How One Team’s Tackling the World’s Whitest Sport
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Europe’s most elite sport may not be so exclusive for long.
You haven’t really experienced professional cycling until you’ve seen a race in person. Riders tear up the road as a pack. You can hear the force of their bikes coming. They are faceless and pass as a single roaring wind that leaves the skin of bystanders tingling. After their colossal effort, it’s almost a surprise to watch a single skinny man, hours later, stand on the podium and lift a trophy in the air. But the politics of cycling often come down to just one man — which is why, today, the faces of those riders matter more than ever.
For years, cycling has been criticized as a damningly white sport, strikingly so in what’s a widely televised international sport. But this year’s Tour de France, the most elite cycling race in the world, made history — for featuring the most riders of color in its 113-year history. Armed with Olympians and this year’s only African Tour de France riders, one South African pro-cycling team is leading a push for change. Originally called MTN-Qhubeka, the team now known as Dimension Data is the first major one to break onto the international scene from Africa. They boast seven riders of color, including star climber and Olympic cyclist Daniel Teklehaimanot.
In some communities, just getting access to that bicycle immediately improves people’s ability to work or learn. Eventually, some think about competitive options.
This diversity is a bigger deal than it might initially seem — and in comparison to other big international races like long-distance running, it’s been a long time coming. Yohann Gène became the Tour de France’s first ever Black rider just five years ago. If anything, globalization has made cycling’s inclusivity problem even more complicated. Originally stigmatized as a method of transportation for peasants and workers, cycling was until relatively recently a sport for poor white European men. Many top riders of the 1990s and 2000s came from impoverished backgrounds and emerged through spartan feeder programs, including Italian top climber Marco Pantani and German Olympic gold medal winner Jan Ullrich.
Many sports have struggled to achieve greater racial diversity, though international cycling, in particular, seems to be intertwined with an imperialist past. This year’s Tour de France winner, Chris Froome, who is white and represented Great Britain, was born in Kenya and spent much of his cycling career outside of Europe. And most of today’s top Black road cyclists come from former European colonies. South Africa, with its fraught relationship to its colonial history, may be uniquely placed to lead Africa’s charge into European cycling — given the country’s relatively greater resources in this sport than other nations on the continent. Places like Rwanda, Algeria and Eritrea (where most of Team Dimension Data’s riders are from) are seeing a boom in riders, but chances to go international are constrained due to limited finances and staffing, says Veit Hammer, spokesperson for Team Dimension Data. “Governments and the general public can be challenging at times in the various countries, especially in terms of cycling safety and expanding the sport on all fronts,” Hammer adds.
Part of Team Dimension Data’s strategy to create a successful African team involves working closely with World Bicycle Relief, an international charity that provides poor rural communities with the right equipment and know-how to get up on two wheels. Oftentimes, explains Dave Neiswander, World Bicycle Relief’s president, “The bicycles being supplied into Africa are not so good.” He notes that most American and European manufacturers feed cheap “bicycle-shaped objects” into the continent, but his charity has worked with industry experts from companies such as Trek and Giant to create the Buffalo Bicycle, a tough grunt bike that significantly cuts into people’s travel time on rural back roads. In some communities, just getting access to that bicycle immediately improves people’s ability to work or learn. Eventually, some think about competitive options.
But given the high costs of equipment — think helmets and shoes to go along with that pricey bike — cycling remains “a very white sport,” says Deon Steyn, head of South African Schools Cycling, an organization that liaises with schools to run mountain bike competitions with students from countries like Namibia and Zimbabwe. Which leaves him in an interesting position: The South African government is reluctant to fund his organization, Steyn says, because his program tends to favor wealthier white families, while private sponsorship only goes so far. “The Black riders at home are getting left out,” says Steyn. Apartheid laws have also prevented many Black South Africans from traveling long distances, meaning many grow up not knowing how to ride or maintain a bike. Though now an experienced professional, Team Dimension Data rider Songezo Jim didn’t learn how to ride until he was 14.
Nevertheless, Jim’s team could end up building a model that funnels Africa’s top cycling talent through South Africa before winning competitions around the world. They’ve already got an under-23 team in the works focused on promoting the next generation of young African riders. And the team has also established a training base in Lucca, Italy, where Team Dimension Data’s African and European riders can trade experience and styles. “It’s a really fruitful environment where everyone can feed off each other,” Hammer says of the camp. “We’re working hard to create a professional environment for African riders to help them get through the ranks.” The work seems to be paying off: Riders from Team Dimension Data, including Teklehaimanot and Mark Cavendish, have spent time in green and yellow jerseys at the Tour de France, competed in the Olympics and now have their sights on dominating the international cycling scene.