desire, discrimination, determination - black champions in cycling - marlon lee moncrieffe. rapha editions/bluetrain publishing hardback 240pp illus. £30

desire, discrimination, determination - marion lee moncrieffe

to the best of my knowledge, i have never been discriminated against. there was a job application a few years past for which i may not have gained an interview due to my advanced years, but that's pure conjecture on my part. at school, i pretty much sailed through without anyone taking exception to the length of my hair or my mode of dress, a happy happenstance that continued into my years at art college. and since i entered the big bad world of working for a living, nobody seems to have found my presence sufficiently exceptional to discriminate against me.

but, i was brought up as a white, middle-class chap in a predominantly white society, so there was really little or nothing that marked me out as any different from my peers. there were no black pupils at either primary or secondary school and no black students that i recall at college. so in that sense, nor did i find anyone to discriminate against, should i have been idiotically moved to do so. as it is, i have never quite understood why it is that certain members of society find black people to be objectionable. pretty much all the jazz musicians i adored as a teenager, were black americans, and i still idolise art blakey and max roach. i never even considered the colour of their skin to be any sort of issue whatsoever.

however, as with many, i have come across several individuals who do seem to find skin colour a bit of a problem, or at best, worthy of casual racist comment, based on nothing other than, i believe, their own limited intellect. i can but imagine the difficulties experienced by those who are black, living in a predominantly white society. and that sort of discrimination can only be magnified when condensed into the microcosm that is bike racing, a sport that, up until recently, was the preserve of white europeans. and when we see a black, african rider who, against all the odds, has made it into the professional peloton and arrived on the start line of a grand tour such as the tour de france, you'd imagine that his fellow professionals would have proffered an open-arms welcome along with the respect due to someone with the tenacity to reach the grand départ against greater odds that they themselves experienced.

unfortunately, that seems not to be always the case, as is made disgracefully clear in this somewhat disturbing book by marlon lee moncreiffe. should further evidence be required to support such a comment, i would point out that chapter three is entitled 'what the fucking hell are you doing here with us?, a quote by the author resulting from an in-race encounter with a competing (white) rider. there are (perhaps too) many examples of racism encountered by black riders throughout 'black champions in cycling', but that's an observation which it is perhaps too easy to make when a) you've never raced, and b) you're white. of course, it would be somewhat iniquitous to ascribe all examples of racism as arising from members of the peloton.

" The underlying attitude of racism permeates the culture of officialdom too. Joe Clovis, a contemporary of Maurice Burton, was regularly refused permission to race at Herne Hill on the basis his tubular tyres were not considered safe. His white friends could not believe this and so decided to test this 'rule' by bringing the same wheels for inspection by the same officials. They were granted permission to race."

discrimination in any walk of life, and however you wish to define that, offers but two alternatives; you either knuckle under and hope to make yourself 'invisible', or, as is the case for many of the quoted athletes in the book's pages, you let your legs do the talking.

as described by rahsaan bahati, "The turning point for me was when I was 13 years old. I was put up in a race against a guy who was 18 years old. [...] Anyway. I smoked him. He had no idea that I was down the track on the black line and gone. He must have looked over his shoulder again and realised that I was not there. By the time he looked forward to see where I was, I was already coming out of turn three."

the book opens with the claim that boxer, muhammed ali (cassius clay) may have been inspired to become the champion he undoubtedly was following the theft of his red schwinn cruiser. "Clay became so tearful and angry that on reporting the crime to a local police officer he promised to "whup" the thief if he ever found out who it was. The police officer suggested Clay might like to redirect his attention to boxing." and the author too predated his cycling experiences with those of the classroom "...a white teacher asked me to leave the classroom after I spoke up about an issue from a black paradigm; a way of seeing and thinking different to dominant white norms, a perspective that they were not used to and did not want to understand. On my return to the classroom, I would discover white students being praised and given applause by the teacher for speaking a second-hand interpretation of the perspective that I had been offering."

i would imagine, though i have no evidence to back it up, that the majority of you reading this review will not only be cyclists, but white into the bargain. it's all too easy to dismiss these examples of racism as black cyclists being overly sensitive, but that, in essence, merely allows us to let ourselves off the hook. there is no situation of which i can think, where disparaging another purely on the basis of their skin colour, can be thought acceptable. if you were beaten by a black cyclist, it's probably because they were faster than you; to be a bad loser and call them out with racist remarks would not only be unsporting, but inhuman.

of course, the book is not all doom and gloom, highlighting many instances where black riders demonstrate how cycling was instrumental in providing them with an expressive outlet and building of character. for instance, the previously quoted rahsaan bahati went on to win ten american national championships. and rapha's recent championing of the williams brothers' le39ion team can but underline that state of affairs. lee moncrieffe speaks to british riders maurice and germaine burton, as well as russell williams, to charlotte cole-hossain, bmx rider, tre whyte and many others, demonstrating, through many examples, that racism in bike racing is hardly constrained to a few isolated incidents, but also showing that the tenacity and resolve of the majority of his interviewees has, in most cases, risen above the situation.

lee moncrieffe also pays attention to the complicity of national selectors, at least in the uk, who seem predominantly to select white riders for the national team. as he points out, scots olympic hero, chris hoy, began his illustrious career as a bmx rider, switching to the track sprint and keirin to bring a medal tally that reigned supreme until jason kenny's exploits in japan this year. strange is it not, the author ruminates, that no black bmx riders seem to have been afforded similar opportunities.

my only real disappointment with desire, discrimination, determination' is the lack of any apparent conclusion. there are many, many examples of all three of the above 'd's, yet no potential solutions are proposed. admittedly, the individual who can resolve the racism issue, not only in cycling, would deserve considerably more than a medal, and it's unlikely any tangible solution actually exists. and unfortunately, like many a cycling manifesto from the national cycling organisations, 'black champions in cycling' is likely one more example of preaching to the converted. i can't see too many racists eagerly picking up a copy and reading it from cover to cover. however, what the book does potentially succeed in achieving, is in highlighting the situation to those of us who could conceivably make a difference by making us aware of racism's existence in the sport and encouraging us to help stamp it out amongst our peers.

we're all humans living on the same planet, ultimately no different from one another. discrimination, for any reason, is simply unacceptable. marlon lee moncrieffe is to be applauded for having written this book, as are rapha and bluetrain for publishing it.

desire, discrimination, determination: black champions in cycling is published this month by rapha editions/bluetrain publishing.

thanks to the generosity of of rapha/bluetrain, i have a pristine copy of marlon lee moncrieffe's excellent book to give away to the randomly chosen sender of the correct answer to the following question. by what name was muhammed ali previously known? answers should be e-mailed to by monday 23 august, including a full postal address.

tuesday 17 august 2021

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................