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July 15, 2009

Major Taylor, Tour De France Racism, and Black Cyclists

Curiously, yesterday's New York Times (July 14, 2009) carried story by Maureen Dowd titled, "White Man's Last Stand", regarding the Senators from Utah and Kansas facing the prospect of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. I must correct Ms. Dowd: the white man's last stand is the Tour De France.

In American history, when I think about racism and sports, I think about Jim Thorpe in 1912, Jesse Owens in 1936, Joe Louis in 1936, Jackie Robinson, Cassius Clay (sic) in 1960.

Tour de FranceA great thing about clean sports is that you can either do it or you can't, and when these men got an honest chance to perform they showed their capability. Curiously, the remaining organized sport that is still a white boy's game at the highest levels is: cycling.(edit 7/19)

Even golf, GOLF for goodness' sakes, has Tiger Woods. Cycling has - wait for it, wait for it - Floyd Landis, an Amish guy. (NTTAWWT) Even bobsledding has a Jamaican team. (site)

How can it be that there aren't any professional black-skinned cyclists? (Use of the term black seems more appropriate than African-American in the international context of cycling.) Let's go to the history books.

Before we saw Jim Thorpe in 1912, the world saw black American cyclist Marshall "Major" Taylor in 1906. From the book, Le Tour: A History of the Tour De France, we have this story of the first Tour organizer (Desgrange) and a great black cyclist (Taylor):
The first man to run the Tour de France was Henri Desgrange. He had been an ardent cyclist on both bikes and tricycles, who had ridden races and had broken the one-hour record with 35 kilometres at Neuilly in 1893.

He was not... a very lovable man. Before he ran the Tour de France, he was running the Parc des Princes and one vignette in that event may be illustrative. A track cycling event was organized pitting the French champion Edmond Jacquelin against American Major Taylor, the first notable black cyclist (not that there have been many since).

Major Taylor, American cyclist, in Paris France, 1908

Major Taylor duly won, and Desgrange was so angered by this affront to the white race that he insulted the winner in turn by paying his large prize in 10-centime coins, so that Taylor had to take the money away in a wheelbarrow.

This next statement about Desgrange, written by a fellow Frenchman, speaks volumes about the Gallic spirit: Desgrange was bigoted, he was gifted, imperious and irascible, he was at times an obnoxious or even intolerable personage; all the same, he was one of the great Frenchmen of the twentieth century.
It seems no surprise that Major Taylor did not enroll in Henri Degrange's Tour de France.

Major Taylor

Marshall Walter "Major" Taylor (1878–1932) was an American cyclist who won the world one-mile track cycling championship in 1899 — after setting numerous world records and overcoming strong racial discrimination. Read Ken Kifer's tribure to Major Taylor.

Contemporary Black TdF Hopefulls

On July 17, 2008, these two cyclists were enroute from Eldoret, Kenya to Alpe d'Huez to ride the Tour De France course and document their performance against the times recorded for professional cyclists. As you probably know, Eldoret in Kenya is home to fully half of the world's champion marathon runners.

Zakayo won a local race on the same course in 42 minutes 10 seconds. In the Tour De France, Lance Armstrong's record time was 37 minutes 36 seconds. Zakayo's time of 42:10 would have placed him in the top twenty of the professional riders.

Zakayo Nderi and Samwel Mwangi are financed by Nicholas Leong, a (white, portly) Singaporean who is a member of the Major Taylor Association. Click the image below to see the African Cyclist Project's website. I love their African Cyclist Blog; the subtitle is, "because you can't bullshit your way up a mountain". I love that.

The Color Peloton Barrier

Within the TdF, and all the major cycling events, there is a Guild mentality among the riders of the peloton. It's somewhere between a trade union, a cartel and a secret society. Simply put: if the peloton doesn't want you to win, or doesn't want you to finish, they will strive to make sure that you don't.

The Tour is three weeks long. It is impossible to go all out for 200 km a day, every day, through the long flat sprints, up & down the Alps with their obscene inclines, and everywhere in between. Most days and for most of the race, the field travels in a pack in order to save energy for the harder sections. This main section is known as the peloton. Racers will break out of the peloton and try to gain time, but you generally want to save your energy for the sections you're good at (some racers excel at mountain climbing, others are good in the flat, etc.) The peloton can carry a sick or troubled rider, and the peloton can crush an unpopular rider.

An Example of the Pack Mentality

A recent public example was in the 2004 tour, when Lance Armstrong spoke to (and allegedly threatened) a group accompanying Simeoni in a breakaway. There's bad blood between Armstrong and Simeoni. Both are essentially convinced the other is threatening the sport.

Anyway, it's late in the Tour now, and Lance has the overall championship in hand. Simeoni is an also-ran, but he thought he saw a chance to grab a stage win and sprinted ahead to a group of a half-dozen B-listers. Armstrong decided to stick with Simeoni and join the breakaway and prevent him from getting an easy cheap stage win.

The half-dozen guys actually in the breakaway group know that with Lance in the front all the other teams will contest the finish, and when Simeoni & Armstrong catch up to them, they all ask Armstrong to let them go, save the energy, you've got the race won, be a good sport, etc. Armstrong, who generally is gracious about these things (and in these long races, sportsmanship between teams and competitors is crucial), agrees, but he won't retreat to the peloton without Simeoni. The conversations are televised.

The breakaway riders say to Simeoni, hey get away from us, if you stay with us we're ruined. Simeoni reluctantly agrees to retreat with Armstrong back to the peloton. The power of the peloton for self-regulation is not to be misunderestimated.

I think that's why we don't have black cyclists competing at the Tour De France level. In order to have a place on a team, a rider must convince a Sponsor that they can make a positive contribution. The peloton doesn't seem to want any black riders. The races that feed the TdF don't seem to have a lot of black riders. The sponsors don't seem to want any black riders.

The Tour de France: Racist. Anti-Semitic Roots. Yellow journalism.


pg1dpu said...

There a a lot of Columbian riders, and there used to be a MExican rider that even won a few stages in the 80's/90's.

I think that sponsors will take anyone that advances product placement with victories, and if there are no African riders the reasons might be slightly more complex than racism.

Anonymous said...

I am watching the Tour de France right now.
I see no fat riders.
Hence I am claiming discrimination.
Or perhaps my logic if flawed.
I know yours is.

Vannevar said...

Dear Pg1dpu, yes there is a good share of Columbians. And a Mexican twenty years ago. But we're missing whole continents.

Dear Anonymous on 7/10 at 10:47am: I'm not sure I'm making a logical (logos) argument, I think I'm making an ethical (ethos) argument.

Having said that, I'm wrong a lot. Thanks for the comments! Cheers, Vannevar.

Anonymous said...

"A great thing about sports is that you can either do it or you can't...."

Your discussion of the impact of the peloton shows it's more complicated than that. What about psychological pressure? Arthur Ashe had to battle with that.

Not vehemently disagreeing with you, just pointing out that there are other factors apart from natural ability. I'm not accusing you of saying that blacks who have succeeded did so based only on natural ability.

Vannevar said...

Dear Anony 7/19 5:07 pm:
I think we agree, and you said it better than me. I've edited the text to reflect: the great thing about a CLEAN sport is that when they got an HONEST chance to perform, ...

Thanks for the feedback. Cheers, Vannevar.

Anonymous said...

pg1 dpu. What may those complex reasons be?

Anonymous said...

This is the last day of the Le Tour de France and could we be getting closer to having some color in the race? There were two Japanese cyclists that made it through the whole Tour and the commentators made note of it. Also, did you see it. They had two podium girls there also. Could this be the beginning. Hmm. We have a long way to go. Hopefully not too long.

Anonymous said...

Pt 2. Addition to last comment. The young ladies were black.

Anonymous said...

Major Taylor was a track sprinter. The TDF is a completely different discipline. If you bother to watch olympic level track cycling, you will see the modern corollary, and there are plenty of powerful riders of color. Historically, France is one of the most progressive countries in the world. France was a refuge for Josephine Baker when she was nearly banished from the US due to rampant racism. Suggesting that the modern TDF is a racist venue clearly misses the mark.

As for a reason why there are few TDF riders of color, I can think of two reasons. First, the participation levels are low among young athletes given the choice of more lucrative sports such as basketball, football, baseball, and soccer. Second, this is a very expensive sport. The equipment and coaching costs can form a socio-economic barrier to entry. There are organizations which are trying to level the playing field such as the Major Taylor Foundation, Many professional athletes are involved in this organization. Tyler Farrar is doing a fundraiser for this organization Nov 18th in Seattle. The UCI has sponsored a tour in Africa as an attempt to widen participation in the sport.

Riders can't just jump into the TDF. It isn't an open race. They must be on one of the top teams in the world. In order to race on one of the top teams, riders need to prove themselves. This normally involves many seasons of racing in europe, which doesn't happen without financial resources. Even riders on the US development team are left to absorb many of these costs. It's an expensive sport. You can directly support economic equality in cycling by donating to the charity of your choice or by sponsoring a promising athlete.

Anonymous said...

There was a Kenyan rider (forgot his name--does that make me a racist?) in the Tour of Ireland earlier this fall. While not a Grand Tour, the ToI is prestigious enough that Lance rode it this year. It's a regular pro tour event.

Last week was the Tour of Faso (Burkina Faso, in the heart of Africa). You could count on one hand the number of white riders. It clearly is not a regular pro tour event. Some of the riders were riding bikes you and I might ride...twenty years ago. As someone else mentioned, it's an expensive sport.

The Versus network (formerly OLN) carries a full complement of bike racing, including the complete Tour de France. In 2009 they also covered the Giro d'Italia, I believe for the first time. No Vuelta España yet, though.

ZJX, ORD, ZAU retired

Anonymous said...

White "boy's"? How demeaning. Would you say the NFL is a black "boys" game?

Anonymous said...

Overall, this argument that the Tour de France is racist makes absolutely no sense. Your two primary examples that the modern event is racist come from the early twentieth century (obviously not applicable as nearly a century has passed and social standards and attitudes about race have shifted significantly) and a completely unrelated time when Lance Armstrong chased down a breakaway. I also noticed that you use similar (il)logic in your article about sexism in the Tour de France, essentially saying that because women do not participate, the event and its organizers are clearly sexist. Since you have followed this same basic framework in two posts, here's an idea for your next article:

First, a title: "The exploration of homosexuality in the Tour de France. Are the TDF organizers homophobic?"

All you have to do is assume that none of the riders are homosexual (just as you assume that all the riders are white and maintain no other racial identity) and the article pretty much writes itself. Look, Fabian Cancellara has a wife and kids, so he can't be homosexual. Lance Armstrong also had a wife, so obviously not a homosexual. Obviously, the organizers are excluding homosexuals. How can anyone be so homophobic in the modern era?

Essentially, your posts are poorly written (miserable spelling and punctuation) and your attempt to point out social problems where they do not exist only propagates the idea that social ills are everywhere and thus cannot be solved. Yes, people should be aware of race and gender in the Tour de France, but they should also be aware that there are no rules or stipulations blocking black people or women from racing. Therefore, you cannot say that the organizers or owners are racist or sexist.

Frankly, I wouldn't have even commented on your blog if it hadn't come up on the first page of a Google search about women in the TDF. You see, I'm aware of this issue too. The difference, however, is that I realize that the absence of women and black people in the race is coincidental and not the result of sexism and or racism.

Perhaps when you have some concrete evidence of racism, you should write an updated post. Until then, stop ranting about topics that you know nothing about. You also might want to try actually watching the Tour. You would realize that cycling is a wonderful and pure sport that has no room for racism and sexism.

Anonymous said...

Grégory Baugé, one of worlds best track cyclists Enough said. Last time I checked there were very very few black professional cyclists registered. Bit like saying there hasn't been a black PM of the UK, well until a black person goes for it there won't be. Same in cycling. For every champion rider the UK produces, it produces 10,000 who aren't good enough. Until black people participate on a scale big enough to make the same kind of odds then of course there won't be black people in the TDF. I also know of zero black Rowers, mainly because it isn't a sport black people tend to do on a big enough scale to produce the odds of producing a participant at the best events.

Anonymous said...

2011 HAS a Black rider in the Tour:


Anonymous said...


thank you for your article. i am dumber for having read it.

next time, try using some logic or reason before putting your fingers on your keyboard.

zaire67 said...

Extrapolating an event that took place over one hundred years ago to today's TDF is a stretch. You only have conjecture, no facts. I just wish they would not attach an agenda to the quest. Try to make the Tour because your a great rider that happens to be Black.

Anonymous said...

From Andrew Ritchie, author of the comprehensive biography of Major Taylor:

This story about the wheelbarrow-full of change is, I'm fairly sure, apocryphal, i.e., a myth, a repeated story. I have never seen any actual press or documentary evidence of it. In the two 1901 "matches" [that is, 2 best-of-three, one-on-one sprint races between Taylor and French champion Jacquelin, there was a huge amount of publicity and press coverage, and I do not believe it would have been in Desgrange's public relations and business interests to make such an insulting gesture: if he had, it would certainly have been reported in the press. If anyone has such evidence that it did occur, I would like to see it!

Andrew Ritchie's book is Major Taylor, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World, 1988 and 2010.

[A track cycling event was organized pitting the French champion Edmond Jacquelin against American Major Taylor, the first notable black cyclist (not that there have been many since). Major Taylor duly won, and Desgrange was so angered by this affront to the white race that he insulted the winner in turn by paying his large prize in 10-centime coins, so that Taylor had to take the money away in a wheelbarrow.]

Anonymous said...

I would like to add that in our present day attempts to diversify those institutions that have gone "unchanged", have the TdF sponsor an all black cycling club at it's own expense to encourage more diversity and participation.Not doing so will show who and what's behind the lack of participation.That should also end this debate on explaining away racism.

Anonymous said...

There is one now....Kevin Reza - Team Europcar 2013 Tour de France

Anonymous said...

Professional cycling's Pro Tour (now World Tour) in its short lifetime using these names has never included the Tour of Ireland on it's schedule. If it were on their schedule of events then it would be a requirement that all of the Pro Tour/World Tour teams take part. Additionally Armstrong's participation does not legitimize an event. About the only conclusion you could come to in that case is that the Tour of Ireland came up with the appearance dollars to lure Armstrong to make the trip. So before you berate someone for the accuracy of their posts just maybe you should check your own facts before posting. Also who appointed you the grammar police to critique the spelling and text of someone's post?

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