SAINT-LARY, France (VN) — The language of the breakaway is subtle, communication found in elbow flicks and disappearing wheels. Talking doesn’t usually matter very much in bike racing.
But on Tuesday, words were some of the loudest elements of the day. After the stage ended in Bagnères-de-Luchon, a report emerged that indicated Switzerland’s Michael Albasini called Kévin Reza, the only black rider in the race and one of few in the sport, a “dirty negro,” according to Reza’s general manager at Europcar, Jean-René Bernaudeau.
Reza, he said, was upset after the stage, and that the comments were “unacceptable, inadmissible,” reported France’s Sud Ouest website. “I do not tolerate racism,” Bernaudeau said. “After doping it is the other scourge of the sport.”
Reza did not address the matter Wednesday morning with journalists. Bernaudeau said his rider was focusing on the race instead, and the general manager, a day after his passionate comments, wouldn’t speak to the matter.
“Before you ask a question, the case is closed. They met; they have had an explanation. Case is closed,” he told reporters. “I can’t stand racism. The case is closed. It was a strategic problem. Kevin had no authorization to pull in the breakaway, they talked and said things they shouldn’t. The case is totally closed.”
For his part, Albasini said it was a misunderstanding under hard physical circumstances. “I’m happy I could see him this morning to say my version, and I apologized for [the] misunderstanding, I hope that he understood that there wasn’t anything racist; I was just angry with the situation. We had a good discussion and a handshake, all the stories are now clear.”
Albasini said he was racing on the limit, working to drive a then five-man break that had some 45 seconds on the main field. He was frustrated with what he saw as Reza’s lack of contribution to the effort. “I wasn’t happy, and I was angry. I said to him some words that maybe I shouldn’t have, but none of them were racist.”
He also said, “[Reza] came up and asked what I said. I said it again, I didn’t choose nice words, but that’s how it is when you are on your limit, but there were definitely no racist comments. I told him, how nice it was to have one guy on your wheel when you are going full gas, so I don’t understand how it came out that I was saying something racist.”
Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge) also cited the international flavor of the peloton as a reason for what he characterized as a misunderstanding.
“You know there are many languages spoken in the bunch, I don’t speak English perfectly, I speak a little bit of French, not perfectly, [Reza] doesn’t speak my languages. That can happen, a misunderstanding.”
The issue of racism in cycling is far less reported on than in larger sports, such as upper-echelon soccer, where the governing body itself routinely runs advertisements on the issue. That isn’t to say the issue doesn’t exist at all, however. In 2010, when Nairo Quintana won the Tour de l’Avenir, he recounted in an interview with Colombian media that French riders insulted him for being South American, and tried to knock him from the road.
Garmin-Sharp sport director Robbie Hunter came into the professional peloton 16 years ago. The bunch, Hunter said, was welcoming of a rider with talent, regardless of ethnicity.
“I can’t speak to what happened because I wasn’t there. What I can say is the peloton is a very tolerant place. There are always going to be some people who don’t like change. When I turned pro 16 years ago I was the first South African. But I mean, a person does their work and becomes good bike rider and all of the sudden no one remembers where you’re from or anything like that,” Hunter said. “It doesn’t make a difference. People who stand up and say the group itself intolerant, definitely not. Definitely not … The sport is about the athletes and nothing else.”
Some things will remain unknown. For example, what did Albasini say, exactly?
“I’m not going to repeat any bad words in the media because when you’re in sport going full gas, hard words are said, but there’s no sense to repeat it,” Albasini said.
Orica manager Shane Bannon said the team has a strict policy regarding racism, and also that he believed Albasini, as Bernaudeau said he believed in his rider.
“The team position of racism [is that it] isn’t tolerated. That’s the team’s position and we stand by that,” Bannon said. “We do believe what [Albasini] has presented to us. And we do believe that, but we also understand that there could have been some miscommunication, and repeat again that racial slurs and comments are not acceptable and are not about what we are as a team.”