Iris Slappendel: All-round bad-ass
Awesome activist, incredible change-maker, talented designer and brilliant human being, Iris Slappendel is the woman you most want to go for a ride with, then most want to grab a gin with after. Here’s a taste of what happened when we did exactly that..
Winner of the Dutch National road race championships, a brace of elite one-dayers and the Women’s World Cup sprint, Iris Slappendel is one of the most-loved women riders of recent years, and it’s easy to see why. In addition to dominating on the bike, since retiring in 2016 she’s been instrumental to positive changes for women’s cycling off the bike through her work with the Cyclists Alliance, an organisation she set up to confront sexism and inequality in women’s pro cycling. As if that weren’t enough, she runs her own cycling kit brand, IrisCC, where she designs, tests and creates all the kit herself. Plus, when she chats to us about all this, she’s funny, humble and passionate. It’s hard not to love her.
“Most of what I did is accidental,” she laughs. There’s that humble streak. “I never intended to be a cyclist and was always more focused on developing my creative skills.”
Iris wasn’t from a sporty family, so it was never a career opportunity that was discussed at home. Incredibly, she started her sporting career as a speed skater before giving cycling ‘a go’, and ended up as a surprise bronze medallist at her first junior Worlds.
“I guess I’m enthusiastic to embrace new opportunities, and when I’m really interested and think I can make a difference, I’m full on!”
The Cylists Alliance came about because it was clear to Iris there were huge opportunities opening up for women’s cycling, and women should be instrumental to making decisions about their sport’s future.
“As far as I was concerned, we were dealing with bad behaviour and contract disputes in a growing sport. But women weren’t part of the decision-making. I firmly believed that if there wasn’t a united voice from within the women’s peloton, the other ‘stakeholders’ would develop our sport without us, and that’s simply not beneficial to the riders.”
It almost goes without saying that Iris has seen her fair share of unfairness in the sport, starting with the fact she wasn’t paid her salary for six years. “I’ve seen it a lot,” she sighs. “I’ve been on the UCI Road Commission and women’s cycling is always the last point on the agenda.”
She says there’s still very much a feeling in the sport that women should feel grateful to have the opportunity to race for a team, whereas male cyclists are always perceived as the natural-born top dogs. “It’s 2019 and women’s cycling shouldn’t be bottom of the agenda and women cyclists shouldn’t have to be activists to be treated equally.”
The iris mentality
Iris had a 15-year career as an elite rider and says, “I was motivated to win from the beginning and, as I learnt what I needed to do to be a winner, that became more serious.”
Her attitude to tough times also helped her keep going in a challenging career. “You have to make everything relative. When I had hard times as an athlete, I would talk to my parents and they would say, ‘It’s just cycling. It’s something you do and are good at, but it’s not the end of the world. There are always family, friends, people you love who are ten times more important. And that’s my real motivation.’”
She says she spent ten years winning and the past five years learning to be a good domestique and road captain. It was during those years that she started mentoring young riders out of a concern for their wellbeing. “I wasn’t motherly,” she laughs, “but I kept the team together on the road, dining room and training camp. It was always important for me to create a good atmosphere, and for everyone to feel valuable within the team setup.”
She also loved the social aspect of training: “I wasn’t a machine,” she chuckles, “I was always focused on my training and loved it, maybe more than racing, but I never wanted to go to altitude to train alone. I always wanted to have something social going on.”
She says her greatest achievement on the bike was becoming Dutch National Champion in 2014, “because it’s almost equal to being World Champion. It was also at the end of my career and in a period when I was thinking about retiring. Having that jersey on my shoulders for a year motivated me, it made me a different rider again.”
I ask her about her own mentors, the people who have provided the greatest motivation in her life. “For me, Sharon Laws (former British cycling road race champion) is a big motivation,” she says. The two were teammates in 2010, 2011 and 2015 and were close as riders and friends right up until Laws’s death in 2017 from cancer.
“Sharon was a person who enjoyed being a cyclist, enjoyed the adventure and the suffering. Very often, when I’m having a tough time, I think, ‘What would Sharon have done?’ She wouldn’t be complaining, she’d be smiling and enjoying the fact she was out there challenging herself!”
the next chapter
Iris’s design work includes some of the most covetable jerseys around and, in 2016, she had the privilege of watching Anna van der Breggen win an emotional and tempestuous Olympic road race wearing her design. “Anna was my teammate and it was very special to see her wearing it. I still love to see pictures of her winning that race.”
So, what motivates today’s Iris Slappendel to get out of bed? There’s that rich and hearty laugh again: “I’m doing so many fun things now, it’s no problem to get out of bed! Cycling for me was always a way of exploring, and now I’m seeing how far I can go in another direction.” Another gin?
Check out Iris’s apparel brand
Find out more about the Cyclist’s Alliance
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