(Note: strong language in the second paragraph)
By Julien Pretot
LIVAROT, France (Reuters) - The man who founded the first African team to race in the Tour de France said on Friday that racist abuse suffered by one of his riders in Austria this week could not deflect from its success in establishing Africa’s place in world cycling.
MTN-Qhubeka team founder Douglas Ryder said Eritrean Natnael Berhane was upset at being called a “nigger” by Belarussian Branislau Samoilau as they raced alongside each other in the Tour of Austria on Wednesday, but had rejected suggestions he be disqualified.
“The Commissaires’ Jury spoke to both riders and their teams,” a spokesman for UCI, the international cycling body, said. “Everyone agreed that it was unacceptable, and the rider apologized and offered to donate one month’s salary to team MTN-Qhubeka’s foundation.”
MTN-Qhubeka’s Eritrean rider Daniel Teklehaimanot became the first black African to wear a leader’s jersey at a grand tour when he claimed the polka dot jersey for best climber on Thursday’s sixth stage of the Tour de France from Abbeville to Le Havre.
But celebrations were soured when news came through of Samoilau’s comments to Berhane.
The incident was the talk of the peloton at the start of the Tour de France’s seventh stage on Friday.
”Hopefully it was an isolated incident and although Natnael was pretty upset about it at the time, he is fine now,“ Ryder told Reuters. ”It’s sad that every conversation I have today is around racism and around being bullied in the peloton.
“The team has done an amazing job in this race but everybody wants to talk about this. The UCI wanted to kick him out of the race and Natnael was, like, ‘no it’s fine and he can race’.”
Martin Rosender, spokesman of the Tour of Austria, said the incident had been handed to the sport’s governing body.
“The Belarussian rider has apologized though he said there was a language problem, he didn’t mean it like this,” he said.
South African businessman Ryder founded the team eight years ago and said the incident should not be allowed to overshadow the progress shown.
“Yesterday was a day of highs and lows but we are just really proud to show that African cycling belongs on the European circuit,” he said.
“This is not a European sport. It’s for the whole world and it’s amazing that we are here and can show the performance of the riders and how good they are.”
Kevin Reza, a black French rider who was racially abused during last year’s Tour de France, told Reuters on Friday he doubted whether racism in the peloton, if it still existed, should even be debated.
“Personally I’ve moved on, it’s life,” the FDJ rider said. “It’s not only cycling, racism is everywhere. I don’t think we can change the mentalities. It is a war that we cannot win.”
Teklehaimanot retained the polka dot jersey for another day after being part of the breakaway of the day on Friday.
Writing by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Alison Williams