Length: Oh boy it’s a long’un. But, it’s so important. Get your cuppa and your snack and take a seat. Set aside some time to think about it after.
Audience: Everyone. Cyclists, clubs, prospective cyclists, other sports clubs.
Sentence summary: Cycling is an unequal sport, dominated by the white male. Cycling clubs can do more to make the sport accessible to people from diverse backgrounds. The actions suggested may benefit everyone.
I’m not a person of colour, but you don’t need to be to recognise that this is an important issue, and now is an important moment. I have been the minority in a cycling club before – and still am. I know from personal experience how valuable it is to have outspoken allies in the majority or more privileged social group. To the men in my cycling club who have supported me speaking out and have offered their help and enthusiasm – thank you – I think you know who you are and I’m not sure you knew how much this mattered. To any POC reading this – this is me saying I want to do the same for you. And to anyone reading this who’s not sure there is an issue. Please read on. I doubt I’ll convince you in the paragraphs which follow, but I’ll hope to start something.
It comes in three parts (1) a brief overview of the background, (2) why this matters in cycling, and (3) what cycling clubs and the everyday cyclist can do about that.
Part 1: Understanding the backdrop – Britain as a racist country
Britain is a racist country. This is something which is often ignored, and which many (white) people choose to dispute. I think it’s something we’re* deeply uncomfortable with, and it seems often we’re more affronted by the accusation of racism than the racism itself. The current climate has brought Boris Johnson’s racism back to the fore. He has previously referred to people of African descent as “picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and to Muslim women as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers“. In a carefully worded response to the recent BLM protests, Boris avoided agreeing that black lives mattered – instead treading around by saying “we are right to say that black lives matter“. Whilst his previous words periodically resurface in the news, Johnson still refuses to apologise. His cabinet scramble to defend him. Back in February Dave said “the truth is our prime minister is a real racist” in his performance of “Black” at the Brit awards (which is as a side note excellent. Watch it here). In response, Priti Patel issued a statement calling the claim “utter nonsense” which it evidently isn’t, and saying “he’s not racist”, he is. That’s one example, and I wonder what impact it has on a country to see someone in such a position of power to be handed a free pass for language and behaviour which is so offensive and damaging.
*(we = white britons)
Britain has also long painted a picture of “tolerance” which I find deeply unsettling. As if tolerance is something to aspire to, the word in itself implies an inherent unpleasantness of the thing being endured – the dictionary definition suggests it is of something you may not agree with or approve of. Tolerance ignores equality, and “others” POC from Britain. Much as in cycling we often see the male default, in Britain the white default exists. Worse, if you are white, it might be difficult to notice the white default. It’s certainly not flagged in our education system – I was lucky enough to have university friends who helped me see the things I’d never before noticed. But, it goes beyond the white default of pink plasters and pale skinned toys, being white comes with inherent privilege. White privilege.
This privilege goes beyond the racist words of the PM. White privilege manifests systemically. Recently, I’ve heard white people say they don’t see racism “in practice“. Which is almost exactly the point – it’s the systemic disadvantage which POC experience, due to their colour. It’s in any sentence which starts “I’m not racist but…”, it’s in the way the media portray POC, the unemployment of BAME groups**, the studies showing ‘ethnic minority’ named CVs receive fewer callbacks than their identical ‘white’ named counterparts, the microagressions against POC, the disproportionate number of BAME coronavirus deaths**, BAME prevalence in the incarcerated population** and underrepresentation in positions of power and leadership. The list could go on. It’s everywhere, and it’s something many people are used to. Author of White Fragility, Robin d’Angelo suggests that we should think of racism as “a system rather than just a slur; it is prejudice plus power.” It may be an uncomfortable realisation that that needs to change, but we can all do our bit in our respective corners to help.
**BAME is the terminology used in the report.
There’s plenty more to be said on this, but this is enough for a starter. If it was news to you there are some sources I’ve found really helpful on this topic at the end. How does this relate to our sports clubs?
Part 2: This is the why part. Why does racism matter in cycling.
“But we’re not an exclusive club – anyone can join”
As a note on this section: It focusses on cycling as a sport, on road cycling in particular and on clubs and individuals. For an excellent read on the cycling industry see Jess Duffy’s piece on Medium.
This problem persists in cycling clubs and in other sports too. The British Cycling (BC) Diversity in Cycling Report highlights the issues brilliantly, and has made me realise that within our club, we need to do more. There is a key difference between not being exclusive, and being actively inclusive. I would hope that no club is trying to actively exclude minority groups, but there’s a big gap between the passive position of not creating harm, (“Anyone can join”) and a much more active position of using our privilege to do good (“Everyone is welcome and included”).
Because being in a cycling club is a privilege, and that’s something we should accept. It goes beyond the motivation, health, and training benefits of club rides and chain gangs, the support and advice of club members. Cycling clubs create community, purpose, and belonging. I know many people in my cycling club who have found friends for life there, support in tough times, and guidance that spans beyond the bike – alongside the obvious benefit of team mates. I personally have benefitted from being able to find like-minded outdoorsy people who are now my close friends, adventure buddies and tear my legs off from time to time. Why shouldn’t those privileges be open to all? For the majority who make up our sport (white, men) the status quo might be comfortable – it’s easy to surround yourself with similar people, and to take no action to change that “I just want to ride my bike and eat cake”. That’s passive and lets the status quo continue. The way it’s always been done doesn’t equal the way it should be done, and to be quite honest, those lacking experience of the barriers faced by minority groups are not usually well placed to advise on the issue e.g. “They can join the club if they want to”. Which is why the BC report is so useful – detailing the experiences of these groups.
We need to recognise that there are barriers to joining cycling clubs which do not affect everyone. Right now we’re certainly not doing enough to address them- as detailed by the experiences of POC shared in the BC report and by the quite honestly shocking statistics (Screenshot above, excerpt below). This is something which has recently been flagged by high profile cyclists such as Ayesha McGowan – noting that there are just five black riders in the world tour, and no black people on the boards of British Cycling, USA cycling, or management committee of UCI. There is just one black cyclist (of 80) on top level British Olympic funding – Kadeena Cox. We have to make clubs more welcoming and inclusive because often that’s where it starts – change will come from the top down and from the bottom up.
“In London, a city where a third of the population identifies as black, Asian and minority ethnic, 86% of male cyclists and 94% of female cyclists are white – and two thirds of all cyclists are male.”Kevin Hylon – The unbearable whiteness of cycling
Part 3: What now? What can we do?
Cycling clubs are not doing enough – so what can we do?
No one is expecting clubs or individuals to do everything to solve this problem, nor solve it overnight. Refer back to Part 1 – racism in the UK is a systemic issue which will take time, effort and will to resolve. However, each individual effort matters. We’ve also got to start somewhere, and I’m against doing nothing because you’re not sure you can do enough. Make a start, see what happens, worst case scenario you tried. Best case scenario you make a difference. Worth it.
The following are a synthesis of the suggestions from the BC Report and things I’ve read, listened to and watched in recent weeks plus a couple of ideas. The report is brilliant, and I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know it existed until a couple of weeks ago.
This one is important and likely uncomfortable, but I think for clubs it’s important to look at where you’re starting from to think about what to do next. What are you currently doing to make minorities feel welcome to join the club? It’s uncomfortable to realise that the answer may be not much or nothing. My club has, over time, done more to improve the experience of women and we’re still getting better with more yet to do. Like most cycling clubs, we’re still very much white male dominated but I think it’s the trajectory which matters more than the starting point – recognise it and get going.
Data matters – start collecting ethnicity information in your membership. This will allow you as a club to monitor your trajectory and see how it changes over time. The BC report suggests the format below for collecting ethnicity data:
I also think having some form of survey in your club is valuable. Knowing your club demographic is one thing, but understanding the club experience by demographic is even better and could provide clear insight into what needs to change.
3. Be visibly and actively welcoming
The BC report suggests a number of approaches to this. I think there are simple things clubs can do like:
- Putting an inclusivity/diversity statement on your website e.g. “We are committed to promoting diversity and inclusivity as a cycling club, and welcome all new members – please see our club runs page to find out how to join us and feel free to contact us with any questions”
- Consider making your membership request/form more straightforward and in plain, friendly language. A quick search around some clubs I’m familiar with found some formal ones about. That might seem like a non-issue but if you’re on the fence of feeling brave enough to join a club it might be enough to make you feel not welcomed, and it’s an easy step to say somewhere “new members are welcome/encouraged” somewhere on that form or page.
- Encourage your members to be welcoming to new arrivals at club events and also at races – the BC report recognises that those who stand out in a group may feel an additional level of intimidation. Make them welcome without overdoing it. And, as a personal note on this – individuals being welcoming and supportive of me made a huge difference when I started cycling and I would love it if everyone could have that experience. Joining a fairly homogenous group and feeling like an “other” – for me a woman showing up to mostly male events or club runs is intimidating and small efforts go a long way.
- Consider your own behaviour at races and/or sportives or audaxes – whether you’re a competitor or volunteer. Small friendly gestures are much needed here too as new riders may be pushing their comfort zone, and may not know anyone. From my experiences – racing can feel cliquey and terrifying when you’re new and everyone seems to know each other. Friendly volunteers, organisers and fellow competitors have made a huge difference to me in the past. Extend those gestures to everyone.
4. A Buddy System
An idea I’ve had which could work across Bristol’s cycling clubs (and further afield) is the idea of offering a “buddy” system for your first club ride – something which could definitely transfer to other sports! I think one of the most intimidating things going on your first club run is not knowing anyone, especially if you feel like you might not fit in.
A buddy system would work advertised next to club runs (on your website, or on social media channels) and offer an existing member to meet and greet the new person, ensure they don’t get dropped and make sure they have someone to talk to along the way and at the café stop. The prospective new rider could request a buddy for a club run via the website or facebook page, and they could even be available beforehand via email or similar for those last minute questions. It wouldn’t have to be the same person each time either – putting a call out on your club’s members group could work for finding someone who’ll be heading out in that group anyway. I like this idea as it takes the pressure away from one person in the club, and would make sure no one has an awkward experience that would put them off. Being able to do something like this across the Bristol clubs would be a great way to help those who are less confident make the jump to club riding, and show that clubs are genuinely keen to welcome new faces.
5. Celebrate existing diversity
The BC report suggests that if your club has members from BAME backgrounds, then, with their permission they should be included in visual representation of the club – making them and their participation more visible to others. Most clubs have some form of website or social media which would be a great place to start. I know when I first looked at my club’s Instagram (~2018) there hadn’t been a picture of a female cyclist on it since 2016, and at the time this was one of two images with a female cyclist in it since starting. We’ve since changed that through celebrating our female members (both new, and long standing!) more visibly and this is a similar idea.
Promoting ambassadors is another option. Similar to the buddies idea, ambassadors can be a point of contact for new members from BAME backgrounds, and would ideally be an existing member from a BAME background themselves. The BC report recognises that not everyone will want to take on that role and that should be respected – but creating something similar if not the same could be really beneficial. I’d like to suggest a diversity and inclusion officer in my club to ensure that it’s something we continue to think about (and act on) going forwards.
Finally – do these things but be honest (which ties in with #1 on reflecting). Many cycling clubs are not diverse, and those which lack diversity at present can still promote values of inclusion (#3). State that you are open and welcoming to all newcomers regardless of race and gender and celebrate what diversity you do have.
6. Develop a culture of inclusivity and positivity
One thing I’d love to see is cycling become more open to a more diverse idea of what a cyclist is. It’s easy to become caught up in snobbery of the right kit, right lycra, and right bike but perhaps that makes it feel especially exclusive to outsiders. I remember being baffled by “the rules of cycling” when I came across them.
I know not everyone buys into these but there certainly is a fairly uniform image of ‘cyclist’ that I see. Plus, a new cyclist coming across them wouldn’t know that. The BC report was eye opening for me as I’d never previously considered that the default outfit of a cyclist might not be open to people from all backgrounds. Some Muslim men, for example, may wish to wear baggy overshorts over their lycra for modesty. And that’s why it’s so crucial we become more diverse. My lived experience is white. I’m doing my best to learn and educate myself but that won’t be comparable to those who have lived it, just as those who have lived as male may struggle to see the barriers which face womxn. Let’s ditch the rules and the snide comments about amateur cyclists who wear sleeveless jerseys or pro team kits and let’s certainly not “correct” riders for not following rules which are quite honestly bollocks. Recognise that many of them would prohibit riders from certain groups. Use your energy to encourage safe, friendly group riding instead. And let’s wave at other riders on the road regardless how ‘pro’ they look or how long their socks are.
7. Signpost other options
Here’s another one I want to work on with other Bristol clubs – clubs are different and they won’t suit everyone. Pace, length, and timing of sessions will all have an impact. We’re lucky enough in Bristol to have a huge range of clubs riding at different times of day, different days of the week and at varying paces – it’s key to make this visible and signpost riders to other clubs if you’re not the best fit.
This falls into BCs “promote accessibility” suggestion – covering rides of different start times and links in with managing expectations of those coming to the club rides. Offering a range of sessions at different times allows for those with different responsibilities to attend – Sunday morning at 9am is not for everyone, after all. Managing expectations is important too and includes being specific about the pace and distance of rides and what to bring. For Bristol, I think it would be great to have a combined table of which clubs ride when, how far and how fast so that for newbies it’s easy to navigate the options. This is on my to-do list.
You can also provide signposts on your club website and social media to groups like Brothers on Bikes, the Black Cyclists Network and the Women of Colour Cycling group. BC suggests building a dialogue with these groups too so that riders who may want to step up to club riding can consider your club. This is on my list too.
8. Educate yourself + Raise your racial awareness
Finally, if you’re a white person, take it upon yourself to recognise your privilege and educate yourself. Challenge yourself to be better. Read, reflect, and think about what you can change.
All in all, I think there are a number of quick wins here for cycling clubs. Things which will not be expensive or time consuming to implement that will make a tangible difference. For some of these I’m sure the benefits will be wide ranging, and create an overall more positive atmosphere. I’m not sure I want to be part of aI hope that we can turn this moment into a movement and make a difference in what is currently a very white male sport.
The end. I’ve got a to-do list to work on.
Further reading and references
- British Cycling – Diversity in Cycling (2019)
- Renni Eddo Lodge – Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race (here)
- The Unbearable Whiteness of Cycling – Kevin Hylon
- Everyday Racism: Breaking Cycling’s other glass ceiling – Cycling News
- White Cyclists: We must do better – Cycling Magazine
- Kadeena Cox interview: ‘A cyclist said racism does not exist in Britain. Are you serious?’ Telegraph women’s sport
- Is cycling the whitest sport on earth? Ayesha McGowan Telegraph women’s sport
- Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire – Akala
+ many more in the further reading of the BC report, and in the sources section
Social media accounts to follow (list not exhaustive!)
- Black Cyclists Network – Instagram
- The Black Foxes – Instagram (Also – website )
- The Lady Velo (Jools Walker) – instagram and her blog – Velo City Girl
- Kadeena Cox – Instagram
- This list pulled together by Ayesha Mcgowan for Bicycling.com
- Responding to Microagressions – Yes Magazine
- “No evidence to show the hostile environment policy is working” – The Independent
- Shifting the deadly disease of racism – The Guardian
- Toppling statues of bygone tyrants forces British people to face present day racism – The Guardian
- “We have to stop thinking about racism as someone saying the N word” – The Guardian
- British Cycling – Diversity in Cycling (2019) – British Cycling
- Boris Johnson says we shouldn’t edit our past. But Britain has been lying about it for decades– The Guardian
- John Humphreys for YouGov – “Is Britain Racist?” – You Gov
- Revealed: The stark evidence of everday racial bias in Britain – The Guardian
- Boris Johnson says the UK isn’t racist, Black Britons disagree – The Independent
- BBC News – Why your name matters in the search for a job – BBC
- Centre for Social Investigation, Nuffield College, Oxford: New CSI Research reveals high levels of job discrimination faced by ethnic minorities in Britain – CSI Nuffield College
- Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination. Georgia Tech University
- Media representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys – Racial Equity Tools
- Renni Eddo-Lodge – The debate on race is a game to some, and I don’t want to play – The Guardian
- Jools Walker – What happens beyond the black squares – Velo City Girl
- Kevin Hylon – The unbearable whiteness of cycling – The Conversation
- Why is cycling such a “white” sport? – Matt Seaton – The Guardian
- Grégory Baugé calls out racism in pro cycling – Velo News
- Commentary: Forget the velominati’s rules, you’re not doing it wrong – Cycling Tips
- Podcast: Is it time to ditch the velominati’s rules: Bike Radar
- Campbell Tenier: Judge me on my performances – not my colour: News Day
- Podcast: Rouleur Longreads – Teniel Campbell (Link)