This is our truth, tell us yours
Jem forwarded an article to me about black cyclists’ experience of cycling. It was fascinating, but in my opinion missed the point.
I’m a cyclist. I pass as white, I’m middle aged, and, if you use external categories of class, I probably qualify as a working class man who has moved into the middle class.
So what do I think of Kevin Hylton’s article?
I think he’s missed the point. There’s no doubt in my mind that riders like Daniel Teklehaimanot will have encountered racism, but that’s not cycling’s problem, it’s society’s.
Kevin Hylton highlights two problems in his article; racist abuse he experiences when he rides in an all black group, and racist policing of cyclists in American cities. Both happen. Neither is why there aren’t enough BME cyclists at the elite end of the sport.
I can only talk about the UK, and specifically about England, but I do know something about cycling’s development pathways.
The first reason why cycling is dominated by the white middle classes is because it’s an expensive sport. Want a replica of Daniel Teklehaimanot’s shirt? Somewhere north of £50 is needed. Want a replica of his race bike? Somewhere north of £5000 is required. The power meters on a professional’s bike cost as much as the eight speed road bike I rode my first club time trial on, and even in that club TT, a jolly, sociable event, there were guys at the top of the field riding carbon fibre TT bikes that cost more than the car I use to get my bike to events.
Cycling is an expensive sport. As a leisure activity it can be less expensive, but my experience is you spend a lot of time on eBay shopping for last year’s kit, for spare parts that are end of line or surplus to requirements. Cycling is a technological arms race, and that arms race costs money. As a sport it needs schemes to make sure kids get access to the right kit, the right opportunities to prove they have the ability to be competitors. All too often cycling gives off the impression that it’s asport where money is required. One minor example? If you want to ride in regional time trials, the first step up the competitive ladder for some riders, you have to wear either club or trade team kit or entirely plain kit. My club kit cost over £100.
The second issue,which Kevin Hylton needs to address but doesn’t, is that cycling is, increasingly, a rural sport. There’s a paucity of cycling sports provision in England’s cities, and increasingly, cycling events, whether road races, time trials or sportives, are being pushed further and further into the countryside. It wouldn’t take too much resource to grab all the course maps off the CTT website, and add in the known locations of velodromes and circuits. My intuition is that the map would show that, because of congestion and road safety issues, cycling is a rural sport, and there aren’t enough cycling facilities in our cities to enable cycling to be a grass roots sport. Where there are facilities, they are all too often elite facilities like Manchester or the Olympic velodrome, not the kind of concrete community velodrome where Geraint Thomas started racing with Maindy Flyers.
There’s no plan for grassroots cycling. Sports funding in the UK is hugely biassed towards funding elite participation in events that produce medals or world titles. It wasn’t always so. Very British events like cycle speedway and grasstrack racing were not demanding in terms of infrastructure; there’s no reason, besides will and funding, why your local school shouldn’t have a fleet of single speed bikes to enable kids to race each other in grass track devil* races on the school field.
It’s utterly unacceptable that black cyclists are on the receiving end of racism, whether from their fellow competitors, from other road users,or from racist policing. None of those things are the reason why cycling is male, pale and stale. The reasons are economic, and about infrastructure.
*Devil, or elimination races, feature the last rider round on nominated laps being eliminated – the name comes from ‘devil take the hindmost’.