The first iteration of anything is always awful.
You wouldn’t want to fly transatlantic in the Wright Brothers’ plane, or tackle the cobbles of Paris–Roubaix on Karl von Drais’ Laufmachine, with its wooden saddle and total lack of pedals.
As it is with inventions, it also is with symbolic gestures. To see Kevin Reza riding at the front of the peloton today beside the leaders of the various jersey classifications is much less than we hoped for, but it is something. And something is a start.
Reza looked fairly uncomfortable up there, riding slightly behind the wearers of the Tour’s four jerseys. He seemed altogether more at ease when he was back in the peloton, shepherding Bryan Coquard towards the day’s sprint finale, as he has done all the way through this race.
The whole thing felt clumsy and ill-conceived, putting a strange sort of spotlight on a rider who does not ask for the limelight, and indeed, does his best work when the cameras are pointed away from him; one of the Tour’s countless unsung domestiques.
The riders wore face masks before the racing began this afternoon, as they have every day at this strange Tour de France conducted under the shadow of a global pandemic.
Today on their masks some riders had written slogans, like ‘No to Racism’.
This part, the mask writing, we’re told, was orchestrated by the Cyclistes Professionnels Associés (CPA), a member association for professional cyclists equivalent to the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) in soccer.
While it was an appreciated gesture, organised on the fly by a group of people who have been really quite busy for the past few weeks, it did feel like the very least that we could do as a sport.
‘Look at your belly button less’ – Kevin Reza calls on white riders to address racism
Rob Hatch put it well when he said:
“We’re shocked because at this point in the lead-out we were expecting to be talking about something a little bit different. We had been led to believe that there was going to be a show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. We know that Kevin Réza is a local rider here in Mantes la Jolie and he was going to lead them out.
“We saw a few little bits of writing on masks, always welcome of course, things like ‘No to Racism’ and a few slogans, but I haven’t seen any solidarity shown. I saw Kevin Réza looking quite an alone figure near the front, just a few of his French friends chatting to him.”
Tour de France cyclists on #NoToRacism - "It’s important we bring this message"
Speaking to Eurosport’s Orla Chennaoui, Bahrain McLaren’s team principal Rod Ellingworth said he could see the positive side of the various gestures made today.
“I think it’s a step forward, we all support equality in our sport. Creating an environment which encourages diversity has got to be a good thing. I think it’s a good way forward, I think there was great support from all the riders and what they did.”
Cycling is overwhelmingly white and there are many reasons for this. Access is one that comes up time and time again; it’s one of the most expensive sports to get into in the world. Culture is another; the countries where cycling is most popular are predominantly white. There are a thousand factors that one could point to as having an effect, but none of them should prevent us from trying to build a better sport.
Questions of race are extremely difficult to contend with, particularly when we find ourselves in the majority – as white men working in cycling do. It is virtually impossible to understand the experience of someone seeing things from the other end of the power imbalance.
Cycling is a sport mired in its own traditions and history, obsessed with the past and doggedly devoted to doing things the way it always has. Change is vitally necessary, but it is foolish to expect that this will happen overnight.
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It would be easy to dwell on how unsatisfying the gestures we saw today were, but it is at least a beginning. A sign that the sport has acknowledged its problems, maybe even that it is willing to start rectifying them
Hopefully, in the future, these imperfect gestures will be redundant – but for now, no matter how small, they do still matter.