A couple of weeks ago, I was at a motor-paced training session at Herne Hill velodrome, the historic track in south London that played host to both previous London Olympics (1908 and 1948). I found myself chatting, as we warmed down, to a young cyclist named Germain Burton. He was telling me how his preparations were going for a national championship race that weekend. His concern was how he might get the better of his chief rival, who has a very good sprint, in the under-14 category. I noticed in the results a few days later that Germain didn't figure it out this time, and came in second. But he's a real talent and has plenty of time to perfect a Mark Cavendish-style finish of his own.
But the encounter got me to thinking. Germain is the son of Maurice Burton, a rider of some renown in his day: he took part in Six Day track races on the continent and rode as a pro in Belgium in the early 1980s in classics like the [Omloop] Het Volk. Maurice now runs a very fine bike shop in south London, De Ver, where, coincidentally, I purchased my own pride and joy, a Colnago, a few years ago.
But Maurice was ahead of his time – as one of the very few black riders in the pro peloton in those days. Presumably, then, in these more enlightened times, that has all changed? Actually, no. There were two Japanese riders in this year's Tour de France, but if you spotted a non-white face, you did better than me. In the UK, I can count on the fingers of one hand the black elite riders I have known: the now retired rider turned occasional Eurosport commentator Russell Williams being one; Dave Clarke another. Then I start to struggle. It's no better on the continent; possibly worse. Cycling remains a conspicuously "white" sport.
It's an issue I discussed with Team GB coach, David Brailsford, earlier this year at an all-party parliamentary cycling group meeting he was attending along with Shanaze Reade, our world-beating BMX rider. He agreed that while great strides have been made in the perception of cycling as blokeish and male-dominated by women like Nicole Cooke and Victoria Pendleton, breaking down the barriers to wider participation from black and ethnic minority groups remains the great unconquered goal for British cycling.
But what are those barriers? One might be that cycling, though not historically a middle-class sport, has a fairly high cost of entry in terms of equipment, which may have acted as a disincentive to relatively disadvantaged immigrant communities. But I think the answer lies in cultural conditioning more than economic circumstances: it's not just cycle sport, but cycling itself that is fairly white – cycling just doesn't have the grassroots appeal to non-white communities. There isn't even much research, seemingly, on this, although a recent Sport England report (pdf) did find that black and ethnic minority participation in cycling as sport and recreation was only 6%, where in other activities it averages 9%.
But just look around you: even in ethnically diverse inner-city areas, I bet that the vast majority of cyclists you see will be white (and probably middle-class, too – but that's an issue for another day).
I can hazard some speculations: cycling may be considered low-status in recent immigrant communities, where the aspiration would be to own a nice car, not to have to get about by bike; it may also be considered uncool in certain subcultures, especially if it is perceived as a white, middle-class pursuit; and – let's be honest – the cycling community may not always have had an unblemished record of anti-racism (this was certainly true of cycling clubs in the past – though no longer so).
But I'd be interested in others' observations about this. And even more so in what we can do about it. I'd like to watch Germain Burton race one day and win –and for his results to be outstanding not because of his skin colour, but simply because of his speed.