Stationed immediately opposite the entrance to the press room at the Brussels Grand Départ was a mobile unit belonging to Tour tech partners Nippon Telegraph and Telephone. Adorning the outside of the office was a much larger than lifesize picture of Dimension Data’s Nicholas Dlamini. Dlamini is currently the team’s only black South African rider, while NTT is the parent company of their title sponsor.
Dlamini was not included in Dimension Data’s Tour de France squad and never looked likely to be. He can be found racing the 2.1 rated Tour of Austria, along with, among others, Eritrean rider Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier.
Also prominent in Brussels was that the official charity of this year’s Tour de France is Qhubeka. The South African non-profit provides bicycles to communities with limited transport options, and still closely connected to the cycling team that once carried its name.
On Thursday evening, the between-team acts appearing on stage in Brussels’ Grand Place included Belgian beatbox champion, Big Ben, a BMX display and a hip hop dance act. Brussels is one of the most diverse major cities in the world with 31% of its population born beyond Belgium. It’s only right that the Grand Départ should have made an effort to resemble the population and reflect the wide variety of culture on offer across the city.
Yet the diversity found at the fringes of the Tour de France stands in stark contrast to that which you’ll find at its centre. As mentioned above, Dlamini didn’t make the cut for Dimension Data, and with the team fielding only a single South African, their claim to be “Africa’s team” feels increasingly tenuous.
Of course, responsibility for representation shouldn’t fall wholly, or even disproportionately, on Dimension Data’s shoulders. It’s only because of the stall they’ve set out that we look first at what they are doing. But none of the other teams, nor the race organisation itself, is doing very much either.
Christian Prudhomme told me recently that he’d like the Tour de France to one day draw riders from every country on the planet. Despite this the number of nations represented at this year’s race is as few as its been for a decade. More starkly, until Patrick Bevin withdrew this morning, the peloton contained as many riders from New Zealand (population: 5 million) as it did from the whole of Africa (population: 1.2 billion).
Some make more of an effort than others.
Jean-René Bernaudeau, the longstanding manager of the team currently known as Total Direct Energie, is one who has actively reached beyond the traditional geographical sources of cycling talent. “The cycling culture needs to open up,” Bernaudeau told Time magazine in 2011. “It’s a small world, with a homogenous culture.” It is he who is said to have discovered Yohann Gène. The Guadeloupian has finished the Tour seven times since his first start and is due to retire at the end of this year.
None of which handwringing serves to present a solution. Nor does it point blame in any particular direction. The media is hardly without sin, the press room itself barely less pale, male or stale.
It’s obviously more difficult to bring about deep, meaningful, institutional change than it is to dispense cash on token gestures. But that doesn’t mean the teams – and the Tour – don’t have a duty to try.