We Are Pioneers - Chasing History Episode 5
The cycling world needs another Major Taylor moment.
Taylor’s singular accomplishment—becoming the first African American to win a world championship in cycling—took place at the turn of the 19th century.
Truth be told, the sport hasn’t diversified its ranks much since then. Most years, we’re lucky to see one cyclist of color at the Tour de France. Domestic professional cycling and the WorldTour? Pretty white there too.
But there’s a ripple of change happening. Riders of color like Justin Williams (Legion of Los Angeles) and Frenchman Kévin Reza have been more than vocal about the sport’s diversity problem.
Then there’s this team you’ve been hearing about all year. The first official collegiate cycling team to come out of an HBCU (a historically Black college or university). Based out of the business school at St. Augustine’s University, a private college in Raleigh, North Carolina, the team of 12 student athletes had virtually no experience with competitive cycling (except for sophomore Ashley Weekes, who’s competed in triathlons.)
What the Falcons lacked in experience they made up in bravado, a contagious sense of optimism and the feeling that they were pioneers on a mission. Freedom riders of a different sort. Ground breakers who are helping to literally change the face of cycling—from a blindingly white sport to one that’s at least somewhat more representative of America’s cultural stew.
These fearless Falcons have made quite the statement already, garnering widespread media attention and sponsorships to boot (including from Canyon, who supplied them with pro-level bikes and other equipment.)
“We recognized early on that what we were doing went beyond SAU,” said Dr. Mark Janas, a professor in SAU’s School of Business and the team’s head coach. Dr. Yan Searcy, the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Cal State University at Northridge, said learning about the SAU team inspired him to contact USA Cycling to start a similar squad at CSUN.
“We’re trying to increase our population of Black students here,” Dr. Searcy said. “I thought maybe we can use cycling as a way to increase representation. There’s so much potential, and to use the St Augustine’s team as a model is ideal for us.”
To mix racing metaphors, you might say what the SAU team is doing is drafting history—riding a tailwind created by the likes of Major Taylor, Jackie Robinson and Wilma Rudolph, the Black sprinter who became the first American woman to win three Olympic gold medals in track and field.
“What’s happening with St. Augustine is important because somebody has to take that first step and show other people that it’s possible,” said Peter Flax, the former editor of Bicycling Magazine. “Sports history is full of examples of people who kicked that door down, for women, for Black people. In every case, you need those pioneers to show people that that particular activity is open to inclusion.
“I think when a team made up of Black racers goes out into the world, their impact is so repercussive,” Flax added. “In a lot of communities, people are not even going to think about bike racing or getting on a bike if they don’t see people who look like them.”
We had a responsibility to help more schools start programs, to inspire more young riders.Dr. Mark Janas, SAU Cycling's Head Coach, Professor, School of Business
Tamika Butler, the former executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, put it this way: “Bikes and power are intrinsically linked. Bikes have given us freedom, not just as kids, but as adults... It is really important for everyone to show up on bikes, whether you’re talking about recreational riders in spandex or kids cruising to the local store, or professionally, or bicycle advocacy groups.
“Black folks are often limited by other people’s expectations of us,” Butler added. “What this season showed us is not to be limited by that, if we’re given the tools and given a chance.”
For the student riders themselves, the experience hasn’t always been comfortable or easy. But they understand their roles and their contribution in the evolution of cycling.
“Being here, surrounded by a culture and race that’s not my own, I feel out of place,” said Josué Ortiz-Florez, one of the SAU cyclists. “But I’ve felt accepted and supported in a way that I haven’t felt in any other sports that I’ve played… I do feel like bikes can change the world. Especially if the right people invest in the sport. If it becomes more diverse, I feel like it can change the world.”
St. Augustine's Cycling team update: we asked five members of the Falcon cycling team to give us a glimpse into their daily lives on campus. In these intimate vlogs submitted by the student riders, we see how they are juggling the demands of school work, athletic training and the tribulations of coming into your own as a young adult.
In Episode One, we met the young riders from St. Augustine's that are on a mission to blaze their own path in collegiate cycling and inspire other riders at HBCUs around the country to ride. But they were not the first on this path. Nelson Vails, similar to the legendary Major Taylor, made a name for himself on the world scene with an Olympic medal in 1984 racking up a series of firsts along the way.
Inspired by Major Taylor, one of history's great cycling legends, St. Augustine's University is stepping out of their comfort zone to challenge the cycling status quo as the first Historically Black College and University to field a collegiate cycling team.
The students of St. Augustine’s University, a HBCU, after months of training and preparation finally had their chance to open up their wings and compete in their first ever bike race. Competing in the race was their ‘Bahati Moment;’ it was the first time a HBCU has sent athletes to compete in sanctioned cycling events, signaling a bright future for cycling.