By Julia Deufel, original article by Dr Marlon Moncrieffe
Dr Marlon Moncrieffe is a cyclist and a Doctor of Education. His research is in the field of knowledge on black and minority ethnic group cycling athletes. His groundbreaking research work entitled ‘Made in Britain: Uncovering the Life-Histories of black British Champions in Cycling’ has won wide international acclaim. Dr Moncrieffe spoke with Maurice Burton, former triple British cycling champion and Britain’s first black British champion in cycling, and Justin Williams, winner of multiple USA National Championships.
These athletes talked about the state of cycling in the past and present and about future opportunities for black people as ‘leading lights’ in transforming cycling into a better-known and more well-perceived sport. This conversation built upon Dr Moncrieffe’s long-term academic research.
Maurice Burton made his name as a Six Day Madison rider and, particularly in continental Europe, racing with and against athletes such as Eddie Merckx, Rik Van Linden and Patrick Sercu, in the 1970s and 80s. Justin Williams has been road racing since the early 2000s and has competed in continental Europe as well as in the USA. He is the Founder and General Manager of the Legion of Los Angeles Cycling Team.
Maurice and Justin have more in common than just their chosen profession: Both men were successful early in their racing careers, each winning a string of national track championships. They also both found themselves to be out of favour with national selectors after the retirement of the national coaches they had strong working relationships with. Most significantly, both young black men decided to take their racing ambitions to Belgium and across Europe, far from their respective homes.
In their discussion about ethnic diversity in cycling, Justin and Maurice agreed that there is a need for underrepresented ethnic peoples, particularly black people, to see themselves represented in world-class cycling, performing strongly and winning races at the highest level.
Justin was raised in a family of cyclists. His father and uncles were racers. In his early development, Justin was mentored by Rashaan Bahati – the ten-time USA national champion. Maurice, on the other hand, did not benefit from being surrounded by black champions and having black role models in cycling to look up to. He spoke of seeing Eddy Merckx being celebrated on BBC TV Grandstand in the late 1960s, and how this served as an extrinsic inspiration for him to follow his cycling ambitions. Maurice would go on to compete with his hero in Belgium, securing several victories along the way.
Where an extrinsic inspiration meets an intrinsic desire, a fire of motivation is sparked and begins to burn with great force. It is debatable whether that external influence – a role model for the young aspiring black cyclist – works better coming from a black or white cyclist.
Dr Moncrieffe, Justin and Maurice paid their respects to the nine times World Sprint Champion Grégory Baugé, who recently retired, and unanimously agreed on the fantastic role model he has been in cycling. Baugé stands on the shoulders of Yavé Cahard. Cahard took a silver medal at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. He was a multiple UCI World Championships Medal winner. Standing on the shoulders of Baugé today, as a representation of black excellence in track cycling, at the highest level for France are Melvin Landerneau and Marie-Divine Kouamé Taky. These athletes are models of excellence and clear reference points for young, black, French track cyclists, for what is possible in the future. Justin Williams aims to be the person that young African American cyclists see themselves represented by and to show them that their dreams are possibilities.
There are currently no black British road and track cyclists at the highest level of the sport in Great Britain. This means there are no black British athletes with whom young aspiring black cyclists can identify. Dr Moncrieffe’s work and exhibition ‘Made in Britain’ – Uncovering the Life Histories of Black British Champions in Cycling aims to correct this, to provide education and to offer inspiration, showing those who have shone as leading lights of black excellence in cycling.
This paragon surpasses skin colour in any human demonstration of grace, be it sport, music, literature or science. Still, opportunities for black people to shine as such an example have been fewer than for white people. This is caused by the systemic racism endemic to Western societies. Racism seeks to eradicate reference points towards advancing human learning through black excellence.
For a young child, a future cycling champion of the world, to say, “It was Justin Williams who inspired me” or, “Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado inspired me to love cycling” would provide evidence of real transformation in cycling. This would prove a broader sense of truth given in the meaning of ‘grace’.