Representation matters: why cycling needs to encourage diversity

Rower turned track cyclist Yewande Adesida is determined to help make cycling a more inclusive sport that better represents the diversity in British society at large

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As a white man in my 30s, I’m a typical British cyclist. So typical, in fact, that my place in cycling’s demographic profile had never really occurred to me — until now, speaking with up-and-coming track cyclist Yewande Adesida, who knows what it’s like to feel untypical.

“When I rock up to a race and I’m the only black woman there,” she says, “it makes me sad still now.”

The 25-year-old Londoner is sitting opposite me in a gastro-pub in leafy Barnes, having agreed to take a break from her PhD studies at Imperial College to discuss her nascent track career — and the uneasy backdrop of cycling’s diversity problem.

Being the only black woman at bike races must feel exceptionally strange, I venture, given the greater diversity in most other walks of life within London.

“You say it’s exceptional,” Adesida brings me up short, “but it isn’t really. At university, for example, I was one of very few black people on my course.” She is right, of course, and the question betrayed my own complacency.

“The difference is that cycling is something I have chosen to do for enjoyment, and at the beginning [the lack of diversity] put me off a bit. I thought maybe I should be doing something else, as no one looked like me.”

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Taking up a new sport can be intimidating, so it’s important to feel as though you fit in among training partners.

“If I had chosen to go into athletics, I’d have found loads of other people who looked like me,” explains Adesida,“whereas in cycling, I felt unsure how well I could do because I hadn’t seen anyone who looked like me and was doing well.”

According to the most recent data, only seven per cent of London’s cyclists are from ethnic minority groups, as against a 41 per cent non-white population, and British Cycling’s recently published ‘Diversity in Cycling‘ shows there is still a long way to go.

The under-representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in cycling across the country is a glaringly obvious fact that should be hard to ignore. Earlier this year, SRAM broke the trend by selecting a black woman — Adesida — to front a campaign for its latest wireless groupset range. How did that come about?

Image: SRAM AXS campaign

“I got involved through Ayesha McGowan [see below], who’s aiming to be the first African-American female cyclist to go pro. I’d met her two years ago at a talk she was giving. Last year she messaged me saying SRAM were trying to do more in terms of representation, and would I like to take part in a shoot?”

Response to the campaign was broadly positive, notwithstanding a smattering of “ignorant” reactions on Twitter. Was that symptomatic of Twitter, I wonder, or does cycling have a particular problem?

“Probably a bit of both,” says Adesida. “I think some people — because they were not affected personally and don’t know what my and other people’s experiences are like — failed to see how important it was.”

Coming into cycling from a rowing background, Adesida did not have unrealistic expectations.

Image: SRAM AXS campaign

“Perceptions of rowing and cycling are similar — as elitist sports. When I coached rowing, it was really nice to be able to go into schools and show them it was a sport open to all, to break down those barriers. That’s what needs to happen in cycling.”

The rise of smart trainers and indoor racing means cycling is well placed to follow rowing’s lead in this respect.

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“Indoor rowing is really accessible,” says Adesida. “That’s how I got into it… and it’s part of the School Games. At the moment there is no equivalent in cycling.”

Having made the switch from rowing three years ago, Adesida tried road and crit racing before deciding last year to specialise as a track sprinter. It’s proved a shrewd move: already she has won a bronze medal at the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) championships, and finished a very creditable 10th in the keirin at the National Champs.

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This year she is aiming to medal again at BUCS and compete at the sharp end at the Nationals — all within her first full year of sprint training.

With a substantial Instagram following and growing media profile, Adesida is a role model for upcoming racers — particularly women and people of colour. Is she part of a broader movement towards improving representation in UK cycling?

“Certainly in London, yes, there is the Black Cyclists Network set up by Mani Arthur, and the Women of Colour cycling group, set up by Jools Walker and Jenni Gwiadowski. All these cyclists are popping out of the woodwork, which is really cool.”

And it doesn’t end with riding groups. “There is also the Black-British Champions in Cycling exhibition currently touring the country, and [cycling activist] Andy Edwards is working on a report about diversity in cycling.”

All of which sounds really positive — but is it enough?

“It is slowly changing, yes, but there is still a lot more that needs to be done.”

The aspiring pro: SRAM has shown the way forward

US cycling activist and elite racer Ayesha McGowan, who is aspiring to become the first African-American female pro road cyclist, tells CW how she came to recommend Yewande Adesida as the face of SRAM’s AXS range

“Kate Powlison [SRAM brand manager] said she was working on product shoots for 2019 and their current network of athletes and ambassadors did not reflect the state they wanted it to. She asked for recommendations for cyclists of colour. Yewande was on my list.

“Campaigns like this can shine a light on underrepresented communities. This is key to getting more people who don’t identify as white men into cycling.

“Having a woman of colour be the first face of such a major industry tech advancement also gave priority to representation and set an example for the industry to follow.”