Since its formation in 2017, The Cyclists’ Alliance, also known as TCA, has made massive moves to improve the working environment in the women’s peloton, and now with the help of Strava and Zwift, they are taking things a step further. Thanks to a $100,000 commitment from Strava, TCA have launched their Pre-Career program or the TCAMP Pre-Career x Strava Grant. Developing riders from all over the world can apply to receive financial help to get them to Europe to race, with the help of TCA.
The program is aimed to help riders with potential but who may have unique hurdles in getting to Europe, for example, riders from Africa often struggle to get visas. When Canyon-SRAM picked up Namibian rider Olivia Shililifa in 2022 they had a hard time trying to get her to Europe. Eventually, they got her over only in July and she only raced three races for the team in 2022 but didn’t make it over at all for the 2023 season.
“It’s basically acknowledging the fact that we can have all the great webinars in the world, we can make loads of nice resources, but ultimately, if someone can’t afford to get the equipment, or the coaching, or the flights, or the race entries that they need to get into elite racing, then, you know, we’re not really going to be able to help them,” explained TCA’s Deena Blacking, who coordinates the union’s visa support program for riders.
“So the Pre-Career grant is literally money to fill the gaps, to fill those essential financial needs that a rider has to pay for. And if they don’t, they can’t really, they don’t really have enough skin in the game to be able to compete.”
TCA hosts regular seminars for riders from all levels and disciplines to help them with everything from nutrition to negotiating contracts. Each year they send out a rider survey to get a sense of what the peloton believe needs attention, what their main concerns are, who is getting paid what, etc. With the TCAMP Pre-Career program, they are able to be even more hands-on in the development of young women.
The grant is for two years, so $50,000 a year, with no set amount for each rider. Instead, TCA will interview the women who apply and suss out the individual needs of each rider.
“It really depends on what the applications consist of,” Blacking explained. “Someone might apply, and they might just say, ‘I need help paying for coaching and a few race entries,’ and that’ll be a few grand, but maybe, maybe we have applicants from Africa. I know there will be, and it’s so much more complicated.
“[For them] it’s not just coaching, it’s ‘How do I get a visa to get out of Africa and get to Europe? And then when I get to Europe, how do I cover housing and living costs?’ You need a visa and it might cost lots of money and it might be money you don’t have. This year will help give us a really good idea for next year.”
It’s hard to overstate how difficult it is for riders outside of Europe to get here to race. Getting over to Europe is one thing, but once there, riders need to find a team to ride for as they can’t enter a race alone. They need to figure out housing, how to feed themselves, and access medical care, all in a new country where they might not speak the language. It’s the reason a lot of riders go to Girona, Spain, which has become a kind of ex-pat hub for the peloton, both men’s and women’s.
The program is set for funding for the next two years, but TCA has high hopes for the future of the program and their involvement in developing the peloton’s next generation.
Women pros helping women become pros
At the time TCA was formed, the women’s peloton didn’t have any representation when it came to negotiating with the sport’s governing body. The UCI-recognized men’s union, the CPA, didn’t have a women’s branch at the time, although it has since formed one. Former professionals Iris Slappendel, Gracie Elvin, and Carmen Small banded together to get TCA off the ground.
In 2022 Strava joined forces with TCA to grow its mentoring program, an initiative that was first formed soon after TCA launched.
“The Mentoring Program was kind of a key part of the vision of the former pros who started TCA,” said Blacking. “Their vision was that one of the most important founding principles of TCA is rider development. And so the mentor program aims to provide that support. It started as something a bit more informal; from the beginning, they were already pairing up riders. But then in 2021, it launched more formally as a program that riders could apply to, and then be on the program for an annual basis.”
Young cyclists often send their heroes an Instagram message, asking for help (Fun fact: I, Abby, did this to Elvin when I first started racing). Some respond (Gracie did), and some do not. Although this informal mentorship can be helpful, formalizing it through TCA adds an element of accountability to both parties while also helping equip the mentors with the best resources possible.
“A mentoring relationship can be created really organically too. But lots of people don’t know how to do that,” said Blacking. “They maybe don’t know who to ask, maybe they’re not confident enough to ask. And this [program] kind of takes away that barrier of not knowing, because I think a lot of people, when they have cultural capital, and they have networks, and they have connections, they don’t realize what it would be like for someone who doesn’t have those things.”
“By formalizing it in the program, not only do we give people that opportunity, but also for the mentors, we also help them to have the tools and knowledge and experts to talk to about how to do a good job of mentoring as well, because we want to make it a learning experience for the mentor as well as the mentee.”
The next step
The two programs are not connected but benefit from each other with the support of several cycling brands, brands that are recognizable for making a difference in the women’s peloton.
“We are very generously sponsored by a number of sponsors,” said Blacking. “We have Trek, Specialized, SRAM, Cannondale, and Liv who came on board for three years from 2020 to 2023 to support just the concept of the program existing. And then more recently, Zwift and Strava came on board, specifically to bolster the idea of the Pre-Career program.”
Applications for the Pre-Career program opened in early October and will close on October 31st.
“Applications don’t close until the end of October and we strongly encourage people to just basically do the best possible application they can do and then submit it towards the end of October rather than submitting one now when they could probably still improve and amend,” Blacking said.
So far interest in the program is high. TCA has already held two webinars on the application process and the program itself. Blacking said she’s heard from colleagues who work with cyclists in Africa who have shown interest and the program has also received interest from a cyclist in Brazil.
“We’ll evaluate in the first few weeks of November, we will ask applicants to do an online interview with us, and then we’ll let them know by the start of December, ‘Okay, you are getting a grant, we can guarantee that you will have this amount of money from us in order to start your 2024 season.'”
TCA hopes the Pre-Career program is only the beginning when it comes to their hands-on approach to the women’s peloton, in addition to the assistance for riders they already have in place and the successful mentoring program. The women’s peloton is made up of a lot of uniquely talented individuals, on and off the bike, and TCA’s goal is to help the peloton become more professional from the ground up.
“I think the main thing is we would love riders to really make the most of what TCA and TCAMP are offering,” Blacking explained. “We think that there’s a huge amount of potential in the peloton. One of the things from the survey was that 98% of the riders who responded have or are studying for a third-level degree, the women’s peloton is full of a bunch of really smart, badass women who not only are good at riding their bikes but also seem to be these, polymaths who have, you know, loads of talents.”
“I feel like if we could get them all together a bit more, we would really be able to leverage that for the benefit of the women’s peloton because it’s definitely come a long way. Every year it seems to be evolving in a positive way. But there’s still a lot more that could be improved.”
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