Cycling's silence on racism: Black Lives Matter response highlighted sport’s diversity problem
Just one black cyclist started the 2020 Tour de France out of 22 teams and 176 riders, and the sport's silence on racism compared to other major sports has been striking. Why is representation from minority ethnic groups in both amateur and professional cycling so low. Why has the response to Black Lives Matter been so limited? And what, if anything, is the sport currently doing to improve?
Riders in the peloton climb up the iconic Sutton Bank during the third stage of the Tour de Yorkshire cycling race on May 5, 2018 in Thirsk, United Kingdom
And what can be done to correct cycling's diversity problem?
Tour De France: One day, One Story -2014 Yorkshire
Image credit: Eurosport
Cycling is an overwhelmingly white sport. And that lack of diversity is rarely more visible than in men's road racing.
When the Tour de France peloton rolled out for the opening stage of the 2011 Tour, just one member of the field was black. One out of 198 riders.
But what made that statistic all the more striking was that Yohann Gene that day became the first black rider in the history of the Tour. There had been 97 editions of the race before 2011. That’s 97 editions of the Tour de France without a single black rider in the field.
That extraordinary lack of black representation has barely improved over the course of the past decade. In 2019 there was again just a solitary black rider, Natnael Berhane, out of 176 cyclists to begin the Tour.
And again in 2020, out of 22 teams and 176 riders to start the Tour there was just one black rider in the peloton, Kevin Reza of French pro-conti team B&B Hotels - Vital Concept.
It is no coincidence that the sports which have made the biggest strides towards equality over recent years are those with racial diversity among their athletes. Because, unfortunate though it is, the example from other sports show that it takes athletes speaking out to force organisations to implement change – just look at the major American sports for a clear example of this.
And in order to want to address inequality, you need to be both engaged and informed on the matter. The fear with cycling is that black representation is so miniscule that the sport hasn't cared enough to want to change. But there are signs that this could be changing for the better.
Participation in the UK
“People from black or other ethnic minority backgrounds can be found working in cycling, but here in Europe certainly there’s no question that proportionally there is a lack of diversity and representation,” said Eurosport commentator Rob Hatch said in an interview with Eurosport UK.
Like the UK, the traditional major nations comprising the professional side of the sport, Belgium, France, Italy and Spain, must do better.
As with so many industries, two crucial steps towards increasing diversity in cycling are, firstly, a clear pathway for BAME athletes and, secondly, the presence of role models at the top of the sport. The major cycling nations currently appear to be failing at the former, and are certainly failing at the latter. As Hatch says, they “must do better”.
British Cycling are at least aware of the problem. In July 2019 they shared an independent report into diversity that had been co-produced by experienced road racer Andy Edwards and Black Cyclists Network founder Mani Arthur.
"The report was a grass roots collaboration between Andy and myself," Arthur told Eurosport. "Once we’d completed it then British Cycling offered to distribute and share it. We thought ‘you know what, that’s what we were trying to achieve anyway’, so we were happy for them to publish it on the website and share it to a larger audience."
The report confirmed a shockingly low proportion of cycling participants from BAME backgrounds in the UK. And in a snapshot of the detail from the report, it found that cyclists from minority ethnic backgrounds made up just 7% of the total number of cyclists in London, a city where the BAME population is 41%.
Why are those numbers so low?
There are a multitude of factors, but for an example of an individual’s outlook, Eurosport UK spoke to amateur black cyclist Keith Harris about his experiences.
“Apart from the ‘usual stuff’ like verbal racist abuse shouted from cars I haven't experienced a great deal of overt racism as a cyclist,” Harris, who has been riding bikes for both commuting and leisure for over 50 years, said.
“You do feel particularly vulnerable though, especially when they're in cars. That's true of all cyclists, but I think it's heightened when you're a black cyclist and I think that might be a contributing factor to lack of participation.”
Keith Harris has been an amateur cyclist for over 50 years. (Photo credit: Keith Harris)
Image credit: Eurosport
Harris, 68, added that he believes a lack of visual representation in professional cycling also contributes to a lack of progress for black cyclists through to the pro ranks.
“It was never even a consideration for me, I was only ever a leisure cyclist, but having no representation in elite cycling would definitely make you feel like you might have one extra hurdle to overcome if you wanted a career in cycling,” Harris said. “That’s going to put people off.
“Cycling is a difficult enough sport anyway, you don't want to have to put in that number of miles and all of that effort to get to a professional level and then find you are excluded for another reason.”
Amateur cyclist Keith Harris has had a love for the sport from a very young age when growing up in the north-east of England. (Photo credit: Keith Harris)
Image credit: Eurosport
That is a sentiment which has been echoed by Yewande Adesida, who discovered a talent for track cycling after training as a rower. She told the Diversity Report:
“I have been very aware of the lack of other black riders, especially when it came to racing. My intention was always to race, but not seeing anyone that looked like me and the lack of role models made me question whether I was in the right sport.
“Knowing that my skin colour makes me stand out on pretty much every start line made me fearful of making mistakes. These are things I think about less, but those thoughts are still lingering nonetheless.”
And Arthur, told BBC London:
People of colour really do not see themselves out there. Cycling seems to come across a bit like golf really, and that puts people off.
MTN-Qhubeka and black African talent
After Yohann Gene’s Tour debut in 2011 for Europcar, the Guadeloupe-born French rider went on to ride in the Tour de France for six more years
And he has not been the sole black representative in the most famous cycling race on earth, thanks in large part to the formation and development of Africa’s first professional cycling team, who entered the Tour de France for the first time in 2015 as MTN-Qhubeka (the team later to become known as Dimension Data, and now NTT).
Eurosport pundit and former British road champion Brian Smith was MTN-Qhubeka’s general manager at the time, helping the team establish World Tour status before stepping down from his role in 2016.
The charity Qhubeka supplies bikes to “help people change their lives”, and MTN-Qhubeka’s mission as a team was not only to become a competitive World Tour outfit but also to provide a route to professional cycling for African riders, including black African riders.
The team that Brian Smith helped put together for the 2015 Tour de France featured five African riders, including two black African riders, in the nine-man roster. It was a historic moment for the race.
MTN-Qhubeka went on to be highly competitive in their first ever Tour de France, with black rider Daniel Teklehaimanot wearing the polka dot jersey from stages six to nine, and the team finishing in Paris with eight riders – only one man short after Louis Meintjes was struck down with illness in the final week.
Daniel Teklehaimanot of Eritrea and MTN-Qhubeka
Image credit: Getty Images
Over the following years MTN-Qhubeka/Dimension Data brought a number of black riders into the professional men's peloton, with performances steadily improving.
“Cycling is about confidence,” Brian Smith said. “When you are an African team and you don't have a lot of funding and you’re up against the big boys, you don't have the same confidence. I brought stars to the team like Edvald Boasson Hagen and Steve Cummings, and one of the reasons for that was to show the African riders that they were just as good as these famous European names.
“I think that proved the breakthrough for MTN-Qhubeka, which later turned into team Dimension Data. The black African riders in particularly lacked a bit of confidence, but sharing rooms and training regularly with established European pros gave them that confidence. Sharing that experience and rubbing shoulders with top riders, that had been the difference and with those barriers removed we saw more black riders coming through.”
However, as team sponsors changed, costs rose, and the pressure to maintain that World Tour status increased, so the early intention of encouraging African riders through the system fell away.
"That team has now gone away from the initial Qhubeka drive to promote black athletes and African athletes,” Brian Smith said. “In the MTN-Qhubeka days it was more about helping Africans and supporting the charity side to encourage participation.”
Natnael Berhane of Eritrea and Team Cofidis Solutions Credits / during the 106th Tour de France 2019 - Stage 13 a 27,2km Individual Time Trial Stage from Pau to Pau / ITT / TDF / #TDF2019 / @LeTour / on July 19, 2019 in Pau, France
Image credit: Getty Images
It is a sentiment echoed by Natnael Berhane, the only black rider to participate in the 2019 Tour de France. The Eritrean rode the Tour with Qhubeka/Dimension Data in 2016, as well as the Giro in 2017 and 2018, but moved to Cofidis in 2019.
“Africa's Team Dimension Data usually brought several riders, at least four riders, not just to the Tour de France but to other races too,” Berhane said in an interview with German broadcaster Deutsche Welle during the 2019 Tour. “But now their strategy has changed. I think they should give opportunities to African riders, give them the chance to shine. As far as I'm concerned, there should be more riders from our continent on Africa's team.”
The direction taken by NTT is disappointing from a diversity perspective, but it would be unfair for Africa’s sole World Tour team to shoulder the entire responsibility for increasing black representation in professional cycling.
“The UCI are trying to make cycling a more global sport,” Maurice Burton says in British Cycling’s Diversity Report. “But to be more global the sport has to be more open and diverse.”
It wasn’t always smooth sailing for MTN-Qhubeka/Dimension Data as they brought more black riders into the peloton.
In the same year as the team’s Tour debut, Berhane was racially abused by a rider during the Tour of Austria. A statement was released by the guilty party and a donation made to Qhubeka, but it certainly wasn’t the last such incident, as Team Principle Doug Ryder explains:
One of the riders from the biggest teams in the world in the 2015 Tour of Spain, when we were trying to bring one of our riders to the front going into the mountains, said 'you guys don't belong here, f*** off to the back of the bunch'.
That sort of attitude, while not the dominant feeling within the men's peloton, followed the team wherever they went. One small positive to come from such an ugly situation was that allies emerged from within the pro ranks.
“I heard of a number of examples of racism within the peloton and I know for a fact that Chris Froome, who grew up in Kenya of course, stuck up for some of our team’s riders who received verbal abuse,” Brian Smith told Eurosport. “Froome was strong on it within the peloton and told those responsible to change their behaviour, but I fear that those views will still be present among a minority.”
David Kinjah's story
Seven-time Grand Tour winner Froome developed as a cyclist in Kenya, and later in South Africa, starting his teenage cycling career under the tutelage of black Kenyan cyclist David Kinjah.
Kinjah is now 48 and continues to grow his cycling charity and club The Safari Simbaz. But his career offers some examples of the barriers that have existed for black cyclists.
David Kinjah has a pre-training snack in his quarters at his camp for cyclists known as the 'Safari Simbaz' in Kenya's central highlands village of Kiambu
Image credit: Getty Images
Back in 2000 he competed in the World Championships, entering the competition on a wildcard and with little support from the Kenyan cycling federation.
Kinjah arrived in Plouay, France, with only a modest road bike and no time trial bike, with no team support, and with extremely little in the way of financial resources – he’d only been able to afford the journey with the help of charity donations.
“That year it was also the Olympics,” David Kinjah tells Eurosport. “There was this boy from Equatorial Guinea who had gone to the Olympics on a wildcard as a swimmer, and he swam the slowest 100m ever. His name was Eric Moussambani.
Now at the Cycling World Championships there was this guy from Africa, going to Europe to race on a wildcard, and nobody knew about him. People in Europe thought it was going to be a repeat of Eric the Eel.
A local cycling club offered to help Kinjah and act as an impromptu manager with support car. And as Kinjah wanted to ride the Time Trial, the club’s manager and a local journalist arranged for him to borrow a training TT bike from the French Federation for the World Championships, picking it up the night before the race.
Kinjah rolled off the start ramp having never ridden the course and barely trained on a time trial bike.
I did an average of 44.6km/h which was really quite fast. The winner did 47 I think, and he was a huge guy, covered in muscles, a real time trial specialist. The next day in the French newspaper there was this headline – ‘Kinjah for Kenya is not a tortoise he’s a hare’!
“All of a sudden I was an overnight star, and all these journalists wanted to talk to me again, but it was a totally different story to what they had expected.”
David Kinjah during an interview on July 17, 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya. Kinjah is Chris Froome's first coach and mentor. Froome won this year's Tour de France
Image credit: Getty Images
Kinjah had come into cycling from a background with very limited wealth and with no obvious pathway to the professional ranks.
But his performances at the World Championships persuaded Shimano to sign him up to compete in Australia’s Crocodile Trophy, a mountain-bike stage race across the outback. It was a terrific opportunity for Kinjah, but he almost didn’t get a chance to take part in the race at all.
“When I went to Australia for the Crocodile Trophy I was locked up at the airport in Sydney for over five hours,” Kinjah told Eurosport.
I was basically a nobody to them. I had no money, I had only a little bag with me and a mountain bike. They asked me for bank statements, I didn’t have any; they asked me where my money was, but I didn’t have any; they asked me what I was coming to Australia for and I told them I was here to race. They didn’t believe me.
“After a few hours locked up I was spoken to by the airport management guy. He agreed to make phonecalls that immigration had completely refused to make, even when I gave them numbers to call."
A subsequent investigation by airport management found that the details supplied by Shimano and the race organisers matched perfectly with Kinjah’s papers, his passport and the onward flight details – as he had told immigration they would when he arrived – and he was released.
Kinjah went on to excel in the event as a lone cyclist competing across strong teams, and his development as a cyclist continued apace. In 2002 he became the first black African rider to sign a professional contract with a European cycling team, Alexia Alluminio, realising a dream he’d had since first discovering his love for the sport as a young child
The team folded later that year, before Kinjah had enjoyed a chance to enter a World Tour race, and he was never offered another opportunity at the top level.
When Eurosport spoke to Brian Smith about the lack of black cyclists in the sport he said:
I cannot give you a definitive answer why there are so few black athletes in cycling. It baffles me sometimes, especially after my work with MTN-Qhubeka and the talent I've seen in Africa, especially the black athletes.
Perhaps David Kinjah’s career gives an example of why black African riders at the very least may have found it hard to progress in the sport.
BAME representation in European cycling
Although MTN-Qhubeka and David Kinjah offer examples of why the route to the top may be harder for black African cyclists, cycling’s lack of diversity is not an African problem.
According to the UK government’s 2011 census, 3.4% of the British population are black, over two million people. There has not been a census since 2011, but that figure has almost certainly increased.
Across Europe it is not a dissimilar story. In France for example, one of cycling’s most famous nations, the black population is believed to be at least three million people (French governments do not record race demographics, so accurate figures are not available).
Black and BAME athletes continue to emerge as representatives of European countries in a multitude of other sports.
But in cycling that diverse representation has not yet come.
“I thought maybe I should be doing something else, as no one looked like me,” British cyclist Yewande Adesida told Cycling Weekly in an interview in June 2019.
If I had chosen to go into Athletics, I’d have found loads of other people who looked like me. Whereas in cycling, I felt unsure how well I could do because I hadn’t seen anyone who looked like me and was doing well.
That lack of diversity is a problem that goes to the very top of the sport.
Not one of the 12 members of the British Cycling board are black, and that is a representation issue that is mirrored across the sport’s governing bodies around the world.
“There is a problem in the upper echelons of cycling’s management,” Eurosport commentator Rob Hatch says.
The same small groups of people who have always been involved, stay involved and go on to benefit the most from their experience of having been so. That’s a cycle that somehow we must break.
“I don’t subscribe to notions of pushing people out of positions they already hold, but one immediate change we could make would be to create additional positions in senior management at our governing body, to be initially filled by BAME candidates. That wouldn’t solve a deep-rooted lack of diversity, however it would give people of colour an immediate say in how the sport develops.
“Candidates for those roles do exist,” Hatch added. “British Cycling has had successful black representatives. Anybody who has been to a Six Day Cycling event will know of Maurice Burton, and younger generations of BMX fans know all about Shanaze Reade.
There are doubtless people of colour who are gifted riders waiting to be discovered right now; the next Mark Cavendish might be black, Lizzie Deignan’s successor of Pakistani heritage. They are the people who would then go on to be the next sports directors, team managers, administrators, coaches, mentors, writers and broadcasters. All that, provided we create the relevant pathways.
It's a suggestion that cycling would do well to take on board. Representation is important, whether that be from national boards to the UCI, from cycling clubs to professional teams, or from YouTube fan channels to national broadcasters. And Eurosport are no exception. The industry as a whole simply must do better.
Allies and role models
This article has already noted there are allies for black cyclists within the professional men's peloton; Doug Ryder and Chris Froome to name two specific examples.
And the sport can also take some encouragement from the fact that a small number of positive voices and impressive role models do exist.
EF Pro Cycling were the first major World Tour team to release a statement in support of Black Lives Matter. And bike manufacturer Specialized have been impressive in the strength of their response to the protests, releasing the following statement:
“Cycling has a problem with race. For decades, cycling has been a walled garden of exclusion, from the community to the lack of representation to the marketing—you name it. We’re owning that we’ve been part of that problem, and with the utmost humility, we’re acknowledging that we need to work harder at being part of its solution. We aren’t looking for plaudits, and we’re not here to signal our outrage. As human beings, like yourselves, we’re deeply hurt and saddened, and we’re declaring our commitment to learning and progressing this sport and culture forward to where it deserves to be. We don’t have all the answers, we don’t even know all the problems, but we’re listening today and acting in tandem with you tomorrow.”
In the British amateur cycling scene, Arthur is leading the launch of a full race team from the club’s membership, creating a new pathway for black amateur race cyclists.
And in Ayesha McGowan and Justin Williams, pro cycling has two impressive role models and vocal campaigners for equality in the sport.
What else should be done?
That ever-growing list of allies and role models is encouraging, but it is not enough.
There are number of things that could and should be done to help the sport become more diverse.
Governing bodies must do more, at the very least to ensure the brightest talents get the opportunity to compete in a sport that is in danger of becoming predominantly elitist, if it is not so already. That is a responsibility that falls on the likes of the UCI, national bodies such as British Cycling, and race organisers such as ASO.
How can they do this? Firstly by ensuring there is diverse representation on their boards. This could be done by the creation of new positions, as suggested earlier. And as mentioned, there isn't a lack of candidates for such roles.
Critics of British Cycling's attitude and approach to diversity suggest that the organisation's decision to share the independent Diversity in Cycling report was a token gesture and that a lack of action since adopting the research shows an unwillingness to act.
In light of that it is important to remember that the responsibility is on organisations to go out and search for BAME cycling talent. There is little use expecting diversity to come to you, particularly if the existing infrastructure has failed to achieve that in the past. Invest in strategies and approaches that create new pathways into the sport. Support grassroots groups that have the same aims. Don't just say you care about racism but do little to adjust your behaviour.
In the UK for example, the previously mentioned Black Cyclists Network are an impressive London-based club, while the Black Cyclists Collective from Leeds are a group with a similar core aim. The solution is not to pick one such group and make it the key to solving equality, but to invest in a number of similar groups. That will create multiple new pathways, and the more pathways there are the more diverse the sport will become.
Governments can also help. Cycling, whether on the road or on static indoor bikes, is an excellent form of exercise for young people. An increase in cycling participation within schools and an improvement in cycling infrastructure (access, storage, security, cycle commute groups etc) to further encourage cycling to school could make a substantial difference. Schemes and investment like that announced by the UK government on July 28 is a positive step.
It is not just governments and sporting organisations who have the responsibility to help make change. Media and broadcasters have an important role to play too. Improved staff diversity in sport media is a bigger issue than solely in cycling, but the more diverse the staff the more diverse the viewpoints and coverage there will be.
In addition, newspapers, magazines and sport websites (such as this one) have a responsibility to celebrate diversity and champion examples of those who succeed after making non-typical pathways into sport. This could be coverage at a professional level or it could be coverage (as we saw in abundance for a few weeks following the BLM protests) of amateur and participation stories.
Why is this a responsibility? Well, as British cyclist Yewande Adesida said, when she started cycling and didn't see black representation in the sport she "thought maybe I should be doing something else, as no one looked like me". How can you expect young people to take up a sport when they can't see examples of a route to success?
Beyond that, it falls on those who already have a platform to try and influence change.
As commentator Rob Hatch tells Eurosport UK:
Right now, those of us with any visibility in cycling have a responsibility to educate rather than divide. Talk, communicate, listen, understand and act where injustice exists.