Cycling slow to face up to being ‘possibly the whitest sport on Earth’
> While Tour de France chiefs ignore the Black Lives Matter protests, a group of BAME riders are making their mark
Of the 176 riders who will start the Tour de France in Nice tomorrow, assuming it does not fall victim to Covid-19 by then, just one will be black. Merhawi Kudus, a 26-year-old from Eritrea, has been selected in Astana’s eight-man team.
The odds of any other black riders joining him were not great. There are only five black riders in total competing on the World Tour, the highest rung of professional cycling. And that lack of representation is reflected right the way down through cycling’s pyramid. Ayesha McGowan, an American pro rider and activist, pondered in these pages a few weeks ago whether professional road cycling might be the “whitest” sport on Earth.
Cycling has been slow to address this historic issue, and completely cloth-eared in terms of its response to the global Black Lives Matter protests which are reverberating louder than ever in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin on Sunday.
While US sports are busy postponing games and boycotting events, and European ones such as football, rugby and Formula One are at the very least pledging their support for anti-racism, cycling’s silence has been deafening.
ASO, the Tour’s organiser, did not respond to this newspaper when asked whether the race would acknowledge anti-racism in any way at the Grand Depart tomorrow, when the eyes of the world are upon the sport.
The UCI, cycling’s governing body, has seemingly not put it under any pressure to do so. In a piece for The Conversation, Dr Marlon Moncrieffe, a former rider turned academic who has carried out extensive research into the experiences of black British athletes, said it would be “a huge surprise” if we saw any riders “taking the knee or raising their fists in solidarity” at cycling’s biggest race.
It begs the question: how will this change? And who will change it, if not the sport’s most powerful stakeholders?
Mani Arthur is trying to effect change from the bottom up. A British-Ghanaian club rider and civil servant, Arthur founded the Black Cyclists Network (BCN) in 2018 with the aim of increasing diversity and raising the profile of the sport within the black, Asian and minority ethnic community. It grew slowly at first; BCN’s Saturday morning group rides in Regent’s Park attracting a regular crew of like-minded souls. But interest, Arthur says, has exploded since May.
“Whereas before we had 20odd people turning up for our rides, now we’ve got 80-plus turning up on a Saturday morning at 8am,” he says. “I think what we’ve demonstrated is there is a massive interest in cycling within the BAME community.
“I mean, last year we were all complaining about Ride London Photoshopping a black woman on to a promotional picture. Earlier this month we had over 1,500 people, including God knows how many black women and children, turn up to ride from Walthamstow to Brixton for the Black Unity Bike Ride. It just goes to show that we are out there.”
Arthur has ambitious plans to grow BCN. As well as opening up “chapters across the country”, connecting with other BAME groups, and starting a foundation, he is in the process of setting up Britain’s first domestic team for BAME riders. It is currently made up of just nine riders: one elite, four category two and four category three. But Arthur hopes it will reach Pro-Continental level in time. Already one big-name sponsor, sports nutrition company SIS, has come on board, while a further £18,000 has been raised via a GoFundMe campaign.
Such support can make a big difference in a sport where cultural barriers (Arthur was the victim of racial profiling last year, subjected to a “humiliating” stop and search in central London) are reinforced by socio-economic ones.
“Cycling is not like football,” Arthur says. “You need parental investment, you need money, time. If you live in an inner city, and you want to do road races, you have to get up early; you have to have a car; you have to have an expensive bike, spare parts… “That’s why there needs to be an extra level of push to get BAME riders participating. If I go to a road race, I will be the only black rider there. And that’s not because we’ve been actively shut out, but in a way we have been. The governing body needs to do more, to spot young talented riders and give them those opportunities.”
Richard Liston, who helped to set up RideFest, another Londonbased BAME cycling group, agrees British Cycling could do more. “At the club I coach in Orpington [GS Avanti] we have probably 30 juniors on our books and they’re all white,” he says. “But you look at the borough and that’s just not representative.”
Liston cites the lack of diversity within British Cycling as an issue. Last year the governing body supported the publication of the DiverBy sity in Cycling report, a grass-roots project authored by a white rider, Andy Edwards, who decided to canvas the views of BAME riders about their experiences in cycling.
The report was well-intentioned and contained plenty of useful advice aimed at improving diversity and making a sometimes exclusive (read snobbish) sport more welcoming. Moncrieffe accused the governing body of using the report as window-dressing, describing it as a “whitewash”.
Liston says there is no doubt British Cycling’s response to the issue has been weak. “That report came out a year ago, but they didn’t know what to do with it,” he says. “They
didn’t have the correct personnel within the organisation to do something sensible with it. I only know of one black person within BC.
“I don’t know how many thousands of people ride their bikes to work every day and they don’t have a clue what the relationship is between them and British Cycling, who are supposed to represent British cycling and not the British Olympic team.”
Asked for comment, a British Cycling spokesperson said that improving diversity had been “a clear priority for British Cycling for many years”, although he added there was still “a great deal to do”.
“We recognise that a lack of diverse ethnic representation is a significant problem and a historical legacy that those of us who love cycling must tackle if we want to say with credibility that ours is a sport open to all.”
Arthur will be watching events in Nice tomorrow as a fan. He says he will not be angry or annoyed to see so few black riders. “Because that’s how cycling has always been. I knew when I entered cycling I was entering a white sport. I try to look at it from a positive angle. For me it’s like, ‘What can I do to change things?’”
It is high time the sport asked itself that question.
Lone star: Merhawi Kudus, of Eritrea, (left) will be the only black rider in this year’s Tour de France, with Mani Arthur (below left) showing the sport can be multicultural in his Black Cyclists Network