Saturday 29 July 2023

Freewheeling - Identity politics and cycling

In this day and age there seems to be significant importance placed on an individual's race, gender, sexual orientation etc. No more is this more so than in the world of sport.

When someone wins a race the headlines scream the first woman/person of colour/gay person/disabled person etc. Then it is immediately followed by "they are inspiring others to do the same", "they carry the hopes of this group of people", "they are using their platform to encourage others" etc etc.

2022 Black Unity Bike Ride (photo: BUBR by RaphaWEB) 

It's something I have never really understood. Firstly, when I take part in an event I have never thought of checking out who else is doing that activity or what they looked like. If I see a black woman doing an activity I am no more likely to be inspired by her than if I see a white man doing that activity. I can't get inspired by someone purely based on their appearance. Why on earth would I identify with someone whose life I know nothing about? To say that they "look like me" because they are a black female seems totally crass, in the same way as when sports commentators in the 1980s would say they couldn't tell one competitor from another "because they all look the same".

So to say that folks are more likely to do an event if they see people who "look like them", or saying that people of the same race, gender or sexual orientation have the same issues, is like saying all black people are the same, all women are the same etc. Now that would be considered as a racist or sexist remark, and the person saying this would be sacked from their job.

Yet, we have groups, even events cropping up based on people's specific characteristics. I previously wrote about what is now known as the Women of Colour Cycling Collective. There is also a Black Cyclist's Network, Brothers on Bikes (for Muslims), plus similar groups for other sporting activities. My thoughts on those groups are the same - if you want to take part in those sporting activities, why not go to existing groups - even encourage your black friends to come with you, and be part of a multi-racial group just like our society is. I don't understand why sporting activities should become a racial matter and why people want to revert to segregation that folks campaigned against for decades. I have done various sporting activities for decades, including cycling, swimming, running, trail running, skiing, hiking. I have never felt a need to join a specific group of black people to do those activities with.

Black Unity Bike Ride

So, as it happens an event known as the Black Unity Bike Ride is taking place in early August. According to the organisers the ride was created in the aftermath of the George Floyd incident and "calls for the black community to unite against social injustice and inspire more active well being. The ride creates support for the capital'ss underrepresented demographics to take the city's streets and increase the diversity of the current cycling population in the captial.  I must say I have difficulties understanding this thinking. I don't see the link between the killing of George Floyd and riding a bicycle, or how riding a bicycle has a link to social injustice.  

It is true that fewer black people ride a bicycle than white people. Statistics from Sport England show that 75% of people from an ethnically diverse background don't ride a bicycle. O black people are the least represented ethnic group in cycling, with only 57% of black people actively cycle, and only 22% consider themselves to be experienced cyclists. There are various reasons to explain that. 

Fewer black people than other ethnicities cycle regularly; this could be down to various reasons (photo: BUBR by RaphaWEB)

In my immediate family there were seven people. I was the only person who rode a bicycle consistently as a sport as well as to commute. My relatives just weren't that interested in cycling, even though a couple of my siblings watched me in cycle races. 

My dad bought himself a road bike in the 80s (a Peugeot) but he hardly ever rode it, preferring to do other activities. As a child, one of my sisters was invited on a bike ride and went, but came back from it non-plussed about her experience and wasn't minded to do it anymore. My parents and other black people I have met considered cycling something you did because you couldn't afford a car or hadn't yet learned how to drive. Once you had a car, a bicycle was surplus to requirement! This might sound old fashioned but there are many people who still have those opinions. 

But instead, many folks have been quick to play the race card, claiming that some sort of social exclusion or even structural racism is the reason for the lower level of participation. I would be interested to see the evidence to support that.

Sure, there are plenty of black adults who have never learned to ride a bicycle due to fear of the machine - just like there are white people in the same situation. There are various Bikeability schemes where folks can learn. They are not race specific. Fear of bike riding doesn't have a colour.

This event bringing together black cyclists consists of a 17-mile bike ride through London (from Leyton to Dulwich), with a mini festival taking place in a park at the end of the ride. Sounds a great set-up for an event. A few years ago I did a similar ride, the Tweed Run, which also concluded with a party in a park. That event was for folks to celebrate their shared love for Tweed fashion and retro bikes - something of interest to any type of person. Indeed the event had men, women, folks of various ethnicities and nationalities turning out in their twill breaches and brogues of various hues, on penny farthings and other vintage steeds from different decades. 

However, this upcoming  event is aimed at black people and the party in the park will have refreshments provided care of companies run by black people, selling foods that celebrate black culture - so-called Black Eats London. 

I certainly like the idea of what they call a "carnival on wheels" - maybe a cycling version of the Notting Hill Carnival, which has a diverse population taking part. I also think that it's good to celebrate a culture. Though I must say "black culture" seems like a clumsy phrase considering that black people aren't just one monolith. We inhabit as many parts of the world as white people, and we come from a multitude of cultures.

BUBR 2022 (photo: BUBR)

The idea that this ride would be motivated by social injustice is the aspect that I don't like, considering  that cycling is not a matter of social justice or injustice. It's just about getting on a bike if you want, or not doing the activity if it's not your bag. There are so many pastimes to choose from nowadays - people are free to shun cycling in favour of other sports. I don't see a problem with that. 

According to Ajasa-Oluwa, the ride was created "with the aim of inspiring more unity and a sense of empowerment." It targets the "black community" and is keen to diversify cycling. 

I must say I don't think I could describe a ride with just black people as a way of diversifying the sport, so much as driving it back towards segregation. 

Pride Rides

Pride ride (photo: Pride Ride)
Another set of events that took place were the Pride Rides - bike rides for LGBTQ+ individuals which raised money for a cycling programme for the transgender charity, Not A Phase. On the back of that is a film about the rides called Shifting Gears. My first impression is that I am not sure what the need is for this. We've gotten used to Gay Pride marches that take place in cities around the world, and sure some of these events are a hugely flamboyant spectacle to the observer. But is a specific bike ride really needed?

To an extent, I buy into this more than the rides based on race, because there is a very specific debate and public consciousness around transgender athletes taking part in sport. Regardless of one's views on the matter, there is a case for raising awareness of these emerging issues experienced by transgender athletes competing in elite sports and what category they would be in. There have also been issues around male footballers or rugby players coming out of the closet about their sexuality.

So I guess these initiatives are ways of highlighting challenges that some LGBTQ+ and particularly transgender athletes are experiencing when competing at a high level in sports, including cycling. 

Pride Ride 2023 (photo: Pride ride)


Having said all of the above, I still wonder about the need, in both cases to organise rides that specifically group together people based on a physical characteristic. It would be more acceptable if white people were to attend the Black Unity Bike Ride - even give it another name that welcomes all races. Have different types of food from various countries as refreshments. Ditto for the Pride Rides - why not have heterosexuals there too?

We hear of certain groups of people in society talk about feeling excluded. Surely, if the goal is to feel included, it seems counteractive, even divisive to organise events with just their own people involved. So in effect, those who complain about feeling excluded end up becoming the ones excluding others. 

That's not something that I could ever subscribe to, and I look forward to the day when folks understand how unhelpful these sorts of groups can be if the aim is for a more unified population in cycling, and in the wider society. 

Related posts

Freewheeling - Keeping away from cycling activists

Women of colour cycling group - is it necessary?

As featured in Rouleur magazine

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