Opinion: Cycling heavyweights hope starting HBCU, TCU teams will help improve diversity

Diversity and inclusion don’t simply happen. Companies and organizations can’t just come up with a catchy slogan, make lofty promises and call it a day.

It takes continual work and commitment, a willingness to make small gains first in order to lay the foundation for big achievements down the road.

You might not have seen Tuesday's announcement that Cannondale and the EF Pro Cycling team are working with USA Cycling to sponsor co-ed cycling teams at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Tribal Colleges and Universities. But it’s one of those small steps that, hopefully, will break down the racial barriers that have harmed people of color and weakened the American cycling community.

“We know that we have a role to play because we’re an important part of the cycling industry. Those that are at the forefront need to show leadership,” said Dennis Kim, vice president of marketing for Cycling Sports Group, which owns the Cannondale brand.

“That’s why we chatted with EF Pro Cycling,” Kim continued. “The conversation was really easy because we both said, `Yeah, this isn’t going to change unless we help.’”

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery earlier this year sparked the most widespread and intense reckoning with racism that this country has seen since the civil rights movement. Along with a recognition that discrimination permeates every layer of our society came the acknowledgement that substantive change requires intentional actions.

Italian Alberto Bettiol of EF Education First Pro Cycling rides the Paterberg in the 'Ronde van Vlaanderen – Tour des Flandres on October 18, 2020. EF Pro Cycling is working with USA Cycling and Cannondale to increase diversity in the sport at the college level. (Photo: DAVID STOCKMAN, BELGA/AFP via Getty Images)

Cannondale was already working on diversity, specifically gender inclusion. But the protests this summer changed the focus, Kim said.

“It was really important that we paused and really understood what was happening,” he said. “We needed to listen to the conversation. Rather than jump to different solutions immediately, we really wanted to dig in and have different conversations.”

While kids of all races ride bikes as they’re growing up, competitive cycling remains overwhelmingly white. According to Cycling News, of the 113 Americans who have licenses with professional teams, none are Black. Justin Williams is the first Black cyclist to win a national title in road racing, and that was only two years ago. 

On the most basic level, it’s wrong that Black, Indigenous and people of color feel unwelcome in any space. But if BIPOC kids are turning away from cycling because they don’t feel there’s a place for them, that also means USA Cycling is missing out on some talented athletes.

Inroads are being made at the high school level, said Mary Wittenberg, president of EF Pro Cycling. Williams leads his own, elite-level developmental team. But there was a gap in college, where USA Cycling is also trying to grow cycling as a collegiate sport.

Saint Augustine’s, in Raleigh, N.C., had already announced it was forming a cycling program, the first at an HBCU. Why not expand that and accomplish both goals?

“I’ve always found if diversity initiatives and representation initiatives stand alone, the chances of them thriving and growing are less than if I can build them into other daily work,” said Rob DeMartini, president and CEO of USA Cycling.

“We have a major collegiate initiative, and this is a part of it.”

Beginning in 2021, Cannondale and EF Pro Cycling will sponsor a 12-person co-ed team at both an HBCU and a TCU. Cannondale will supply bikes and other equipment, and EF Pro Cycling will provide coaching support and make its professional riders available as an information resource. Financial aid also will be provided, though it won’t reach the level of full scholarships.

“As organizations and people, you have to make choices to prioritize this effort,” Wittenberg said. “There is a lot in the world that needs attention, and funding is tight. That’s certainly the case in a cycling team. You have to make conscious choices to act and invest if you want to make a difference.”

The plan is to add teams in each year of the three-year deal – which DeMartini said was a key.

“We wouldn’t have done it if they didn’t (do a multi-year deal),” DeMartini said. “It looks like headline grabbing, on our part or theirs, and nothing comes out of it. Three years give us chance to do two things: get it launched and then find funding to outlast any one sponsor.”

The immediate goal is to make the sport of cycling more diverse, maybe identify athletes who can compete for spots at the Paris and Los Angeles Olympics or ride in the Tour de France. But it’s also to show these athletes the opportunities that sport can provide beyond the bike.

“Let’s get more diversity in the ranks of PR, marketing and leadership,” Wittenberg said. “Hopefully some will work with us. Hopefully some will want to learn more about what we do.”

And therein lies the key. Sponsoring some college teams might not seem like the start of a revolution. But, in 10 years, Wittenberg hopes cycling is a model of diversity and inclusion. In 20 years, she hopes someone on one of these HBCU or TCU teams will be doing her job.

For that to happen, it's going to take intention and commitment by people who have the power to effect change. Most of it, it requires them to be willing to dive in. 

“Quite frankly, I didn’t see the same amount of engagement. And I personally didn’t make the same commitment,” DeMartini said of past promises to be more inclusive. “I came at it this time saying, `We have to do more, we have to be steadfast. We can’t accept talk and no action.’”

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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