The Road Rarely Taken - Chasing History Episode 2
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.
For Nelson Vails, cycling has truly been a ticket to ride.
It was his ticket to discovering life outside of the projects as one of 10 siblings growing up in New York City during the 1960s. It was his ticket to a livelihood as a bike messenger. And it certainly was his ticket to a cycling career that took him all the way to the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, where he won the silver medal in the sprint.
Nicknamed “The Cheetah,” Vails became the first African-American cyclist to win an Olympic medal. In 2009, he was inducted to the US Bicycle Hall of Fame.
What makes Vails’ achievement all the more remarkable is that no other Black cyclist has come close to replicating it in all of these years. With the exception of the newly minted UCI Continental team, Legion of LA, there has not been a single African American rider in any of the seven U.S. Continental teams and none on any ProTeam, WorldTeam or Women's WorldTeam.
“I took notice of being one of the only Black cyclists in modern day cycling when I was inducted into the 2009 US Bicycling Hall of Fame,” Vails says in an interview. “I was pretty much the only one at a world-class level.”
Vails serves as a huge inspiration for the young Black riders at St. Augustine’s University (SAU), the first historically Black college or university (HBCU) to establish a formal cycling team — dubbed The Falcons.
You would have to go all the way back to the turn of the last century to find a similar hero: Major Taylor, the first Black cyclist to win a world cycling championship and only the second African-American athlete to win a world championship in any sport at that time (1899).
“As a Black athlete, as a kid, you’re thinking: I want to play basketball. I want to play football. Or track,’” says Landon Bishop, one of the SAU team cyclists. “You didn’t hear a lot of people say: I want to do cycling. Until we had those pioneers start something.”
How professional cycling becomes the road not taken for Black athletes is a complicated issue. After all, all kids start out riding bikes.
“Cycling has always been a rite of passage for young people,” says Umar Muhammad, a professor at SAU and one of two team leaders. “When you get your bike, it’s your first sense of freedom.”
“Black kids, white kids, all kids grew up riding bikes,” continues Mark Janas, the other team leader who’s also a faculty member at SAU. “For some reason, the separation seems to happen somewhere around early adulthood where lots of white riders continue to ride bikes, where not as many African Americans [do].”
The Falcons are on a mission to change the perception of cycling as a predominantly White sport. The riders are pushing boundaries in other ways — the riders are training by relying heavily on digital platforms such as Zwift. To leverage the potential of e-sports, the team has been established within SAU’s business school rather than its sports department.
“I see my role as a trailblazer,” says Lavar Stubbs, an SAU cyclist who hails originally from the Bahamas. “This team plays a strong role in the racial justice movement.”
They might see themselves as chasing history, but Vails has one last word of advice for them:
“The kids at St. Augustine’s, when I see them riding, it brings such a smile to my face,” he says. “I would tell them what I was told, which was: ‘Always keep it fun.’”
FUND THE FUTURE
Now is your chance to help fund the future of cycling. Canyon and St. Augustine's University are raffling off an Ultimate CF SLX - The same frame ridden by the Movistar World Tour team - to support the Falcons in their first year of competition and to help inspire other HBCUs to ride. This custom-painted Ultimate will feature SAU team colors and a quote from legendary Black cycling champion Major Taylor: “In a word I was a pioneer and therefore had to blaze my own trail." All proceeds with go directly to St. Augustines.