In the peloton, everybody looks straight ahead: next corner, next climb, next kilometre. The tunnel vision continues beyond the finish line: next race, next flight, next contract. In a profession predicated on perpetual motion, few take the time to look left or right – far less to stop.
When Kévin Reza was racially abused by Michael Albasini on the 2014 Tour de France, and again by Gianni Moscon on the Tour de Romandie three years later, a small number of teammates and colleagues registered their disgust in public, but for the majority of the peloton, each incident seemed to exist only as a blur in their peripheral vision, like a crash that didn't involve them. They kept looking straight ahead and soon forgot all about it.
There was scarcely more solidarity expressed in private, while the hesitant response of the UCI hardly inspired confidence in cycling's willingness to tackle racism. The governing body decreed that Team Sky's decision to withhold Moscon from racing for six weeks warranted sufficient punishment. Three years earlier, Albasini had denied making racist remarks and received no sanction.
"Was there solidarity? Not really. My close friends in the peloton came to see me to tell me that they supported me, and that they were affected by what had happened. But in a general way, no, I didn't really feel a wider solidarity in the peloton to call attention to what happened," Reza told Cyclingnews this week.
"That's the peloton in general; there isn't a lot of solidarity in cycling. That's not a criticism – it's just an observation. I've been a professional for 10 years now, and in 10 years I haven't especially seen a lot of solidarity in cycling, and even less at the time of the incidents with Moscon and Albasini."
Reza, who's riding the third Tour de France of his career, and his first for debutants B&B Hotels-Vital Concept, doesn't condemn his peers for failing to voice their support; he simply acknowledges it as a fact.
In the aftermath of the Albasini and Moscon incidents, Reza was reticent to discuss the matters publicly. "I'm not the spokesperson for an anti-racism organisation," he told L'Équipe in 2017. And, despite being one of the few Black riders in the professional peloton, the Frenchman hadn't really thought of using that platform as a means of drawing attention to racial inequality in society at large until recently.
The demonstrations that began in the United States and spread across the world following the murder of George Floyd in May have given many athletes cause to reconsider how they can use their profiles to promote reform. The problems – including issues of racial inequality, policing, social injustice and racial bias, both conscious and unconscious – have existed for centuries, but the energy behind the current protests feels new, or at least renewed.
In an interview with James Startt of Velonews in July, Reza said he was unsure of how best to address the historic moment – "I am not a rock star in the sport. I have a lot fewer followers than LeBron James!" – but during the second week of the Tour, he publicly voiced his support for the Black Lives Matter movement. "I feel really free and ready to fight and move forward," he told Reuters.
Speaking to Cyclingnews on the second rest day of the Tour, Reza explained that he was still figuring out how best to utilise his status as a rider in the biggest event in the sport, but he reiterated his endorsement of the Black Lives Matter movement.
"When I was younger, I didn't ask myself a lot of questions about what was happening around me," said Reza, now 32 and in his 10th season as a professional. "After the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement was something that really appealed to me. As of today, I'm still trying to figure how I can make myself heard to help or support other movements that are put in place.
"It's something that demands a lot of reflection, but that's not to say that I don't support the movement or that I'm sitting it out. Not at all. I will reflect, see what opportunities come up and do things well."
In the Premier League this summer, teams took a knee before each game and wore a BLM patch on their jerseys. In Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes team is competing in black livery in support of BLM. On her way to victory at the US Open, Naomi Osaka wore face coverings that bore the names of seven people murdered at the hands of the police in the United States. In the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks led a strike in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. When the NFL season resumed this past weekend, six teams opted to remain in the locker-room during the national anthem.
The Tour de France, by contrast, has been a notable exception to the spirit of athlete-activism so prevalent at high-profile sporting events in recent months.
Reza – a native of Versailles, resident of the Vendée and son of Guadeloupean parents – is the lone Black participant in this year's Tour, and aside from his public support for the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been little or no acknowledgement of the activism and protests taking place on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. ASO enacted a 'bubble' around the 2020 Tour to safeguard against the COVID-19 pandemic, but when it comes to matters of social justice, the organisation gives the impression it believes its event already takes place in a vacuum.
"In the NFL or NBA or other sports, Black athletes are less of a minority – or even not a minority at all – so it's a lot easier to create the kind of solidarity that's needed in those sports," Reza said. "In cycling, I'm alone at this Tour de France, although not in the global peloton for the rest of the year.
"I'm alone at this moment. That's just a fact. I admire what those other sports are doing, but at the moment, I'm not sure if cycling is ready for that. Me, I feel ready, but I'm not going to carry out this fight alone and expend a lot of energy with little result. Right now, that's not necessary."
When B&B Hotels-Vital Concept manager Jérôme Pineau was putting together his nascent Pro Continental team ahead of the 2018 season, Reza – then with FDJ – was one of the first riders he signed. Beyond his longstanding rapport with the team's star sprinter Bryan Coquard from their Europcar days, he brought a wealth of experience and a quiet authority to a youthful line-up. Despite his self-professed shyness, he was a natural candidate as a mentor.
"There's a special ambience on this team and it suits me well," said Reza, who is riding the Tour for the first time since 2014. "We don't have the same budget as the big teams, but we've been given the opportunity to express ourselves in the biggest race of all, and so far, we've done well. We're not behaving like a small team – we're racing to be in front, to try to win, to get to Paris without regrets."
At Europcar, Reza raced the 2014 Tour as Coquard's lead-out man. This time out, the poisson pilote role is fulfilled by Jens Debusschere, while Reza navigates the small sprint unit's path through the peloton.
"Jens is a lot more powerful than me in the finale, especially against more organised trains," he said.
Coquard's best finish thus far was fourth in Poitiers, although by then, he was already struggling the effects of a crash the previous day.
"His knee was hurting him a lot on Sunday, and we were worried he might climb off, but he's a courageous guy who always wants to continue," said Reza. "He still has two opportunities, and we'll do everything we can to open the door for him."
Soaring speeds on the climbs has been a notable feature of this rescheduled Tour, with riders including Romain Bardet (AG2R) and Egan Bernal (Ineos) noting the high overall level in the peloton. Reza, for his part, believes the intensity of this Tour has been heightened by the nature of the parcours, rather than the long hiatus from racing that preceded it.
"I think that every team has built a team to get through the mountains, so non-climbers like me are feeling the strain all the more because of that," Reza said. "I don't think it's that the race is faster, it's just that the route is more mountainous, and so every team has put out a selection to suit that. It means the gruppetto is much smaller than in the other Tours I did in 2013 and 2014."
Six years have passed since Reza last faced into the third week of a Grand Tour. Yet, despite the accumulated fatigue and the daunting days to come in the Alps, he felt no trepidation about the road ahead, and he made it through stage 17 to Villard to Lans in a gruppetto that included Bernal. Amid the cocoon of Planet Tour, he possesses the rarest of gifts: a sense of perspective. Reza isn't looking straight ahead – he's looking beyond.
"It's only cycling – you don't have the right to be afraid," he said. "The three days in the Alps are hard, and we need to manage them, but there's no call for panic. They'll be unpleasant days, that's for sure, but it's only three days, and what are three days in a life or in the career of a cyclist? I've seen worse before and I'll see worse again in the years to come. But I'll hang on."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.