Here's a question for you ...What do Rahsaan Bahati, Zakayo Nderi and "Major" Taylor have in common?
I'll get right to the answer to that question in a minute, but, first, I have to explain that, for the past few weeks, I've been trapped, like many other casual sports fans in that limbo that exists each year between the end of basketball season and the start of football season.
I know, I know....there still is a thing called Major League Baseball that conducts games during this "slow" period but since that sport shifted its emphasis away from developing and recruiting young African-American star players several years ago, and since its leaders tried to blame the entirety of their game's rampant steroid abuse on one black man named Barry Bonds, I find it hard to watch baseball, anymore. Real hard.
All of that is "backdrop" to why I wound up spending so much of my free time, over a recent, three-week period, watching the Tour de France.
Yeah, that's right, the Tour de France.
It wasn't a complete coincidence. About a year ago, I actually started cycling, again -- not to enter "the Tour" or anything like it-- just for exercise and relaxation. It's a good thing.
For the promoters of the Tour de France, however, cycling is so much more than just a "good thing," exercise or relaxation. In fact, they unabashedly refer to their race as the World's Largest Sporting Event and they may very well have a strong argument. Two billion people worldwide follow the event each year on television, in 170 countries. In addition, twelve million spectators come out to watch the race, in person, along the 2,200-mile course.
This year's race began in a city named Brest, in western France, and finished some 2,175 miles and 23 days later, in Paris.
After watching this year's Tour de France, however, I was left with this conclusion: cycling is not that much different from pre-black baseball, pre-black basketball, or pre-black football. They were all missing something that wound up making them better--the participation by athletes of African descent. The ugly truth is that since the Tour de France began in 1903, only three African cyclists have ever participated, and all of that happened just this year, in 2008, and each one of those cyclists was white--two from South Africa and one from Kenya. So my take-away from the Tour de France is this: interesting sport, 20 teams, 180 cyclists, no black people.
Indeed, there were no black cyclists on either of the two U.S.-sponsored Tour de France teams (Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle), this year. Even more curious, there were no black cyclists on Barloworld, the South African team.
Does this mean that black folks don't know how to ride bicycles? Certainly not. It simply means that, over the past 105 years, no "Tour" team has thought there has ever been a black person anywhere on earth who might have contributed to the overall success of their team and its pursuit of the coveted first-place team finish.
Sounds like pre-Jackie Robinson Major League Baseball (prior to 1947), pre-Woody Strode National Football League (prior to 1946) and pre-Earl Lloyd/Chuck Cooper/"Sweetwater" Clifton National Basketball Association (prior to 1950). Of course, these players weren't the first blacks who were "qualified" or "good enough," they were just the first blacks to be given the opportunity. Sounds a lot like what happens today with opportunities in the construction industry, in Corporate America, in higher education, and in politics, right here in the good old U.S.A.
But here's where the name "Major" Taylor comes in. Taylor proved, back in 1899, when he won the world's one-mile track cycling championship, that black folks absolutely did know how to ride a bicycle. In fact, when "Major" entered his first professional bike race in 1896, at Madison Square Garden, he lapped the entire field during the half-mile race. That kind of talent didn't stop him from being banned from bicycle racing in his home state of Indiana, simply because he won too frequently, there. It didn't stop a competing cyclist in Massachusetts from tackling him on the track, in a jealous rage, and choking him into unconsciousness. Taylor has been embraced in America, only following his death, in 1932, and his name is little known outside of the circle of cycling historians and members of the chapters of the Major Taylor Association, across the country.
Following in "Major" Taylor's legacy in the separate specialty of road racing (the type of cycling practiced at "the Tour" and in Criterium events, such as Philadelphia's own Commerce Bank Pro-Cycling Race) is 26-year old Rahsaan Bahati, from Los Angeles. Bahati is generally recognized as one of cycling's brightest and fastest stars and, with a continuing focus on the endurance training demanded by the major "Tour" events, could be the first black Tour de France winner, assuming one of the 20-22 teams would make a place for him on their roster. All Bahati does is win. It would seem that at least one "Tour" team should be interested in that.
Finally, there is a black Kenyan cyclist, Zakayo Nderi, who may well represent the first in a whole new generation of East Africans who have the potential to re-write virtually every road racing record currently in existence. Nderi and his fellow-Kenyan cyclist Samwell Mwangi have been supported by a Singaporean named Nick Leong in an effort to prove that East Africans, the world's greatest endurance athletes, are able to transfer their prowess in distance and marathon events to endurance cycling events.
In fact, Leong, Nderi and Mwangi are on their way to France, as you read this, to have the Kenyan cyclists test their hill-climbing speed at Alpe d'Huez, the most difficult mountain stage of the Tour de France. From August 8th - August 15th, they will be comparing their times up that murderous ascent to times that great Tour de France riders, such as Lance Armstrong, have produced. If Nderi's times are competitive or beat the standard set by most Tour riders, it will constitute clear evidence that East Africans should be competing in the "Tour."
The logic behind this effort is pretty clear. Marathon racing, a very comparable endurance sport to Tour bike racing had no African participation until the late 1980's. Prior to that, it was commonly held that black Africans and African Americans could only excel in sprinting events. It was further believed that endurance races required a kind of strategy, intelligence and knowledge of the sport of running that blacks naturally did not possess. But now we all know what a "crock" that was. The Africans have absolutely dominated distance running since being given the opportunity. They certainly have "raised the bar" for athletes from every other part of the world in that discipline.
In fact, according to information provided by Leong, African runners have gone from winning just one of 25 major marathons in the five-year period ending in 1985, in London, Berlin, Boston, Chicago and New York, to winning 24 out of the 25 marathons contested in those same cities over the five-year period ending in 2005.
It looks as though the next "Jackie Robinson" in a major sport may very well be named Zakayo Nderi or Rahsaan Bahati.
Somewhere, "Major" Taylor is looking down on all of this with a "serious" smile on his face.