Roundtable: How can our sport achieve better diversity through positive action?
27 October, 2021
The sport of cycling has long been the domain of the cis white male, and it’s ever more true of the niche corner of ultra endurance racing. In a changing world, organisers are seeking to address the gender, racial and LGBTQIA+ imbalances within their own events and the wider sport. We put some questions to these changemakers about their chosen methods for positive action, the benefits they’ve reaped and the work left to be done.
In order to learn more about the current state of play, we looked to those who are changing the status quo: Mikel Delagrange is the founder of Team Amani, an African race team working to provide international opportunities to Africa's upcoming racers; Lewis Ciddor, organiser of the Victoria Divide and winner of the 2018 Tour Divide; The Racing Collective are a UK-based club who organise races (including GBDURO) and the upcoming Route to Net Zero; Anna Haslock, Managing Director at Lost Dot and Race Director of the Transcontinental Race and Trans Pyrenees Race; Taylor Doyle, founder of the Ultra Distance Scholarship and the Steezy Collective, a cycling collective for women and non-binary peoples; and finally, Rebecca Rusch, multi-discipline world champion endurance racer, owner of “Monuments of Gravel” race, Rebecca’s Private Idaho and founder of the Be Good Foundation.
As a coordinator, you’re in a position of power to select racers and/or minimise the barriers to those from underrepresented demographics in the sport. What is your chosen method of positive action? And what barriers to entry do you hope this addresses?
"We live and ride on unceded, stolen land." - Lewis Ciddor
Mikel Delagrange, Team Amani: For us, we started with consultation with our partner teams/clubs in East Africa. We asked them what it was they needed to break into the sport of cycling. They identified racing opportunities as the number one barrier to entry - they simply didn't have access to racing (or the sport) at an international level. So rather than coming up with a strategy ourselves, we simply listened to the challenges that the riders themselves identified and, together with the athletes, set about trying to overcome them. We firmly believe that placing underrepresented athletes at the center of the decision making process is essential to success. If you don't belong to an underrepresented group, despite your best intentions, you may have considerable blindspots when it comes to what it is like for an African (for example) to enter a bikepacking race. Best to ride shotgun and try to assist the athletes overcome the challenges that they themselves identify.
We cyclists play a small role in the larger drama unfolding in our societies. We should all be asking ourselves, "what can we do in the small spaces we inhabit to further the cause of inclusivity?". And then we should do it.
Lewis Ciddor: As a race director, I’ve always been aware of the large inequality between genders in the sport of Bikepacking. I think Bikepacking is maybe ahead of a lot of other sectors of cycling, but in some ways I think it’s led to a level of complacency within the community when in reality we still have a long way to go. Over the years organising the Victoria Divide I’ve tried to come up with ways to make the event more inclusive and held open discourse with women in the community about aspects they felt turned them away from events or things that I could do to improve the event in that regard. In previous years I’ve worked with MAProgress to offer a number of spots open to women, trans and gender non-conforming (GNC) riders with the tracking fees waived. This year the event will be again capped at 100 riders. For the first 2 weeks of registration a full half (50) of those spots will be reserved for women, trans and GNC riders for the first 2 weeks of registration.
My events are always free to enter but in the past I have encouraged riders to make a donation of their choosing to a nominated charity, group or cause in lieu of an entry fee. The donation can be of any size as the intention is not to create a financial barrier of entry to the event in what can already be a very expensive sport. This year riders will be encouraged to donate to the Pay The Rent organisation. We live and ride on unceded, stolen land. It’s super important to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we live and ride on. So this payment from riders will encourage this acknowledgment as well as contributing financially for use of the land and reparations to the Aboriginal communities who own it.
The Racing Collective: Ultraracing is the ultimate individual sport, yet the individuals are part of a community. We want that community to be as diverse as possible so our approach is to positively bias riders from underrepresented demographics during the selection process. The resulting stories should in turn lead to more applicants from underrepresented demographics. Our focus has predominantly been on gender but we’re pleased to start our journey to address racial equality too.
Anna Haslock, Lost Dot: Camille McMillan famously described cyclists on the Transcontinental as scientists or poets in the way they approach and engage with the race. A very few are both in equal measure. Mike Hall was an example of a scientist with a poet's heart. Mike’s ambition for the Transcontinental reflected this. On one hand the TCR is a test to find the fastest human on a bicycle to cross Europe and to undertake that test as accurately as possible we need as wide a field of competitors as possible and therefore the event should be as accessible and available to as many diverse individuals as possible. On the other hand, the TCR is a unique and beautiful journey of self discovery. Having experienced the positive impact self supported adventure had on his own life, he wanted to share it with everyone.
My role is to preserve Mike’s legacy to the best of my ability and take appropriate action to further Lost Dot’s aims. At Lost Dot we aim to support and develop a culture of racing that celebrates integrity over winning at any cost, that draws from as wide a pool of racers as possible to find the fastest rider. We also aim to promote and champion adventure cycling for physical and mental health, self development and personal growth, social cohesion both locally and globally and to promote environmentally sustainable means of global travel. This means we want to promote the benefits of adventure cycling to everyone.
Our current methods are focussed around our transparent application process which is outlined on our website and our efforts to nurture an inclusive and welcoming community that supports our aims. We hope to increase the visibility of underrepresented groups on the race by telling their stories. We also aim to champion inclusivity through our communications and our actions. I recognise there is a lot more we could and should be doing in terms of welcoming more people from all walks of life to discover our events and we are working on the best ways to achieve that.
It is important to note that the Transcontinental Race and Trans Pyrenees Race are races for expert long distance cyclists. It is important that we do not encourage anyone to race before they are ready, and being ready is a very personal thing that is unique to each individual. Having said that, there is work to be done in ensuring everyone who might one day want to race feels there is a place with their name on it at a Lost Dot event.
Taylor Doyle, Ultra Distance Scholarship: Our chosen method for positive action in an immediate sense currently looks like providing 3 recipients with an ultra-ready Stayer Cycles bike, a spot in a prominent UK ultra distance race (this year is GBDURO 2022), performance coaching from Veloqi.cc over a training period of 10 months, bikepacking bags from Wizard Works, training and racing kit from Albion, sustenance from Outdoor Provisions, and one-on-one mentorship over the training period as well as meetups, organised rides, and various workshops creating a community and network of support.
I think the best thing that a white person in a position of power can do when wanting to address these issues, is to actively involve and employ people of colour in as much of the decision making processes and direct support delivery as possible, and to compensate them for their time. Something that I felt strongly about from the very beginning, and knew was right, was having a * BAME/POC-led selection committee for the scholarship. Three experienced ultra cyclists, Anisa Aubin, Natt Williams, and Vera Ngosi-Sambrook (a UD scholarship alumni) will each act as a mentor for one of three scholarship recipients for 10 months from November 2021 to GBDURO race day in August 2022. They will also act as the selection committee for this year which will be led by the scholarship’s official coach, Alison Wood of Veloqi.cc. It is my hope that this scholarship creates an inclusive community and support network within the ultra distance racing scene in the UK. I believe that it already has. When it comes to inviting people in, representation really does matter. I have learned that when people see other people who look like them, doing things they never thought they could, that this is truly impactful and should not be underestimated.
- We included this note in this year’s application and I will include it again here: I acknowledge that the use of 'people of colour' and 'BAME' does not necessarily serve all individuals within the diverse groups we are trying to reach and we are continuing to learn and update our language as we go.
Rebecca Rusch, RPI/Be Good Foundation: We have a number of initiatives in place to help diversify the sport. My chosen method is to always take real action whenever possible and not just talk about taking action. At the 2021 Rebecca’s Private Idaho we added new categories including Non-Binary/FTW (Femme, Trans, Women) and Para-Cyclist and to share their stories across all our platforms. The response was profoundly positive overall and the outcome was a more welcoming event and one that represented the future of the sport. We can say “Biking is for everyone” until we are blue in the face - but really ensuring biking is for everyone is the key and we have a responsibility to provide those opportunities.
The Women of TCRNo7 at the start in Burgas, Bulgaria. James Robertson/Transcontinental.
What do you believe is the greatest value in having more demographics participating in your events?
Let everyone in, give them access to similar equipment, and let's see who is the best. - Mikel, Team Amani
Mikel, Team Amani: We want our sport to look like our societies (at their best) - that is to say cosmopolitan and diverse. Selfishly, we think that the more international our sport is, the more interesting it will become. Who cares about a race where the participants are only from the West? Can you truly say these are the best cyclists in the world? It's like the championships in the American sport of baseball being ironically called the "World Series" when no other countries are allowed to participate. I yawn just typing this message. Let everyone in, give them access to similar equipment, and let's see who is the best.
Lewis: I think in many ways the Bikepacking community is already quite diverse in some aspects. There are teenagers riding, 70 year olds, there are women winning fields outright. Whether in a competitive aspect or not, this diversity is in large part what makes the Bikepacking community so great. Seeing all ranges of people getting out and engaging with the natural environment is amazing and also, I believe, creates great stewards for our natural spaces. We do have a long way to go though, especially along the lines of gender and race, and it is in large part up to the leaders of the community to take ownership of that and take steps to continue to try to make the sport more accessible to everyone.
The Racing Collective: The strength of a community rests on differentiation and integration. Including diverse demographics means there is more scope for mutually beneficial outcomes i.e. where contributions of each party create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This makes for more vibrant conversations, which makes the event more enjoyable for all, and increases the chance of coming up with new positive initiatives. Diversity also brings resilience and fresh perspective to our sport, these are essential for it to evolve and grow.
Anna, Lost Dot: Part of the value is ensuring we have a wide pool of entrants to test the fastest rider across Europe; however, I believe the greatest value comes from fostering the kind of community we all want to be a part of.
When I accidentally became a part of this community, as Mike’s girlfriend, I was introduced to a community of people I never expected to meet and I was absolutely blown away by the character of this community. This race is ultimately about autonomy and you might expect to meet a bunch of ‘loners’ and yet the community of individuals I met here are overwhelmingly open, generous, interested and curious about the world (which I suppose I should have expected from a community of adventurers). What bonds our community is our shared passion for adventure cycling and the strong friendships forged during the race that transcend socio-cultural differences and bring us together.
Taylor, Ultra-Distance Scholarship: I hope that the value of being decent human beings towards each other, and wanting as many folks as possible to experience the thrill and the madness of ultra distance racing is a good enough answer to this question. Being actively anti-racist and dismantling/re-evaluating the systems that keep things like cycling a staggeringly white sport, is the only way to do this.
A quote from the UD Scholarship page: "White supremacy does not only show up in overt forms, it trickles down quietly through systems that support white success at the expense of others. Those of us in positions of influence have the power to inspire change.”
I really do hope that the ‘value’ in all of this comes through the undoing of how we’ve been doing things in the industry.
Rebecca, RPI/Be Good Foundation: This sport truly is for everyone and until we have equal representation and a safe space for all, we aren’t doing what is best for the sport. There is profound value in having participants from all walks of life. We often talk about our goals around connecting people, celebrating place, and using the bicycle as a catalyst for that purpose. Our objectives and learnings can’t come from a singular group of people if we aim to truly connect, understand the places where we recreate. It is our collective knowledge that will create true progression.
What is one thing you admire about another co-ordinator/community member in how they addressed the lack of diversity?
Mikel, Team Amani: We admire many people doing amazing things in this space but if I have to choose, it would be Justin Williams from L39ion of LA (Crit cycling team). Justin had a dream of creating a cycling team and culture that looked like (and felt familiar to) him. He did this in a sport not accustomed to letting outsiders in. He didn't wait for anyone to assist him. He simply kicked the door in and achieved great success through stubborn persistence and hard work. Seeing through his vision has changed the face of cycling and what people consider to be the "norm". For that, we all owe him a debt of gratitude.
Lewis: The Masaka Cycling Club in Uganda are doing some really amazing things. They’re creating a platform for their riders to have an opportunity to compete at the elite level on the world stage. But also at a grass roots level they’re empowering members of their community through cycling, breaking down social barriers of inequality such as beliefs that bikes are not for women to ride and creating opportunities for disabled youth to access opportunities within paracycling.
I really appreciate how Kait and Kurt at Bikepacking Roots are trying to address the underrepresentation of BIPOC people within the sport through their BIPOC Adventure Grant. Financial assistance, gear and mentoring available through the grant all directly tackle some of the biggest barriers to getting into the sport. Being able to offer access to these tangible resources is probably the single biggest thing, but simultaneously often the hardest things to provide. This is I think where the bike industry as a whole, those with the money especially need to step up and pull their weight.
The Racing Collective: It is relatively easy to follow but hard to lead. In our minds the Transcontinental have always worked hard to encourage diverse gender participation and think it’s fantastic they’re now doing the same for other underrepresented demographics.
Anna, Lost Dot: I really admired GBDURO’s ambition and success with regards to gender equality, I believe 43% of riders were women this year which is far beyond what other events achieve.
I was also really excited to see the 2021 Komoot Women’s Torino-Nice Rally take place recently. I think they did a wonderful job of illustrating the joys of adventure cycling to women. In a similar vein I really admire the ongoing work of the Adventure Syndicate and WTF Bikexplorers (now the Radical Adventure Riders, RAR).
Beyond adventure cycling there are numerous groups taking action to address the lack of representation in cycling, groups such as the Black Cyclists Network, Cycle Sisters, Women of Colour Cycling Group to name a few.
Taylor, Ultra Distance Scholarship: In addition to being a fan of RAR, I really admired how Grinduro California doubled their FTW (femme, trans, women) riders in 2020 from the previous year by setting aside 30% of their tickets for this underrepresented group. I will preface this by saying that I do not mean to equate gender with race. Tickets were otherwise sold out at the time, so this announcement of opening up more spots, and shouting loudly about how they were for a specific group was a considered statement that did not feel tokenistic. Their efforts were really effective, and even myself, over here in the UK, was tempted to scoop up a ticket as the hype they created around it was really potent. I think that the ability to create ‘hype’ which really just means an authentic sense of welcoming and belonging, is so incredibly important. Underrepresented groups don’t only deserve an invite, they deserve the same pure joy and excitement that those of us who already feel comfortable in these circles get from events such as Grinduro and beyond. Another brand to do this really well at an event in 2021 was Rapha for their new 500km gravel event, the Pennine Rally. They committed from the get-go to having a 50/50 split and as a participant in this rad new event, I can say that the impact of that increased presence was absolutely felt and appreciated. I think that the key thing here is that brands who confidently commit to such initiatives and efforts publicly, and without half-measures, do really well.
Rebecca, RPI/Be Good Foundation: One person I really admire is Molly Cameron. She is a star within the gravel community and not just because of her amazing skill on a bike, but because of what she has done for the LQTBQ+ community. Being transgender herself, Molly has seen it all when it comes to the lack of diversity and inclusion.
She also saw the need for healthy relationships, advocacy, DEI education, and change - then made it happen. She started the RIDE Group which stands for “Riders Inspiring Diversity and Equality” and through their efforts made a huge impact.
Team Amani rider, Sule Kangangi at the finish line of Badlands 2021 having taken 6th place. Image: Jakub Kopecký.
Have you faced any backlash from your positive action? And, do you believe it to be fair?
Mikel, Team Amani: Our biggest obstacle is uninformed cynicism. For various reasons, some people have made up their minds in the West that the barriers to entry for people (from the global South in particular) are too high and that expanding the sport to non-traditional locations too difficult. This cynicism causes certain sectors of the cycling industry to treat initiatives such as ours as just yet another charity. This pigeon-holing can be very difficult to climb out of in a short-attention-span society. If your movement for greater inclusivity gets put in the box of "something I ride bikes to raise awareness for" you will have few opportunities to reclaim the narrative and get people to think differently. While not backlash per se, passive cynicism can be far more formidable to combat than even open hostility. At least with hostility the lines are clear and attention is focused. Try entering a bike-packing race where the event organizers are more interested in capturing a photo of the one rider you manage to send to the event in order to show "how committed to diversity they are" rather than making it structurally easier for riders from outside of the West to compete on an equal footing by, for example, making pricing more accessible to those from outside of Europe. This is just one micro example.
Lewis: Nothing major personally but I have seen it when other event organisers have taken steps to make their events more inclusive. It’s not uncommon that people of privilege will push back when they feel that privilege slipping away. It’s disappointing for sure, but overwhelming it is such a great community. At the end of the day if someone does not want to participate in my event because I want to make it more inclusive and accessible to all then they won’t be missed.
The Racing Collective: Backlash is too strong a word but there’s certainly a sense that you have to tread so carefully that it inhibits more bold progressive action. Often it feels like we want to move in the same direction but the harshness of social media makes dialogue confrontational and hostile. Often there is no single right answer but our approach is to consult with people we trust to get a balanced opinion on contentious issues.
Anna, Lost Dot: Feedback from the diverse communities we aim to reach out to is very important and useful. Some individuals have legitimately pushed back against being labelled; we are all complex individuals and far more than our skin colour, gender or sexual orientation.
The backlash I am not prepared to countenance is the kind of biased comment from the few people within our community who refuse to recognise that cycling or even society at large has a diversity issue. I believe the evidence is undeniable and therefore, although I recognise and respect everyone’s right to their opinion, I believe our efforts and actions in fostering diversity and inclusivity are necessary and important.
Taylor, Ultra Distance Scholarship: Honestly, not as much as I had prepared myself for. The scholarship has been well-received and has mostly only been met with support and excitement. Yes there are corners of the internet where the scholarship is being discussed, almost always by white men who are essentially asking how the scholarship is truly inclusive if it is not also for white people. These folks are always going to be out there. I do not need to go into detail here about how the whole point of the scholarship is remedying historical systems of white privilege and the patriarchy. These dudes obviously think that the scholarship is a truly awesome opportunity and are just a little upset that they cannot apply themselves. In all seriousness though, people having these uncomfortable reactions to these things is all part of a greater shift to a more inclusive world and the slow death of the patriarchy.
Rebecca, RPI/Be Good Foundation: Whenever you are making a big change, shaking up the fabric of what we have all known to be the standard, you’re going to face backlash. Change has always made people uncomfortable, but I think something many fail to remember is that we cannot change without facing a little discomfort. Growth only occurs outside of our comfort zone.
The backlash received was what I expected, but overall it wasn’t as negative as I would have thought. It has been amazing to see not only the gravel community come together and other events beginning to adopt the same new standards, but the sports community as a whole.
As far as the feedback being fair, I think all feedback is fair. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and it’s important to sit down and reflect on these differing opinions because it allows you to see different points of view.
What are the barriers to entering the sport that you are not able to tackle? And, whose responsibility do you believe is to minimise or eliminate these barriers?
"As every cyclist knows, headwinds don’t feel so strong when you work together....The cycling industry isn’t going to change from the top down, it’s going to change from the bottom up." - Rebecca Rusch
Mikel, Team Amani: There are many barriers to entry in our sport but none are insurmountable. For riders coming from the global South (and East Africa in particular) the key barriers are:
- access to international competition/events;
- access to fit-for-purpose material;
- access to financial resources sufficient to attract the best athletes in the country to the sport of cycling.
Whose responsibility is it to reduce the barriers of entry to cycling? That responsibility belongs to all of us. All of us who truly love cycling as a sport, transportation device or recreational activity. All of us who want to make this space look more like the societies that we aspire to live in. Let's start with what we can change and see where the road takes us.
Lewis: I think the biggest barrier that I have little ability to affect is financial. As I mentioned I do what’s within my control by keeping my events free. But it can cost thousands of dollars to get set up with a reliable bike and gear to go Bikepacking. Couple that with travel costs and time required off work to participate in an event and it can become very prohibitive to many.
The Racing Collective: The income inequality barrier feels like it’s too large for us/bikepacking to solve and guess responsibility rests with the voting public. Efforts to improve the fairness of the UK voting system could catalyse this.
Anna, Lost Dot: I don’t believe there are any barriers to entering the sport that any of us are unable to tackle. I believe in striving for the ideal that anyone with access to a bike and the ambition, drive, passion and time to train could achieve podium position on our races regardless of age; disability; family responsibility; marital status; race; colour; ethnicity; nationality; religion or belief; gender; gender identity; transgender; sexual orientation.
I know we can be doing more at Lost Dot and it is our intention to always be striving to address as many barriers as possible to make our events accessible to as diverse a range of people as possible.
Taylor, Ultra Distance Scholarship: It’s really relevant that you ask this. Since the very beginnings of the Ultra Distance Scholarship I have received countless well-meaning and curious messages all along the lines of ‘this is great, but what about [insert any other underrepresented group here]’?
I get asked all of the time why the scholarship is not specifically for those from the LGBTQ+ community, or those with disabilities for example. My answer to this usually starts with reiterating that the scholarship was created during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 and the subsequent calls for better inclusion and diversity within the cycling industry thereafter. It was made with specific, direct intentions and I think that is what makes it powerful. There are countless amazing initiatives out there aiming to support other underrepresented groups and I love to see it, and there needs to be more.
I also get international messages lamenting that the scholarship is only UK-based, and that people wish there was something like it near them. I would be delighted if someone ‘copied’ me and made their own scholarship, and I hope that over the next year I can develop some kind of informational how-to resource for folks who want to do similar work. The end goal in an ideal world is, of course, for this scholarship and initiative to not be necessary at all.
Rebecca, RPI/Be Good Foundation: The bike industry is not leading the way when it comes to equality. We have a long way to go, but the steps necessary are relatively simple: Include everyone in the conversation, speak up and stop biased conversations or decisions, persist, and understand we can each make a difference. Imagine the explosive growth and success that’s possible for the entire industry if we each make these small steps as individuals. As every cyclist knows, headwinds don’t feel so strong when you work together. There are a number of barriers to the sport. Representation and cost come to mind first and we have a long way to go to solve it. We aim to improve representations by providing opportunity. In terms of cost, I aim to have every rider understand you don’t need the newest gear and apparel. I 100% support “the run what ya brung” mentality if it means someone new joins the sport. We’ll also have some new initiatives in 2022 to support these efforts. I believe that all of us, as a community, as a sport harbor this responsibility to minimise and eliminate barriers. The cycling industry isn’t going to change from the top down, it’s going to change from the bottom up. It starts with conversations, local ride groups, bike shops, and events. As our grassroot communities make the changes the bigger leaders in the industry will have no choice but to follow the will of the people.
Throughout our preparation for this piece we were humbled by the commitments made by individuals and organisers to improving racial and gender diversity. Our intention is to revisit this topic in the future to assess the status and evolution of current projects and to hopefully share measures taken to improve LGBTQIA+ diversity.
We're grateful to Wendy Ellis for her contribution of questions to this piece.
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