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Major Taylor Journal: To Europe, my friends!

Queens native Lorenzo Brown has become an evangelist for cycling in Europe, and he's spread his passion to the other Major Taylor Iron Riders.

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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.

When you walk through the portal on the top of the Col du Tourmalet, and you get to see the look on your buddies’ faces, and their mouths are just agape, and you can see tears welling up in their eyes — well, that’s just the best part. These are your buddies from Brooklyn, and you know that every time they’re riding River Road back home, it’s just going to be different now.

My name is Lorenzo Brown, I grew up in Jamaica, Queens, and I’m one of the Major Taylor Iron Riders. Here at Major Taylor, we have a core group of folks who race — Darrel Tucker, Patrick Merosier, Malik Graves-Pryor, and others — and a few years ago we went over to Europe to do the Haute Route. As you know, the climbing in the Alps and the Pyrenees is absolutely insane, and it was something I wanted to share with these guys, because I’ve been coming over to Europe to ride for a few years.

Major Taylor Iron Riders
The Major Taylor Iron Riders during the Haute Route. Photo: Lorenzo Brown

Going to ride those climbs in Europe literally changed my life. You ride your home roads and you think you know what cycling is, and then all of a sudden there is this entire world that opens up to you. You watch the grand tours on TV and it’s like ‘I know that climb! I know that town! There’s the shed on the Col du Glandon where I got caught in a snowstorm and took shelter until sag support could pick us up!’

I wanted to expose this feeling to as many friends as possible, and it’s been something that I’ve been able to open up to my Major Taylor friends. We’re used to riding laps in Central Park or Prospect Park, or doing the climb on highway 9W to the New York state line. At some point I was like, ‘Guys, this isn’t a climb. This would be a ripple on the way to a climb!’

I stumbled into cycling about 13 years ago by getting on a heavy mountain bike and riding around Jersey City. I was an old runner, and I ran track and field at the University of Arkansas, and I was slated to make the 1988 Olympic trials in the 800 meters when I blew out my hamstring. I tried to ride with the Major Taylor Iron Riders race team, and I’m sure I looked like a hot mess in those early rides. I decided to start the Major Taylor development team for folks who wanted to learn how to race.

The author (right) during his first bike tour to ride in Europe. Photo: Lorenzo Brown

I was an aggressive racer in the local crits and road races around New York City. At some point, all of the crashing and losing skin got old. You crash and two weeks later you’re down again opening the wounds that were just starting to heal! I did the Central Park racing scene, and I was coming along nicely as a racer, but I always felt like there needs to be more to cycling than this.

One day I ran into these guys in Prospect Park, and they had been doing these trips to Europe to go riding, and I signed up for one to Italy. That trip opened up this portal in my life.

It was in August 2011, and the trip was a six-day trip to go ride the Alps in Italy. From day one I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me — now this is riding!’ And to be honest, I wasn’t able to finish the trip, not because I blew up, but because I couldn’t walk after being on the bike for six days. We did the Stelvio, and the whole time up I was thinking ‘You idiot, you do not belong here — what are you doing?’ And while it took me forever — it took me three hours to ride the Stelvio — it changed my life. Seriously, the way I appreciated cycling changed forever.

I found a new love for the bike, and I realized that all I wanted to do was come back to ride in Europe.

The author suffering up yet another huge Col. Photo: Lorenzo Brown

And now, when I watch the riders attacking in the grand tours, I know. I know why they aren’t attacking on the Stelvio with 5km to go. It’s because 5km is still an eternity on the Stelvio!

I also realized that I could do European cycling trips by myself to make them cheaper. And over the next few years, I started to do two or three trips a year by myself. There I was, this African American man from Queens, with a bike box and a huge backpack. I didn’t speak Spanish, French, or Italian. I was in a foreign country, having planned everything through Google maps, online reviews of hotels, and GPX files that I downloaded onto my Garmin.

And you know what? I was OK — every time!

There were sometimes when I felt this fear that hey, I’m alone, I’m Black, but to be honest I felt more fear riding alone here in parts of the U.S. than I ever did in the mountains of France, Switzerland, or Italy. Even if people didn’t speak English they gave me support.

The author and fellow columnist Kevin McNeill atop the Col du Tourmalet. Photo: Lorenzo Brown

I went back again and again. During that time I got the urge to want to share this with as many people back home as possible. Cycling is so much more than Central Park races or the crits back home. I did everything I could to share my feelings with as many of my Black and minority friends I rode bikes with. Guys — this isn’t everything. Have you ever heard of the Glandon or the Madeleine, or the Stelvio? You can climb for two hours straight, and the views will make you cry because you will be in awe of the beauty. I wanted to expose as many friends as possible to that world.

I told Kevin [MeNeill], and then others. And then I saw the Haute Route, and pitched it to the club. It was like OK, let’s do this. And you know what? We went over there, rode those climbs, and we have not looked back.

As told to Fred Dreier.