The hard truth on cycling’s problem with race

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On a nondescript dual carriageway near Versailles, a single black rider pedals tentatively to the head of the bunch. The largely white peloton hangs back a couple of metres, chatting easily amongst themselves as they had been for the previous two hours of the processional stage into Paris. After several seconds in front of the cameras, the lone rider eases back and is once more absorbed into the mass of coloured Lycra. This was the Tour de France’s big anti-racism statement, and it was pathetic.

I was watching at the time and was totally oblivious that anything had happened. The Tour de France, according to statisticians, is the third most watched sporting event on the planet. The 3.5 billion viewers who saw Geraint Thomas’ 2018 triumph came just a smidgeon behind the 3.6 billion who tuned into the FIFA World Cup that year – an extraordinary marker of the race’s global attraction.

Whilst the two sports’ viewing figures may be close, their recent responses to racism have been light-years apart. Say what you like about the Premier League’s cooperation with the Black Lives Matter movement, you cannot deny its visibility. From kneeling before kick-off to modified shirts and TV adverts, there has been no hiding from football’s support for the black community. The Tour de France, meanwhile, hastily mustered a few riders wearing masks with ‘Racism is bad’ scrawled in marker pen, muttering their half-hearted condemnation to the media before demolishing a couple of energy gels. It stank of tokenism to the point where you had to ask yourself whether it would have been better doing nothing.

Why the dramatic difference in response between sports? The answer is simply the lack of black cyclists, both professional and amateur. Frenchman Kévin Reza was the only black rider from the 176 who rolled out from Nice at the Tour’s Grand Départ. This would be shocking in any context but in the biggest event of such a widely covered sport it should be totally astonishing. Note the word should, because bizarrely, for someone used to watching cycling, it isn’t astonishing. The monochrome whiteness of the peloton is the norm and paradoxically it is more shocking when the TV footage manages to pick out a black cyclist in a major race.

The monochrome whiteness of the peloton is the norm.

Reza gave a candid interview in September in which he scorned the sport’s efforts to encourage more black riders, saying “there are people who wanted to move the furniture around in cycling, but they gave up”. He also expressed his reluctance to speak out on the issue, saying “I’m not the spokesperson for an anti-racism charity”. And come on, the man’s a Grand Tour cyclist living a spartan existence to compete around the globe all year round. It shouldn’t be his job to singlehandedly solve the sport’s deep-rooted issues. Nevertheless, he finds himself unfairly cast in the role of the great redeemer that will throw off the burden of cycling’s historical failings.

Twice, in 2014 and 2017, the Frenchman has suffered racial abuse from fellow riders on the pro tour. Yet these incidents prompted only a smattering of condemnation, as much of the peloton remained silent, the issues only existing in the peripheries of their visored tunnel vision. Reza remarked upon this lack of wider support with a damning numbness. He wasn’t shocked, angry or critical of the reaction, merely describing the lack of vocal support as his ‘observation’. I found this the most telling feature of the interview.

Thanks to Dave Brailsford’s success with Team GB and Team Sky, British cycling has enjoyed a golden period over the last fifteen years, triggering a rise in cycling uptake amongst the UK population and a renewed interest in professional racing. Regardless, the sport has remained conspicuously exclusive. Astronomical bike prices and the scientific culture of marginal gains contribute to cycling’s elitism, yet it ultimately comes down to cultural conditioning more than economic circumstances.

A Sport England report found that BAME participation in cycling as sport and recreation was only six per cent, where in other activities it averages closer to 10 per cent. The chances of seeing a single black cyclist on a spin round the lanes of County Durham are pitifully low. Maurice Burton, a black British retired track cyclist, observed that the 2012 Olympic Games prompted a visible uptake in cycling from the black community, but that many of the new-found enthusiasts reported feeling “othered” while trying to access the sport. This implies that the real problem is embedded in the grassroots culture and thus meaningful reform must come from the bottom upwards.

There are, increasingly, glimmers of hope in the mire. The London-based Black Cyclists Network, formed in 2018 to combat lack of representation, have recently announced the formation of a competitive racing team to debut in 2021. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, we must work towards a point where exclusively BAME clubs like this don’t have to exist. This will require a long-term nationwide addressing of systemic racism. In the shorter term, it would be brilliant to see British cycling build on recent victories to lead the way for greater ethnic diversity on the international stage. This must be their next step.

Make no mistake, I adore the sport of cycling. Few things can match the brutality and beauty of elite athletes duelling up hill and down dale against iconic backdrops. But serious proactive conversations must be had to bring the sport out of its vicious cycle of elitism and stop it being left in the dust, or rather the past, in decades to come.

Image: hada55 via Creative Commons

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