Representation matters in cycling, too

SRAM’s coordinated media blitz for its new Red eTap AWS and Eagle AWS wireless drivetrain components obviously created quite a stir yesterday — press embargoes for major products from big companies tend to have that effect, after all. There was one aspect that didn’t receive nearly as much attention, though, despite the fact that it arguably should have stolen the show.

Quietly featured on the presentation SRAM presented to media (and on SRAM’s initial social media posts) was the usual headline image of a fit rider, keenly dressed, and using the product in question. But instead of the usual white male pro racer, or any widely recognizable sponsored pro in general, SRAM instead chose to showcase a black woman whose face or name won’t immediately come to mind for most of SRAM’s audience.

Why is this worth pointing out, you might ask? Well, simply because it’s not the norm when it comes to marketing imagery in cycling, and also the fact that the bicycle industry as a whole isn’t exactly the most diverse community in the outdoor industry. According to a recent industry survey conducted by Camber Outdoors, 88% of people in the outdoor industry — in which cycling is included — identify as Causasian. That figure isn’t at all intended to suggest that the cycling industry is racist, but the disparity between the diversity of society in general is jarring.

But who is this mysterious rider, and how did she end up being the face of SRAM’s most important product launch in years?

25-year-old Yewande Adesida is a self-described “up-and-coming amateur” track racer who hails from London. A former competitive rower, she graduated from university two years ago, and is currently seeking her PhD, studying wearable technology related to the biomechanics of rowing. Despite only switching to cycling a handful of years ago, she’s quickly moved up in the British amateur category system and has racked up some solid results, including a top-ten in the keirin at the national championships a couple of weeks ago to go along with her bronze medal at the collegiate national championships in the individual sprint this past December.

Her goals are simple as far as cycling is concerned, too: to put in a stronger performance at next year’s national championships.

By and large, she’s very good, but not exactly a superstar, at least in regards to her palmares — but in many ways, that’s the point. In a sport and industry that is so homogeneous in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender, she’s a distinct outlier. And in her short tenure in the saddle so far, she’s become somewhat of a beacon for other riders who don’t conform to the status quo, and a shining example of where the future of cycling is headed.

Seeing two women – in this case, Yewande Adesida and Juliet Elliot – riding road bikes shouldn’t be unusual, and in reality, it generally isn’t. But seeing it in marketing imagery is. Photo: Chris Milliman.

A fierce competitor on the track, she’s surprisingly soft-spoken in person, and when she’s not racing, training, or studying, her favorite pastime is baking. But she clearly has something to say, and hopes more people will hear her.

“There were a lot more men than women, and a lot more white people than people of color,” she said, describing her early days on the track. “I was very fortunate when I started to join an all-women cycling club [Velociposse], so I didn’t feel too different. But I was also still very aware that there weren’t very many women of color in cycling, especially in racing. But there are people trying to change that, and I’m doing what I can by speaking up about what I do in cycling so that other people like me know that it’s something they can do as well.”

And so people started to take notice, including SRAM road brand manager Kate Powlison. Powlison says she was looking for people of color who would be a good fit for the project, and prominent cycling activist Ayesha McGowan put her in touch with Adesida, as well as Marty Merritt, whose images will appear at a future date in the marketing campaign.

“It’s full beast mode in that photo,” Powlison said. “She’s an amazing person. Working with her was such a treat. She conveyed everything we wanted to. When we went to pick an image for our first post, our social media coordinator and I were so stoked to choose this carousel of her because she embodies so much about the groupset.”

As it turns out, that UK photo shoot isn’t a flash in the pan for SRAM, at least according to Powlison, who says that this is the beginning of a much broader campaign to include more diversity, not just in the company’s marketing in general, but inside the company as well.

Likewise, it’s not a big deal to see two men of mixed ethnicities together. But that said, you don’t usually see folks like Marty Merritt and Charles Nicholson depicted on bikes in media. Image: Chris Milliman.

“A couple of things have really helped inspire this,” she said. “We’re actually a surprisingly diverse company, and the bottom line is that I have some great co-workers have some really good — and sometimes hard — discussions with us about how we can do better to make the industry more equal and inclusive. A lot of those co-workers might not work in marketing, but really pay attention to the images we post and they care about the decisions we make there.”

Viewpoints will invariably be mixed on all of this, and the responses to a brief post I put on Twitter yesterday were interesting to say the least. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but it was also clear that — no surprise — cycling reflects society as a whole, good, bad, and otherwise.

As such, visual representation in cycling has just as much of an influence as it does elsewhere, and it’s encouraging to see a company as prominent as SRAM begin to recognize that. Cycling is typically portrayed as an aspirational sport in many ways, but for riders who are just getting started, or considering getting into it at all, there’s a distinct power in seeing people that at least in some way look like them.

If nothing else, it’s also good business. Cycling is hardly a sport on the rise in terms of participation numbers, and a big part of increasing its appeal is making a more concerted effort to reach outside of the usual demographic.

Where this all goes from here is hard to say, whether just as it pertains to SRAM, or the bike industry as a whole. But hopefully the general direction is forward. Because the fact of the matter is that no one really has anything to lose here, but we all have a lot to gain.

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