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Major Taylor Journal: There are already many Black cyclists — we just overlook them

Columnist Aliya Barnwell says cycling's efforts to improve the sport's diversity often overlook the throngs of working cyclists, street BMX riders, and participants in Critical Mass-style urban rides.

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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 velonews.com in the coming months.  

There are already plenty of Black cyclists.

I’ll say that again: There are already plenty of Black cyclists. The problem with diversity in U.S. cycling isn’t that Black people do not ride bikes. Wherever I look, I see Black people of many ages riding bikes, and we will continue to grow as a force in the cycling scene. The real diversity question that the cycling scene should ask itself is: Why is cycling still not associated with Black people?

I’m a cyclist, born and raised in New York City. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I was a youth cycling coach in the Bronx. At the moment I work as a coordinator for a logistics company. And, like many of you out there, I’m also always on social media, shamelessly shopping for bike stuff.

From all three perspectives, I see lots of Black people riding bikes every single day. They are working cyclists, participants in Critical Mass-style urban rides, and BMX riders who zip through urban environments doing crazy stunts that riders like you and I would never ever attempt.

Riders participate in ‘Bike Rides for Black Lives’ — a 16-mile bike ride from Chinatown to Harlem supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement on August 23, 2020 in New York City. Photo: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

The question I keep coming back to is: Why do bike companies, organized teams, the national federation, and other traditional cycling organizations largely ignore these riders?

Perhaps the issue has to do with how we define “cyclists.” Sure, we can look at cycling’s traditional power structures and blame inherent racism and classism, but those aren’t the only reasons. Many cyclists — and I count myself in this group — have clung to old stereotypes of the narrow look and feel of a “cyclist,” instead of embracing all people who ride a bicycle.

When you close your eyes and picture a cyclist, do you envision a man in Lycra, or a teenager on a Big Ripper (that’s a BMX bike)? Do you envision a woman?

For many of us, when we envision cyclists, we picture riders pedaling in organized groups, or with their families in parks. That means we exclude kids or adults riding BMX bikes in the city. These riders are largely Black and Brown. This is one reason why some believe that Black people don’t ride bikes, instead of the reality, which is that Black people don’t always ride in a way that the cycling world recognizes.

Say we accept that being a “cyclist” implies some ability or talent beyond simply riding a bicycle. I don’t know about you, but the videos I see of kids holding wheelies while riding through traffic looks like it requires plenty of talent and ability. I think all bike riders are cyclists, and a dedicated BMX rider fits the definition as much as any.

The reality is, we simply do not see the throngs of Black and Brown riders who ride their bikes every day. It was Black and Brown BMX riding-youth who in 2017 shut down the Cross Bronx Expressway with sheer numbers in the single biggest display of cycling solidarity since Critical Mass. And even before the COVID-19 bike boom, urban cycling brand SE bikes had sold out of bikes across New York City.

These are cycling communities that the cycling industry should reach out to. After all, how will cycling continue to stand strong without support from the streets? How long will we continue pretending that stagnancy and exclusion is good for the sport or the industry?

Supporting riders of all styles and backgrounds should be a no-brainer. If bike brands want people to ride their bikes, they should recognize and encourage everyone who knows how to pedal. Variety is the spice of life, and often a range of perspectives is what fosters innovation.

Case in point: It took a Black velocipede to update pro cycling stuffy look and feel. Just recently Justin Williams pointed out how traditional jersey design doesn’t allow fans viewing races from helicopter shots or from the sidelines to tell riders apart. Williams is an example of what diverse viewpoints can offer the sport: the courage to suggest a logical change in traditions that have to encourage growth in road cycling.

As far as traditional cycling, sales have held steady among the usual demographic (white males in their 20s to 30s), but has been steadily increasing in all others. Perhaps if the industry weren’t so hung up on perceptions of what a cyclist is, advertising and engagement would be different, and we’d see an even greater uptick.

Imagine for a second what would happen if the kids doing BMX stunts were offered the chance to try other types of bikes, or even participate in organized races. Of course, flinging yourself down a mountain at 45mph is not for everyone, but of every 100 perhaps 20 stick with it. Perhaps 10 decide to compete. Of those 10, one could be the next Nelson Vails, or the next Ayesha McGowan. But when there is no outreach and no support, and no pathway created to bring these young Black riders into our sport, we miss out on them. And if there is blatant exclusion — for example, those slurs directed at Kevin Reza — we can’t be surprised when riders from these communities take a pass on competitive cycling.

Putting aside the sporting facet of the opportunity that broadening the concept of “cyclist” gets us — anyone who rides bikes in spaces with other humans that are not riding bikes is safer when people are used to seeing others on bikes. Explained another way — more cyclists make spaces safer for cyclists because drivers and pedestrians expect to see them and are used to behaving normally around them. Drivers know to look out when making turns, they pass wide, etc. Pedestrians don’t stand in the bike lane or walk on shared paths with their dogs on an extendo-leash.

More cyclists normalizes cycling. And as we look ahead to 2021, where water is being traded on the futures market, we have to normalize using alternate methods of transportation besides gas-powered personal vehicles as our international environmental issues continue to mount.

There are already plenty of Black riders who use bikes for fun and to get around. Considering all of us as cyclists, is the real come-to-Jesus moment the U.S. cycling scene needs to have, for everyone’s benefit. Sure, we need to get more Black people cycling, but we also need to acknowledge and support those who already ride.