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What people mean when they say cycling has a race problem

by 20

…Spoiler alert: it’s not about you.

Mildred Locke examines why cycling brands’ support of the Black Lives Matter movement gets some riders in a flap.

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, two major conversations have been sweeping through the comments sections of various cycling brands’ and publications’ social media channels. The first is about how to combat the industry’s race problem, and the second is a heated debate that questions whether a race problem exists at all.

This has led to a dynamic of ‘us’ against ‘them’, labelling one group as snowflakes, and the other as bigots. I’m not here to call anyone names. I’d like to try to bridge the gap, and encourage a conversation that doesn’t resort to people shouting at each other.

Anyone who knows me, knows which side of the fence I’m on. However right now I’m placing one foot on each side, to try to understand why some people are angered when their favourite cycling brand or publication openly supports Black Lives Matter. 

If this is you, I think I see where you’re coming from.

Of course being a white person who enjoys riding a bike with your mates, regardless of colour, doesn’t make you racist. But hearing your beloved sport accused of having ‘a race problem’ feels personal. You’ve never witnessed any BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) people being discriminated against while out riding, and as far as you’re concerned, everyone has been on equal footing since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

So why the constant reminder that ‘Black Lives Matter’? Can’t we just enjoy riding our bikes? If we’re all equal, and racism is no longer a problem worth talking about, then the slogan “Black Lives Matter” implies the elevation of BAME people over yourself and the white people you care about.

But here’s the thing: you’re seeing the world from your own socioeconomic perspective, and that’s understandable. But just because you haven’t seen it first-hand, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

You also might be using a different definition of ‘racism’ to the people you’re arguing against: associating it with one person discriminating against another based on their skin colour. This is racism at an individual level.

When we talk about the sport having a ‘race problem’, we mean racism at an institutional, or systemic level. The kind that “originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society”, as defined in 1967 by Carmichael and Hamilton in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. It’s too large a topic to discuss here at length, and goes far beyond cycling, but that doesn’t mean it’s non-existent in our sport.

Hopefully we all agree that the slave trade was a terrible thing, and that white communities – including those in the UK – profited financially from it. The repercussions are still felt today: money passes through family generations, leading to socioeconomic disparity. Generational wealth shapes society, society plants unconscious biases (e.g. whiteness is superior to blackness), and this impacts all aspects of life, from politics to education, economics to public health, and extends to which athletes get sponsorship.

There’s a saying that goes ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’ and unless I’m mistaken (please let me be), there aren’t any prominent BAME pro athletes in the UK MTB scene just yet. This lack of representation forms a feedback loop where potential future talent may be discouraged from getting into the sport, because they view the scene as a white space that’s not for them. We need to break that cycle. 

We need cycling publications and brands to normalise coverage of BAME riders, telling their stories and amplifying their voices. But until they can include BAME people in their social media posts without a horde of comments labelling it ‘virtue signalling’, the sport will continue to suffer.

I can’t do this topic justice without writing an entire book (and I don’t need to, there are plenty out there already), but I hope this starts a more productive conversation.

Some are disadvantaged from the start, and those who aren’t may veer towards a space where they see themselves represented. If the playing field is uneven, we can’t all play the game until it’s levelled out.

The fact is, the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t about elevating anyone above anyone else. It’s a fight for the equality that you may have believed was already there. It’s asking for inclusion and representation in cycling, for those who feel unrepresented, and that doesn’t take anything away from anyone else.

I can only point out systemic racism. It’s up to you to consider whether your viewpoint is unconsciously biased by your socioeconomic bubble, and acknowledge that while it’s not your fault, there’s room for learning. It’s okay to admit that. 

We all have work to do, whether it’s unpacking our ingrained biases, or just listening to what BAME people have to say about their lived experiences. 

From the other side of the fence, I hope we can break down this divide, and work together to demand more from the sport: more representation and investment in BAME athletes and teams, and a less white-centric view of global cycling.

Reading recommendations:

Who is Mildred Locke?

Mildred is a freelance writer and a utilitarian cyclist at heart, determined to do everything on a bike, from shopping to moving house. Since 2016 she’s volunteered as a mechanic and workshop coordinator at the Bristol Bike Project, and now sits on its board of directors. At home on slicks and knobblies alike, her ideal ride covers long distances through remote countryside, on mixed terrain that offers a bit of crunch. She’s easily won over by steel frames coupled with a small-wheel-big-tyre combo, and currently rides a custom Clandestine off-road tourer with drop bars and 26×2.8inch tyres.

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Comments (20)

    I remember the first time I saw a Black person on a road bike, during the London to Cambridge many years ago. It was a real WTF moment as I realised I have never seen / met a non white rider on a bike. A real eye opener as to how white road cycling is. That was more than 10 years ago and it doesn’t seem to have changed much since…..

    That screenclip above – “genuine believer there’s no inequality and racism in the US”

    I don’t know where to start with that. I’ll assume it’s trolling.

    So, in your opinion Mildred, what specifically needs to be done?

    “So, in your opinion Mildred, what specifically needs to be done?”

    Isn’t this in the last 3 paragraphs?

    I hope that all decent right minded people find any issues around racism and sexism abhorrent. As individuals we are as diverse in our likes, dislikes as any person. Many of us come to cycling for differing reasons be it for fitness, the love of the outdoors, the love of the city and a million more reasons. I when riding out try to at least raise a finger in acknowledgement of anyone I pass on the road and on the trail. What we do by many is not viewed as normal (certainly carting about the hills of East Lancashire in the “pitch black” by my friends network is seen as being bizarre) So the numbers of people I see out are limited and always have been unless I visit trail centers, where from my observation most riders present as white and not BAME. Is it us as riders to promote the widening of our sport is a question for us all. Should we as individuals continually reach out as citizens of planet earth to our fellow neighbors, yes of course and how we achieve that is as diverse and we are as individuals. Should those who have strategic influence on how sports develop have more of a roll here, yes I think so. In my local area we have some of the best trails in the country (in my view), however when you evidence high end cars driving into the area with £3K plus bikes on the roof from a tight demographic more should be done to widen both exposure to our sport and active participation. However in my view by the industry and government have a greater roll to play. Sports is a way to engage young people and if done correctly lasts a lifetime. Of course there are projects about which link into marginalized communities and should rightly be championed. However more needs to be done. it starts with positive debate, which we all hope results in more inclusion regardless of your age, sex, ethnicity or background.

    Good to see this article by you Mildred, and the one from Hannah. Makes it easier for all of us when a publication like ST puts it out there. Well done.

    It baffles me how condescending and racist a person has to be to think that in the world we live in, democracy, freedom and equal rights for all (prove me if it’s not the case in our old Europe), has to guide, and steer in the right way certain people (insert race/gender/whatever) to pursue something they might not like, want, or decided they want to do in their free time.
    They don’t treat them as equal individuals, with their own likes and will, they always treat them like inept children who need constant guidance from a some sort of a superior entity.

    “Isn’t this in the last 3 paragraphs?”

    No, it really isn’t

    tstoff – it’s not inherently about forcing cycling on people or getting inclusivity figures through imposition.

    If all things were equal, then you would expect people from all walks of life to be equally represented in a sport or hobby. Otherwise you have to explain how, for example, the average black person is less likely to take part in and enjoy MTB because of who they are. Now, that might actually have some reasoning behind it – perhaps for example black people are more likely to live in cities and all people in cities are less likely to go mountain biking.

    However, if you can’t confidently show that these differences are by personal choice, someone being just as able to ride and saying no, it’s worth thinking about whether there’s a difference in opportunity. When I think about why I personally ride a bike there’s lots of factors: I was taught and given confidence by a keen cyclist, I have lots of disposable income, I’ve always been familiar and comfortable with access to the countryside. This stuff isn’t true for everyone. On top of that, as a white male, I’m the core focus of the industry’s marketing efforts, and to the extent that I have any, my cycling role models are also white males. And, both directly and indirectly, noone tells me I don’t belong.

    I enjoy cycling, but if I’m honest, I do it because it’s easily available to me. Other people might well enjoy cycling (or they may not, which is fine) but haven’t got the same ease of access. I’m of the opinion that where possible we should try and remove obstacles to that, and make the things we do available to everyone.

    A very eloquent article.
    I genuinely believe that the majority of folks involved with, or participating in mountain biking are not ‘racist’, in as much as they have no conscious negative feeling towards black people, or those from other ethnic minorities.
    I’m not qualified to define terms or get into semantics, but this does strike me as a problem of white privilege in many ways. That’s something there’s increasing awareness around (google for ‘two steps forward’ as a basic intro to the concept), but I think many of us don’t necessarily appreciate the barriers that people face in adopting a potentially expensive sport like mountain biking. Even if we are able to create the ‘will’ (magazines and the media can help here), more action is needed to facilitate the ‘way’.
    History has shown that legal reform and declarations of equality do little to address real societal gaps. Progress towards a truly inclusive society takes hard work, and needs people to actively focus on closing those gaps. It can feel artificial, or forced, for people on all sides, and doesn’t always yield lasting results. Not everyone that tries MTBing is going to love it, right? But some will.
    What can I do as an individual (apart from rambling on in the STW comments)? If I was part of a club I could approach local youth groups, or community groups, or schools.
    I did help an Asian friend get his old bike set-up again recently, and gave him some good routes. There are others I could probably lend a bike to and invite them out with me, maybe on steadier/shorter rides initially, when I’m taking my kids out.
    I think if we put our minds to it many of us can do something.

    Isn’t it about choice, to single out a sport as predominantly white and elitist is I think ignorant, I choose to cycle because I enjoy it, looking at other sports, Basketball, NFL, Baseball, Athletics, Boxing, the list is pretty endless, where black athletes compete and in many cases excel, I choose not to participate in any of them because I choose not to.
    I live in Ilkley West Yorkshire and on any given weekend I share some fabulous single track with Indian and Pakistani MTBrs so surely its because they choose to and nothing to do with pressure to do so, they chose to buy a bike and enjoy it without, I imagine, any political thinking, or.maybe I’m just missing the point of why we choose different paths in life.

    Two points:
    1. You use the past tense for slavery, there are an estimated 30m+ people in slavery today!
    2. You cannot change the past, it is what it is, but you can learn from it.

    The holiday perspective is that I can count on the thumbs of both hands the number of BAME client bookings we get each season. Some seasons we get none.
    Our cycling has a race problem in our part of the economy as we sell to higher earners who cycle all ready. These are predominantly middle-aged and white (mostly women).


    “I’m of the opinion that where possible we should try and remove obstacles to that, and make the things we do available to everyone.”

    Tell me what obstacles exists for someone to start cycling. And what obstacles differ from one person to the other. If you’re talking on the financial side, I think it’s a little bit racist, and again condescending, to assume that every minority is automatically poor. And even if you had that problem, there’s dozens of underrepresented sports who have zero investment needed. So what’s the deal there?

    But let’s stick to cycling. You can buy a second hand Decathlon bike for almost nothing. So?
    Do you need a Pinarello to cycle?

    So what is it that blocks someone to bike? Is it the riders?
    You can literally do it alone! I do it all the time! I couldn’t care less about other people and what they think.

    And if your talking about under representation of any minority/gender in a sport, well, again we’re trying to dig a little bit too much on peoples preferences.

    Some people don’t like cycling at all, and prefer other stuff. While they do that, choosing, people like you puzzle themselves “how could that happen”.

    I’m sorry to say we all have a choice and that’s what rules most of our decisions.
    It’s not a secret entity that is shadowing sports preventing others to join in, that is just ridiculous.

    Unless you trialled for a pro team and you underperformed, cause if you preform you’re in.

    This really comes down to Equality of opportunity Vs Equality in outcomes. In the UK’s free(ish) society how much compulsion do we want to apply to achieve equality of outcomes?

    A very difficult and uncomfortable subject (to which I have no solutions to offer)

    It’s a real shame Singletrack World couldn’t find a single black or minority ethnic MTB rider to write an article during Black History Month. Hopefully they’ll do something more tangible to engage the BAME MTB community in the future. When you’re dealing with a participation problem as big as the one in MTB a couple of virtuous articles written by middle-class white women doesn’t really cut it I’m afraid.

    @frankiefingers: “When you’re dealing with a participation problem as big as the one in MTB a couple of virtuous articles written by middle-class white women doesn’t really cut it I’m afraid.”

    First of all I want to say that I agree with you – it would be lovely to see more BAME contributors to mainstream publications on topics like this. There are some amazing people already writing incredible things (Ayesha McGowan, Tamika Butler, Jools Walker, just to name a few off the top of my head).

    I do also need to reply though, to say that although I pass as white and I acknowledge my light-skinned privilege, I am in fact a woman of colour, and growing up in a predominantly white, later UKIP constituency, I experienced personal racism from a young age.

    Having said that, I do recognise that I in no way represent the majority of BAME people who experience systemic racism in the way I’ve outlined above.

    As for class, that’s just irrelevant. My intention with this article was to use my position as a light-skinned mixed race person to try to explain to white people that they aren’t being attacked when we have these conversations, and I hope I’ve been successful in that.

    mildredlocke wrote: “My intention with this article was to use my position as a light-skinned mixed race person to try to explain to white people that they aren’t being attacked when we have these conversations, and I hope I’ve been successful in that.”

    I think you’ve done a great job of achieving those aims Mildred and the people who’ve taken issue with your article must have done so based on pre-existing ideas because I don’t find anything unreasonable in what you’ve written. On the contrary you’ve done a thorough job of being balanced, avoided coming across as preachy (to me at least), and on the whole provided a lot of very reasonable argument and food for much thought.

    I’m white, male, middle-class and, uncomfortable as it may have been, I’ve accepted that this means that I am privileged. I wholeheartedly support the Black Lives Matter movement and am bemused at the opposition to what seems a bare minimum request: respect for life. What I don’t understand is how BLM can be perceived to be so threatening, or why non-black people feel entitled to tell minorities that discrimination doesn’t exist because they don’t perceive it or can’t conceive of it.

    I guess we still have a long way to go, but you have my support on the journey.

    cycling is definitely too white especially on the road e.g. watching the Tour de France this year there was only one black person. this is not right or a good image for the sport we love


    “Tell me what obstacles exists for someone to start cycling.”

    If an individual person has decided they really want to take up recreational solo cycling, very little is stopping them from doing that.

    The question I think you should ask yourself is does anything stop or obstruct them getting to that point?

    In other words, is there something about the current state of the overall sport that puts people off, and does so *unevenly* based on gender, ethnicity, etc etc?

    There’s a lot of things that can contribute to this: who the sport is seen as ‘for’, who industry marketing is aimed at, who does or doesn’t exist as leading figures or role models, who makes up local groups, whether groups are receptive to people outside their existing identity joining, etc etc.

    In our lifetimes the sport has already changed significantly and become more inclusive to women. You could have said much of what you’ve said here to dismiss that a few decades ago: they’ve got the choice, let them make it, if they don’t go for it that’s up to them. But that’s not what was required – it required a major effort across the sport to enable and improve participation. There’s also still a big distance left to go on it.

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