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Major Taylor Journal: A cycling kit to honor Black lives

In 2020 Major Taylor Iron Riders produced a cycling kit to honor Black lives. Lead designer Andrew Harris takes us inside the process.

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Named for Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor, the country’s first Black cycling champion, and the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, an all-Black unit known as the ‘Iron Riders,’ the Major Taylor Iron Riders club of New York City is comprised largely of Black, Latino, and Asian-American riders. These riders have informed perspectives on what it means to be a person of color in the U.S. cycling scene. We are honored to share their thoughts in a regular column series on in the coming months.

In early June 2020, one of the most comprehensive lists of Black lives lost to police violence was not on CNN or the New York Times website. It was actually part of a message on the website with the headline: “Each of these names was somebody’s baby.”

The list began with Emmitt Till, who was killed in 1955 at the age of 14, and contained 119 names arranged in a loose chronological order, ending with George Floyd. I discovered this list while I was working on a special kit design project for my cycling club, the Major Taylor Iron Riders.

Major Taylor BLM kit
A look at the Major Taylor Iron Riders BLM kits. Photo: MTIR

These names now appear on the back of a special Major Taylor Iron Riders cycling kit, which was released last year. We didn’t want to just copy and paste these names onto our kit from a website. I don’t claim to be an expert on racial justice — not many of us are — so I decided to research every name on the list before adding it to the design.

For two weeks I researched each name online, searching by name and state, and then name and city when the locations became repetitive. I added one name at a time I’d get through 10 or 15 names each day, sometimes fewer. It was an emotional journey that I didn’t expect to start, but one that I quickly realized was necessary.

For me, looking at one name, one victim, one incident at a time and situating their stories over the past seven decades connected our present to our history in a very sobering way. I saw that the murders and killings aren’t some media phenomena, or political narrative. This is our reality.

My name is Andrew Harris and I am a member of Major Taylor Iron Riders. I am Black and Puerto Rican. Before getting into road cycling, I was a competitive salsa dancer for the better part of a decade, and after stepping back from dance I needed some outlet to stretch my legs. I’ve always enjoyed life on two wheels and have considered myself a cyclist. I discovered MTIR while looking for a predominantly Black cycling environment that was focused on teaching and riding.

Quickly, I discovered that Major Taylor had much more to offer: camaraderie, mentorship, lasting relationships that span riding surfaces, cities, and generations. I’m also an architectural and graphic designer. My pride in my heritage, my love for cycling, and my passion for design came together in the project to design a kit to honor the Black Lives Matter movement.

From the beginning, this kit was meant to be a sensitive contribution to the Movement for Black Lives. We wanted to acknowledge the social movement that was inspired by the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, as well as the protests and the national conversations that occurred in many areas in our society in 2020. In the middle of this effort, amid the pandemic, we wanted to give Black cyclists and those who stand with the cause a kit that connected us across clubs and experiences.

Our club president, Dereka Hendon-Barnes, came up with the idea to produce and release the kit. I still remember the call — Dereka called me and said, “Hey – we gotta do something. I want to do a kit – what do you think?.” I was in.

Van Jones in the BLM kit
Political commentator Van Jones wearing the BLM kit. Photo: MTIR

Dereka brought together myself and Seitu Barnes — a seasoned cyclist, photographer, and fellow Iron Rider — to brainstorm. We wanted to respectfully pay homage to the Black men, women, and children who have become victims of police brutality over the past years. We wanted to incorporate brown hues to represent the palette of the Black diaspora. We wanted to tastefully incorporate elements and symbols of Black revolutionary struggle and resiliency. We wanted our riders to feel safe wearing these kits, supported through a network larger than ourselves.

And we wanted to honor the legacy of our namesake, Marshall “Major” Taylor.

Our design process involved “temperature” checks along the way. I would develop the concepts graphically, email them to Dereka and Seitu, and then hop on a Zoom call with them and go through each idea, piece by piece. They provided feedback, and then I’d get back to work. Then, we would do it all over again. We went through this process several times, developing three distinct but connected pieces, each incorporating the list of victim’s names, as well as the symbolic elements in a unique way. All three designs became deeply personal to each of us.

As the three distinct designs continued to develop, so too did the vision of a kit series. We ultimately decided to release three distinct kits: black, gray, and black-and-white. Everything was intentional. Each kit incorporated significant design themes: names and places; resistance symbols; and Major Taylor elements.

As important as the overall concept was, the smaller design details made each kit unique. On the all-black kit, we wanted the resistance fist to be more personal and cohesive as a design element. The pattern that appears on the sleeve and knee portions of the kit is made up of a brown-hued gradient of resistance fists. The color gradient there is repeated again in the outline of the ‘Major Taylor’ name on the chest. And behind the name is the classic Major Taylor silhouette.

Andrew Harris BLM kit
The author wearing one of the kits. Photo: Andrew Harris

With the grey kit, the names and places appear on the half of the front panel in alternating colors. On the other half, MAJOR is spelled out vertically and the ‘O’ is replaced by the resistance fist. On the black-and-white kit, visibility and classic cycling kit designs were the inspiration. The inclusion of offset horizontal lines, again in the brown-hue gradient, the jersey portion of this kit split between black and white, and the ‘Major Taylor’ title in the center of the all-white top add to this kit’s design.

And appearing in different locations on each kit are the phrases “Black Lives Matter” and “Still We Ride.” The latter is a nod to “Still I Rise,” the poem by activist and poet Maya Angelou. Another reoccurring element is ‘1899,’ the year Marshall “Major” Taylor won the one-mile sprint and became the first African American to win a world championship in cycling, and only the second to win a championship in any sport.

Since we released the kits last year, the response has been overwhelming. Along with selling out every release, we raised and donated over $5,000 for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The donation was a goal that developed with our concept.

Today, riders from all over the country and even overseas have ordered the kits. Our social media inboxes have overflowed with pictures of excited cyclists wearing the kits, letting us know which was their favorite, and asking about the next release. This has been one of the most impactful parts of creating them, and one of my personal highlights as a cyclist.

We came together on a concept that has connected us as riders to our community and to our history. It has been significant to see my work come to fruition and rewarding to discuss the meanings behind these kits over various mediums. As Black creators have said and will continue to say: Representation matters. This wasn’t just a kit designed by some company trying to stay relevant, or an act of performative wokeness. It is a kit designed by us, with intention and sensitivity.

It is our contribution to the movement, past and present. Our way to pay respect. Our way to be seen. Our way to literally put our brothers and sisters names on our backs and let each other know – we see you, we got you, still we ride.