Cycling: why so white?

Pic: Yewande Adesida

‘The main thing was turning up to races and being aware of a lack of diversity’: In this part of the #WhatsStoppingYou series, Sean Russell speaks to cyclist Yewande Adesida and explores why cycling is so white

When I go out on my bike my focus is controlled on my pedal stroke, my breathing, the other road users, the green country around me. It is my comfortable space. But when I do meet other cyclists on the road I am left with a strange impression; that most of the people I meet are usually white.

According to Sport England around 15 per cent of white people participated in cycling in the last 28 days for leisure and sport whilst South Asian, Black and Chinese were closer to nine per cent. When we look at those who have participated at least once in the last year we see white people at around 32 per cent and South Asian, Black and Chinese around 21 per cent.

This is particularly evident in a place such as Tower Hamlets where the demographics show that whilst it is one of the most diverse in London, cyclists, especially those joining local cycling clubs, are still predominantly white.

There’s definitely that perception that cycling is for this type of people and no one like you really does it

Yewande Adesida is national-level track racer who began her sporting career in rowing before moving to cycling at the end of 2016. The move was from one white-dominated sport to another. But she knew that cycling suited her skills and wanted not just to ride but compete.

“The main thing was turning up to races and being aware of a lack of diversity, it was quite similar to rowing in a sense,” said Adesida. “There’s definitely that perception that cycling is for this type of people and no one like you really does it.”

In the professional men’s world-tour peloton the number of black cyclists can be counted on one hand. While all the top, most-famous racers are white; this is the same for the women’s peloton also.

Adesida out on the road. Pic: Yewande Adesida

This is something important in getting more diversity actually into cycling. Adesida said that if you don’t see people like you doing it, you won’t do it. Without role-models, inspiring young people of colour to don the lycra and enjoy riding a bike is incredibly hard. It can feel like an almost insurmountable world, and it is often very intimidating.

For anyone to start in cycling it is hard to overcome that feeling of not knowing what you’re doing or talking about. Surrounded by people with £3,000 bikes and the latest gear, it seems stupid even to ask “what bike should I buy”. This becomes even harder if you don’t see anyone that look like you in the sport.

Adesida herself has been involved in advertising campaigns by some of the biggest brands in cycling including Rapha, and she nows acts as an ambassador for SRAM and Specialized.

“If you see someone that looks like you, you think ‘I can do this too’. Increasing representation is a big thing, and there are some brands doing a great job of this now. On a personal level I try to update people on what I’m doing on Instagram so people can see it and think ‘I can do that as well, I can do this sport and have fun.’”

British Cycling are aware of the issues surrounding diversity in cycling. They said that through a partnership with Access Sport British Cycling is trying to involve larger number of non-white participation across the country but also in London.

“We have recently enrolled as one of five National Governing Bodies on to Sport England’s NGB Inclusion Confidence programme to attract diversity with the sport, creating cultures that make people feel safe and comfortable to be themselves.” Said Rob Mace, Cycling Diversity Manager at British Cycling.

Adesida on the track. Pic: Yewande Adesida

“We know that that there are communities under-represented at the moment and we know that people desire to have safe places to ride and to be able to ride with other people. We want to make Britain a great cycling nation and that involves everyone. Increasing diversity means creating a better place for everyone.”

But Adesida thinks it’s not as simple as this. You need to get more diverse people into prominent positions, racing professionally and heading advertising campaigns. And for that more needs to happen at grassroots levels.

“You need to have the infrastructure to let that happen, I think it’s a tricky one. Doing more at the grassroots level would help change the sport at a high level. It’s harder not having those role-models at pro level but just having them at the grass roots level say, a coach or someone who supports the project is better than nothing.

People of colour aren’t getting into cycling because they see cycling culture as insurmountable, it is insurmountable because there are no people of colour. Catch-22. One way to combat this would be to go in earlier and get kids into cycling.

People of colour aren’t getting into cycling because they see cycling culture as insurmountable, it is insurmountable because there are no people of colour

Cycling is not a sport offered by most schools. But groups such as the Tower Hamlets Wheelers are trying to bring access to all people, no matter their background.

“We want to make it safe, we want wider cycling lanes segregated from the traffic, we also want to change the image.” Said Julie Plichon, joint co-ordinator of the Wheelers. “When people say ‘cyclist’ in London people have such a cliché image that is really a white male in his 40s wearing technical clothing and we’re really working on changing that, it’s really important.”

The Wheelers, part of the London Cycling Campaign, is about getting people on their bikes. They have campaigns and set up stalls at local fairs where they help people fix their bikes for a small donation, something a lot of kids take advantage of. This is another issue; cycling can be so expensive – there’s the bike, accessories and maintenance.

This is a point Adesida also felt. She said that the main barrier she first getting into cycling in the first place was money. “I wanted take track more seriously, I didn’t have the money to spend on another bike, but I was quite fortunate that I joined a club that was able to lend me a bike that I could race on and that made a massive difference.”

Adesida said that there are many clubs able to help and lend bikes out. Herne Hill Velodrome is particularly good at this, giving people the chance to try something without committing money and seeing if it’s for them, a place to build their confidence. If more kids were aware of what was available to them this could help increase diversity in the sport.  

“When I started cycling I was coaching rowing and I was working with people who wouldn’t normally be involved in the sport, things like that could also work in cycling. I’ve gone into a school quite near Herne Hill to speak about how I got into cycling and try and promote the sport. Kids can get really excited about it”

Tower Hamlets Wheelers, took over a car parking spot to make more space for people and bike. Pic: Julie Plichon

This is something Plichon agrees with, the Wheelers operate slow paced rides in groups, which kids are welcome to (with parents) involving a bit of history of the East-end: “They’re really good for beginners mainly we try to go off road, and being in a group makes you feel more comfortable.”

Part of the enjoyment of cycling is that feeling of belonging to something. It’s the clothes you wear, the equipment you buy, it’s the stops half way on your big Sunday ride where you have a flat white and cake in some coffee shop, it’s the people you meet riding along big empty roads, a nod, a wave, a smile. But this cannot be exclusive, the more people out on their bikes the better.

This is day three of four of our Eastlondonlines’ #WhatsStoppingYou series. Read the rest of the series here.

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