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 velonews.com in the coming months.
Spoiler alert: I’m not Black. So why am I here?
For almost as long as I’ve been riding a bike here in my home of New York City, I think I’ve had an awareness of the Major Taylor Iron Riders and been, shall we say, MTIR-curious. The New York cycling scene has its many clubs, and MTIR’s predominantly Black crew, peppered throughout the five boroughs and even beyond, was impossible to miss with their distinctive kits and mysterious club name.
Who was Major Taylor? Why the Iron Riders? I had questions.
Eventually, through word of mouth I found out about their Signature Rides, which I attended in 2018 and 2019 as a plus-one. Those rides were justifiably famous and serious fun, not to mention a serious workout. A rolling block party atmosphere at the start gave way to an intense race pace, as the front group quietly started turning the screw, leaving the rest of us scrambling to follow moves, close gaps, and burn match after precious match.
Rides culminated in a furious mid-pack race to the finish – always someplace scenic and, if ridden correctly, with matches fully depleted. Leafy Princeton. Historic New Hope on the Delaware River. Picturesque Montauk, as if out of a postcard. I left the MTIR rides gassed and happy.
So clearly, I enjoyed the rides, not to mention the company. Major Taylor folks were good people, some of the best I’ve ever met on a bike. I had friends who were members. Why not throw in my lot and rock with the Iron Riders not just as a guest but as a full-fledged, card-carrying member myself?
Well, I could reach deep into my big bag of excuses for any number of rationalizations, but when forced to take a hard look in a mirror, it ultimately came down to fear. Fear that I, in all my pale-skinned non-Blackness, might be outside of my comfort zone. Fear that I might be perceived as an interloper. Fear of any resultant awkwardness, real or imagined. But perhaps most acutely, fear that I might say or do — if not quite the wrong thing — then something bordering more on inartful or tone-deaf, thereby exposing myself as an ass in the eyes of others, or possibly worse.
After all, Black though I may not be, as an Asian American and person of color myself, I’m no stranger to knowing what it’s like to be on the receiving end of microaggressions. Fear led to paralysis, paralysis to stasis. Why do something when doing nothing felt easier, safer?
Then 2020 happened. The devastating twin tragedies of the pandemic and George Floyd killing — to say nothing of the countless other examples of state-sanctioned misconduct and brutality, documented and undocumented, that came before and continue to happen to this day — messed me up. It laid bare the lazy, platitudinous lies that “the virus doesn’t discriminate,” that we’re all affected by these events equally and “in this together,” and that no, “a few bad apples” (always with the apples!) did not institutionalized racism within the criminal justice system make.
No – any honest person with eyes and a solid grounding in reality — no sure bet in “alternative facts” America — could see, plain as day, that Black and brown communities were being impacted in overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers. Injustices, threats, and slights – big, small, and everywhere in between – were and continued to be an everyday reality for Black and brown people.
As a human, this affected me profoundly. It made me hurt. Off the bike, I had an inkling of what I could do and how I might advise others of a similar mind (step one: educate thyself). But what about on it? We’re cyclists, after all (otherwise, why are you here reading VeloNews?), and riding a bike is a big part of what we do.
For starters, why not join the club that’s doing the work to support these very communities and nurture its members’ participation and development in our beloved sport? MTIR, as you’ve now read, works to nurture new riders into the sport, and the club’s success is often with Black and brown riders.
Why not lend my own support, in whatever form that might take – big or small, financial or moral – to the very cause that I professed to care about, counted among my core values, and so deeply wanted to see advanced?
Why not indeed. The time to be paralyzed by fear — fear of mis-stepping, fear of mis-speaking, fear of leaving my comfort zone — was over. The time to sit on the sidelines was over. No, the time for action – in my personal life, in my professional life, and here, in my modest life as a recreational club cyclist – was now.
The time to put my money where my mouth is was now. Allyship couldn’t wait any longer.
To be sure, these are small, seemingly trivial steps given the enormity of this moment and the work needing to be done. But we all start somewhere, and what better place to coalesce around and find common ground on than that which we all know and love: the bike?
So why am I here?
Because of solidarity. Because I want to show and give my support to the BIPOC community. Because I love to ride my bike. And because I want to ride with people who love to ride, too.
Drew Lee is a cyclist in New York City and one of the newest members of the Major Taylor Iron Riders club.
Photo: Brian B Price/TheFotoDesk