Cycling

Blazin' Saddles: Keisse controversy consumes QuickStep

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Deceuninck-QuickStep on a training camp in 2019

Image credit: Getty Images

ByFelix Lowe
01/02/2019 at 10:29 | Updated 01/02/2019 at 11:00

Sorry seems to be the hardest word for QuickStep boss Patrick Lefevere after Iljo Keisse was kicked out of the Vuelta a San Juan for making a crude sexual gesture behind an 18-year-old waitress on the eve of the race. But what should have been nipped in the bud has descended into farce as cycling's misogyny problem is laid bare in Argentina. Felix Lowe rounds up the sorry tale...

There's a moment in Netflix's Bandersnatch – Charlie Brooker's new ground-breaking interactive Black Mirror film – when the viewer has to decide whether the main protagonist, a programmer, hits his desk in frustration or destroys his computer.

Choose the former, more balanced, option and the story continues; but pour tea or smash up the computer and, well, it's game over. Unsurprisingly.

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Judging by his actions this week, if Deceuninck-QuickStep manager Pat Lefevere were watching Bandersnatch, he'd clearly go down the route of computer smashing.

Let's rewind a little and get up to speed those whose heads have been in the sand…

Before this week, Iljo Keisse was probably best known for his dramatic stage win from the 2012 Tour of Turkey, which he won despite crashing on the final corner, or for his peloton-defying victory on the final day of the Giro d'Italia three years later.

That or the positive doping test he returned during the 2008 Six Days of Ghent which resulted in a prolonged legal battle to clear his name.

Iljo Keisse (Deceuninck - Quick Step)

Image credit: Getty Images

But on Saturday, Keisse took the eceunn out of Deceuninck with his crude contribution to the Time's Up movement.

Following in the footsteps of Peter 'Bottom Pinch' Sagan and Jan 'Condoms for the Podium Hostesses' Bakelants, Keisse added a resounding Me Too by feigning a sexual act behind a waitress as she leaned forward while posing for a photograph with his Deceuninck-QuickStep team – the self-styled Wolfpack – in San Juan.

After the 18-year-old woman lodged an official complaint, 36-year-old Keisse was spoken to by the police and fined £60. He then made one of those apology of sorts ("to everybody who feels offended by what I did") in which he admitted his mistake, promised it would never happen again, but stressed that he had no disrespectful bone in his body.

As if offering some kind of condonation, Keisse also strenuously denied that he made any contact with the waitress, while doing his level best to make it out that he was a victim, too.

I made a mistake. I made a stupid movement with my hand. I did not hurt anybody – yes, the feelings – but I'm not a thief, I'm not a criminal. I'm human, I made a mistake. I came all the way to Argentina to do this Vuelta a San Juan. I really regret what I did but I'm here to race and I'd like to continue doing that.

In his extended apology, Keisse seemed to infer that his actions were mitigated by the fact that he and his team-mates didn't, er, steal their coffees and, in fact, even "gave the waitress a tip". He also threw in the aside that he and the Wolfpack graciously pose for "1,500 [photos] every day" – again, as if to suggest that they were doing the waitress a service by putting her in a position where she could be ridiculed.

Keisse's statement concluded with the concession that his actions had made things "not easy for this lady". But he then stressed that it was also "not easy for me or my wife or my children or my family at home".

Quite what young Remco Evenepoel – standing next to Keisse in the photo and unfortunately making bunny ears above the unsuspecting girl's head – made of it was anyone's guess. As roommate to his 19-year-old compatriot, Keisse was meant to be a role model. Instead he's ensured that the Belgian tyro won't forget his WorldTour debut for QuickStep in a hurry.

Given the situation, few people felt too bad for Keisse when the race organisers kicked him after stage 3 out for "behaviour that damaged the reputation and honour of the Vuelta a San Juan, the UCI and cycling in general".

Keisse's time was up after a time trial won by team-mate Julian Alaphilippe, with Evenepoel taking a superb third (these should really have been the day's headlines).

It could – and should – have ended there. It was, after all, a PR disaster of the sort that offers no silver lining. But Pat Lefevere had different ideas, threatening to remove his entire team because of what he deemed was an overreaction to a "joke" gone wrong.

Showing himself up to be a dinosaur belonging to a pre-Me Too world when casual sexism and misogynistic banter was socially tolerable for a male sports team, Lefevere fanned the flames with the incendiary suggestion that the woman was trying to benefit financially from the humiliation.

"Of course, I am not happy with the pose of Iljo," he said before settling in to some classic victim-blaming. "That is 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?"

Once again, it could have stopped there. But QuickStep kept on digging a hole after stage 4 by refusing to attend the podium ceremonies – acting as if it were the team who had had their dignity stolen, and not the 18-year-old victim.

Citing fatigue, race leader Alaphilippe, best U23 rider Evenepoel and third-place finisher Alvaro Hodeg did not turn up – ensuring a continuation of the negative headlines and, well, proving that wolves stick together and hunt in packs.

And it's sad, really, given Deceuninck's successful start to the season, with the team already notching four wins following last year's stellar return of 73 scalps.

As you can imagine, the sponsors aren't happy – especially those who last year bailed the team out at the 11th Hour and became the new title sponsor.

"This is not behaviour that we accept," Jérôme De Bruycker, Marketing Manager Europe at Deceuninck, told Cyclingnews.

There is a lot of controversy around the topic, which we hope will go away soon. We are sponsoring the team for the sporting part of it and getting good results out there. So yes, that's an incident we don't like to have.

Tensions have arisen with Specialized, the team's equipment supplier, too.

Linking to Lefevere's galling reaction to the affair on Twitter, a balanced take came from Jonathan Vaughters, the owner of EF Education First – a team making headlines for the right reasons with back-to-back wins in the Herald Sun Tour.

We've all done stupid things. Every one of us. But sometimes you just gotta own the stupidity, apologize, and then take the lumps as they come. Learn from the f*** up, don't fight it. Learning prevents ignorance going forward.

Others were quick to remember that both Lefevere and his team had form when it came to such incidents – recalling the moment when QuickStep were not invited for the 2016 Tour of Qatar due to "disciplinary reasons" including riders partying after the 2015 race and alleged rude behaviour made towards a female employee.

"Yes, there was a party last year," Lefevere harrumphed back then. "But is that so bad?"

Although abhorrent, should we be so surprised by Keisse's actions given the toxic masculinity seemingly implicit on the other side of the Wolfpack coin? After all, the nickname came from a QuickStep directeur sportif who once accused his riders for being "too emotional" in victory, acting like "a bunch of whining hairdressers".

However, it's worth adding that QuickStep don't stand alone on the naughty step: like its British counterparts, Belgian cycling on the whole seems to have a lot of catching up to do in matters of equality between the sexes.

At the time of writing, it remains to be seen if Deceuninck-QuickStep's remaining five riders will take to the start of Friday's fifth stage following the mid-race rest day.

The team and its beleaguered manager have managed to belatedly deliver a team statement including a "sincere apology to the women involved in this regrettable incident, and additionally to all women, fans, and sponsors". Like Keisse, they have promised that such an occurrence "won't happen again".

For his part, Keisse has reached out to Vaughers – a man who has managed to salvage his own reputation after some ill-advised actions in the past. If his initial apology may have caught the wrong tone, the veteran rider does appear to have learnt the severity of his throwaway gesture.

Of course, by now, Keisse's stupid – yet not unforgiveable – stunt should have been firmly a thing of the past, his expulsion a line drawn under the whole sorry affair. The focus for his team should not be on managing a PR own goal but building on the successes of Alaphilippe, Evenepoel et al.

But this is a controversy that keeps on giving – and it emerged on Thursday that Keisse's father has now stuck in his own oar.

Clearly from the same generational mindset as Lefevere, Keisse Senior told Belgian media that the waitress at the centre of this unwarranted sexism furore was at fault in the first place for standing in such a suggestive way – and that his son should be the one seeking damages.

Jesus wept.

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