Monday, June 17, 2013

Le Tour de France - The Racism That Stops a Nation

First published in 2011, this article is no less relevant today as it highlights the racism that exists in the  world of professional road cycling, in particular the Grand Tours like the upcoming Tour de France...

Professional cycling has always been a European-dominated sport but in recent years diversity has increased and the pro peloton now includes a fair number of North & South Americans, Australians and other westerners. Despite this multi-national expansion though, in the Tour de France there is still a notable absence of riders from the most populous region on Earth – Asia. This is a curious omission, especially given that bicycle transport is such a common part of many cultures in this region.

Over 30 different nationalities were represented amongst the 198 riders who took part in the 2011 Tour de France, including Team Katusha’s Egor Silin who, although clearly a Russian, was listed as “Nationality: Unknown” on his Cyclingnews Rider Profile (this has since been fixed, thankfully). Although this was most likely just an oversight from a lazy biographer, it does make you wonder if his birthplace was kept secret because he was actually the product of some stealthy, underground, Cold War sports science program to breed the perfect cyclist, capable of one day conquering America’s dominant Tour de France weapon, Lance Armstrong.

Winter Training Camp – Russian style

Unfortunately for the Russians, Egor seems to have matured a few years too late with Armstrong now retired from the Tour de France to focus on his other main passion – fighting doping allegations.

If you ignore riders from the Americas and Australia, you could quite easily be forgiven for confusing the remaining nationalities contesting this year’s Tour de France with a running sheet from the Eurovision song contest. It’s pretty much a who’s who of Western Europe and Great Britain with strong representation from the Eurovision powerhouses in Eastern Europe (Slovenia, Ukraine, Belarus, Slovakia, Estonia). Heading further east, Kazakhstan is the closest that Asian representation achieves in this year’s episode of le Tour – and I think you would be hard-pressed to call Alexander Vinokourov an Asian…

Vinokourov celebrating his West West West Asian heritage

…despite the fact that he apparently has a taste for dog.

Post race recovery snack for Vinokourov

So why, in this modern, globalized world, has the Tour de France peloton become the exclusive domain of Westerners? One could quite easily suspect some sort of deeply rooted anti-Asian ideology at the headquarters of the UCI however Koren Hee Wook Cho was elected to the UCI's management committee back in 2005. And it’s not like Asians haven’t taken part before. We all remember fondly the Japanese duo of Fumi Beppu and Yukiya Arashiro who contested the 2009 Tour de France.

Fumi Beppu’s bunch etiquette in the 2009 Tour de France did little to combat the Asian driver stereotype

All the evidence points to a defensive reaction by European cycling’s ‘old guard’ to an influx of Asian competition in other segments of the cycling industry which had traditionally gone unchallenged. The best bikes were historically always handmade in France or Italy but now the majority of high-end cycling equipment comes out of Taiwan and Japan. 

  • Salvatore took long breaks but his craftsmanship and attention to detail were quite impressive.
  • T-47Y took no breaks and its tolerance was to 50 microns.
Similarly, a rise in the performance of Asian nations in other traditionally European-dominated sports has also caused alarm and many of Europe’s former cycling greats, now team directors, are no doubt getting nervous about the foreseeable end to Western dominance of their sport.

Asian countries are rapidly improving on the world football stage…and are also no strangers to systematic doping - European cycling directors have good reason to be worried.

One European rider took a personal stand against the overt anti-Asian culture that has indoctrinated the peloton - Norwegian powerhouse, Thor Hushovd. A big fan of Japanese culture for many years due to the two countries’ common love of whale meat, Hushovd caused quite a stir at the 2010 UCI Road World Championships in Geelong when he requested whale-sashimi in a popular Japanese restaurant after the Norwegian team’s final reconnaissance ride. When the staff responded with nervous sideways glances, a hushed muttering of Japanese under their breath and a respectful bowing gesture, Hushovd reportedly demanded a whale steak be served immediately to give him ‘maximum power for bike race tomorrow’. The rest is history with Hushovd winning the Road Race World Championships the following day on a stomach full of Japanese whale meat.

During the early stages of the Tour de France the following year, Hushovd made a strong, if not somewhat politically incorrect, statement by choosing to wrap his handlebars in yellow tape as a symbolic gesture highlighting the absence of any Japanese in the peloton.

Thor Hushovd’s handlebars wrapped in yellow – a very personal statement dedicated to the conspicuous absence of Asian riders from the Tour de France

In the interest of cycling’s continued growth around the world, we can only hope that this overt prejudice is stamped out quickly. It should be something relatively simple to combat. After all, Taiwan already supplies the bikes, Japan already supplies the components, Thailand already supplies the tyres…the natural progression would surely be to outsource the labour to China.


  1. why would wrapping handlebars in yellow represent a lack of Japanese cyclists??

  2. Unfortunately, only Thor Hushovd could really answer that.