Culture

Major Taylor Journal: Finding ecstasy in the agony

In 2009 Malik Graves-Pryor went on a Major Taylor Iron Riders club ride and got dropped. The experience ignited his passion for cycling.

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. We are honored to share their thoughts in a regular column series on velonews.com in the coming months.  

One of the key words mentioned in politics in recent years has been “representation.” Representation of different races and backgrounds is something of great importance in sports as well, from everything from NASCAR to figure skating. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter protests, the importance of representation in policing has gained prominence too.

And yet, it was not until very deep into my adult life that I appreciated the power of representation in my favorite activity — cycling. My name is Malik Graves-Pryor, a proud member of the Major Taylor Iron Riders NY club, one of many in the United States associated with the icon that is Marshall “Major” Taylor.

When I first met the Iron Riders, I had been riding consistently for about three months in an effort to get back into shape. I thought I had everything figured out about cycling. During the warmup portion of my first ride with them, we rolled up the West Side Highway bike path at a pedestrian 13-15 mph, and I was unimpressed. However, once we got onto the famed U.S. Route 9W — the favorite out-and-back for New York City riders — I began to understand how much more I had to learn.

The author (center) during his first ride with the Major Taylor Iron Riders club in 2009. Note the T-shirt and bike shorts. Photo: Malik Graves-Pryor

I also learned why they call themselves the Iron Riders.

In the ensuing hours, my fitness and ego were thoroughly dismantled as I was taken through parts of New York and New Jersey I never knew existed. Harrowing climbs, eye-watering descents, and brutally high pace line speeds were on the menu that day. While I relished the meal, I did so with great difficulty. I suffered immensely, yet I received a lot of encouraging words on the ride, as well as instruction on how to ride in a pace line, how to smooth out my cadence, when to shift gears effectively, and more.

When we stopped in Nyack for a lunch break, several of the club members introduced themselves and commented how well I was riding, further encouraging me to eat up and get ready for the ride home. Little did I know I was merely being fattened up for the proverbial slaughter.

On the way back to New York City, several of the club’s senior members upped the pace, in what became a battle for supremacy of the road with some other cyclists. The pace picked up from the steady 22-23 mph we had been holding, up to 25, 27, then 29 mph. I was redlined, gasping for air, and barely holding on. And then these folks — who I thought were unimpressive only a few hours earlier — picked the pace up even further.

The author attending one of his first races in 2009. Photo: Malik Graves-Pryor

The pack pulled away from me. I was so exhausted that my field of vision narrowed into a very small tunnel of agony. For just a brief moment, the tunnel widened as I heard a familiar voice of one of the club members urging me to go faster, to pick up the pace, and hold onto the back just a little while longer. After a few more seconds, I finally cried out, “I can’t hold 30 miles per hour!” I collapsed onto my handlebars and slowed down to 12 mph. The familiar voice sped around me, closed the gap with the club, and continued trading blows with the others.

When I rolled into the parking lot at the meetup point, the Iron Riders were resting, sipping tea, and looking no worse for wear. Mel Corbett, who wrote the earlier column, and who would become my friend and mentor on the bike, looked up and asked, “So, how was it?” A Kool-Aid grin broke out on my face as I could do nothing but exclaim, “Holy shit! You guys are amazing! That was un-bleeping-believable!”

I was later told by several riders that the punishing pace was specifically because I was a newcomer. I later learned that this was part of the Iron Rider culture of “eating its young”. The tough pace was set to challenge me. While some previous riders had been turned off by the savage pace, I was invigorated by it. To be so summarily dropped — and to see how fast I could become and to know how far I had yet to improve — was a revelation.

The author (left) in 2010, one year after his first club ride. Photo: Malik Graves-Pryor

In time, I came to realize how important it was to see these men and women of all colors, but primarily Black and brown, kicking butt on the bicycle. They became my cycling inspiration. Growing up, I rode a bike for the love and freedom it afforded me. My grandfather taught me how to ride a bike during our family visits to West Virginia every summer, and I explored my neighborhoods in Brooklyn on a bike. At that age, my role models were cousins and uncles, brothers, grandparents, and aunts. My family was extremely tight-kit, and in many ways, I was privileged to not have to look outside of my family for validation or representation from those who looked like me.

But as I grew into adulthood and experienced the broader racialized world, I realized the importance of representation in other areas of life. In that vein, finding the Major Taylor Iron Riders club was a lucky stroke. In the Iron Riders I found men and women who looked like me, all willing to offer their knowledge, guidance, and camaraderie — albeit with a healthy dose of smack talk and ass kicking on the road.

I was able to measure myself directly against people who looked and sounded like me and who shared my life experiences. Never once did I feel judged or less-than in their company. I didn’t have to look to the competitors in the Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia — none of whom look like me — for inspiration. I found my own, right here at home.

The author on the front of the peloton during a race. Photo: Malik Graves-Pryor

Over the years, I’ve realized that the Iron Riders are a continuation of the tight-knit family experience I had growing up. There are mentors at every turn, comrades in arms, and other cyclists who came into the sport alongside me who have now become my brothers and sisters on the bike. I have never felt incomplete as a Black man on a bike, because of the power of that representation.

Maybe it would have been different if I had joined an all-white club from the beginning, or if I’d faced the implicit and explicit biases and racism that so many other cyclists of color have reported as part of their lived experiences. But, because I was blessed to have found the Iron Riders so early in my development, I have never had to bear that burden.

The importance of true representation that lifts us up and allows us to create bridges to the next generation, so they can ride easier and faster, is something that I’ve learned through these familial connections on and off the bike. I’ve become the mentor, where I used to be the mentored. I’ve become the helper, where I used to be the one who required help. And I have thus been able to lay the proverbial bricks that my younger counterparts have ridden over, adding to a legacy that continues on, just as was done prior to me.

The author riding the Haute Route in France in 2019. Photo: Malik Graves-Pryor

Now I look around the country and realize how vast the legacy of Major Taylor is, and what it means to be a representative of his name. I grew from someone looking to get back in shape and compete a little, to someone who is good at this sport and wants to do more of it. I’ve been blessed to have traveled to places like Arizona and Majorca to cycle, and competed in the Haute Route because of the opportunities afforded. These same opportunities that perhaps were not afforded to my predecessors, because of the lack of that racial and social representation, a representation that I used to take for granted in my earlier years.

The author during a recent ride. Photo: Malik Graves-Pryor

All of this is to say that the power of representation in the sport of cycling is something that cannot be underestimated. As we value the importance of diversity in all areas of our lives, we look back and realize that the trail was first blazed by Marshall Major Taylor, the first brick upon which we now all stand and walk down when joining one of his namesake clubs. It’s incumbent upon all of us to now amplify the legacy he left; one I am grateful to be part of.