Cycling can learn from England's Euro 2020 heroes on the topic of diversity

Let me get this out of the way. I am not English.

The complexities of growing up as an Irish Catholic in Northern Ireland, during the Troubles, mean England were never a team I’ve found myself supporting.

There was nothing of the football teams of the 90s and noughties, or the fuss and fanfare around them, that drew me in.

So, it came as a deep surprise to me that the moment in which Marcus Rashford missed his penalty on Sunday night felt something like heartbreak.

The sports fan’s version, at least. Yes, I had promised my daughter I would be supporting England, since she was born in London, but I did so with the conviction of a wet fish, easily flopping one way or another.

When I realised I was personally invested in this England team, it was for the first time in my life.

In that moment, it felt like everything these players had stood, and kneeled for, the fight they had faced against their own fans and politicians, had been resting on the landing place of that ball.

The realisation theirs was one of the most important socio-political protests I had witnessed in my lifetime in sport, that the tremendous, transcending force for good this young man had been, was what made me sad to see them fail where it mattered to them most.

Except I was wrong, of course. They’re still winning. The very fact they have provoked intelligent, thoughtful debate from the streets to parliament, is a testament to the bravery and doggedness of their actions, regardless of where those penalty kicks ended up.

And so it was I turned my mind back to the Tour de France, with a weary and saddened heart.

The Tour is surely one of the last sporting bastions of a very particular brand of male whiteness. It is a race I viscerally love, but one in which the question of race is still far too easily ignored, and so dismissed.

This week, I had hoped to interview Nic Dlamini, who crashed on one of the most brutal stages of the race and missed the time cut.

Forced to abandon his first Tour, I wanted to talk to him about the loneliness of riding out the back and watching his dream slip away, about the fact he is the first black South African to ride the race, and the only black rider in the 2021 edition.

Last year, there was also just the one black rider, Kevin Reza. Supposedly in support of the Frenchman, and the fact sports across the world had been taking the knee for months without so much as a flex in the leg from cycling, some riders organised to add their voice on the final day.

Digging out the sharpie pens, they scribbled ‘No To Racism’ on facemasks which were worn and discarded before racing got under way.

As gestures go, it felt as flimsy as the material on which the message was written, so I tried to speak to several of the teams, asking for riders to give more substance, depth and context.

Every team I approached refused my request. One told me two riders had already spoken to one other broadcast outlet, and were not ‘up for doing more on it’. Another that riders wouldn’t ‘really be up for having something to say about it’.

Even from a sport known for its lack of diversity, I was shocked.

On to 2021, and we will not even have that small, disposable gesture. Cycling has spoken, it would seem, and it doesn’t really have very much to say.

There are those who question whether the problem is one of discrimination or representation.

British Cycling seems to think the two are intertwined and has produced its first equality, diversity and inclusion strategy. It could be dismissed as the kind of gesture politics our home secretary takes such an aversion to, but it is no knee-jerk reaction.

Nine months in the making, British Cycling has taken advice from, among others, the former racer, now expert researcher Dr Marlon Moncrieffe.

It includes plans for scholarships and bursaries, for targeted activity to improve representation.

Whether it makes a visible, real difference remains to be seen but BC’s press officer at least acknowledged to me on publication, “You called us out – quite rightly – for our response to BLM”, before showing me what they were doing about it.

When the Tour arrives in Paris on Sunday, I will applaud the riders who have survived their personal battles to get there.

I will also, however, fear for a sport where the UCI president David Lappartient, who has made no demonstrable change in this area, is to be re-elected for another four years, unopposed.

I worry about the long-term future of a sport that represents so few from across society, and which does not seem to think it a problem that needs to be solved.

Until cycling as a collective uses the platform of the Tour to take a stand on issues that matter across society, it risks irrelevance in an already overcrowded landscape.

Until that time, we always have this England team for inspiration, and that’s not something this Northern Irish woman ever thought she’d say.

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