For many, the abiding memory of the 2011 Tour de France is of popular, face-pulling Frenchman Thomas Voeckler finding himself in the leader’s yellow jersey, and he and his team moving heaven and earth to keep him in it for 10 straight days. One of Voeckler’s lieutenant’s for that memorable week and a half was Yohann Gene…and what was unusual about Yohann Gene, I hear you ask?
Well, he was the first black rider ever to compete in the world’s most prestigious bike race. In 2011. Hard to believe isn’t it?
An excellent article by Tim Lewis this year in Esquire magazine got me thinking about the lack of black cyclists on the professional circuit (I’d recommend clicking here and reading the full piece – Lewis is also the author of Land of Second Chances, telling the story of the Rwandan cycling team).
Professional cycling is known for being insular, at best, and at worst…
…well, as Yohann Gene’s manager at team Europcar, Jean-Rene Bernaudeau pointed out prior to his man taking the start line in that 2011 Tour, “We have been subject to racism. I had to deal with a few problems and contact sponsors of two foreign teams about it.”
There was a belief within the sport – which persisted well into the 1980’s – that non-Europeans weren’t really up to the job; as Tim Lewis puts it in his Esquire piece, “Europeans, the conventional wisdom had it, prevailed because they best understood the tactics and the culture of cycling: the key qualities were physical durability, mental and moral strength”.
It doesn’t take a genius to notice that in all types of sport all over the world, black athletes have long since confirmed that they very much have the required qualities. What do the seemingly endless supply of black African distance runners display as they sweep up the medals, if not ‘physical durability and mental and moral strength’.
But now, finally, talented African cyclists are beginning to emerge from Kenya, Rwanda and Eritrea, among other places. Eritrea is an interesting example; as a former Italian colony it has a vibrant domestic cycling scene. Add this cultural element to the physiology of an Eritrean athlete and you end up with Daniel Teklahaimanot, one of around 200 professional cyclists from that country, and currently the most successful African cyclist on the pro circuit; in 2011 he was signed by Australian World Tour team Orica Green-Edge, and competed in the 2012 Vuelta Espana.
As Tim Lewis explains, “The debate is now not if Daniel Teklehaimanot will race in the Tour de France, but when, and whether he will be the first black African. (Shayne) Bannan (General Manager of Orica Green-Edge), not a man given to bombastic pronouncements, believes he could be a top-20 finisher, perhaps higher. This summer (2013) might be too early, but in 2014, he will be 25 and approaching his peak.”
It’s worth mentioning MTN-Qhubeka too, an ambitious upstart of a team from South Africa, and the first from Africa to gain Pro Continental status. They have a stated goal of gaining entry to the Tour de France by 2015, and as a team have made their mark on the big stage already in 2013 with a dramatic win by their man Gerald Ciolek in the snow at Milan San-Remo. Around 70% of MTN-Qkubeka’s riders are African, and they clearly see themselves as a big part of cycling’s future.
Doug Ryder, team principal of MTN-Qhubeka believes in as little as 10 years time African cyclists will be making a real mark on the sport; as he sees it, “the Americans had their time and the British are now having theirs, because Sky invested a lot at the Olympics, signing stars. But wait: Africa is coming.”
So now that black riders have begun to break down the barriers, is it logical to conclude that more will follow? While teams spend ever increasing sums of money on finding the competitive advantage to help them keep pace with the likes of Team Sky, Tim Lewis makes the point that, “technology…has its limits. If cycling teams are prepared to spend millions investing in the best kit and state-of-the-art machinery, it would make sense to have the most biologically gifted athletes on the planet riding the bicycles”.
So it’s not hard to imagine teams focusing on recruiting and developing athletes with long spindly legs and huge lung capacity; exactly the kind of guys who currently win the London marathon and clean up the distance events at the Olympics – Kenyans and Ethiopians particularly, and a certain Mo Farah, a Brit with Somali heritage.
Professional cycling is still completely dominated by white (and mainly European) riders, but with the stated goal of the UCI (certainly under the stewardship of the previous president) to increase the global reach of cycling, and the slowly increasing presence of cyclists from less traditional corners of the cycling world, times may be changing.
So, how will the cycling establishment react to this potential changing of the guard? There are sure to be the real traditionalists who see this scenario as a threat to their cosy world, but 10, 15, 20 years from now they may have little defence; It certainly doesn’t take an impossible leap of imagination to picture a string of black African riders leading the peloton up Alpe d’Huez or Mont Ventoux in the not-too-distant future.