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Kit Critic: How Black style is transforming cycling

A look at how Black Americans are leading modern cycling style, from Legion of Los Angeles to The Black Foxes.

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Kit Critic is a column on cycling style by Aliya Barnwell, the founder of Ride Up Grades. You can follow her on Instagram at KitAddiction.

Picture a rider climbing a grade so steep they have to stand. They dance their way around the switchback of a snow-dusted col, later descending gracefully, knee slightly pointed into the corner. At the bottom of the descent, the genteel cyclist sits at the outdoor table of a petit cafe, slammed bike in their line of sight, kit aero, helmet and shoes white, legs crossed, and coffee in hand.

This is the language of many idealized cycling ads. Now, what color was that cyclist in your mind’s eye? Even in America, the ideal is based on the European origins of the sport. Only in the last few years has the rider been pictured in the cycling imagination as dark-skinned: we’ve only now moved slightly past the time when Black and Brown riders were considered a novelty in cycling advertising.

Now cycling is echoing the music industry; realizing the value of different perspectives, voices, and styles. The Williams brothers and the Black Foxes are examples of Black people positively influencing cycling style. They present a joie de vivre with swagger.

The same swagger came to music with jazz, fashion with flappers, and basketball with Wilt Chamberlain (and Bill Russel and Charles Cooper). Black American influence in music and food are also undeniable; I’m not the first to make these assertions. Now that same influence is finally, at long last, touching cycling.

When a group of Black progressives are sought-after models for alt-road, and a Black man is a road cycling trendsetter yet large organizations are still slow to heed his words, the commodification of Black style has reached its height. The last step is for sports’ governing bodies to take heed and support the grassroots changes Black people make for the betterment of cycling.

The Black Foxes are an international group of cyclists spearheaded by Ayesha McGowan. I was amused when Bicycling Magazine hailed Justin Williams as “the most important bike racer in the world,” while Ayesha formed a race team of only women of color in addition to the Black Foxes, organized Thee Abundance Summit (a virtual event on diversity in cycling), and was racing in Europe on a pro contract at the time. To be fair, he is very important for the reasons outlined in the piece, but I argue she is equally so. Nothing is more stylish than encouraging positive change.

Ayesha races for Liv Racing and founded The Black Foxes. (Photo: Courtesy The Black Foxes)

Her style on the bike is logical. Here is her defense of the insulating hand warmers that look like bicycle elephant ears called pogies or Bar Mitts: “Bar mitts are life savers for cold weather training. They look absolutely goofy, especially when it’s not that cold out, but they drastically improve my quality of life for winter training.”

In recent years, McGowan was among the loudest voices calling for representation of Black and Brown people in cycling. She was already a pillar of the DEI movement when the pandemic gave the American consciousness time to react to the power imbalances of our social structures. She was talking about Black issues before the most recent civil rights headlines and round of marches. She set the goal of becoming the first WorldTour pro African-American woman, and she achieved that goal in joining Liv Racing in 2021. In doing so she also set new precedents for professional cycling, proving that space can be created within the sport. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Raequan Wilson and Marton Merritt of The Black Foxes. (Photo: Courtesy The Black Foxes)

The Black Foxes were organized to support and encourage riders of all shades and bike styles, and encourage companies in the industry to do the same. Advertising-wise, the Black Foxes are to flannel, gravel, and alt-road as the Williams brothers are to Rapha, crit racing, and gold chains with Lycra.

Ayesha rides for Liv in their purple floral (which is top tier for a pro kit), but the other members are ambassadors for different brands like Velocio, and have their own sense of style. Some of their riders are more traditional like Marton Merritt, others mix n’ match a kit collection to rival my own, like Shequaya Bailey, while others prefer MTB baggies, like Shanika Nicole. The point is, it is their values and pride in being themselves in the face of an uncaring and at-times hostile majority that is the uniting style here: confidence. Confidence never goes out of style.

The Williams brothers can come across as more than just confident – call it cocky if you will. But if they are, it’s with good reason. They’ve been racing since they were kids. And yes, Legion’s success is of course due to the hard work of a multicultural group of riders and staff, but the team’s stars of American cycling style are Justin and Corey Williams. Their high charisma is a big part what people love about them; they have the personality of stars.

Justin and Cory Williams. (Photo: Kit Karzen)

The Williams brothers have the athleticism and charisma that are two main ingredients of sport style. They are mostly traditional about their road kit, wearing the holy trinity (white helmet, white socks, white shoes), and adhering to the rules about sock length. But they’re modern and North American in important ways: in his Riding Up Mountains with Pros interview Justin said that knee warmers are terrible. The Williams brothers add flair, whether that’s jewelry or their personalities.

The same way broader pop culture got doorknocker earrings from Salt n’ Peppa and Sha Rock, road cycling will get chains with Lycra from the Williams brothers (and hopefully white-on-white shoes with white double boas). The Williams are in the midst of popularizing styles that will be commonplace in a few years; we’re watching it happen. Rapha’s Legion jerseys routinely sell out.

More significant than chains and knee warmers are Justin Williams’ suggestions about changing the marketing and focus of pro cycling, starting with the jerseys. I could swear I mentioned this in another article: He suggested pro jersey designs feature the rider’s number in large print in the middle of the back, so that it’s more easily visible. He also suggested numbers stay with the rider allowing fans to track their favorites more easily throughout their careers (or in events like Into the Lion’s Den), meaning professional cycling jerseys would look more like most other popular sports in the world that require numbers. Essentially, he suggested changing the style and design of American pro cycling jerseys to allow fans to follow and develop relationships with individual racers and teams more easily.

Perhaps in some idyllic future, UCI or USA Cycling will issue all racers numbers like the DMV issues licenses, and then teams can have them printed on their design of choice. The takeaway here is that Black contributions to the cycling zeitgeist, like functional style and the courage to be yourself, are good for all cyclists. If you’re a gambler, figure out how to bet on the upcoming style changes.

Aliya Barnwell in California.