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Major Taylor Journal: Soaring past peer pressure

Author Khary Ward was teased by his peers because he loved cycling. The NYC cycling community helped Ward pursue his passion for the sport.

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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.

“You just ride a bike. How is that even a sport?”
“You do cycling? That’s the whitest sport I’ve heard of.”
“You mad [expletive] — tell me why he shaves his legs and rides a bike in Spandex?”

These three comments — often accompanied by a sea of laughter in the background — sum up the general reception I got from my peers when I was 17-year-old kid in Brooklyn who was crazy about racing bicycles. My name is Khary Ward and I grew up in the Highland Park neighborhood in Brooklyn, and I got involved in New York City’s road cycling community as a teenager. At a time when all I wanted to do was get a good SAT score, get into college, and go to prom with the coolest girl in school, getting made fun of for what I loved was the last thing I wanted.

These days, the cycling world is having a conversation about expanding the sport to underserved communities — communities like the one I come from. If we want to have this conversation, we need to also dismantle the sometimes-self-imposed barriers that keep Black people out of road cycling in our own communities. A lot of famous Black cyclists you might have heard of, from Rahsaan Bahati to the Williams brothers, come from Caribbean heritage. I do as well. In the Caribbean, road cycling is a well-received sport, so as a young person with aspirations of entering the sport, you get support.

The author racing for the CRCA junior development team. Photo: Khary Ward

There are many men and women with Caribbean heritage who ride, and there are cycling clubs and a Caribbean cycling culture that encourages you to take the sport as far as your talent and financial support can go.

My experience was different.

While I grew up in Brooklyn, I attended a performing arts school in Midtown Manhattan to study the violin. Playing the violin meant I was already teased by my peers for doing something that — according to mainstream society, at least — was not for people who looked like me. But in the performing arts community I found my own peer group. I attended the Music Advancement Program at Juilliard School — a weekend program that works with kids from communities that are underrepresented in classical music — and everyone in the group was either Black or Latinx. In this program I saw the misalignment with what society and your ‘culture’ beats into your mind about what is normal, versus what you should be able to do as a thinking person in a free country.

I learned that I should be able to pursue whatever dreams and aspirations and interests I have. I should not let other people decide what those interests should be — be they classical music, or bicycle racing.

So, back in 2007, when Lance Armstrong was all over the media, I got introduced to the sport by Mel Corbett and the great men and women of the Major Taylor Iron Riders. I found myself fully immersed in an entirely different world to what most Black male teens experienced in inner-city Brooklyn. On long weekend training rides I would ride through some of the most beautiful and scenic roads in Long Island, Westchester County, and Bergen County, New Jersey. As the youngest rider on the team, I always felt safe on these 50-80-mile rides, as I was always traveling in groups of at least a dozen other riders.

The camaraderie of the club, plus being amongst positive men and women that looked like me, who were so passionate about the sport, was great. We pushed each other to be better, faster, and stronger cyclists, and to not give up. My first four to five-hour ride taught me that lesson quickly! Those rides were my first lesson in learning to persevere and thrive in adversity, and in adopting the ‘never quit’ mentality. Cycling taught me how to manage my suffering. I found it to be a sport that never gets easier — you just learn how to deal with the pain better.

That pain comes from the lactic acid building up in your legs, causing them to scream. It comes from your lungs fighting to find air, as you fight to hold on to stay with the peloton, because you don’t want to get dropped. Cyclists know that if you hold on, if you keep pushing to the crest of that climb with the group, if you don’t quit and hold the wheel in front of you, the pace will eventually lighten up. There will be a downhill, and you will be rewarded for not quitting.

Life can be like this, too. This was a good lesson for me to learn as a teenager.

Now, I’m 31. I’m happy that I continued with the sport. Even though I never became a professional rider, the culture and community of the New York City cycling scene helped shape me into the adult I am today. It continues to have a positive impact on my life.

The network and community of the New York City cycling community is strong and also far-reaching. In fact, my high school principal was a member of my bicycle racing club. Some days, he even let me store my racing bike in his office for safekeeping, so that I could participate in the midweek races after school and not have to worry about my loaned race bike being stolen. On weekends, I’d race in Central Park or Prospect Park, chopping it up with men almost twice my age, some of whom were titans of Wall Street, or lawyers or doctors, or scientists or carpenters. I saw that cycling was a great equalizer, in which nobody cared about who you were off the bike — on the bike we were all riders, and that’s all that mattered.

You could ride for 3 hours with someone and have no clue that they owned a company or managed billions of dollars in endowments and pension funds. None of that mattered, as we shared our dreams, aspirations, and past experiences on the bicycle. And, I learned that should you need help with something outside of the sport, you simply ask your fellow riders if anybody knows a guy. You will find a rider who can help you.

This power of networking blew me away. Despite being a kid from inner-city Brooklyn, I discovered that I had a powerful network of connections when it came time for college, and also for post-graduation work. Because of the cycling community, I was able to navigate the world of scholarships, internships, and full-time work just as successfully as a kid from an affluent and well-connected family from the suburbs.

I sometimes think back to those taunts I got as a kid about riding a bike, and then I think of the knowledge that I’ve learned from my experiences as a rider and racer. I followed the unbeaten path, and I didn’t allow individuals who project their life experience onto me deter me from my trying something different. I controlled my emotions and always stayed in the fight when life threw challenges at me. The lessons I learned from cycling propelled me into what I am today: An entrepreneur with a small business that I hope to one day build into a household name.

All of this shaped me into the person I am today, and a lot of it came from cycling.