PEZ Bookshelf: Desire Discrimination Determination – Black Champions in Cycling

Although it was founded in 2013, the Black Lives Matter organization only took on global momentum in 2020 as massive demonstrations against the brutal murder of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis took place in the United States, with a ripple effect across the world. This high visibility stung organizations into consideration of their own approaches to diversity matters and the peculiar and hidebound sport of cycling is not unaffected. While 2021 saw Nicholas Dlamini as the first black South African to ride at the Tour de France and the Olympics, his Qhubeka team has this week been denied a WorldTour license, so no African team will be present at the top level in 2022: a case of one step forward, two steps back. A recent book published by Rapha, “Desire Discrimination Determination – Black Champions in Cycling,” addresses this elephant in the room.

Author Dr. Marlon Lee Moncrieffe was inspired by a picture of Miguel Indurain enough to go to Paris to see the final stage of the 1994 Tour, seeing the Spaniard in the yellow jersey. In spite of some parental misgivings, he began to race as an amateur, with some five years off as he dealt with life after school and work. He returned more actively and raced on the track at the World Masters Championships in 2010. In 2009, he writes, “I began developing my learning about the history of black cyclists and their participation in competitive cycling through my academic research project about black British cycling champions….Some of the key questions for me were: What are their stories? Why hadn’t I seen them racing at the Olympics or at the world championships?”

The fruits of that research were a paper delivered to the British Society of Sports History Annual Conference in 2018, and an exhibition, “Made in Britain: uncovering the life histories of Black-British Champions in British Cycling: An Exhibition concerning Excellence, Representation and Diversity” at the British Cycling Hub at the UCI World Championships in Harrogate in 2019. Moncrieffe’s research also clearly led to this interesting and thoughtful book.

This beautifully-produced book is in parts autobiographical in that it covers the author’s personal experience as a pretty talented amateur cyclist but includes a great deal of material from interviews with noted black British riders. For those outside the United Kingdom, many of the names will not be familiar but their stories are interesting and on point. When writing of black cyclists, it is of course necessary, as the author does, to cite the career of Major Taylor, the outstanding American rider who conquered in the Jim Crow era but he also mentions Kittie Knox, a young black cyclist who was such a threat upon joining the national cycling organization, the League of American Wheelmen, in 1893. officials changed the bylaws to keep her out. This direct racism does not seem to have been that common in Britain—although in 1936 the Canadian Olympic team returning from Berlin refused to stay in a hotel in London when their captain, middle distance runner Phil Edwards, was denied a room because he was black. However, the accounts of the racers interviewed in “Desire Discrimination Determination” indicate that there was certainly discrimination.

Much of it is petty—press reports about successful white cyclists while ignoring black ones; officials being officious and denying a win for spurious reasons; heckling. A good example is the black rider told he could not race on tubulars because they were “dangerous,” so his white friends took the wheels and were told they were fine. Of course, the most damaging was where successful riders were simply denied the opportunity to ride at the world championships or Olympics as white Britons, who were not as good, were given that chance.

In some cases, this led cyclists to consider riding for other nations as many of those interviewed were first generation children of immigrants who could apply for citizenship elsewhere, such as Jamaica or Barbados. One of the best riders was Maurice Burton, who was fed up with British racism to the point where he moved to Belgium in 1977 and turned professional, competing in 56 Six Day Races, retiring in 1984 and taking over a bike shop in London a few years later. The United Kingdom boasts black world champions in BMX but none of them seem to have been brought onboard by British Cycling and no black British rider has ever been chosen for the Olympics or world championships.

The reminiscences of Burton and his son Germain, another talented racer, feature prominently in the book, along with those of Russell Williams, who rode both road and track events, and David Clarke, a road racer who was active between 2002 and 2017. As well, the United States is covered through two of its most noted black racers, Nelson Vails and Rahsaan Bahati. There are only passing references to black riders, male or female, from other countries. The UCI has a training centre in Africa and efforts have been made to encourage the growth of the Tour of Rwanda as the continent’s big race. The Road World Championships are planned for Rwanda in 2025. At the Worlds in Richmond, Virginia, in 2015, one was impressed by the presence of Eritrean enthusiasts noisily supporting their countrymen. Quebeka had, over the years, brought in some Eritreans as well as some black South Africans but this declined.

The goal of making cycling as inclusive as possible is admirable and may assist in taking it beyond the niche sport it has always been outside of some European countries. How is this to be accomplished? Moncrieffe’s book is not a jeremiad and one feels that simply treating good riders more fairly would be a positive step. Many of his interviewees come from poorer families and point out that cycling is expensive and young talented black athletes can look to other sports that are easier to get into, such as soccer or basketball or track and field, and can be far more lucrative. The UCI would like pro cycling to be more global but its scale pales in comparison to other sports—last week a baseball pitcher signed a three year contract with the New York Mets for $130 million, which is probably just slightly less than Team INEOS Grenadier’s entire budget over the same period.

Perhaps as important as finding funding for equipment, the existence of role models at the elite level would be helpful to encourage more diverse participation. Rahsaan Bahati makes the point that people who want to race do it because they love to do it—you can’t be pushed into becoming a bike racer. While Moncrieff was inspired by Indurain—and Bradley Wiggins was by Maurice Burton!–perhaps the newest generation will think of Nicholas Dlamini, who had widespread press coverage this year at the Tour de France. He crashed during Stage 9 but picked himself and rode to the end, outside of the time limit and in pouring rain, On finishing, he said: “It would’ve been easier to get in the car for the final 25km with the heater on but I wanted to respect the sport and my team and honour my dream of trying to finish the race even though I was an hour and a half over the time limit.”

The book is a collection of stories with the central theme of the experience of a being a black participant in an endeavour that is overwhelmingly white, a place where only drive and desire and performance can make you feel you belong. The problem experienced by all the subjects of the book is not specific to cycling but taints it anyway. “Desire Discrimination Determination” presents a different (yes, depressing as it might be at times) history of cycling and serves up plenty of food for thought on our sport and how it might become a better one.

“Desire Discrimination Determination—Black Champions in Cycling” by Marlon Lee Moncrieffe
240 pp., illustrated, hardbound
Rapha Editions, London, 2021
ISBN 978-1-912164-16-5
Price: C$45/GBP 25

Photo’s are from the book.

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