Bringing together Maurice Burton and Justin Williams for this special discussion was a brilliant idea.
We spoke about the past, the present and the future possibilities for black people as leading lights in transforming how cycling can be seen and known for the better. This was a conversation that expanded upon my long-term academic research and features in my forthcoming book through Blue Train Publishing Rapha Editions.
Maurice Burton was a triple British track cycling champion. Between the 1970s -1980s, he made his name as a Six Day Madison rider and particularly in continental Europe racing with and against the likes of Eddie Merckx, Rik Van Linden and Patrick Sercu.
Justin Williams is a multiple USA National Champion on the track and road racing since the early 2000s to the present. He also has competed in continental Europe. He is the founder and general manager of the Legion of Los Angeles Cycling Team.
There are many similarities in Maurice’s and Justin’s racing careers:
· Both won a string of national track championship titles as young men.
· From this, both found themselves out of favour with national selectors following the departure of a national coach with whom each had established a strong working relationship.
· As young black men, each of them took the opportunity to test their racing ambitions in Belgium and across Europe, far away from family and home.
We entered into discussion on the ethnic diversity question in cycling.
Justin and Maurice agreed on a greater need for underrepresented ethnic peoples – and particularly black people – to see themselves reflected in world cycling athletes performing strongly, if not winning races at the highest levels.
Justin is from a family of cyclists. His father and uncles were racers. In his early development as a racer, he was mentored by Rashaan Bahati – the ten times USA national champion.
Maurice was not surrounded by black champions and black role models in cycling. In fact, during our discussion Maurice spoke of seeing Eddy Merckx being celebrated on BBC TV Grandstand in the late 1960s, and this being an extrinsic inspiration for him to follow his ambitions in cycling. Maurice would go on to compete with his hero in Belgium, taking some victories along the way during their Professional Six-Day Madison races.
Where an extrinsic inspiration meets an intrinsic desire, the fires of motivation are sparked, and begin to burn with a great force. Whether that external influence i.e. a role model for the young aspirant black cyclist comes better either from a black or white cyclist is debatable.
We discussed the recent retirement of the nine times World Sprint Champion Grégory Baugé, paying our respects, and unanimous in our agreement on what fantastic role model he has been for cycling.
Baugé stands on the shoulders of Yavé Cahard. He took a silver medal at the 1980 Summer Olympics held in Moscow, Soviet Union. 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 levels for France are Melvin Landerneau and Marie-Divine Kouamé Taky.
Clear reference points as models of excellence, and future possibilities are available for the young Black French track cyclist to see their faces reflected.
Justin Williams aims to give the same reflection of these possibilities to young African American cyclists in their dreams.
In Great Britain, there are currently no Black-British road and track cyclists at the highest levels of the sport with whom young aspirant black cyclists can see reflections of their faces. Hence my work and exhibitions ‘Made in Britain' – Uncovering the Life Histories of Black British Champions in Cycling. This is to provide education and to offer inspiration in showing who has shone as a leading light of Black excellence in cycling.
The paragon surpasses skin colour in any human demonstration of grace, whether it be sport, music, literature, science. Still, opportunities for black people to show this have been made fewer than for white people. This has been caused by systemic racism endemic to western societies. Racism aims to kill for all people any reference points towards advancing human learning through black excellence.
For the young black or white child as a future cycling champion of the world in the future to say, "Yes. It was Justin Williams that inspired me to get into it." Or, "Yes it was Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado that really inspired me to love cycling", this could give us some evidence that real transformations are occurring in cycling, and a broader sense of truth in the meaning of ‘grace’ is being given.