexual act, and allegedly brushes his genitals against her thrusting forward – a point disputed by Keisse. The waitress files a complaint with the police, and expresses her anger in a statement to local publication Telesoldiario. “I am very angry. They disrespected me; I was working, I asked for a photo and they disrespected me,” she said. “They cannot come to another country and treat women as things, as something insignificant and worthless.”

At the end of the third stage, with his team having taken no action, the race organisers expel Keisse, who issues an apology for his actions, pays a fine and commits to doing better. Not much comfort to the victim – and let’s be clear, she was the recipient of sexual harassment – but that could (and maybe should) have been the end of the whole sorry saga.

It wasn’t. It quickly turned into a case study of what not to do from a PR perspective, as the team dutifully began digging down in support of their beleaguered team-mate.

Step 1: Bluster and blame.

Team manager Patrick Lefevere threatened to pull the team from the race, and accused the victim of being financially motivated. “Of course, I am not happy with the pose of Iljo,” he said. “It was wrong, and he knows that himself. But he paid a €70 fine and the police closed the case. And yet, that woman continues to make something of it. She will want money, right?”

There’s a term for that which apparently hasn’t transcended generations or cultural barriers to reach Lefevere. That term is ’victim blaming’.

Step 2: the Wolf Pack closes in.

Apart from Keisse’s offensive behaviour and the team’s poor handling of it, the Vuelta a San Juan has actually been a pretty good one from a racing perspective.

Remco Evenepoel, a 19-year-old Belgian phenomenon who skipped straight to the pro ranks from U19, finished a staggering third in the time-trial. Julian Alaphilippe reinforced how ludicrously talented a rider he is with back-to-back stage wins on stage 2 and 3; after leading the race, he sits second on GC after stage 5 and is in the mix to win the thing.

All of that is tarnished by the way Alaphilippe and Evenepoel and their team handled the growing PR crisis they were in the middle of, with both riders avoiding talking to the press and seemingly boycotting the podium presentations after stage 4 out of solidarity for Keisse.

Since 2012, the team has fashioned themselves as a ‘Wolf Pack’ – an in-joke that morphed into a branding opportunity, and now is a key part of the team’s identity. In better times, it’s clear that the team is uncommonly close, brotherly – that’s a good thing. But in times like this? Well, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the Wolf Pack also bred a culture where misogyny can fester and where standing by a badly-behaving team-mate is more important than acknowledging his faults.

Of Alaphilippe and Evenepoel’s podium boycott, by the way: a team spokesperson denied it was a protest action, asserting that the riders were tired and lacking sleep as a result of the controversy. Naturally – because this week Deceuninck-QuickStep have made an art-form out of saying the wrong things at the wrong times – this was followed by a weak appeal for public sympathy: “I hope they understand how much stress we have had.”

Step 3: It gets worse. (…wait, what?!)

Iljo Keisse’s father Ronie waded into the fray, doubling down on Lefevere’s tone-deaf comment in the Belgian press that the waitress “will want money, right?”. In an interview with Het Laatste Nieuws, Keisse’s father Ronie suggested that Keisse should sue the woman for bending over in the photo. “Iljo does indeed take a ridiculous pose and he should not have done that,” he said. “But that woman is also very suggestive with her ass [bent]. Who says that Iljo should not actually file a complaint against her?”

Yes, you’re right – by this point we’re about three steps beyond where everybody involved should have just stopped talking.

Step 4: The sponsors call it.

Unable to ignore the PR storm that was boiling over, the team’s sponsors had little choice but to distance themselves from Keisse and Lefevere. Jerome De Bruycker, the marketing manager of Deceuninck – a Belgian window and door manufacturer – stated that the company “does not accept this behaviour” and would be evaluating the backlash with the company CEO.

Specialized, the team’s bike sponsor, issued a number of tweets addressing the issue, and then released the following statement:

Like a series of ripples across a pond, the damage from this incident continues to spread. It’s not unreasonable to imagine this causing the team’s sponsors to reassess their marketing spend. And if Deceuninck pull out, what then? What happens to the riders and the staff if the team folds? What of the other riders in the transfer market who then compete for fewer places or reduced wages, and so on and so forth?

In a sport with a flooded transfer market, where teams consistently struggle to find backing and keep the doors open, this is not a good thing.

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So where to now for Iljo Keisse, Deceuninck-Quickstep and their tone-deaf riders and staff? The team finally issued a statement backing down late on Thursday, offering a “sincere apology for the events of the past few days, firstly to the woman involved in this regrettable incident, and additionally to all women, fans, and sponsors”. They also promised to “implement in the near future specific conduct training protocols for all riders and staff” (whatever that even looks like… ‘don’t sexually harass women, boys’?).

That the team has made a god-awful mess of this is abundantly clear. It’s mind-boggling how many times they got it wrong, doubled down, mismanaged their messaging and doubled down again. Even more troubling, though, is how this incident underlines just how far cycling has to go.

Since Sagan six years ago, there have been steps forward, but depressingly, steps back as well. There are still regular examples of women being sexualised or commodified in the sport’s promotion. Female cyclists still struggle for recognition, opportunity and parity. In 2015, E3 Harelbeke race organisers came under fire for a promotional poster riffing on Sagan’s bum-pinch, an outcry which uncovered that the race had form in this area and had produced misogynist posters for years before that, apparently without consequence. In 2017, the married-with-kids Jan Bakelants – a QuickStep alum, coincidentally – made a derogatory remark about bringing a pack of condoms to use with the podium hostesses in his free time at the Tour de France. And in 2019, Iljo Keisse feigned a sexual act on an unsuspecting waitress and his team closed ranks around him.

In a remorseful press conference on Wednesday, Iljo Keisse said, “I’m human, I made a mistake. Without thinking – bam, fraction of a second – the picture was there,” and acknowledged it was a moment of stupidity. He’s right.

But that stupid moment can’t and shouldn’t be assessed in isolation. It needs to be seen in a broader context: A team environment in which Keisse felt comfortable making such a joke, with an archaic manager. A world that is finally beginning to change thanks to the #MeToo movement, where misogyny and sexual harassment is called out for what it is.

And a sport that needs to grow up.

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