Is There Diversity in the Sport of Cycling?

Written by our Team Africa Rising Correspondent at the 2020 Tour de France — Graphic courtesy of ProCyclingStats

6,5,4,3,2… It’s time for Le Tour de France 2020!

This year presents maybe the most challenging environment for the race’s organisers, the teams, their sponsors, and, of course, the fans.
As we sat here in Nice last night watching the 22 teams presented to a socially-distanced crowd of just a few hundred, we were struck by an identical pattern that highlights a very different but equally challenging issue for professional cycling.

6,5,4,3,2…equates to the number of African riders to start the Tour de France over the last five years. In 2020, only Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott) and Ryan Gibbons (NTT Pro Cycling) will represent the 54 African nations. With both hailing from South Africa and both white, the reality of where this issue currently stands is clear to see.

With sport around the world showing solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it is time for cycling to look at its demographics and reinvigorate the discussion about supporting diversity in the pro peloton.

Data from ProCyclingStats shows the stark reality that although the TDF is the world’s leading cycling race, the riders within it still do not show a similar global reach. 85% (151) of this year’s participants hail from Europe, 11 from South America, 5 from North America and Australasia respectively, and 2 each for Asia and Africa.

For the continent of Africa, with strong cycling hubs now in South Africa, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Algeria, Morocco, Rwanda, Kenya, Namibia, and more, to only muster 1% of the riders in this most prestigious race is a harsh reality. We do not lay criticism at the door of the Tour de France. This is but the magnifying glass to focus our attention on this issue.

In addition, the next edition of La Course takes place tomorrow morning here in Nice. We shall leave the discussion about the need for a full women’s Tour de France for another piece, but of the 138 female riders, only two hail from Africa: Fatima El Hayani (Morocco) on Team Arkea and Carla Oberholzer (South Africa) on Team Bizkaia Durango. The diversity issue is, therefore, equally present in women’s cycling also.

The issue is multi-layered, and blame does not lie with any specific individual or institution. We have seen the world of soccer embrace and celebrate players from across many African nations. Although instances of racism are still reported regularly, the sport itself supports these athletes profoundly. So, where are things not working out for cyclists?

The reality is that cycling requires a sophisticated infrastructure between youth cycling at the club level; strong and organised cycling at regional and national levels; high-quality intra-national competitions at a continental level; development riders/U23 getting opportunities at the pro club level (focused mainly in Europe but with some up and coming teams on other continents); and ultimately access to and profile with the management of the world’s leading Pro Continental and Word Tour teams. On this final platform, the competition for places is ferocious, with representation rightly reserved only for the elite few who can deliver at the highest level. The focus should be on bringing a more diverse crop of riders through the ranks from the grassroots level, to enrich and diversify the competitive field.

And there is still hope as we have seen riders from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Algeria, Morocco make it to the World Tour level but for an all but brief few seasons. Unfortunately, as the data shows, this has not been sustained, and the 2020 edition of the Tour de France represents the lowest number of African riders in many years.

With world cycling’s governing body, the UCI, indicating that the World Championships will be hosted in an African country before 2025, there is also hope at this level. Still, the reality of the Worlds is that African nations must perform throughout the international racing calendar to garner enough UCI points to earn the four or more spots in the Elite Road Races to have a realistic chance of a medal spot.

So what next for African cycling? Of course, we hope to see Daryl Impey (SA) do well and replicate his fantastic form of 2019 with his two stage wins. The same for Ryan Gibbons (SA), who is on his debut ride, however, is the current South African national champion and in excellent form. We hope the presence of these riders representing the continent continues to inspire and drive young African riders and maintain the brand of African cycling in the minds of the Sport Directors of the World Tour and Pro Continental teams.

A pioneer himself as the first American to race in the 1981 Tour de France, Jock Boyer, who built the national cycling program of Rwanda, reflected on the years of lost opportunity for black African cyclists.

“In my time of the ’80s, I remember questioning why black athletes were not at the top levels of cycling. After working in Africa for the last 14 years, it is evident that the black African cyclist has the talent to be on the podiums of the top cycling competitions, including the Tour de France and the World Championships. Still, they do not have anywhere near the opportunities as the white athletes. This lack of opportunity and support has to change if we are to see the best of the best competing in the world cycling arena.”

With the rapid expansion of online racing and training through platforms such as Zwift, the ability to showcase young African talent can be achieved virtually to some extent now, with consistent metrics and performance indicators. We are working with Zwift and others on bringing their technology to several major cycling clubs across Africa and hope to see a significant increase in awareness for this young talent follow rapidly.

We genuinely believe African cycling is still rising, but this momentum needs another injection of pace and sustainability from all in the cycling world.