Words by Nick Bull | Photo by SWpix.com
Arguably the most unedifying moment of “The Last Dance”, the acclaimed 2020 ESPN and Netflix documentary revolving around Michael Jordan, is when the basketball star talks about a Senate race in North Carolina some 30 years earlier. Explaining his reasons for not publicly supporting Democrat challenger Harvey Gantt against Republican incumbent and noted racist Jesse Helms, the six-time NBA champion (who was raised in the state) noted that “Republicans buy sneakers, too”.
Jordan, who has made over $1 billion from his partnership with Nike, the manufacturer of his Air Jordan shoes, claimed the comment was made in jest. Explaining his position, he added: “The way I go about my life is I set examples. If it inspires you? Great, I will continue to do that. If it doesn’t? Then maybe I’m not the person you should be following.” Among those talking heads in the documentary who discussed the issue was Barack Obama, who admitted that he “would’ve wanted to see Michael push harder” against Helms. “On the other hand,” the 44th President said “he was still trying to figure out, ‘How am I managing this image that has been created around me, and how do I live up to it?’”
Judging by the way Tao Geoghegan Hart spoke out so impressively against cycling’s diversity and inclusivity problem in an Instagram post on Thursday, the 25-year-old Giro d’Italia winner seemingly already knows how to manage the image around him – the thinking man’s Bradley Wiggins, if you like – and what he can do to meet expectations.
Geogheghan Hart’s advocacy should be of little surprise to cycling fans. He has long been a cheerleader for women’s cycling. Anybody who read his blogs dating back nearly a decade would have got a feel for how mature and considered the Londoner was. His self-effacing comments yesterday – “I have not done enough” – shows somebody who knows that talk alone means nothing. In the photo accompanying the post he is seen taking the knee. The Briton described his sponsorship of an as-yet unannounced under-23 rider to race for his old Hagens Berman Axeon team this summer as something that is “[hopefully] the beginning of a joint effort to increase racial diversity” in the sport. He deserves every bit of the praise he has received since making the announcement.
Of course, the contrast in Geoghegan Hart’s words and actions is stark when compared to that of his INEOS Grenadier team; an outfit who, despite their sizeable budgets since their Sky days, has only paid hollow lip service to the notion of running a women’s team. At its most cynical, this would have been a relatively inexpensive but easy PR win for the organisation. Done properly it would have had a transformative effect on the women’s peloton. Then there’s the continued employment of Gianni Moscon, who famously served a six-week suspension after racially abusing Kevin Reza at the 2017 Tour de Romandie. As commendable as the team’s promotion of Sky’s Rainforest and Ocean Rescue initiatives was, Geoghegan Hart has arguably done more in the past day or so to attempt to right cycling’s wrongs than the team has since 2010.
That is no fault of the British rider whatsoever. But when he has to act as a de facto lone wolf, one individual out of a potentially almighty union, it only serves to reiterate how much more work cycling has to do. Geoghegan Hart has received some, but thankfully minimal, criticism for taking the knee. Given the historical response from a minority of fans to the team’s other Grand Tour winners, perhaps we’ll see them switch from dressing up as needles and inhalers to merely holding signs saying WOKE as a way of showcasing their dislike of Geoghegan Hart from the roadside? I know one thing: having ill-informed social media users accuse him of supporting a “Marxist organisation” seems more appealing than, say, Chris Froome’s experience of having piss thrown in his face.
Watching both Geoghegan Hart’s and the team’s next steps will be fascinating. Will INEOS leverage their sponsorship of the Mercedes F1 team to push this social agenda with Lewis Hamilton, another athlete leading the charge for inclusivity in his sport? What of Moscon’s role within the team? How does his past square off against his team-mate’s work? Other riders have liked and commented on Geoghegan Hart’s social media post but how many will actually join him in speaking out? Based on the shambolic and tokenistic gesture of solidarity with Kévin Reza and Black Lives Matter movement during last year’s Tour de France final stage, expectations are understandably low.
Look, I get it. Cycling is a gruelling sport, requiring the toughest physical and mental minds. Careers are often short, contracts even shorter, and we’re never far away from high-profile sponsors pulling out. Job security among many professionals is modest, the risk of injury every time they race is high. But given Matteo Trentin’s revelation that fewer than 20 riders out of approximately 800 recently downloaded the CPA’s documents outlining potential UCI rule changes and safety measures, something that directly impacts them, the chances of the sport’s leading athletes leading the charge for social change seems small.
But unlike Jordan, whose business rationale behind his sneakers comment showed somebody who both wanted to transcend the sport and was already planning his post-retirement life , the organisational structure of cycling should lend itself to being a hotbed of activism. For a start it’s less tribal – fan allegiances rarely lie with a single team. There aren’t worries about alienating supporters and struggling to sell season tickets or corporate boxes. Replica jerseys aren’t the must-have clothing item. Nor do they have the same personalisation as they do in other sports (read: you’re unlikely to see INEOS fans doing what some NFL supporters did to their Colin Kaepernick jerseys once he started kneeling during the pre-game national anthem). Furthermore, since a certain Texan’s demise nearly a decade ago, no rider has come close to creating a worldwide brand for themselves. Surely it’s a lot easier to stand up for what you believe in when there’s no ulterior motive to selling yellow bands and concealing the truth?
Geoghegan Hart accepts that he can only control his own actions. He accepts the grim truth, the harsh reality that his voice doesn’t “have all the answers” and that his influence is “small”. Regardless of how much we admired his ride at last year’s Giro, a 360-word post on Instagram this week could well define the Londoner’s cycling career.