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Story of the year: Cycling collides with COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter

Normally a welcome distraction from reality, cycling this year crashed headlong into real-world problems.

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In most years, cycling is a welcome distraction from what is happening in the broader world. Whatever news may happen on the global stage, or just within our local communities, we are usually able to hop on a bike, or cue up a pro race, and forget our problems.

But 2020, of course, was not most years.

This year, our sport crashed headlong into the real world, and it was forced to come to terms with the broader issues of racism and a deadly global pandemic. COVID-19 upended the sport like nothing had before. And the global focus on racism and inequality forced cycling to ask itself tough questions about inclusion.

Both subjects met racers in March at the Oklahoma gravel race now called The Mid South. With half the pre-registered riders absent at the start line due to COVID-19’s first wave, promoter Bobby Wintle gave a speech in the pouring rain about why he abandoned the race’s original name, Land Run 100. Originally chosen from local references, Wintle never considered its basis in colonialism and white supremacy. But once he did, there was no going back. Wintle wanted to change.

Similar moments of racial reckoning occurred in the bike world after the murder of George Floyd in May triggered a global movement around the Black Lives Matter movement. Within cycling, we faced our sport’s stark lack of diversity, not only within the professional and amateur ranks, but also within the staff of bike companies, and even in the marketing imagery chosen by brands. We realized that we needed to do better.

Trek came under fire after images spread of police using Trek bikes as moving barricades against protestors. Some called for Trek to stop selling its bikes to police departments, while others called for a boycott of Trek. John Burke, Trek’s president, said he was absolutely against bikes being used for violence, but that he believed bikes for police were ultimately a positive thing for cycling.

Inside professional cycling, little was done. After professional leagues like the NBA and the NFL engaged in large scale anti-racism campaigns, pro cycling … had one day at the Tour de France where a number of riders wrote slogans on their masks. It was something, but it wasn’t much.

Pro cycling, like amateur cycling, had to contend with the global COVID-19 pandemic as well. The virus effectively shuttered all our amateur events for months, and the possibility of their return is as murky as ever, with many places seeing spikes heading into winter.

As 2020 draws to a close, in some ways we have more questions than answers. Should professional riders be expected to model behavior for the rest of us, whether in fighting racism or COVID-19? How should we improve our own behavior? How should we now act, and speak, and interact with others?

We are not out of the woods, but cycling may still help us yet. Even if we are only able to ride in small groups or perhaps just alone, turning the cranks in the fresh air can be a catalyst to process our troubles. That part of our sport has not changed.