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PCM Mulheres no Ciclismo: Yana Seel, Pioneira no pelotão Masculino começa novo desafio na Team UAE ADQ

PCM Mulheres no Ciclismo: Yana Seel, Pioneira no pelotão Masculino começa novo desafio na Team UAE ADQ

PCM Women in Cycling: Yana Seel, a pioneer in the men’s peloton, begins a new challenge with Team UAE ADQ

Yana Seel defines herself as a forward-thinking person, focused on creating profit from a world of numbers where she knows her way around, whose experience and accomplishments talk through themselves, leaving a mark in the men’s and now in women’s peloton.

She is a pioneer in the cycling world, making history by becoming the first woman to hold the position of Chief Executive Officer within the WorldTour at Astana Qazaqstan Team. Afterward, she went to Lotto Dstny, acting as Chief Business Officer for two years. Now, as Head of Business and Communications at UAE Team ADQ the doors are open for a bright future in the women’s peloton.

“To be honest, there is a lot to improve for women in cycling. When I started almost seven years ago, it was very limited. I didn’t even realize I was the first female CEO at the moment, it was only said after. Cycling it’s still very old school, unfortunately. There is a lot to do and that is actually the reason why I’ve signed with my new team, UAE Team ADQ.”

In a very busy time, while embracing a new challenge, Yana Seel found a moment to talk with Portuguese Cycling Magazine about her career, her future prospects, her work to empower women, and her role as a woman in a society that is still male-driven.

From health to cycling

Yana is a big name in cycling, but her arrival to the sport was far from straightforward because she did have three university degrees (pharmaceutical and biomedical technology, business management; and marketing and communication), but not a past on the bike. She guided us through her past, which began in the health sector.

“I was working in the pharmaceutical industry for many years, and then I started my own company. Additionally, I had some projects in Kazakhstan, for example, establishing a children’s oncology hospital.”

One thing led to another and Yana ended up setting up her own company, which required some knowledge of business and management, and ultimately led her into cycling.

“I started my collaboration with Kazakhstan and after six years they asked me a question regarding their cycling team Astana. At that moment, I was totally unaware of cycling. When I received the proposal, I started to discover it and immediately I received the proposal to become their CEO.”

Team Photo – GettySport/Tim de Waele

The reasons for Yana Seel to join Astana Pro Team were, in parallel to her entry into cycling, far from forthcoming. 

“It was a strange movement in my career. Maybe because I wanted to try something else. Maybe because I did a lot of sports when I was a child. It was always my passion and I didn’t take so much time to think about it, I just jumped and accepted the role in the team.”

There is an intrinsic relationship with sports for those who practice it, but that relationship is not always evident, at times seeming long lost, as it was the case for Yana. 

“I did gymnastics and was selected for the national championships, but it was very difficult for me to combine it with studying, so my parents chose studies instead of sports. “

As CEO of Astana Pro Team, Yana saw herself in a key role in cycling, managing everything related to attracting and retaining sponsors, the main source of the team’s financial revenues and therefore the way to assure its survival. 

“My main functions, as for each CEO, were all legal processes: license; administration; signing the contracts; paying the salaries; correcting the budget. This last one was a big challenge because they had a difficult budget situation, due to the fact that some sponsors decided to stop collaborating and I received a company with a negative balance. So, the people in Astana saw me as a crisis manager, because I had to block a lot of things…keep my eye on the budget very closely, because this was one of my biggest goals: to bring the team to a positive budgetary situation.”

Yana led the team through difficult times, especially the COVID-19 pandemic, which obliged her to make difficult calls, like decreasing the whole team´´ salary with no exceptions, to maintain the team. In the next year, Astana Pro Team became Astana – Premier Tech as Premier Tech stepped up to become co-sponsor, a remarkable change in the team: for the first time in its 15-year history, the team name of Astana Pro Team was shared with a co-sponsor. This was one of the examples of the work that Yana did during her time in the team, where she also tried to set up a cycling team for children and youngsters.

After 3 years in Astana and more working in Kazakhstan, Yana Seel decided to take an offer to join Lotto Dstny (at the time Lotto Soudal) as Chief Business Officer. She arrived at a difficult time for the team, when their naming sponsor for the past 8 years, Soudal, moved to another Belgian team, so her role was to find a new sponsor to align with the Belgian National Lottery and by doing so, help to secure the team’s place in the World Tour. There was, of course, a big change:

“John Lelangue was CEO at that time, but I was doing quite similar things than in Astana, with more time to focus on the business situation and the sponsor search. I started immediately by finding a replacement for Soudal. The Belgium National Lottery asked me to join the team as soon as possible to help attract a new naming sponsor, which is now Dstny. I jumped immediately to sign Dstny and this was my first sponsor.”

Dstny, a Belgian company focused on providing modern business communication solutions based on cloud technology,  joined the oldest pro cycling team in 2022 through the hands of Yana Seel. The technology company started with the Team previously to the Tour de France, the name of the team remained Lotto Soudal, until the end of the same season, henceforth becoming Lotto Dstny.

Fighting for a better cycling

For the past seven years, Yana has also been an active member of the European Women’s Association board, although her work there isn’t directly related to sports. She focuses on empowering young women entrepreneurs to overcome their fears and achieve their goals, engaging in public speaking to inspire and support these women. These efforts also extend to cycling, of course, and are showcased by her work across all of Lotto Dstny’s teams.

“Being honest, I wasn’t able to do much [in the women’s team]. It was my big frustration that if you are involved with the men’s team, it is very difficult to do anything else. My biggest goal was to give the girls more space on the budget by finding that extra sponsorship. Lotto Dstny development team has made some progress, and they can use all the facilities of the men’s team (bikes,  equipment …), but it’s still a small team, and of course, to improve the situation, you need more budget.”

The role of budget is greatly emphasized by Yana Seel, especially considering the highly limited market conditions for women in cycling. To recruit top female cyclists for the women’s cycling team, she needs to act swiftly. Unlike in the men’s peloton, where talented riders without contracts are available each year, such opportunities are rare for women cyclists.

Even more important than the budget, for Yana, are the foundations of cycling, starting with the riding and training conditions. Taking Belgium, a country where cycling is very popular, as an example, the roads and infrastructures lack safety and the parents of young Belgian riders worry about accidents, to the point of not letting them train. Therefore, making the roads safer, like they are in the Netherlands, which have separate paths for cars and bikes, could help more talented girls get into cycling in Belgium. It is imperative to render cycling more engaging for women, acknowledging its physical demands and simultaneously their real commitment to the sport. 

The Cyclists’ Alliance (TCA) released the results of its annual rider survey in 2023, which revealed the top three key areas of concern among women in professional cycling: salaries, safety, and live coverage. Regarding salaries, Yana shares a strong opinion about blocking the salaries of the riders:

“I totally do not agree when I hear things like we need to keep the salaries of the female raiders low. The teams cannot follow the trend and we need to grow slowly. In my opinion, this is not the best solution. I prefer to give the same opportunities for the female riders as we have in the male cycling by improving the business model behind it and therefore we will definitely need extra support from UCI and race organizers.”

There is growing awareness that female pro cyclists deserve equal pay, as well as support and opportunities, but this is a work in progress. Looking at a positive example, after the Tour of Flanders in 2022, Flanders Classics decided to start offering identical prize money for men and women, taking a concrete step to decrease the gender gap in cycling and professionalize women’s racing. But in another example, despite the progress made in recent years by the Tour de France Femmes, the female riders continue to receive unequal pay, less media coverage, and therefore significantly less opportunity to race. This shows that the paradigm is changing, but there’s still a lot more to be done, not only by race organizers but also within the teams.

Old fight, new arena 

Yana Seel’s appointment as Head of Business and Communications in UAE Team ADQ marks a notable advancement for this women’s professional cycling team, highlighting their dedication to promoting diversity and excellence in the cycling sphere.

“After my career with Lotto Dstny, I decided to join another team [UAE Team ADQ]. My core business is actually to improve the financial situation and to help the team with sponsors, and during the last years, I was also focused on communication. That’s why I have started the collaboration with UAE Team ADQ, because we can look in the same direction, and not only for the image, they really want to do something for women in cycling.”

The Head of Business and Communications was previously absent from the team, and now the primary responsibilities of Yana will revolve around business development, marketing, and communication, aiming to develop the team and bring more diversity into the cycling community.

“This team is very young, but they are moving very fast and in a very clever way. They invest but not blindly, they listen to their people and they act as professionals. At the same time, the balancing between being a family and becoming a professional is very risky. Some teams are becoming very professional, while losing the family feeling, being between both is the best decision.”

Now being well aware of both her past and present, we launched Yana Seel the challenge of defining a major goal for this new phase in her professional career. 

“It’s a good question, which I’m still searching for myself. At a certain moment, I had a very strong feeling: ‘Oh, Yana, you have to do something different.’ I have been doing public speaking for women for several years, but I never felt so engaged with the improvement that has to come. I arrived at the correct age and correct mental situation for wanting to achieve that, with UAE Team ADQ. I truly believe that we can keep the fair conditions for the ladies and keep improving to come close to the male’s level, but of course, the organizers also need to give us more visibility, not only the last hour of the race. So, my first and most important goal is to work on the business model, and then, by doing this, I want to make some improvements in women’s cycling in general.”

What can you do?

In the final part of this interview, Yana Seel gives some advice to women who are trying to start a career, as being critical and entrepreneurial is never an easy path. She warns us to not be deceived by Instagram, particularly by the image of the successful mom juggling work and family effortlessly, which is often far from reality. It’s a tough balancing act, managing work and kids while starting a business, so seeking help and support is crucial. But most importantly, you should prioritize and make choices that align with your goals and values.

The most important thing in terms of managing all of your projects and personal life is, according to Yana, to “follow your dream”. 

“Just to give yourself as a woman a possibility to decide, and don’t follow what is prescribed by social media or past generations. Choose what is best for you. I have chosen to have kids and to have a job. Sometimes you’re not going to be the best mom and it’s okay, it took me years to understand that when I have my free time, I’m going to spend it with my kids and have quality time with them, but when I’m at work, I give 200%.”

Yana lives her life at its fullest, and despite the ups and downs she had in her professional career and also in her personal life, her perseverance has made her an example to everyone, inside and outside cycling, both male and female. She leaves us the message that it’s normal to have ups and downs, that the downs are important for one’s growth and development, and that being successful is great, but trying to get there is what matters the most.

“It’s okay not to be perfect. In cycling, girls start on a very low profile, but do not forget that Lotte Kopecky and Demi Vollering, at the beginning of their careers, were just girls riding a bike. Believe in yourself, go for it! Contact and try to speak to as many people as you can , because one day, one day you will get your answer or the right person on your path. Don’t give up, and try as long as you can!”

On International Women’s Day, we would like to thank Yana Seel for her availability to have this sincere conversation, which promises to inspire not only women in cycling but also any gender in any situation they might be, by leaving us all with the prospect of a better future. Most importantly, the work toward gender equality is still in progress and requires the contribution of all men and women, recognizing both the different physical demands and the same commitment toward the sport, to shape cycling to be more engaging and safe for women’s needs and thus changing it for the better.

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