Kévin Réza: A break-through pioneer
Words & Images by James Startt
As it is with so many cyclists, Kévin Réza always dreamed of becoming a professional. After joining the CMS Puteaux cycling school at the age of four, he steadily rose through the amateur ranks around France before securing his first pro contract with a second-division French team five years ago. Since then, the now-28-year-old has realized other dreams — such as racing in his first Tour de France in 2013 and representing his country in the 2014 world championships. Réza’s story is typical of countless others. And like many young pros, he’s still testing his limits, still searching for a first professional victory. What’s untypical about his story is that, in what has been historically a predominantly white sport, Kévin Réza is black.
Perhaps it’s absurd to even be mentioning race relations in a high-profile international sport well into the 21st century. But bicycle racing, a sport that prides itself on its history, still struggles with certain hurdles. And, until very recently, cycling remained an uncannily homogeneous, distinctly European sport.
“No, it wasn’t even European,” said veteran cycling journalist Samuel Abt. “The sport was just so French, Belgian and Italian.”
That began to change in the 1980s when riders from North and South America, Australasia and the Soviet bloc joined the European peloton. Other far-off countries have also benefited from the globalization of the sport, with the occasional Japanese and Chinese lining up at grand tours, while riders of African origin have also joined cycling’s elite. That presence only continued when the Tour de France welcomed MTN-Qhubeka, its first African team, in 2015.
“You know, I have cycled nearly all my life, and the fact that I’m black has almost never been a problem.” Réza told peloton in an interview while he was visiting his family in Paris recently. “It just hasn’t been an issue really.”
Réza said he first got into cycling through his father Lucien, an avid weekend cyclist, who moved to France from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe (an overseas department of France) to work as a dye setter in the haut couture clothing industry in Paris. Moving up through the amateur ranks, Réza was recruited by one of the country’s select sport-study programs at a Roche-sur-Yon high school, in western France, which was also a feeder for the French pro team, Europcar, with which he eventually turned pro in 2011.
A versatile rider, Réza found his mark in 2014 for his ability to lead out team sprinter Bryan Coquard or set up team leader Thomas Voeckler in the mountains. And, on a personal level, he won the bronze medal at the French national road championship that year. His continued presence at the front earned him media attention, while his camera-friendly sense of style garnered him a personal contract with the legendary French sports clothing company, Le Coq Sportif. And by the end of 2014 he’d signed a new two-year contract with the UCI WorldTour team, FDJ.
FDJ general manager Marc Madiot said, with a laugh, “The first reason I hired Kévin was because his family and mine frequent the same corner grocer, and the grocer has been telling me for years to hire Kévin! But, seriously, the main reason I hired Kévin is because he can sprint well and climb well, so he can help the team out in a lot of areas. And if the race is hard enough, where say only 30 riders finish at the front, then he has a good chance of winning himself.”
Madiot, twice a winner of Paris-Roubaix, is one of the strongest voices for the sport’s traditions. But, as manager of the FDJ team since its inception in 1997, he understands that cycling is not the provincial sport it once was. “You know, the recent rise of blacks in the peloton is simply reflective of the times,” said Madiot, who also hired in 2015 Lorrenzo Manzin, a promising black sprinter from Réunion, a French island in the Indian Ocean. “Due largely to economic reasons, cycling in Africa took time to make it to the highest level. And at the amateur level here in France you just didn’t see many blacks. But in recent years that has started to change and so it is normal that some are making their way into the pro ranks.”
While Réza says that the most-frequently asked questions in interviews concern race, he always answers them freely. “I understand why people are asking them. I know that being black, I stand out. But I also know that it can have its advantages. I know that the least little result will create a buzz. I know that I am more popular than most riders with my results, because I’m black. And I haven’t even won my first race yet!”
Réza is also a popular fixture on social media, where his fashionable style and happy-go-lucky spirit come alive. “I would describe my style as ‘beardless hipster,’” he said jokingly of his inability to grow a beard.
Given his combination of climbing and sprinting skills, Réza dreams of one day winning great classics like Liège-Bastogne-Liège. But first he’d simply like to win a first pro race. He’s had several near misses with third-place finishes last year in stages of the Tour of the Basque Country and Vuelta a España. But victory has remained elusive. He was again close, with another third-place finish, in the final stage of this year’s Tour de Picardie in May. And although frustrated, he remains upbeat: “I was close again, but victory will have to be for another day.”
But while Réza gives the sport high marks when it comes to racial issues, he experienced a testing situation at the 2014 Tour de France. Midway through stage 16 from Carcassonne to Luchon, Réza covered a five-man breakaway, but he was under strict orders from his team director not to take any pulls. Swiss rider Michael Albasini, who was driving the break, became frustrated with Reza and screamed at him in a fit of rage, using, according to Réza, the term, “F…ing Nig…” Reza said he couldn’t believe what he heard. “You know, a few years ago, I would have been really shocked. Now I’m older and can put things in perspective more. But I was still astounded that this guy hasn’t evolved. I might not speak English, but words like that are universal. I know what I heard.”
The next morning Albasini came to the Europcar team bus to apologize for any misunderstanding, insisting that he did not say anything racist. Via telephone, Brian Nygaard, media director for Albasini’s Orica-GreenEdge team, said, “In a situation like this, where it is one word against the other, you can only judge someone by how you see them treat others. We have 15 different nationalities on our team, including Africans, and there has never been any issue with Michael.”
Réza’s response at the time was simple: “I don’t need excuses. I know what you said. This is the first and last time we will ever speak.”
To the Tour media, both men played down the situation in the days that followed. Réza quickly turned the page on what was a very disturbing situation. For him, the Albasini altercation was a rare exception to his own experience and he wanted to focus on racing. Today, he insisted, “I’m above this kind of stuff. You know if you focus on things like that you can never race your bike.”
The ever-popular German cyclist Jens Voigt, who retired at the end of 2014 after an 18-year pro career, confirmed that the Albasini case was an anomaly. “Racism in the peloton? You know that’s just never something that has been an issue in all of my years as a professional.”
And while Réza doesn’t fixate on matters of race, he takes particular pride when other black riders succeed. He was quick to congratulate his friend Gregory Baugé via social media, after Baugé won the sprint gold medal at the 2015 world track championships, and he dreams of seeing the first black rider wear the coveted yellow jersey at the Tour. “That’s going to be a very special day for me,” he said. And although he doesn’t say it, that rider could well be a versatile all-around rider named Réza.