strings attached

Many years ago, probably around 2005, I met a man named Matt Hickey.  I met him at a weird time in my life when I was doing a lot of binge drinking, occasionally to the point of blacking out.  When I met Matt, it was at karaoke night at the old Twilight Exit.  I was dancing and singing and I accidentally kicked off my shoe, losing it somewhere in the crowd.  I grabbed a random stranger by the arm and begged him to help me find my shoe. The stranger was Matt Hickey.  He helped me find the shoe.

The next week Matt placed an “I Saw U” ad for me in The Stranger and not remembering who he was or even what he looked like, I responded and thanked him for finding my shoe.  The interaction that followed was lighthearted but there was an air of “you owe it to me to go out with me because I helped you.”  Eventually I agreed to grab a coffee with him.

The whole interaction rubbed me the wrong way.

Matt and I never dated in any capacity. He was nice enough but there was always something about him that rubbed me the wrong way and had me keeping my guard up.  Matt had a good job and was a lot more stable than I was at the time.  He would do little things for me like buy my drinks or pay for my cab after a night of drinking and that feeling of “you owe me” never left our friendship.

In the years since we met, Matt became a fixture in the Seattle hipster and music scene.  Most people’s impression of Matt was that he was kind of a weird creep but that he was totally harmless and socially awkward.

Every interaction I had with him left me feeling uneasy.

Then, in mid-2016 Sydney Brownstone wrote a story for The Stranger outing Matt for running a porn scam wherein he would coerce women to have sex with him under false pretenses.  As the story broke, more women came forward and it slowly became apparent that “harmless” Matt Hickey was a serial rapist.  Just last month, he took a plea deal and was sentenced to three years in jail. This is not enough years.

So why am I telling this story?  I am telling it because this is an example of an entire community suspecting bad behavior and ulterior motives but brushing it off as “harmless” or excusing the person because they’re “socially awkward.”

I am writing today to talk about an experience that I have had with a person in the bike industry.  For purposes of this story, I will call this person “Kevin.”

I first “met” Kevin years ago when he added me on Facebook.  Any pro female cyclist is used to getting added by random people on Facebook and when I saw that we had a lot of mutual friends, I mindlessly added him back despite not actually knowing who he was.  Kevin would “like” and comment on many of my posts and I would see him doing the same on many of my friends’ posts.  Slowly I realized that all of our mutual friends were other professional or elite female cyclists or women in the bike industry.  I mostly ignored him.  He seemed harmless.

Fast forward to the last year, seemingly out of nowhere, Kevin now owns a fledgling bicycle parts company that sponsors many female athletes.  For purposes of this story, I will say he makes widgets.

I saw Kevin at an industry event early in the cyclocross season and he started asking me if I was happy with the Northwest Women’s Cyclocross Project‘s widget sponsor.  I told him that we had a long-standing and wonderful relationship with our widget sponsor and would not be considering another widget sponsor.  Immediately, Kevin started, for lack of a better phrase, trash talking the NWCX Project widget sponsor. Calling our sponsor’s company “a sinking ship,” and telling me that we should be using Kevin’s widgets.  I was very clear with Kevin that we were committed to our widget sponsor for at least this season and would not consider changing sponsors.

The whole interaction rubbed me the wrong way.

Later in the season, NWCX Project sent two riders and our team mechanic/my husband, Niels, to a UCI race.  Kevin as well as some other people had offered to help us find host housing.  I sent messages to Kevin and three other people seeing if they could help with securing  host housing.  What followed was an awkward and drawn out conversation wherein Kevin ended up booking and paying for a hotel room for the team (we never asked him to do this) and then telling me to help him sell his widgets in the Seattle area.  I felt really stuck so I agreed, knowing I couldn’t in good faith sell his widgets when NWCX Project had a widget sponsor.

The whole interaction rubbed me the wrong way.

Throughout the rest of the season, I would run into Kevin at many of the major UCI cyclocross races.  Every race we’d have some version of the same conversation where he would ask me if his widget company could sponsor NWCX Project, I would decline saying we’re committed to our current widget sponsor, and he would proceed to talk about how our widget sponsor would be out of business, was going under, or was a sinking ship.

Every one of these interactions rubbed me the wrong way.

I need to mention here, that every race that Kevin and his widget company would attend, they would set up a big compound with drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic), food, heat, and a general “party” atmosphere.  He would always invite and encourage the NWCX Project riders and staff to hang out in his widget company’s tent, eat the food he brought, drink the drinks he was making.  The whole thing made me feel uneasy but at the same time, as a small program, it’s hard to say no to any help or to tell cold riders that they can’t hang out in the warm tent.

The last straw for me was this year at nationals.  It was the morning of the U23 and elite races.  This was the pinnacle of what our staff, riders, and parents had been working towards all season.  We arrived at the venue early and one of our riders went into Kevin’s widget tent to warm up.  Then, in front of my rider, Kevin approached me and said something along the lines of, “we need to talk about widgets for next year.” I again told him that I was not willing to entertain changing widget sponsors until after the season was over and I had had a chance to discuss future sponsorship with our current widget sponsor.

For Kevin, this was apparently the last straw.

The conversation that followed, right in front of one of my young NWCX Project riders was basically Kevin accusing me of taking advantage of his hospitality, and using his tent, eating his food, etc. while I was “not part of the [widget company] family.” I was shocked and dumbstruck.  I quickly told Kevin that this conversation was inappropriate for it’s tone, for it being in front of a young rider, and for it’s timing.  I told him again that we would discuss sponsorship after the season was over.

The whole interaction left me feeling sick.

There has been a lot of momentum behind women’s cycling in the last few years.  Companies both large and small are seeing the value in truly backing and investing in women’s cycling.  There is however, apparently a dark side to this momentum.  There are people in the world and in the industry who may have less altruistic motives in backing women’s cycling.  There are Matt Hickeys everywhere in this world.  People who’s actions, on their face, appear to be noble and altruistic but who will always leave you feeling uneasy, like you owe them something, like they’re after something more than just brand promotion or a thank you.

In the last several months, there have been many conversations happening about Kevin in particular.  These conversations are happening behind closed doors, on facebook messenger, over text, email, and in person.  These conversations are taking place between women in the cycling industry; professional riders, visible industry women, and women such as myself.  Kevin hasn’t “done” anything to anyone that I know about, but the general consensus is that every interaction with him rubs us the wrong way.

This unease is why I will never allow Kevin to be our widget sponsor.  I do not like that he has put himself in a position to grant female athletes what they need to survive.*  I do not like his pushiness or that he has positioned himself to be as close as possible to female athletes, some of whom are underage.  If our widget sponsor does go out of business (I have spoken to him about this, he is doing okay) I would rather go broke buying widgets for our riders than expose them to someone who makes me and countless other women feel this uneasy.

The NWCX Project serves girls from age eight or younger to age 22.  I am extremely protective if these young women.  Many of their parents allow them to travel alone with me and Niels.  This is a responsibility that I take very seriously.  Yes we rely solely on equipment sponsorship and monetary donations but that does not mean that we will take money or equipment from just anyone.

As I said earlier, these conversations about Kevin in particular have been taking place behind closed doors while he continues to leverage his sponsorship to bring him closer to female athletes.  There is so much fear among women in the industry over speaking out about bad or problematic behavior.  We fear that we will lose sponsorship, that our positive and happy-go-lucky personas will be tarnished.  It has taken me 6 weeks to finally finish writing and publish this post because I have been scared about how it will be received, but I’m not scared anymore.

* I stole this sentiment from a friend who has had similar experiences with Kevin.

 

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About Jess Cutler

35 year old pro road and cyclocross racer. National Champion. Generally nice person.
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14 Responses to strings attached

  1. Craig says:

    Good for you Jess. Good for you for your commitment to your morals, sponsors, the sport, the future (young riders), fellow ladies, professionalism, sticking to your guns and most of all for speaking up. Doing the right thing is hard sometimes. Clearly it’s too hard for the Kevin’s of the world.

  2. Well written Jessica. Glad you went with your gut in the first place and then followed up with what seems like a solid moral foundation. Way to go.

  3. …out this guy….or this is a moot point…..nothing will be resolved.

  4. Ryan Perlman says:

    Stay Strong Jess, your doing a lot of great things for the community and nobody should have to deal with actions like this.

  5. Marne Fox-Barrow says:

    Thank you for being so damn insightful, strong, assertive, protective, alert, and brave! Those are the characters we need to role model for ALL women! Thank you for what you contribute to our community of female cyclists and beyond!!

  6. Emily Norland says:

    Good on you. I’m proud to support you. I’m not in the widget industry or any industry related to cycling. My industry is vagina doctoring and seeing women and girls safely through all of their years as best as I can. And I will support your riders and your mentoring of these riders however I can. Money. Support and solidarity. In real life and online. I wear your kit at Cycle U. Or out for a pedal on my bike. No questions asked. Y’all owe me nothing. I’ll speak to your integrity. I see Kevin letting you have it and I’ll be the one flying around to stand at your shoulder. This kind of bullshit has to stop. With you 1000%.

  7. Lori Surges says:

    Thank you Jess for bringing this issue to the forefront !

  8. Chris says:

    We’ve seen this kind of thing in OCR as well (I manage and sponsor 4 professional racers, all women). One major race series even asked their ambassadors (all our pro racers and many others) to “show skin” for promotional videos. It pissed me off. I sent emails. It got ugly. Now we no longer do sports bras for racing. Our racers will wear compression tank tops this summer in response. There needs to be more respect for female athletes and treatment of them as athletes, not sex objects to sell something.

  9. Sammi says:

    90% sure I know who your talking about. He’s been such a creep to me that I had to block him. Luckily i don’t live in that area so i dont have to deal with him in person much. But every interaction ive had with him made me extremely uncomfortable. Thanks for writing this.

  10. kenb says:

    Very well written

  11. MP says:

    Jess,
    This article is very confusing. You have compared Kevin to a serial rapist, but the only evidence you’ve shared is of Kevin being a pushy salesman. Are you worried that Kevin wants to physically/sexually harm women? What evidence do you have to support this?
    There are certainly right ways and wrong ways to treat potential business partners. It sounds like Kevin’s approach is wrong and not doing his own business any favors. But I don’t think sponsors acting forceful about their widgets is a new issue, nor isolated to women’s cycling. It’s certainly been dealt with before, which we can learn from and consider for this situation.
    But rape is a far more serious topic and you need to be very clear about your accusation. You’ve either failed to provide evidence of Kevin acting as a physical/sexual threat, or you’ve made an unfair comparison of Kevin to a known rapist. What exactly are your concerns about Kevin? I think your intentions are good but this article reads like gossip. I definitely don’t want this comment to sound like silencing or downplaying a legitimate concern. Just offering some constructive criticism. Best wishes.

    • MM says:

      MP,

      “So why am I telling this story? I am telling it because this is an example of an entire community suspecting bad behavior and ulterior motives but brushing it off as “harmless” or excusing the person because they’re “socially awkward.”” (Gee, that’s sort of like writing off predatory behavior as being a “pushy salesman”. )

      Jess also later goes on to say, “There are Matt Hickeys everywhere in this world. People who’s actions, on their face, appear to be noble and altruistic but who will always leave you feeling uneasy, like you owe them something, like they’re after something more than just brand promotion or a thank you.” And then even more clearly states, “Kevin hasn’t “done” anything to anyone that I know about, but the general consensus is that every interaction with him rubs us the wrong way.”

      This piece wasn’t confusing at all. It’s not hard to understand these are two different stories of two separate men using aggressive, predatory behavior and people ignoring it/excusing it as “social awkwardness” and “being a poor business man.” The comparison is men using aggressive, predatory tactics. The reader was not once asked to draw a conclusion that Kevin must also be a rapist.

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