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Book Review: Black Champions in Cycling

Desire Discrimination Determination: Black Champions in Cycling

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“Why does cycling remain such a stubbornly white-dominated sport, particularly in representation at international level?”

– Marion Lee Moncrieffe

In the introduction to his new book “Desire Discrimination Determination: Black Champions in Cycling,” Marion Lee Moncrieffe writes this about the Black cyclists he highlights: “What can we learn about cycling from the voices of these black cycling champions?” That question is the focus of his writing over the following 220-or-so pages. It’s not a big book but it’s packed with fascinating images and details on champions from Major Taylor in the 1890s to Algerian Abdel-Kadar Zaaf at the 1913 Tour de France to the Ethiopian Tsgabu Grmay racing in the UCI WorldTour today. Importantly, Moncrieffe’s book has the authority of his self-described life experience as “a black man, former racing cyclist, and an academic…researching and writing about the experience of black cycling champions for many years.”

The 15 chapters are packed with stories on the problems that Black cyclists have had to overcome to find acceptance and success in their sport. Perhaps the most telling are the personal stories told by the author, including the one about his experience of racing at the world masters track championships in Portugal in 2010. On winning his semifinal match against a higher-ranked South African in the match sprint championship, Moncrieffe was cheered enthusiastically by the British contingent in the velodrome. Right then the stadium lights went out unexpectedly and some in the crowd began laughing.

Relating what happened next, Moncrieffe writes: “A Welsh rider came over to me. ‘Awesome ride, Marlon!’ he said. I nodded in acknowledgement. ‘Thanks. It was tough,’ I replied. ‘But wasn’t it funny though…’ he added. ‘Hmm. What?’ ‘When the lights went out, didn’t you hear what Smithy shouted out?’ ‘No,’ I shrugged. He grinned as he spoke: ‘”Hey, Marlon! Show us your teeth! We can’t see your face down here!”’ Suddenly it became clear what the laughter in the track centre had been about. I had become the focus of a pretty racist quip.”

Moncrieffe also writes about the few Black women who race at an elite level, observing: “There is no imminent prospect of significant numbers of Black women taking their places among the pro ranks.” He then cites the case of Kittie Knox, a talented Black athlete, who joined the League of American Wheelmen in 1893 but a year later “to prevent what was seen by some as African American infiltration of a white sport, LAW took the decision to enforce racial segregation laws and its racist committee challenged Kittie’s membership.”

Although the book’s illustrations and writing are first class, the designers made a poor choice in placing many of the captions sideways, so you have to turn the book on its side to read them. Also, the text is interrupted frequently by the in-person stories of Black champions, whose words are set in a different font and as double instead of single columns. These choices may have worked well in a short magazine article but they are annoying distractions in a book of this quality, taking away from the enjoyment of reading such a well-researched volume.

“Desire Discrimination Determination: Black Champions in Cycling” is published in the U.K. for Rapha Editions in arrangement with Bluetrain Publishing. rapha.cc

From issue 105, get your copy at the Peloton Shop