Title: Desire Discrimination Determination - Black Champions in Cycling
Author: Marlon Lee Moncrieffe
Publisher: Rapha Editions, in association with Bluetrain Publishing
What it is: Part memoir, part an exploration of the Black experience in cycling with a focus on UK, US and French riders across many disciplines
Strengths: At its heart it’s a book about personal stories, enveloping the serious message being imparted in a warm blanket of nostalgia and the love of cycling
Weaknesses: Some simply will not even entertain the thought of reading this based on its title and their assumptions about its contents
“The colour of my skin determines what opportunities I have; the colour of my skin says there’s only room for one or two of us to be accepted in a certain job; the colour of my skin has dictated everything I’ve done in my whole life.”
~ Kadeena Cox
If there’s one thing that unites us all as cyclists it’s that we all have an origin story, a tale about how we first came to be cyclists. For a lot of people, it’s a family thing, specifically a father thing. Take Charlotte Cole-Hossain:
“My dad was a racing cyclist during his late teens and mid-20s. His brother rode as well, so cycling was in their family. He took me, my brother and my sister to the track and he would do some races.”
Or listen to Justin Williams:
“My dad has always ridden a bike. My parents are from Belize, and in Belize it is a massive sport. I had been looking for a way to connect with my dad, because we did not have much in common.”
For Germain Burton, the fact that his father was a former pro and ran a bike shop was important but when it came to actually learning how to ride a bike, it was his mother who taught him, in a local park:
“She used to inspect the ground for glass and clear it away with a broom and then she would hold the back of the bike and then when I was able to get the balance for myself, that was it. She’d count out laps and I’d be going around for ages and ages. That is my earliest memory of riding a bike.”
For Marlon Moncrieffe - Desire Discrimination Determination’s author - the Tour de France was the key, specifically one Tour winner:
“It was a photograph of the Spanish rider Miguel Induráin on the front cover of the May 1994 issue of Cycle Sport. That photo raised my interest in cycle racing to a different level. It was his smiling grimace; the cut in the muscle; the sweat; the black glasses; the Banesto cap; the yellow jersey.”
A local track was part of the key for Germain Burton’s father, Maurice Burton - Herne Hill:
“The school that I went to was called Roger Manwood School. The guys that I used to hang around with were older than me and I knew that they went to Herne Hill Velodrome with the school. One of the reasons for me wanting to join that school, a big interest for me, was that when we got to a certain age we could go to Herne Hill Velodrome and race. Yeah, I liked that idea. It was as if that was my destiny, to ride a bike. Yes, very much so.”
Whatever the entry point, support is important in order to progress from being someone who rides a bike to being a ‘proper’ bike rider. Oftentimes, again, that support comes from the family. Russell Williams:
“My parents used to love coming over to the track to watch me race. It was a good little gig for them. My father used to drive me to all the races on a Sunday and we would go all over the place if I needed to race on the road. My parents were supportive.”
These stories and more - stories from Rahsaan Bahati, Grégory Baugé, David Clarke, Marie-Divine Kouamé, Mark McKay, Kévin Reza, Charlie Reynolds, Tre Whyte - they ground Desire Discrimination Determination in a reality we can all understand and relate to.
The stories being told, most are based on interviews with the author. Some are drawn from online and print stories about some of the riders. The way they’re assembled produces the effect of a single, cohesive discussion among a group of people. Moncrieffe described it to me recently in these terms:
“See me at dinner with the riders eating and chatting, having a laugh and we go on a journey sharing our stories, discussing critical moments with each other and seeking verisimilitude in our own experiences by learning through those of others.”
Everything taken together, Desire Discrimination Determination is a pure delight to read, the same sort of delight you get when you read something from Herbie Sykes where he lets old pros off the leash to tell their own stories in their own voices. Particularly the sort of delight you get reading Giro 101, one of the best cycling books published in the last decade. Making Desire Discrimination Determination another of those books - an essential component of every cycling fan’s bookshelf.
In the typical hero story, we’re introduced to a protagonist we can relate to who is then faced with conflict and crises that have to be overcome. The nature of the problems vary from tale to tale. In the stories told in Desire Discrimination Determination they tend to have a common root.
Mark McKay: “I remember being in a race in Belgium or Holland and facing racist abuse in the peloton from one or two Dutch riders, I think simply because they had never experienced racing against non-white opponents before.”
Germain Burton: “There has been some racism. In Belgium when I was a junior rider I can remember I got some verbal abuse. Whether it is what some people call insidious racism, or whether it is outright racism, you know, in your face racism, it is out there.”
Charlotte Cole-Hossain: “There was a lot of complaints at the end of one race. All the Dutch girls kind of ganged up on me. One rider even accused me of pulling her hair during the race. It was unbelievable. I think it had to do with me looking different to all of them.”
How do you overcome an issue like that? For Major Taylor, a century and more ago, it was by defeating his opponents time and time again, knowing that beating others hurt them more than they could hurt him. Which is partly why Taylor’s story is still important today. But how many people know it? In Moncrieffe’s experience, not many:
“Nobody that I had met in cycling had ever mentioned Major Taylor to me, his life, and his racing career. Maybe those people I knew did not know about him? Maybe it was because he was American? Maybe it was because he was black? Maybe, but at the same time nobody had really told me about Maurice Burton’s dominance on the track either and he was a black man from South London, his shop just a few miles from where I lived.”
Would more people knowing Major Taylor’s story make a difference? In some ways it would. But in other ways the problems run much deeper than simply a lack of knowledge. Take Charlie Reynolds. He was a BMX champion at a time when BMX was awash with cash.
“I felt like none of the big major teams were willing or able to sign me. I also noticed that the white riders behind me, ranked at number two, three, four and five in the country, were ‘creaming’ it. They were driving big company cars and looking the part. I just didn’t know the scale of the money that was being offered from the big sponsors like Raleigh.”
Wayne Llewellyn has a similar story:
“From the age of 14 to 16, I used to get £1,000 a month sponsorship money. I used to think that was a lot of money. Another rider in my team, a white guy, got so much more money than I did. It’s strange. He wasn’t even a world champion. We used to do demonstration rides together. I read in a national newspaper about how much he was getting compared to me. He was getting £28k a year for the same work and time as me. I went nuts about it.”
Add in problems with officials and with coaches - Black riders being told they’ve got the wrong equipment when their white peers get no complaints over the same kit, Black riders simply not getting selected when weaker white riders do - and you have a problem that is deeply embedded in the sport.
What do you do when doors are constantly being slammed in your face?
David Clarke: “I’d won the last 15 or so races that I had been in. Yet I wasn’t picked. They [the coaches] said they wanted to give everybody else a chance. But this chance was for the older riders. I was the youngest rider on the team at the time and I was winning and beating them. I guess that was part of the reason why I’d had enough of cyclo-cross.”
Russell Williams: “I dominated as much as I could. But I was just not getting selected. So I thought: ‘What is the next move? OK. Go to America and race, earn a bit of money, and then come back and win the nationals.’ So they will go: ‘Hang on, Russell should be in the team.’”
Tre Whyte: “I wasn’t selected to go to the 2014 Worlds. So I paid my own way. I went over to Rotterdam. Somebody crashed into the British rider Liam Phillips in the eighth-final race. So he went out of the competition. I went on to the final and got world number three. [...] In 2016 I wasn’t selected again, but this time they didn’t even let me pay my own way to go.”
For Maurice Burton, the doors really started slamming in 1976. He’d been selected for the 1974 Commonwealth Games but after the coach who’d selected him left, he was out in the cold and never got to represent his country ever again.
“I just left and went to Belgium. I never bothered to come back and race here again, apart from certain events, certain big events. I’d been to Belgium the winter before in 1974 and the promoter Oscar Daemars wanted me to come back to ride in the Six Day event. I’d never ridden in a professional Six Day event before that. By the Christmas of that year, I was riding with the professionals, with Eddy Merckx and all of those guys. I was 19 years old.”
Sixes in the ‘70s were big. The economics of the sport meant that a decent road rider could make a killing over the Winter riding Sixes:
“My reason for turning professional was partly to ride on the road, but the main thing for me was the Six Day racing. What I could earn in those Six Days and one event, some riders wouldn’t even make in a year on the road. I used to walk away from a Six Day event with £2,000 a week. And that kind of money, it was hard to do on the road.”
But the Sixes weren’t just road riders making hay in their off-season, they produced their own stars. Burton was riding around the same time as Tony Doyle, who went on to become the head of the British Cycling Federation. He was riding around the same time as Gary Wiggins, father of Bradley. Around the same time as Patrick Sercu who as well as winning more that 80 Sixes in his 22-year track career also bagged stages in the Tour and the Giro. To survive in the world of Sixes, you had to be good. Maurice Burton survived more than 50 Sixes.
BLACK CHAMPIONS IN CYCLING
Desire Discrimination Determination has its roots in a travelling exhibition organised by Moncrieffe in 2018 and 2019, Made in Britain - Uncovering the Life Histories of Black-British Champions. The exhibition started life in the University of Brighton, where Moncrieffe is a lecturer, before going on the road. In June 2019 it reached Herne Hill, the spiritual home of cycling in Great Britain. There Bradley Wiggins did an ‘in conversation with’ show with Russell Williams. Wiggins was proud to tell the audience that Williams “was my role model as a young boy. A great man with a great heart. For me to be half the man he was when I grew up would have been enough.”
The previous year Wiggins had published the seventh volume of his autobiographies, Icons - My Inspiration. My Motivation. My Obsession. As well as the usual icons of the sport - Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Indurain, Armstrong - Wiggins included a few British riders. Tom Simpson. Barry Hoban. Phil Edwards. Sean Yates. Chris Lillywhite. He did not include Russell Williams.
The ways in which we erase Black cycling history interest me. Take the claim that, in 2019, Joseph Areruya became the first Black African cyclist to finish Paris-Roubaix. Ignoring the fact that he finished outside the time limit and so didn’t actually finish, the part about him being the first Black African rider to reach Roubaix may be historically accurate. But it still effectively effaces from history the Mauritian rider Hippolyte Figaro who finished seventeenth of the twenty-eight riders to complete the first edition of the race in 1896.
Or consider a recent article in Bicycling magazine, celebrating Black History Month by reducing Black cycling history to the stories of Kittie Knox, Major Taylor, the Buffalo Soldiers, and five women who rode from New York City to Washington DC in 1928. Even a century ago there was more to Black cycling history than such tales. Why didn’t that Bicycling article mention some of Taylor’s contemporaries, like Figaro, like Woody Headspeth, like Germain Ibron? A lack of willingness to seek out such stories is one reason. Another is the need to see Taylor as a cycling exception, rather than an exceptional cyclist.
The need to see Taylor as an exception is, in part, linked to the need to name the first Black rider to do this, that, or the other. In Desire Discrimination Determination Moncrieffe notes that “to be ‘the first’ is not the black man’s celebration. The term ‘the first’ would belong to the gaze of the white world by which ‘the first’ is framed. And whoever that person is will face a peculiar existence - being ‘the first’ is an oxymoron; it flits between being a novelty, being revered and being othered.”
That point about flitting between being a novelty, being revered and being othered can be illustrated by a photograph:
Alex Broadway’s shot of Nicholas Dlamini leading the Tour de Yorkshire peloton over Boothferry Bridge in 2019 went viral. Moncrieffe asks a pertinent question about it: “is part of the reason it gained so much attention the sheer novelty of seeing a black racing cyclist among a sea of white faces? Is it the curiosity of the white gaze that made it so famous?”
It is important that people understand the implications of that question. It is important that people understand what is being celebrated when we celebrate Black riders, when we celebrate the role of Black riders in cycling’s history, when we celebrate the successes of Black riders today. Are we really celebrating these riders or are we treating them as novelties, as exceptions?
Part of what makes Desire Discrimination Determination such an exceptional and enjoyable book is that its subjects - Moncrieffe himself, all the riders already named, other riders including Luli Adeyemo, Tim Erwin, Quillan Isidore, Christian Lyte, Caelan Miller, Erik Saunders, Nelson Vails, and Cory Williams - are not treated as having been exceptions. By grounding their stories in universal experiences - stories we can all see ourselves in - the racism that they encountered, the different ways they dealt with it, and the ways the problem might be addressed going forward, are better understood by all.
The difficulties faced by Black riders should never be ignored. But at the same time, racism should not diminish their personal stories. Desire Discrimination Determination succeeds by celebrating these riders, enveloping the serious message being imparted in a warm blanket of nostalgia and the love of cycling. And that is something worth celebrating.