When the Slovakian rider Peter Sagan shouldered and headbutted the Belgian rider Wout van Aert at the conclusion of Stage 11 of the 2020 Tour de France late in the sprint to claim second place, it was a move deemed as reckless and dangerous. His finish position was subsequently relegated to the rear of the peloton.
It’s not the first time that Sagan has offended. In 2010 the British rider Mark Cavendish was forced out of the Tour de France after suffering a fractured shoulder blade in a serious crash claimed to be caused by Peter Sagan. The Slovakian rider was disqualified from the event following the incident.
In both incidents, Sagan was not subjected to the torrid racial abuse towards his ethnic identity via Mark Cavendish fans on social media telling him to ‘Go back to Slovakia’.
In contrast, his racing colleague the French rider Nacer Bouhanni (of North African ethnic origins) has been told by racists on social media to ‘Go back to Africa’.
This follows a public outcry towards his racing conduct where he clashed with the British rider Jake Stewart during the final sprint in the 2021 Cholet-Pays de la Loire. Stewart avoided crashing his bike. He managed to stay upright against the barriers, but unfortunately sustained a broken hand. Bouhanni was disqualified from the race. Many fans of Stewart called for Bouhanni’s suspension from racing. Racist abuse also reared its ugly head.
On seeing this, some commentators urged for more ‘outrage’ asking if there was any ‘care’ about this latest episode of racism in cycling.
Stewart followed to denounce the racism targeted at his rival. Other commentators followed as well. But there is nothing new about this sort of treatment to the non-white professional cyclist.
Bouhanni is a cyclist of minority-ethnic group origins working in the dominant majority-ethnic European world of cycling. Evidence from my long-term research on the life-histories of black (African ethnic origins) cycling champions racing in the European world shows they have all at some point in their careers (if not throughout) been scathed by racism in the white world of cycling.
In my view, if Bouhanni were a fellow British rider of Stewart with a name such as Peter Jones or Edward Taylor, the criticisms of his actions would not have morphed to racism. Bouhanni’s ‘racial othering’ by his haters (on social media) targeted his ‘not so European’ sounding name, and then his not so white skin pigmentation.
Some commentators on social media have suggested that the criticism and subsequent racial abuse was Bouhanni’s fault, as he was not contrite about his actions, particularly when he said, "If he (Jake Stewart) really saw his life flash like he said in that interview, I would advise him to give up sprinting."
These are tough words. They reflect for some the ruthless professional racer warrior mindset, speaking truth to the nature of the game, part and parcel of the sport. In fact, there were some professional cyclists (road-race sprint specialists) who I spoke with following the Cholet-Pays de la Loire incident who agreed with Bouhanni's tone.
The physicality of sprinting at 50mph with 200 metres to go the finish, and aiming not to deviate from your line takes a lot of skill in managing yourself and others around you. Sprinters are 100% aggression. It is true that Bouhanni has been penalised before for his aggression. For example, in the 2017 Tour de France he hit out against New Zealand rider Jack Bauer and was fined 200 Swiss francs. In the Paris-Bourges race during the same year, Bouhanni clashed in the sprint with the French rider Rudy Barbier. It seems that at the Cholet-Pays de la Loire, Bouhanni may not have got it right. However, in an interview with L’Équipe TV he accepted his relegation for deviating from his line in the sprint. He also firmly denied that there had been any malicious intent to his manoeuvre to harm his fellow rider. Still, the racist abuse followed.
The Dutchman Theo Bos, a former world track sprint champion and road-racer has offered many observations and suggestions in considering the possibility of innovative regulations for road-race sprinting including the "introduction of a ‘sprinters’ lane along the fences. Where the rules could mean that if you are in that section as the front rider, then you have to stay there, just like on the track. If you are in that section as the front rider, you are not allowed to come out. This prevents riders from wandering across the road."
The escalation of the Bouhanni/Stewart issue resulting in wide public criticism of Bouhanni and culminating in racist abuse shows that the UCI need to do more to protect professional bike riders from harm on and off the bike.
The South African athlete Xylon van Eyck said on Twitter:
"Racism has no place in sport and on place in this world. You weren’t born with it, you were taught it. Thus, you can unlearn it."
The poisonous narrative of racism has been around in this world before all of us. This has spread across the western world as a virus. To disempower this virus requires a vaccine. That vaccine is Education. Like all vaccines, Education will not offer 100% immunity. But continued doses of over a regular period will help with management and control of racism, in striving for its total elimination.