The WorldTour peloton races past a large, ornate gate in Guilen, China during the 2019 Tour of Guangxi.

It’s very simple: Don’t do racist things

Again, what year is it?!

Joe Lindsey
by Joe Lindsey 11.10.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
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Does anyone know what clothing size Madis Mihkels and Gerben Thijssen wear? Because I want to send them a little something.

It’s a t-shirt, from a Denver clothing company called Be a Good Person. That’s the message on the shirts, and I first came across it when profiling Thomas Evans, aka Detour, a Black, Denver-based artist who specializes in large-scale and immersive art, in particular representations of people of color. He wears the shirt as almost a uniform.

I liked it a lot and pretty quickly bought one. I wear it often, because it’s a reminder to myself as much as other people. It’s hard to be an asshole when you’re wearing a t-shirt that says “Be a Good Person” in big block letters on the front. And that seems like a message that Mihkels and Thijssen, at least, would do well to be reminded of. 

Maybe – like me – you’ve largely stopped using The Site Formerly Known As Twitter because its owner is rapidly turning it into a disaster area. Maybe you’re spending more time these days on Instagram because if you can navigate the algorithm past all the influencer and grindset posts you can get to the stuff you care about: photos of people enjoying bikes, and smiling fluffball portraits of the Goodest Boys and Girls.

And so I would have to tell you with sincere regret that it is Instagram where Thijssen – who was until today set to start the Tour of Guangxi, the last WorldTour race of the year – posted a photo of his teammate, Mihkels, making a gesture colloquially called “slant eyes” and more accurately called racist AF. Their Intermarché-Circus-Wanty team issued a public apology and sent first Mihkels and then Thijssen home and promised further (unspecified) discipline. The UCI got involved, issuing a statement that the two have been referred to the Disciplinary Commission.

Perhaps things will end there, outside lingering mentions of their actions whenever one of them turns up in a breakaway, much as we like to remind folks that, say, Gianni Moscon or Antonio Tiberi are people of suspect character. I hope it doesn’t end there.

Are Thijssen and Mihkels actively racist? Man, I don’t know, although this isn’t exactly encouraging to see in 20-freaking-23. Racism exists on a spectrum, and otherwise-good people can shock you by doing racist things or, yes, holding racist views without being swastika-armband-wearing, full-on skinhead racists. I haven’t exactly done a forensic dive into their social media profiles to see if there are any other questionable posts, but I don’t need to in order to know that this behavior absolutely was racist. Mihkels is a 20-year-old Estonian in his first season on the WorldTour. Thijsen is 25, from Belgium. Both are white, in case you wondered. And whether this was a terrible-but-isolated instance or not, neither youth nor ignorance is an excuse at a time when a wealth of information, history, and commentary on racism exists to explore literally at your fingertips.

That’s where both riders are now: understandably tarred with the same kind of arms-length suspicion as Moscon, and whether Mihkels and Thijssen recover from that or are doomed to forever be thought of as two of the True Assholes of pro cycling depends largely on how they respond. It’s early hours, of course, but I’ll be interested in what discipline Intermarché has in mind. The team noted in its statement that it is, like most WorldTour teams, international in makeup, and that it fights racism daily. It did not mention that it is also one of the few WorldTour teams to employ a non-white rider, in this case, Biniam Girmay, and in that lies some small measure of hope. Hope because the team didn’t reflexively fall back on the “but I have a Black/Asian friend” defense so many white people deploy when they do transparently racist things.

But hope alone does not get the job done. We don’t yet know what will be the team’s follow-through, but we should continue to ask. And while Thijssen deleted the offensive photo (and it appears his entire Instagram account), we still haven’t heard directly from either rider. As a helpful pointer: an apology is a start, and only that. It should apologize, sincerely, for the harm caused (any “sorry to anyone who was offended” language is an immediate call-bullshit disqualifier for sincerity). And then the real work starts. That work should not feel grudging to them or us, and should not be done simply for publicity purposes. 

It’s not a given that they’ll make the effort. It’s been abundantly clear in the last decade that any number of people in this world have decided to give free rein to fear and hate to reshape them into the worst possible versions of themselves. I’d hope that Mihkels and Thijssen instead turn toward doing the right thing, even if it does seem hard. 

If they can do that, then over time, perhaps Thijssen and Mihkels can make genuine amends and be remembered for something other than this execrable moment in their lives. As the saying goes, we are not the worst thing we have ever done in our lives; we are not the best thing either. But we should try to do much more of the latter. It is, as the tag on all BaGP clothing notes, the most basic concept.

Perhaps a t-shirt will be a helpful reminder as they start down that road. They come in a variety of styles and colors, and of course sizes. I’ll even cover shipping. 

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