Brian Cookson on Diversity in cycling

It’s absolutely no secret that diversity in cycling is abysmal.

There are so few black or minority ethic cyclists in the professional peloton that you can count the number of black riders who have been present at all three Grand Tours this year on one hand.

There have been four black riders, one per grand tour, there were 176 riders at the Tour de France, Kévin Reza was the sole black rider for B&B Hotels – Vital Concept p/b KTM. 176 riders at the Giro d’Italia, Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier was the sole black rider for NTT Pro Cycling and 176 riders at the Veulta España with Lorenzo Manzin, for Team Total Direct Change and Nic Dlamini, again for NTT Pro Cycling, Africa’s first UCI World Tour Team.

As an African team, NTT Pro Cycling has two black riders in its roster of 29. Out of a total of five hundred and twenty eight riders at all three grand tours, four are black as a percent that is 0.76%

Gruber Images: Kévin Reza at the Tour de France

So who is responsible for the lack of diversity in cycling? Pusher of Pedals has spoke to former head of the UCI, Brian Cookson “It’s probably unfair to single out the UCI. As a global body it represents almost 200 national federations from around the world, and thus all the different ethnicities.” Says Cookson.

The UCI has the World Cycling Centre in Aigle, where talented individuals from developing nations are brought for training and development. Its success record is pretty good. There are also satellite centres in various parts of the world. And independent initiatives such as the one in Rwanda that have been remarkably successful” Cookson continues.

If we take another sport which also struggles for diversity, Formula 1. There is one sole black driver in Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton, he is probably the best known racing driver in the world right now and at the top of his game. Hamilton is in the best car on the grid eclipsing records set by Michael Schumacher and making his own history of greatness. Alongside that he is fronting and pushing Formula 1’s governing body, the FIA to change, be more inclusive and diverse. All of the drivers on the grid stand by Lewis Hamilton at the start of each race wearing an End Racism t-shirt and either ‘taking a knee’ or showing their own recognition in their own way.

The problem cycling faces is that there is no poster boy rider to drive change, it seems an awful long time ago since Daniel Teklehaimanot was the African black rider (and still the only African rider) to wear the polka dot jersey at the Tour de France back in 2015. The sport has not kicked on, since.

Daniel Teklehaimanot in the King of the Mountains jersey, 2015 Tour de France

Brian Cookson: “If Julian Alaphilippe, for example, were black, then things would certainly be different. Role models at the top level are a key factor in a successful high profile campaign. There are black and other ethnicities in pro road cycling and in other disciplines, but not at the top level, apart from track racing where there is much more ethnic diversity. The development work at national level needs to continue and be much more energetic.

It is a fair point if there were a black world champion then, maybe, things might be different. However, this is today, now, what about 5 years ago or even 10 years ago, we would probably be seeing more black riders coming through now if action were taken sooner to raise the profile of black cyclists.

On this, Brian Cookson said of his time as President of British Cycling (1996-2013): I believe the one thing that we did not really address was the subject of the ‘whiteness’ of the sport. This is still an issue today. We had appropriate policies in place, as advised by the relevant bodies, and I think that we assumed that that was enough. I don’t think there was overt or institutional racism as such, but I accept that I am looking at this from a white person’s perspective. Clearly, if you look at the numbers, people who are not of a White British ethnicity are under-represented in every facet of cycling.”

Cookson continues “I now think we should have been more pro-active in bringing non-white people of all ages into cycling. In the way that we began to pro-actively develop initiatives to attract more women into the sport and pastime, we should have done the same for non-white people. Sure there are exceptions, but the numbers tell a clear story. As a sport, we should have done, and should now be doing, better. This remains a challenge which cycling must address.”

The Tour de France tried to show some sort of acknowledgement of the Black Lives Matter movement, however the organiser of the event, ASO, chose to leave it to the riders to organise something. What was done was pathetic. There was widespread criticism and many cycling journalists, who are indeed mainly white, claiming it was a slow start or anti-climactic.

Whatever the intention at the Tour’s final stage was, the outcome was completely hopeless and embarrassingly inadequate.” Says Cookson before continuing “I would have tried to influence ASO, but they were remarkably resistant to my influence during my time as UCI President. They seem more inclined to work closely with the current President, so perhaps that is a hopeful sign. I certainly think a more significant demonstration at the start of the Tour’s final stage would have been desirable. A lost opportunity.

However, it’s unfair just to highlight the failings of the Tour de France, no other race this season has addressed the issue at their race. Not the Giro, the Vuelta or any of the classics. On this Brian Cookson says “The lack of action in any other race is a reflection of the low number of people of colour throughout cycling. Because of that, the perception is that this is not a problem in cycling.

It’s this sort of notion that started Colin Kaepernick’s movement in NFL. He didn’t announce he was going to be ‘taking a knee’ during America’s National Anthem. There was no big tweet, no announcement, he just went about it in his own way. The only way Kaepernick could get his voice heard was being silent and taking a knee. Where has this stance got him now? Vilified from a sport in which he was successful and it seems improbable he will gain a contract within the NFL again.

If you want to hear more from Brian Cookson on the subject of diversity in cycling you can listen to the Living Adventurously podcast. “As a sport, nationally and internationally, we need to be much more pro-active on this issue.

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