In a recent University of Brighton podcast, Marlon Moncrieffe discusses ‘Made in Britain: Uncovering the Life Histories of Black British Champions in Cycling’.
Ahead of an upcoming exhibition at Grand Parade Galleries (10-20 December), and a talk at the Advancing Teaching and Learning on Race conference (11 December), Dr Marlon Moncrieffe, Senior Lecturer in the School of Education, has been talking to the university about the subject of his research: Made in Britain: Uncovering the Life Histories of Black British Champions in Cycling.
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Tell us about Made in Britain: Uncovering the Life Histories of Black British Champions in Cycling.
I’m going to be exploring the lives and the careers of black British champions in cycling – those cyclists, those athletes who have heritage of African descent, or Afro-Caribbean descent, exploring their lives and careers over the last 50 years. I’ve selected seven athletes to showcase at my exhibition. I’m going to be placing their histories within a wider sociological context of the cycling boom that’s occurred in Britain over the last 20 years, particularly with the post-2012 boom since the win of Bradley Wiggins at the Tour de France. It’s exploring that particular phenomenon and its place in those histories within those to understand more about representation at the elite level.
You’ve been a pretty successful cyclist yourself…
I’ve had some good moments in cycling. I started cycling when I was young, I used to live at a place in London which was close to Richmond Park which is quite big for cycling now, I used to ride to school and back. I took up cycling when I met someone at work, he asked me to come along to a race and I didn’t like it at first but after that I got quite good at it – I won the club championships for the time trials, I won the road race cup, I won the hill climb cup – I won’t a few races that are local – the Crawley Wheelers Road Race, the Lewes Wanderers road race. After that I left cycling for a bit, came back as a track sprinter, told I was quite good at sprinting and I won quite a few national titles, got some European medals and a world championship medal as well.
It’s a fascinating subject that you’ll be exploring and we’ve had the boom of cycling in Britain – who are the black British cycling champions that you’ve been speaking to?
All of them! I started off with someone called Maurice Burton, he was the first black British champion back in the 1970s to the most recent champion, Charlotte Cole-Hossain. There’s Russell Williams, David Clarke, Christian Lyte, Shanaze Reade, Tre Whyte, Kye Whyte, Quillian Isidore, most of these guys are road and track cyclists. I have included the BMX cyclists as well but the focus is more upon representation in road and track cycling.
Britain’s been dominating cycling on the track and on the road over the past couple of years, but top cyclists around the world at the elite level are predominantly white – why is that?
That’s the Eurocentric perspective that we get, so when we watch the Tour de France on television, or the Giro d’Italia, we see lots of white, European cyclists racing for white European teams – but if you look around the world, places like the Caribbean, it’s a big scene there, countries like Guadeloupe or Trinidad and Tobago – there’s a massive cycling scene and you have black champions there. Places like Asia – Japan to Malaysia, lots of cycling there. Even in Africa, South America – it’s that’s Eurocentric perspective that’s imposed upon us that makes it look like cycling is a white sport. This is what I’m examining through the stories of these black champions, I want to place their stories within this dominant Eurocentric perspective to understand what their experiences were in their sport and why we haven’t seen black champions being represented at the highest level in the sport.
Is there a predominant theme that’s coming out of that?
There is – I’d like people to come to the exhibition to make up their own minds, because I don’t want to impose that upon people. I want to leave it there!
What are the barriers for black cyclists getting to that elite level, though, in your opinion – the Grand Tours etc?
Elite level in an amateur sense – if you work hard enough, if you train hard enough, go to the races and get the points – you can achieve as an elite cyclists. It’s when it comes to being selected for a team, this is where the people who run the teams have a choice as to who they want to be in a team. There are some cyclists who are part of the exhibition who have had that experience where they’ve been winning races at a professional level, but they haven’t been picked to race for the bigger teams so they haven’t had the opportunity to race in big races like the Tour de France or the World Championships. It’s down to choice, really, of the sponsor and those people in positions of power to make those decisions, that’s what I’ve found.
You’ve been collating this exhibition about black British champions – can you give us a tease of some of the highlights you’d like to point out?
It’s called Made in Britain because what I’ve done is asked these cyclists to tell me about their life histories in terms of where they were born, what was the socialisation, what got them into the sport, who were their mentors – what was their greatest achievement? What were the barriers. If I go back to the childhood stories, there are some fascinating stories – for example Russell Williams tells the story of going to Herne Hill velodrome and seeing the guys riding around with shaved legs – that makes me laugh. He saw kids racing with mitts, so he went home and cut the fingers off his dad’s gloves and went back, just to feel more connected to the sport.
There’s one about Maurice Burton who dreamt of racing a bicycle. He had found the bike dumped and resurrected it to race and won lots of races on that, to when he became stronger at cycling – and when he won his first championships in Leicester in 1974, the crowd booed when he won and was holding the flowers up. Those kind of stories were strong and quite personal that they shared with me.
Is there a lack of role models for young black British cyclists to look up to?
It was certainly one of the questions that I asked these cyclists as part of my research as to whether the lack of role models was impacting upon young black people coming into the sport. Some of them said yes. If you look at sports like football and you see lots of black footballers, and if they seem to be happy then that might attract more young people into the sport. If there isn’t any representation in sports like road and track cycling, then it might seem to be a space that you cannot access, it’s exclusive. Whilst with BMX – Trey Whyte, Kye White, Shanaze Reade – they’ve represented Britain – but the thing about BMX – it’s got the stereotype of being an ‘urban sport’, while road and track cycling has the connotation of being a ‘purist sport’. This is what I was examining, road and track cycling, why there weren’t many black British cyclists in that aspect of the sport. If you had more role models, I think it would be much more accessible for young, black people.
How does the lack of representation of black British cyclists act as a microcosm for wider racial inequality?
When you come to the exhibition and you read some of the narratives that these cyclists have shared you’ll be able to answer that question for yourself. I come from the field of education, I mix my cycling with my career as a educator – and if you look at universities and schools for example, you don’t see many black people in positions of power, in positions of leadership. This is something that’s coming out of the narratives, in terms of representation and opportunity. There are some racial inequalities that these cyclists talk of that you can relate to wider society, absolutely.
Away from work, our usual quick fire questions…
Favourite place in Sussex?
I live in West Sussex and I like Amberley. It’s right in the heart of the South Downs and there’s a big hill called Bury Hill, I’m saying that because when I used to do a lot of cycling and racing, I lived in London and there was a race called the Findon Bash. A 90 mile fast ride out and there was a hill called Bury Hill and I remember going up that hill in the mist, and that was good because it was quite a steep hill. When you get to the top of the hill you get a lovely view of Sussex and Amberley and I happen to be living close to it now.
What are you currently reading, watching or listening to?
I’m reading Sir Bradley Wiggins’ ‘Icons’ at the moment. Some of his favourite cyclists are mine as well.
I’m listening to what my daughter listens to – she listens to Jonas Blue. It’s always on in the car. But I do like reggae music and my favourite reggae singer was Peter Tosh, who used to be in the Wailers. I just love his silky, velvety voice and his lyrics.
Describe your perfect weekend…
Cycling! It’s a habit, it’s part of my life and I’ve been doing it for over 30 years now. I’d go out for a three hour long bike ride with friends, with my daughter – she’s a cyclist as well. Nice sunny day, fresh air, tail wind and come back and go in the garden, sit down with the family and relax.
You can invite three people to dinner, past or present, who are they going to be?
Jesus Christ – I’ve got a lot to ask him.
Major Taylor – he was the first world champion cyclist who was a black cyclist. He’s from America and his story is that he won the World Championships and was banished from his own association because he was that good. He had to cycle abroad, in Europe, and that’s what made him an icon. When he raced, he was racing for his life on the track because he was threatened with his life by fellow cyclists. I’d love to sit down with him to find out about his experiences.
I’ll say a few people for my final person – my great grandparents. I’d love to find out about their lives and how their lives have shaped my life today in Britain.