Cycling has a long history of not talking about things. The omerta that covered up decades of doping has deep cultural roots in the sport, and riders who disrupt the status quo tend not to make it very far. It's not just cheating that cyclists don't talk about, though; it's anything controversial. When the Tour de France finished Sunday, there was just one Black rider, Kévin Reza of France.
The omerta that covered up decades of doping has deep cultural roots in the sport, and riders who disrupt the status quo tend not to make it very far.
The tour started with 176 riders this year, with Reza of the French team B&B Hotels-Vital Concept presented by KTM as the only Black rider. Last year was the first year that a nonwhite rider (Egan Bernal of Colombia) won the coveted yellow jersey. Meanwhile, there are just five Black riders on the 743-rider World Tour, the highest tier of professional road cycling. That's less than 1 percent of the riders at the peak of the sport. Despite this shocking lack of diversity, cycling's global governing body, the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), and the organizer of the Tour de France have done little to acknowledge the global conversation around race.
This silence isn't new, but in 2020, it's particularly noticeable. This summer, tennis player Naomi Osaka wore masks with the names of victims of police violence at the U.S. Open, Formula One's Lewis Hamilton demanded — while on the starting grid — that the killers of Breonna Taylor be arrested, and NBA games completely shut down in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Even NASCAR took steps to show that racism wasn't welcome. But cycling has done almost nothing. During the final stage of the Tour, Reza was joined by several other riders who wrote anti-racist slogans on their masks. Reza also rode at the head of the peloton near the race winner Tadej Pogačar.
I grew up racing bikes in the U.K., where I saw riders more talented than I get passed over for opportunities because of the color of their skin. Russell Williams won multiple national championships but never made it on an Olympic team. "It was because I'm black," Williams told the biking magazine CyclingTips in February.
Marlon Moncrieffe in the U.K. has documented the overlooked achievements of Black cyclists and the consistent failure of cycling to address its anti-Blackness in the Black-British Champions in Cycling project, which lists Williams alongside other national champions who were overlooked for international competitions because of their race, like David Clarke and Maurice Burton. But it's not just a British problem: Just look at the whiteness of cycling in France itself or in the U.S., where champions like Rahsaan Bahati, Nelson Vails and Justin Williams have all come forward to discuss the varying degrees of exclusion they faced in recent months.
This exclusion isn't always systemic or subtle. In 2017, Italian cyclist Gianni Moscon was reported to have used a racial slur toward Reza, who is racing his third Tour this year. In 2014, Swiss rider Michael Albasini was reported to have called Reza a "dirty negro" during a stage of the Tour while surrounded by other cyclists who said and did nothing. Remembering the incident later, Reza said: "There isn't much solidarity in cycling. My close friends in the peloton came to see me to tell me that they supported me and that they were affected by what had happened. But in a general way, no, I didn't really feel wider solidarity in the peloton to call attention to what happened."
The sport's governing body also did nothing. Reza, who supports the Black Lives Matter movement, told Cyclingnews that he is considering how best to take action in a sport that largely seems indifferent at best. "It's something that demands a lot of reflection, but that's not to say that I don't support the movement or that I'm sitting it out. Not at all. I will reflect, see what opportunities come up, and do things well."
This isn't an issue of participation, either, at least not on a global scale. Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, South Africa and many other African nations have thriving amateur and professional cycling scenes. I have ridden with a lot of gifted cyclists and can attest to the talent of African riders. But it's likely these young athletes won't get the same opportunities that I had. They won't be able to prove their value, because many European teams have biases, inadvertent or not, against races in Africa. European teams just don't understand, still, how competitive and professional those races are. And if these riders do make it to Europe, they'll have to work through a cycling culture than makes no effort to embrace and include them. And they'll have to put in that hard work knowing they may never be accepted, even if they make it to the Tour de France.
There isn't a single Black person on the board of USA Cycling, British Cycling or the UCI. Without diversity in governing bodies, we aren't going to see change on the roads of France any time soon. Cycling might hide behind tradition, but the long history of racism and discrimination isn't one riders should be proud of. During the pandemic, there has been a bike boom, with bike shops around the world selling out. However, racing license sales have been in decline for years. If road bike racing wishes to matter in the 21st century, it needs to address its anti-Blackness problem sooner rather than later.