As UCI approaches, does race matter in pro cycling?

by | Sep 3, 2015 | POLITICS

In the coming weeks a few things can be guaranteed, among them is the thousands of white European cyclists descending on Richmond, Virginia, a city where racial minorities are very much the majority.

In the coming weeks a few things can be guaranteed, among them is the thousands of white European cyclists descending on Richmond, Virginia, a city where racial minorities are very much the majority.

These days when conversations about race (#BlackLivesMatter) may lead to Facebook shouting matches (as I’m sure this article will), it’s interesting to see just how race impacts a sport with a long history of Anglo/White dominance, and how racial integration can shift the narrative around a sport.

It’s hard to find exact numbers, but when RVAMag spoke to Richmond 2015’s Paul Shanks regarding the number of non-White participants expected this month-someone told RVAMag ‘3,’ he aggressively shot that down and claimed there would be at least 5.

The Rwandan Team.


The Times-Dispatch pointed out
that the Rwandan Team were one of about a half dozen African teams to qualify and send racers.

The team, started in 2007 by white American biking enthusiast, Jack Boyer, are aiming to grow the sport around the rest of Africa. A documentary about the success of his team, Rise from the Ashes (2012), showcased the positive impacts of the sport on a country torn by war and political chaos.

It’s easy to see the positive story coming out of this situation, and it’s great to see diversity even being discussed in a sport whose the most famous person of color retired because he was sick of being ridiculed for his race.

Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor (26 November 1878 – 21 June 1932), was a young Black racer turned professional in 1896 at the age of 18 and soon emerged as the “most formidable racer in America.” One of his biggest supporters was President Theodore Roosevelt who kept track of Taylor throughout his 17-year racing career.

He’s since
been immortalized in a mural along Broad St.
just in time for UCI, and the first Black cyclist to achieve the level of “world champion” (1-mile sprint in 1899 in Montreal) and only the second Black man to win a world championship in any sport.

Meanwhile, here in the states, he wasn’t allowed to compete against White racers once he passed the Mason-Dixon, and he left the sport after being tackled and choked out by a White competitor.

But this all happened almost a century ago, things have surely gotten better, right?

We’re still awaiting the first Black American female pro-cyclist. Ayesha McGowan (pictured below) is the closest we’ve gotten so far. She’s competing at Cat 3 after an impressive showing at the 2014 New York State Criterium Championships.

The 28-year-old preschool music teacher rides in Brooklyn, NY, as part of the Ride Brooklyn team. She told Vice Sports NYC is a racial melting pot, but it’s still rare to see another woman of color while competing.

“I’ve never felt discriminated against in the racing community,” she said. “I don’t feel like it’s a community of racism. But I do feel like it’s just not something that’s being considered. People just aren’t thinking about it.”

For some local perspective RVAMag traveled to Armstrong High School in Richmond’s East End.


Richmond Cycling Corps
, a bike program started about 5-years-ago by Caucasian cyclist Craig Dodson, has been giving low-income middle and high schoolers a chance to ride alongside other youth teams nationally.

Goode and Lewis lead the pack at Richmond Cycling Corps practice behind Armstrong High

The team is made up entirely of Black youth, a rarity for the sport, and a point some of the kids notice but try and not focus on.

“I just ride my bike,” said Armstrong HS Junior Lavone Lewis. He’s been with RCC since 2011 when he started as a middle schooler. He found out about the program through the Richmond Boys & Girls Club and joined once he heard about the travel opportunities.

While more competitive racing is still new to the group, they do make an annual trip to race in Philadelphia, PA, where they face off against other youth cycling clubs.

“It ain’t hard to notice,” Lewis said about being part of the very small group of people of color who compete during the event. “You get used to it after a while, you know what to expect.”

Antonio Goode, another member of the Armstrong team, made a joke about when they pull up to events they’re the only folk with cornrows.

Goode said when his team is competing they “get on the bike and do what we do… Just keep moving, don’t think about it.”

RVAMag asked both boys if they have heroes in cycling, they shrug their shoulders. When asked if they have heroes from other sports; “I wanna be Michael Jordan on the bike,” said Lewis. They all laughed.

They were practicing near their makeshift ‘bike barn’ behind the high school on a particularly sunny and warm August day. Dodson gives them a pep talk before they start into sprints.

He doesn’t mince words, talking about the “choices they make” and how they can really compete if they chose to work harder and practice more.

He’s not wrong.

(You can read more about Dodson and the program’s success here and here.)

But how does the broader lack of diversity in the sport of cycling really impact these kids?

It’s an uplifting story to say the least – inner city kids find peace and stability in unique after-school program. Dodson and his new hire, Matt Crane, even pick up kids from their homes and buy them dinner after some events.

But RCC was started by White folks – the money for the program comes from more White folks.

There’s a glaring lack of diversity in cycling, and as one Richmond resident and former RVAMag intern Carson Brown pointed out, any conversation around it can make people uncomfortable and defensive.

“We see a lack of diversity reflected in a lot of places,” she said. Brown grew up in Richmond’s Northside in and around the Highland Park neighborhood. “We have to think more critically about why this happens.”

In Brown’s eyes, representation can make a difference when you’re deciding if you’re welcome in a community. “It can be tipping point that lets you pursue something that intrigues you, and may go on to fulfill you,” she said.

Brown also pointed out the irony of Black people’s use of bikes in general compared to their presence in pro-cycling.

“Poor people have been riding bikes in the hood forever for transportation,” she said. “But now it’s trendy for white eco-friendly people without money to do it.”

Back at Armstrong, Lewis mentioned this when asked if he thought about pursuing cycling after high school. “If it pays off in a year, if everything pulls through by the time I graduate, then maybe,” he said.

The issue of race in cycling may not be a huge point of contention for the kids at Armstrong; and this write up didn’t intend to point fingers at any one group for its involvement or lack there of.

But think about where Lewis and Goode’s dreams could be if they had their own Michael Jordan of cycling at the head of the peloton in a few weeks.

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner is the former editor of GayRVA and RVAMag from 2013 - 2017. He’s now the Richmond Bureau Chief for Radio IQ, a state-wide NPR outlet based in Roanoke. You can reach him at BradKutnerNPR@gmail.com




more in politics

RVA 5×5 | Bonding With (Or Against) The People?

There has been a lot of activity across the region recently about bond ratings and localities issuing bonds. It is a timely comparison of priorities of local leaders, a glimpse of a possible future, and what happens if you have people in charge who worry more about...

Richmond’s Next Mayor? Get To Know Dr. Danny Avula

Here’s my conversation with Dr. Danny Avula, candidate for Mayor of Richmond VA. This completes the set of all my conversations with Richmond’s prospective Mayors for November 2024. One of these people is going to be leading the city next year. Who it’s going to be is...

Dystopian View of VCU’s Graduation Walkout

The Greater Richmond Convention Center has undoubtedly experienced more prosperous times. The recent walkout by Virginia Commonwealth University graduates highlighted a series of declining events in Richmond, marked by police confrontations during protests and the...