Words by Sadhbh O’Shea | Photo by SWpix.com
The Black Lives Matter protests that followed the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 forced society to confront racism in dramatic fashion. The sense of feeling that grew out of that moment was so strong that even cycling, which is not known for being in any way progressive, had to acknowledge it – though the response was pretty lacklustre.
Sport as a whole has historically been particularly good at ignoring social concerns and poor at reflecting society. It is not always the case and wider societal issues can sometimes breach the bubble sport has created for itself, such as Colin Kaepernick taking the knee or Emily Wilding Davison stepping in front of the King Goerge’s horse at the 1913 Derby.
People say that sport and politics shouldn’t be mixed but sport isn’t and shouldn’t be a comfort blanket for bigots, racists and sexists. Largely the domain of the straight white male, sport has gradually changed its ways over the years but there is still a long way to travel on a number of major issues.
Cycling probably has further to go on approaching social inequalities than most sports. You just need to luck at how difficult it has been to engage the sport in providing any sort of parity for women and wonder how long it will be before any efforts are made to drive towards racial equality.
Racism or gender inequality are by far not the only issues cycling has to tackle. Last week a young u23 cyclo-cross rider by the name of Justin Laevens came out as gay. He might not be a household name in the sport but his coming out is an important moment for the sport. When the news hit the English-speaking press, I saw many comments saying “who cares” or “why is this news?”.
It should not be news, but it is. They may be well intentioned but these comments miss the point about just how hard it can be for an athlete to come out and how important it can be for other LGBTQ+ people to see it. Sport can create this narrow idea of what a man, a woman and an athlete should be and it can be intimidating to identify yourself as being outside this prescribed “norm”. Representation, as it is with all demographics of society, is hugely important.
In a world where same sex couples can get married, and there is increasing awareness of the transgender community, frighteningly few male cyclists have come out as LGBTQ+ while actively racing. Those that do come out are often retired from the sport by the time they feel safe and comfortable to do so.
Figures by the UK’s office for national statistics show that about 2.2% of the population identify as being gay, lesbian or bisexual. In women’s cycling, it is not unusual to meet many openly lesbian or bisexual riders or team staff members. However, to the best of my knowledge, there are no openly gay or bisexual riders in the top tiers of the men’s side of the sport.
With nearly 1,000 riders at WorldTour and ProTeam level, the chances of their being not one LGBTQ+ rider among them seems farfetched. Being homosexual or heterosexual doesn’t make you more or less likely to be interested in sport. However, the idea that you might not be welcome or that you may have to hide who you are is likely to turn some away or force them into hiding their identity. Life as a professional athlete is difficult enough without the feeling that you must hide who you are to your teammates and the rest of the world.
The old-school boys club culture that still runs through professional cycling isn’t overly welcoming to those that fit outside certain prescribed stereotypes. As sure as I am that there are LGBTQ+ riders within the men’s peloton, I am sure that there are those who would be incredibly welcoming to any teammate that came out. However, there will also be those who would be vocally against it, and those who, while they wouldn’t object to a gay teammate, would make uneducated remarks and jokes. It only takes a small group of people like this to make a person’s life difficult.
I wish Justin Laevens well in his career and I hope that his example can help others feel as if they don’t have to hide themselves and encourage them to feel brave enough come out, whatever their orientation. However, they shouldn’t have to feel brave to be true to themselves. Cycling needs to further rid itself of its old-school mentality actively make an effort to ensure the sport is a more welcoming place for all.
If you’ve enjoyed this, why not try La Course en Tête’s review of the 2020 season,
Racing in the Time of Covid, which is on sale here.