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Major Taylor Journal: Remembering Dobs

Major Taylor Iron Riders club member Michael Shorr remembers Donald Dobson, a club member who recently died of COVID-19.

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I’ve been a part of Major Taylor Iron Riders from the beginning, and still count among life’s pleasure sharing a hard group ride with the close friends I am happy to have made.

We were different in the early days, perhaps brasher and boisterous; contentious, but fair. Ride fast and have fun was our motto and the rule. The club’s membership was different then too. There were fewer women — not the result of intended exclusion by we men. We were always proud of the women who embraced our values, and who tolerated the same taunts we subjected each other to.

Our composition has also changed, becoming more diverse while still maintaining a solid African American and West Indian core. When I joined you could count the Asian, Hispanic, and White members on one hand; I’m pleased so many have discovered what they’ve been missing.

I owe my introduction to the Iron Riders to Mel Corbett. Days on site in the aftermath of 9/11 made me crave distraction, and led me back to cycling after many decades away. A bike was required and the bright yellow Giant TR-1 I got after a few minute’s deliberation fit the bill: it was a revelation, light, lively, and fast. I was smitten, and ended most days logging miles by myself.

It’s a singular satisfaction climbing a steep empty road, a pure ascetic pleasure but a lonely one. Much as I admired the solitary journey I craved companions too. I looked for a group to join, tried a few, perhaps half heartedly, but never found quite the right fit. Some rigid, some aimless, all too slow.

A photo of the club during its early days. Photo: Mel Corbett

Major Taylor looked different. The Wednesday night ride, a distillation of the park crowd, led by the Iron Riders, was fast and focused, while lively and high spirited. The group remembered its purpose was play. I wanted to belong so jumped at Mel’s invitation to join in. It was a generous offer on his part but hardly proof of acceptance. Cyclists are a wary bunch; moving in close proximity, at speed, a momentary lapse of attention can have dire consequences, and a new arrival, in the thick of it, is cause for concern.

There were other concerns. Questions of difference, assumed or real were present, as they always are when an outsider comes to stay.

An obvious difference, that I was white, wasn’t mentioned by the group, but I felt awkward, as though I had imposed a burden on people only wishing to have some fun. There were things to learn, actions to interpret, attitudes to examen, all pleasures of belonging and making friends.

Like all of us I mistook my blinkered prospect for the vast expanse of lived experience, a common, comforting error, an error nonetheless.Over the past decade the club has changed for the better, growing in membership, organizational skill, and social ambition and action. Much of this due to the admirable leadership of the current board. But don’t discount the contributions we old timers (long time members and we literally old) have made to the present moment.

The modern incarnation of MTIR is built in part on the foundation laid down by earlier. Particularly, the project of creating a team bike from 2006-2008 helped galvanize the club. There was a real sense at the time that we wanted to be a team who could be identified as a group. We had a team jersey, and a bike felt like the next logical sense. We were a group of strong-willed individuals, and having a team bike was a way to identify as a group.

Many members of the club contributed to the project of creating a team bike: Dewey, Mel, Van, Steve, and others. But it was Donald Dobson who tirelessly, unfailingly, carried the heaviest load.

Renderings of the team’s painted bicycles from 2008. Image: Michael Shorr

Dobs, as we called him, was a social worker who helped manage homeless shelters around New York City. He was a good guy and a lot of fun, and we became very close friends after going on rides together put on by the Major Taylor organization, like the Mountain Summit ride in West Virginia, and the Seagull Century. Dobs got along with people well, but he also had a very strong personality, and he’d say what was on his mind. There were sometimes blowups with other people, and Dobs could be cranky. But you could always rely on Dobs.

The project of creating a team bike represented a lot of work, and a lot of money, for a club of our size at the time. Dobs took on the role of project manager and producer, who made everything happen. He did the bookkeeping and negotiated with the company that made the frames, VeloVie Bicycles. He organized everyone’s preferences for equipment — whether it was Shimano or Campagnolo — and it was a lot of work. He also did the legal work to draw up a contract.

We were a group of people with a lot of creativity but we didn’t have a ton of experience in projects like this. Long story short — the project wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Dobs.

I won’t forget his satisfaction the day the bikes were distributed; it was the culmination of more than a year of work and would not have been happened without his dogged attention. It was a major step forward for the club, its members, and our honoring of Marshall Major Taylor. And today, more than a decade after that project, you can still find those Major Taylor Iron Riders bikes being ridden around the city.

Donald Dobson enjoying a ride. Photo: Major Taylor Iron Riders

Last March, in the opening days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dobs caught the virus and died. It wasn’t fair. He was only 58 years old, and since then I have missed him dearly.

Over the past decade we had become close, spoke often, exchanged judgements jokes and dreams, and as often as possible the ride up River Road. We still believed there were good days ahead. Dobs was a man of parts, a complicated, accomplished soul. I will miss him always.