News

Rahsaan Bahati: ‘I’ve had to conform to get my foot in the door’

A conversation about race, cycling, and change with the 10-time U.S. national champion and founder of the Bahati Foundation.

Among his many accolades, Rahsaan Bahati is a 10-time national champion, a brand ambassador for Giant, the founder of the Bahati Foundation, and the social impact manager at Zwift. His career in cycling is impressive by any stretch, but it’s even more so considering what Bahati says he endured because he is black. While the current spotlight on racial injustice and police brutality seems to be turning heads in a way it hasn’t in the past, Bahati says that the only thing that’s changed for him is that more people are finally paying attention.

VeloNews: What were your emotions when you heard about George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis PD?

Rahsaan Bahati: If you have some sort of humility, you feel something watching someone being killed.

But, at the end of the day and I’ll speak for myself here, we’ve seen this too many times. Some friends of mine who are white, I told them I grew up in Compton and saw someone killed when I was seven. I lived through the Rodney King riots. What I see now, it sucks, but emotionally I’m so over it. I haven’t slept in the last three days. But it’s like, nothing has changed. What I’ve noticed with these protests, is that it’s not just black people out there. In LA, it was all blacks, and it was in our hood. Now they’re protesting in affluent neighborhoods. I’m happy to see that happen, but back to when I was eight and 10, it’s the same shit.

VN: Is there a part of you that feels annoyed, like ‘why now?’

RB: It’s well beyond annoyance. I’ve dealt with so much racism, injustice, being marginalized for what I listen to, what I look like, how I dress, how I move around. And I mean, in the bike industry. I’m not gonna say, I’ve become used to it, but I figured out how to maneuver. If I hadn’t, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now.

What sucks is that I’ve had to conform to get my foot in the door just a little bit. As long as I’m getting the job done I should be treated like others, but that’s not reality.

VN: What’s been your experience with racism in the U.S. cycling scene?

RB: Where do I start? 

I’ve been on training rides where I’ve had older adults who didn’t like me because, one, the color of my skin, and two, I was better than them. This is as a kid, having a white guy in his 40s tell me to get off a ride. 

You go to Europe and it’s the same level of ignorance and racism. When I was a year out of college, I was fortunate to get a job with Jonathan Vaughters, went over to Europe, my teammates were Danny Pate, Mike Friedman, Tyler Farrar, all those guys. They’d never taken a break to go to school and I had. I remember I had another month left to be there and I remember being in car, overhearing the director or someone saying, ‘he’s no good.’ It’s like, ‘dude, I just spent the last five years at Indiana University.’ 

That one haunts me more than anything. ‘Why didn’t you put your arms around me? The same way you did with those other guys who were my peers who I was just as talented as?’ I haven’t gotten over it. 

rahsaan bahati

Bahati started riding in Compton, California at the urging of his teacher, Mr. Garmon. Photo: Rahsaan Bahati

VN: Is this a systemic issue in professional cycling? 

RB: My experience on TIAA-CREF in 2006 was like being in a predominantly white fraternity, and I didn’t fit in. That’s what it felt like. And what it feels like today. If you look at the Allen Lim’s and the George Hincapie’s and who they hang out with, it’s still the same group that they came up with. There’s no one new in their group. They’re not bringing in new people to help develop a new formula. It was the same group in the JV camp – it’s this frat and once you’re in, you’re in, and that’s it. 

I’m not saying all this to point fingers. These are real life things I’ve dealt with, and this is how I feel. Lim and I have a cordial relationship, and I have nothing negative to say about him as a person, but as a larger group, what are these people doing to break down the barriers? 

Editor’s note: In a follow-up call, Bahati added additional thoughts to this question. “I threw out a lot of names, and to be perfectly clear, I have no issues with George [Hincapie] or Allen [Lim] or these guys. There are a lot of people in the industry who aren’t doing enough to include people of color. And these guys are just part of a system, and I haven’t seen a lot to help the black community from that system.”

VN: What role have cycling media outlets like VeloNews played in excluding people of color from cycling?

RB: Now there’s so much content out there. For a while it was just ones or twos, like Gideon [Massie] and Nelson [Vails], and then it was me. So I understand from your guys’ angle it’s hard to come up with content on us if you’re not sending people all over the country to cover local races. Now the community is bigger. There’s more black kids and women racing bikes, and our story is still not always told.

Editor’s note: This question was asked in a follow-up call. 

VN: What are programs, people, etc. that you believe are making a difference in bringing diversity in American cycling?

RB: None that I can think of, off the top of my head. 

I mean, there’s brands that use black people in their ads and try to use diversity in their campaigns. For me, that’s always been a checked box. Like, ‘there are more black people buying bikes than ever, we better put them in the ads.’ The big companies of the world, the Specialized’s, the Cannondale’s, the Giant’s – at the end of the day they all have to come together to make change. Giant can’t do it alone. Giant supports me and my foundation, but that’s just a start. That needs to go on continuously for decades. I think they’re starting to turn the corner. The more they do, then Specialized will. Then USAC then the UCI. It won’t happen with just the bike brands, though. Everyone has to be on board. These protests are one thing, it’s gonna hopefully do something positive. At the end of the day, there’s a lot more that has to change. 

VN: How does the bike industry’s social media messaging feel to you right now?

RB: Not good. I was so annoyed with all that stuff that I didn’t click on any of it. I finally opened up a post to see what Justin and Cory [Williams] had said.

Now it’s like, ‘you put that out there, now you have to follow up.’

What annoys me more is like ‘OK, you already knew you were part of the problem, why did it take you so long to say something? Alright, next time there’s a big round of hiring, how many black people will you interview? How many will be on your board?’  Black people work. They’re in R&D and science and accounting. I work for Zwift. There’s probably five black people that work for Zwift. That’s where you can start making a difference. How do you have this diversity and inclusion program, when the person running it has no idea what it feels like to be black and excluded? It’s like saying you work for Ferrari but have never driven one. Change can start there.

VN: Does your foundation’s work address the systemic injustices in the cycling industry?

RB: We’re focused in the inner city. The reality is there’s non-blacks in inner city, too. Our message – outside of sports and music and education – is to rise above your circumstances. Look at where I come from, where Major Taylor, Nelly [Nelson Vails], Justin and Cory came from. And, the countless others who aren’t black who’ve had to rise above marginalization. The message is: you can do it. It’s about getting out of the bubble. I’ve always said that white people live in a bubble but black people do, too. It’s a different bubble than the white privilege bubble. I say, ‘here’s how I did it, maybe you can take those things and incorporate them into what you’re doing, and what can I learn from you?’ We’re really preaching that you have to rise above your circumstances, and we want to help you do that. 

The Bahati Foundation’s mission is to support youth in inner-city and underserved communities through sports, music, and education. Photo: Rahsaan Bahati

VN: You have three daughters. How are you handling these conversations at home? 

RB: It’s rough. That’s where the not sleeping comes from – you turn on the news. I talked to Ayesha [McGowan] the other day, she asked me how I was doing. I said, at times I feel removed from it and totally safe but as soon as my mind goes idle, I realize I’m not safe. We live in an area where people are going to be hurting in a few months. 

That’s why industry leaders can make a difference now. In two-three months from now, when that extra $600 unemployment goes away. If they’re gonna take $600 away from your $1,000 – how are you going to survive on $400 a month in LA?

I’m trying to navigate carefully how I speak to my children about it. They need to know that it’s real, that their father is black and a target. They’re biracial and will have their own set of issues to deal with. I think we’ve done a great job, but one will be going off to college soon. Hopefully what we’ve taught her holds strong. 

VN: What actions can we, as cycling media, take to confront injustice in our sport?

RB: It’s time to stop sugar coating it. Start calling it what it is. The world already knew, but now it really knows. When Mike Brown was killed, all these young African Americans, it’s a story here and there, then it dies off. Now the whole world is watching. Everyone can see it. So call it what it is. I told Zwift this the other day – it’s not about making a statement just to make one. It has to hit hard so it can hit home. 

People will be OK with it. 

VN: How can cyclists be a part of the change?

RB: It’s like you said, cycling is elitist and cliquish. Let’s break down those walls. My for-profit company started the ‘All Clubs BBQ’. The whole goals was to bridge the gap between cycling clubs in Orange County and Los Angeles and Santa Monica and one and on. The goal to get people together off the bike. For the last three years, we’ve gotten people together at the park. Play park games, 500 people were showing up. At end of day, when you take off the helmet, everyone has a story. There’s no way to realize, the black guy on the Giant with the Dura-Ace setup – he didn’t steal it, he worked for it. And then when you hang with him at the park you realize he’s an attorney or whatever. It’s hard to get that story when you’re on the bike, breathing hard. It was all about bridging that gap.

It’s time for our community to support the Bahati Foundation and Justin and all the other organizations out there. We can’t do it alone. A lot of people say, ‘I don’t see color.’ I call BS. The problem is you have to understand it. I say, ‘let’s understand it.’ The more stories, the better.