The scene from Spike Lee’s movie Do The Right Thing, a classic film about the eruption of racial tensions in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the summer, is so appropriate here.
Buggin’ out, played by Giancarlo Esposito, is devouring a slice of pizza in Sal’s Pizzeria. Sitting under the Wall of Fame in Sal’s (played by Danny Aiello), Esposito’s character becomes ticked off that there “ain’t no brothas on the wall,” and that all of the photographs are of “American-Italians.”
Eventually Lee’s character, “Mookie,” escorts Buggin out — an 80s style Africa emblem slung around his neck — out into the street and away from Sal and his baseball bat.
Almost 20 years later, Harlem is integrated and black-owned pizzeria’s dot the Brooklyn landscape. However, if Buggin’ out wondered where the brothers were back then — surely Sal could have posted a Jackie Robinson photo for affirmative action’s sake — had he tuned in for the start of The Tour de France on July 3 he might have wondered, “how come there ain’t no brothas on the bikes?”
African-Americans have smashed color barriers in sports like golf, where despite his troubles no sane person will argue that Tiger Woods isn’t capable of returning to his perch atop the sport. And with her victory over frat-boy favorite Maria Sharapova on Monday, three-time Wimbledon Singles champion Serena Williams joins her sister, five-time singles champion Venus in advancing to the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. Heck, between 1875-1902 African-American jockeys won 15 of the 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby.
But African-Americans and blacks from around the world haven’t made so much as a ripple when it comes to elite-level cycling.
ESPN analyst Stephen Bardo, a former professional basketball player and an amateur cyclist who is black, says it comes down to dollars and cents.
“Cycling is expensive and a lot of African-American youth aren’t going to have expensive bikes, let alone ride them in urban areas where cycling can be dangerous,” Bardo said. “In Chicago where I live, a huge population of African-Americans live on the south-side of the city. The south-side doesn’t have its fair share of bike lanes that you see throughout the city that make it safer and encourages cycling. I love the sport and ride myself along the lake and on the north side of the city. I would love to see more African-American youth exposed to the sport because it’s very exciting and competitive! I think it will take that first African-American cyclist to hit it big before it becomes “cool” for youth to strive after.”
USA Cycling Communications Director Andrea Smith said her organization, the governing body for the sport, doesn’t track minority participation in cycling but added that might be a good idea.
“Of the numbers that we use we don’t track it,” Jones said of the 66,000 member organization. “We do track geography and age and gender numbers. We have developmental camps all over the country in urban and rural area. I’m not sure we do anything to exclude any particular group. One of our goals is to make cycling as a sport more accessible to everyone.
“But that’s a great question you ask: why there aren’t more minorities,” Smith wonders.” It’s safe to say that there are geographical and cultural trends in any sport. Look at soccer in Latin America.”
Early on, racism did inhibit would-be African-American cyclist.
Born in Louisville in 1878, Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor is revered today by African-American riders for his accomplishments in the face of huge odds. Taylor won the world one-mile track cycling championship in 1899 — after setting numerous world records and overcoming strong racial discrimination.
Frenchman Henri Desgrange was the first man to run the Tour de France. He arranged for track race between Taylor and French champion Edmond Jacquelin. Taylor devoured Jacquelin but this did not sit well with Desrange, who paid Taylor his substantial winnings in 10-centimes coins, forcing Taylor, who ultimately died penniless, to take his winnings away in a wheelbarrow.
The participation by African-Americans is very small, but there is some optimism. Justin Williams, from Los Angeles, is a promising member of the Trek-LIVESTRONG Developmental Road Team. And Giddeon Massie is decorated sprinter who looks to make the Olympic team in London for a third time.
However, there is a unique approach to developing cycling talent going on in Kenya that might change the future of the sport. Nicholas Leong, a commercial photographer, has procured financial help from a French hedge fund manager that allows him to train Kenyans from the city of Eldoret, the high-altitude spawning ground for some of the greatest marathoners in history.
In 2008, with minimal training, Leong unleashed Zakayo Nderi, at the time a 26-year-old shoe-shiner with little experience climbing hills, on the famous Tour de France climb at Alpe d’Huezl. Nderi completed the climb in 42 minutes, 10 seconds, then the fastest time of the year, a time that would have placed him in the top half of Tour riders when a time trial was last held on the mountain in 2004.
It was a performance that left many long-time followers of the sport stunned.
“I believe this land can be just as fertile for riders as it has been for runners, Leong said.
And that would change everything.