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Opinion: White cyclists, we must do better

Our sport does not sit outside matters of race and inequality

On May 27, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Black-Indigenous woman fell to her death from the balcony of her 24th floor apartment in the presence of police officers. Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit is independently looking into her death and examining the extent of the police involvement. Her passing has prompted an outpouring of grief, anger and calls for justice, as members of the community wait for answers.

Just two minutes away from the site of her fall is High Park. It features possibly the most popular west-end Toronto cycling loop. On any given day, you’ll find hundreds of cyclists circling the park, often (pre-pandemic) chatting and riding in groups. Even in Toronto, an extremely diverse city, the demographic of the cyclists riding for recreation is similar to the rest of Canada: overwhelmingly white and male.

Riding through the green park, the city seems distant and the conversation rarely turns toward the topic of police brutality or racism in cycling. Safer things, such as the new upgrades you’re planning for your bike or the weather are smoother and easier to chat about.

This may not be your conversation topic of choice but it’s something that we must address. As white cyclists, we have a social responsibility to take direct action toward tangible change within the cycling community and the community at large. It’s not enough to simply not be racist. As Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at the American University, said during a recent edition of CBC’s The Current, “To say you are not racist is to deny your racism. We’re either being racist or anti-racist at all times.”

First, let’s break down how factors such as police brutality and systemic racism influence the composition of the mostly white cycling community.

Existing outdoors

White cyclists, including me, take their mobility and access to outdoor activities for granted. I have never felt scared that someone would call the police on me as I cycle aimlessly through an affluent neighbourhood or ride up and down a street because it has a good hill. I’ve ridden through stop signs in front of cops on more than one occasion and I’ve never had to face any consequences. The only time I’ve been pulled over on my bike, the interaction ended with the officer recommending I avoid the area I was riding in because it isn’t safe.

This year, Genesis Hansen, a 21-year-old Black student at Oregon State University was arrested for allegedly biking in the wrong lane. Sacramento Police stopped a 16-year-old Black cyclist in 2018 allegedly because he had no bike lights. In footage, they never mention lights. When the cyclist tries to get away, the police drive their car into him, sending the teen flying into the air.

Simply being outside and Black can be deadly. In 2014 Ezell Ford, a Black man, was shot and killed by the police while taking a walk in his Los Angeles neighbourhood. That same year, in Cleveland, Tamir Rice, a Black 12-year-old boy, was shot and killed by the police as he played in a park. Feeling safe existing in an outdoor space is a privilege white cyclists take for granted every time we ride.

Cycling’s history of racism

The sport of cycling has a deep rooted history of racism. From its founding, the League of American Bicyclists banned African American cyclists, a measure that was only officially overturned in 1999 by former League president Earl F. Jones—an African-American attorney and bicycle advocate.

Major Taylor, one of America’s most prolific cyclists, won the sprint event at the 1899 world track championships to become the first African-American to achieve the level of cycling world champion. He also set numerous world records in race distances ranging from the quarter-mile to the two-mile in the late 1800s.

Taylor faced racism at every point of his career. He dealt with competitors refusing to race him, verbal assaults and was once even choked unconscious by a cyclist he beat in a race.

Pro Cycling

Pro cycling is not a competition of pure strength. Behind the scenes there are complex politics at play that influence decisions on which riders are offered contracts and get to compete at the highest levels. In the book Made in Britain, Uncovering the Life Histories of Black-British Champions in Cycling, Dr. Marlon Moncrieffe has collected the stories of Black British cyclists that display a pattern of underrepresentation of Black-British cyclists within British Cycling’s national program during the course of five decades.

The Tour de France features almost 200 racers. The event has occurred annually for the past 107 years. The first Black cyclist to complete the Tour de France was Yohann Gene, in 2011.

Six years later, during the 2017 Tour de Romandie, Italian Ineos rider Gianni Moscon racially abused French cyclist Kevin Reza and got off with a mere suspension. In 2020 the pro peloton continues to be almost entirely white.

For women, the issue is even larger. American cyclist Ayesha McGowan is working towards being the first pro African-American female cyclist. She also advocates tirelessly for equity in cycling.

Barriers to entry

While minority children are more likely to bike to school due to lack of transit options, the sport of cycling and many other outdoor sports maintain a high barrier to entry.

In 2015 the Tampa Bay Times reviewed 12 years of data on civil traffic citations in the Tampa area and discovered that the Tampa Police Department issues an “astronomically” high number of bike tickets, overwhelmingly to Black cyclists. From 2003 to 2015, Tampa police wrote more than 10,000 bike tickets and issued 79 per cent of them to Black cyclists—even though only 26 per cent of the Tampa population is Black.

In one study, 100 per cent of African American participants expressed a fear that drivers would be hostile to them while they were cycling. Edmonton’s Bashir Mohamed filmed one such incident, in which a white driver yelled racial slurs at him on the road. He told the CBC that events like this happen frequently. “They boil me down into whatever they want to see me as, which by using that word they don’t see me in a very positive way,” he said. “It’s very dehumanizing and I don’t know where that comes from.”

Invisible cyclists

In an article for The Conversation, Julian Agyeman, professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University breaks down the concept of “invisible cyclists:” minorities who are not accounted for in urban planning data and therefore don’t benefit from the changes to city infrastructure made for cyclists.

He explains how counts of cyclists typically take place in downtown areas not in a city’s peripheral areas where, in large part due to gentrification and displacement, many low-income and minority groups may be cycling. As a result, cyclists in poorer areas are underreported in official data.

Commuters who ride bikes because they have no other means of transit are often discounted by the wider cycling community. This group is largely composed of immigrants and minorities.

Overt racism and covert racism in sport

Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was targeted and murdered less than a month ago by two white men. He was jogging in his hometown.

Beyond the fear of literally being murdered while exercising, minority groups don’t see themselves reflected in the outdoor industry and media. “They are constantly asking themselves, ‘Do I belong here? And If somebody believes that I don’t belong here, will they do something to harm me?'” said James Mills, author of The Adventure Gap.

When the North Vancouver’s North Shore Mountain Bike Association released a statement promoting inclusion in its sport, the statement received a mixed response from the public, with critics asserting that the sport is already welcoming.

According to the association’s membership survey, 82.6 per cent of members are male and and 55 per cent have a total household income of more than $100,000 per year.

How can we do better

With the exception of a few companies posting on Instagram, the cycling industry has been very quiet the past few days, as protests continue across the U.S. and Canada. White people can start by posting their support for the protests, overtly reiterating that Black Lives Matter and sharing local resources. Donate, and encourage others to donate, to Black Youth Helpline, Black Legal Action Centre, Black Health Alliance, Tropicana Community Services and the Justice for Regis Memorial Fund.

Educate yourself on racism. Read books such as Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist.

Start a discussion in your cycling club or team about how it can be more inclusive and build a more diverse base of members. Work to keep this momentum moving, even when protests die down.

Support organizations such as Black Girls Do Bike and Untokening.

If you’re part of a bicycle advocacy group, reach out to ‘invisible cyclists’—those who commute by bike out of necessity. Include them in your conversations and put in work towards creating safer cycling conditions for them. Find a local group committed to donating bikes to youth in areas with large minority populations.

Racism in Canada and racism in cycling need to be brought to the front of the conversation. The conversation isn’t easy, but it’s our social responsibility to initiate it. We can and must do better.