Anyone in any doubt about why diversity matters in sport should hear French world champion Taky Marie-Divine Kouame’s first impressions upon arriving at her debut international competition.
“I live in Paris and in Paris there is so much diversity. It’s a big melange,” she tells Eurosport at the Track Champions League meeting in Berlin.
“But when I got into international competitions I saw the difference. Then I asked myself: ‘I don’t know if it’s my place to do cycling’.”
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Kouame, whose parents are from the Ivory Coast, said that had she not met Gregory Bauge, the man who would later become her coach, she might have quit the sport long before she swept to a rainbow jersey at the 2022 World Championships on home soil.
“He was an example for me. He inspired me, Kevin Reza too. Two people who looked like me, who are Black and I thought anything is possible.”
Reza was the only Black rider at the 2020 Tour de France in the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, when he said cycling had a "lot to learn and is really far behind". .
Two years later, Biniam Girmay wrote history on the road by becoming the first Black African rider to win a stage at a Grand Tour at the Giro d’Italia, but the sport continues to be haunted by accusations it is not doing enough to boost diversity.
Marlon Moncrieffe is among those campaigning for change, detailing in his Eurosport feature for Black History Month that there are still barriers blocking the path to move diverse representation in the sport.
Eurosport caught up with a number of trailblazers at the ongoing Track Champions League, a series that is helping give opportunities to riders from different backgrounds along with more established stars.
Suriname’s Jair Tjon En Fa admits he did not realise cycling was an “actual sport” until he was 13 and started out as road cyclist as his country had no tracks. He only made the switch to the velodrome after moving to Miami aged 18 and says cycling is a difficult sport to self-fund, particularly for those from poorer economic backgrounds.
“The problem is it’s really expensive. So even though there’s a lot of kids that do want to start cycling, it’s not always possible for them,” he said.
“It would require them to move out of Suriname. So even though a lot of them want to start, it’s not really possible.
“Not everyone can afford a bike to start on, or even buy equipment. Even for me, it’s still hard to get really good equipment just because of how expensive it is.”
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Thailand rider Jai Angsuthasawit’s talent was spotted not racing on two wheels… but three.
“I was about 12 years old and I was actually part of a recumbent cycling team, so three-wheel tricycles, and I used to race in this series in Australia. My coach was like ‘do you want to come out to the velodrome one day?’. So I came out to the velodrome and I was hooked and I never left the velodrome after that.”
But he says that his path into the sport may have been different, had he not been brought up in Australia.
“Back in the day, there were a lot more westerners for sure,” he said. “It was quite hard for some of the Asians and other cultures to break through.”
Azizulhasni Awang joined his local mountain bike club at his town in Malaysia to follow in his brother’s footsteps. He then moved to a sport school in the capital Kuala Lumpa, where only two disciplines – road and track – were on offer, sparking his love affair with the velodrome.
However despite Malaysia being a proud multi-cultural country, Awang says that they can still improve.
“When I grew up in my town, cycling in that time there was not much diversity,” he said.
“It was more for the men. And in my hometown it was for the Malay, there was not much participation for the Chinese, Indian. Malaysia is well known for diversity.
“It’s getting better. There’s more participation from each race, and I’m happy to see that, but actually there’s still a lot more room for improvement. And I hope with the help of the UCI and UCI TCL that it’s going to open up the mind. This sport is for everyone. Cycling is for everyone.”
With this new exposure comes new responsibility with riders from smaller nations hoping to pave the way for the next generation.
“At the start, I wasn’t [planning] to be an inspiration,” says Kouame.
"I was like ‘I’m just Marie!’. Now I understand I am an inspiration. I receive so many messages. I come from the Ivory Coast… so many people from the Ivory Coast want to hear me speak about my career, to speak to me for advice.”
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And Awang hopes that the Track Champions League can also serve as an inspiration for young riders from across the world hoping to break through.
“I think it is one of the great platforms, the UCI Track Champions League. I hope this will expand more," he says.
"We can go across the world and send a message to the audience. And I hope that we can have more great platforms like this.
“There’s a lot of young cyclists from small countries who want to become a world champion, Olympic champion, and I think with the help of everyone they can make their dream come true.”
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After a great debut season, the UCI Track Champions League is back for season two, with Laura Kenny joining the party. You can watch it all live and on demand on discovery+. We also have extensive coverage across eurosport.com.
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