On New Year’s Day, organizers of one of the 35 road races on the UCI WorldTour cycling calendar launched a new series of cartoons.
They were meant to provide some light relief on social media in the build-up to the E3 Saxo Classic in Belgium in March.
“Sharing is allowed!” said the caption on the race’s official Facebook page. The first cartoon, by artist Bart Vantieghem, was about a celebrity chef cooking for the best riders.
The second, posted Monday, caused a considerable commotion in the sport.
The cartoon referenced an incident that happened the previous weekend at the UCI Cyclocross World Cup in Benidorm, Spain.
Wout van Aert won the race, crossing the line without a saddle having kicked it off by accident when remounting his bike following a crash.
The Belgian is also the winner of the last two E3 Saxo Classics. The cartoonist depicted an overjoyed Van Aert alongside the caption in Dutch, which translates as: “Wout Van Aert crosses the finish line without a saddle! The LGBTQ community is very enthusiastic.”
In the crowd, a group of fans — some with blue, green and pink hair — standing under a rainbow Pride flag are saying: “About Van der Poel’s rainbow jersey, of course!”
Mathieu van der Poel, a Dutch rival of Van Aert’s who was runner-up at the Saxo Classic last season, currently wears the iconic rainbow jersey after becoming road race world champion in August.
Almost immediately, a backlash began. Some said the cartoon was offensive, even homophobic.
Was this a joke at the expense of LGBTQ people? There was confusion over the translation — did the cartoonist simply mean ‘without a saddle’, or was it a play on words?
On Tuesday morning, the cartoon was gone. “We would like to apologize,” said the E3 Saxo Classic in a tweet. “We certainly didn’t want to offend anyone here. We misjudged the cartoon.”
Amid the differences of opinion on X, one user made the point that “there are no openly male gay riders in the peloton. This doesn’t make it easier for them to be their authentic selves.”
No out gay athletes... is men’s cycling unusual in that regard? The UCI’s top-tier competition is capped at 18 professional teams; below that, there are about 10 more. With each team consisting of around 30 riders, the number of active pro riders would be around 800 each season.
Britain’s Josh Jones isn’t at that level, but he did claim UCI world ranking points in cyclocross in 2023 which makes him rather unique.
After securing two top-10 finishes in September, he said on Instagram: “I think this makes me the first openly gay male racer to hold a world ranking position in any cycling discipline (even at approx 560th).”
Jones founded an initiative in 2022 called ALL IN racing, dedicated to improving LGBTQ inclusion in the sport.
In that same Instagram post after picking up ranking points, he wrote of feeling an “emotional dissociation” due to cycling’s “changing culture” which seems to be pushing people like him further away.
He believes the “unsophisticated” Saxo Classic cartoon is an example of that shift.
“I think it’s one of those jokes that’s almost dependent on who’s telling it,” he reflected.
“If you’re among friends in the gay community, you might conceivably make a joke like this in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way.
“But the fact that it’s coming from a faceless organization that is steeped in most of the traditional elements of the sport and that has a history of being controversial to gain eyeballs… that rather changes the tone and approach of it.”
Jones is right to be suspicious of the Saxo Classic organizers’ intentions because the race has a history of provocative promotions.
In 2015, an advert showed a cyclist’s hand reaching out to touch a podium girl’s exposed bottom, alluding to a previous incident involving Peter Sagan.
Other posters from previous years featuring women posing in risqué positions have been called out as sexist.
The race organizers’ reputation on attitudes toward women had already taken a further dive just days before the cartoon controversy when they announced they were cancelling the Women’s E3 Saxo Classic. It had only been going two years, but apparently running costs and lack of sponsorship made it no longer viable.
It’s all part of the context to a cartoon that expected LGBTQ people to be in on the joke, even though the sport itself has made little to no effort to include them.
“That’s where it becomes an issue,” says Jones, “because there aren’t any visible queer people in the sport at that level on the men’s side, and there’s no been no real discussion about LGBTQ inclusion from an organizers’ point of view, from governing bodies or anything like that in a broader sense.
“If you’re not laughing with people, you’re laughing at them. That’s the point at which it all falls apart, I think.”
Jones stresses that he is far from a killjoy and would like nothing more than to see cycling engage with LGBTQ people and take a lighter touch, to break down the barriers that still exist.
“That can help to put people at ease, and make it feel less stuffy because cycling is a very traditional sport, particularly on the road,” he adds. “It has a very rigid culture around it, which doesn’t make inclusion easy.”
But he feels progress is either agonizingly slow, or it tends to roll backwards.
It’s three years since Belgian rider Justin Laevens, then aged 19 and competing for a pro team in cyclocross, came out publicly as gay. Laevens said he was doing so in part to “set an example for others… who may still be hidden in their shell”.
A few months later, he spoke to Cycling Weekly for a feature article about the absence of out gay male pro riders, and explained how his experiences since coming out had been positive.
Also quoted in that article was a former cyclist who is gay and who rode in UCI-sanctioned races; he spoke under condition of anonymity. He explained how he left the sport after being out injured for several months, having kept his sexuality private. “I realised I didn’t want to go back to living a lie — it wasn’t healthy,” he said.
Laevens continued to build a following on social media and carried on racing until February 2023, when he announced he was quitting. “The last few years have had ups but mostly downs,” he wrote on Instagram.
The cause of those low moments is not yet known, and there has been no more out gay or bi representation at the same level of cycling since.
One encouraging sign, however, is the strong performance in British competition of rider Clay Davies, who came out publicly in July 2021 having been “deeply in the closet” beforehand. In 2023, he had a successful domestic season which featured 12 wins and 27 podiums.
Jones has followed these stories and empathizes with his fellow gay riders. He is comfortable in other parts of his daily life but says he realized in cycling that he was changing the way he spoke, and his mannerisms too, to fit into a culture in which questions about being gay were either indirect or avoided altogether.
He has channelled his energies and frustrations into ALL IN racing, bringing Pride rainbow visibility to wider cycling (a different rainbow to that worn by world champion riders like Van der Poel) and starting conversations in the media that demonstrate LGBTQ people do exist in the sport, at all levels.
He has been vocal in his opposition to blanket bans put in place by the governing bodies that prevent trans women from participating authentically, and is concerned by the growing influence of sponsors from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is criminalized.
Ultimately, he feels the cartoon is symptomatic of the course that elite cycling is choosing to follow on LGBTQ inclusion.
“I wouldn’t even say it was an afterthought — it’s literally just not a thought,” he adds.
“This kind of targeted humour is for those already sat in the stalls, when you could be going outside of cycling and trying to bring in new people, like the LGBTQ community but also other communities too.
“That’s how a sport grows but this one is struggling in general, at the moment. Cancelling the women’s Saxo Classic race shows that.
“As an advertising approach, it just seems so short-sighted, frankly.”
For more information about ALL IN racing, visit the website at allinracing.org.