How A Minority Biking Group Raises The Profile Of Cycling

Jul 1, 2013
Originally published on July 2, 2013 10:30 am

Flip open any cycling magazine and you might think only skinny, good-looking, white people ride bikes. But increasingly that doesn't reflect the reality. Communities of color are embracing cycling. And as a fast-growing segment of the cycling population, they're making themselves far more visible.

There's a story that Veronica O. Davis likes to tell about why she started a cycling group for black women. She was pedaling past a public housing complex near her Washington, D.C., neighborhood one day when a young black girl shouted to her mother, "Mommy, mommy, it's a black lady on a bike."

"At first I was like, 'Why is she so excited?' And I realized I'm probably the first cyclist that she saw who looked like her," said Davis.

That one small experience led to a Twitter message, which then led to a Facebook group. Two years later and now 800 women strong, Black Women Bike: DC is a full-blown cycling movement. And it's not alone.

Minority cycling groups are sprouting all over the country. There's the National Brotherhood of Cyclists, We Bike NYC in New York and Ciudad de Luces/City of Lights in Los Angeles.

A recent report by the League of American Bicyclists cites people of color as the fastest-growing segment of the cycling population. Bicycle commuting rates in those communities are growing, too. The league's Hamzat Sani says that's not surprising.

"You'll see a lot of third-shift, late-shift folks or restaurant workers engaged in cycling because public transportation doesn't work when they get off of work. But those aren't the cyclists we'd see in a magazine, right?" said Sani.

With Black Women Bike: DC, Davis works to change the perception of just who is a cyclist. It's not just spandex-clad weekend warriors riding 30-speed carbon fiber bikes. It's moms who want to ride with their kids. It's women who are training for their first triathlon. And it's utilitarian commuters like her.

Davis bicycle commutes 10 miles to and from work nearly every day. Today's ride to downtown D.C. is a little breezy. Nothing she can't handle, though.

"People joined for different reasons. Some people joined with the message of, 'I thought I was the only one.' Or 'Hey, I've been thinking about biking but I didn't have anyone to bike with,' " Davis said.

Part of their mission is to make cycling more accessible, whether it's for fun, fitness or transportation. That means addressing big issues like cycling infrastructure and street safety, or more trivial personal issues like how to prevent helmet hair, which can become a barrier for some minority women.

"It's always a big issue. The secret to biking and having good hair is a satin scarf. It cannot be any other type of scarf. For a lot of black women, we sleep in satin scarves," Davis said.

More and more groups like Davis' are popping up around the country. These groups are part cycling club, part social movement. Sani recalls a group ride in Atlanta with Red, Bike and Green, an African-American cycling collective.

"It was very powerful to have a group, like 60 or 70 riders who were all black rolling through a predominately black community on a bike," Sani said.

In many inner-city neighborhoods, there aren't even bike shops — and cultural barriers remain. Sani has heard time and again from his peers in the black community that "black people don't bike."

"If you look at the history, it's just not true," Sani said. "And there are new groups emerging that are really pushing and changing the face of cycling as we see it."

Marc Sani, no relation to Hamzat, is the publisher of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, a trade publication. "Primarily, cycling has been mostly a white sport, much like skiing in that sense," he says.

Regardless of roadblocks, groups like Black Women Bike: DC are trying to raise the profile of bike riding in minority communities. And as the number of black, Latino and Asian cyclists in this country grows, more riders will be able to see themselves reflected as they pedal around town.

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Flip open any cycling magazine and you'll see photos of a lot of wiry white men. But the reality of who is cycling these days is changing. Surveys suggest that more people of color are biking, both for fitness and for transportation.

Lauren Ober has this story about a group of black women here in Washington, D.C., who are trying to build a community around biking.

LAUREN OBER, BYLINE: It's a muggy Saturday morning and Karen Key is standing outside of the D.C. Armory with a group of about 20 women as they meet for a bike ride and engage in a bit of shoptalk about their bikes. Key's bike is the Barcalounger of cycles. There's a cushy saddle, a bag for snacks and an upright geometry that makes it easy to get on and off. This bike even has a name.

KAREN KEY: Her name is Pegasus.


KEY: I just looked at it, and I said that's a Pegasus.

OBER: Key has brought Pegasus out for a ride sponsored by Black Women Bike D.C. She's pumped for today's ride and not just because it means getting in some quality miles.

KEY: When I go out riding with other groups, I very seldom see other black women. I'm usually the only one.

OBER: That feeling of invisibility is partly what led Veronica O. Davis to start this group two years ago. She remembers riding to meet a friend and pedaling past a housing project in Southeast D.C.

VERONICA O. DAVIS: This little black girl starts screaming: Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, there's a black lady on a bike. And at first, I was confused, like, what? Why is she so excited? But then I thought about it and I'm like, you know, I'm probably the first cyclist she saw that looked like her.

OBER: She tweeted about that random event, and that in turn led to a Facebook group. Now, nearly 1,000 women have joined.

DAVIS: People joined again with the message of I thought I was the only one, or, hey, I've been thinking about biking, but I didn't have anyone to bike with, or I've been thinking about getting a bike. And now, you all have given me the motivation to go get a bike.

OBER: Minority cycling groups like Davis' are springing up all over the country. A recent report by the League of American Bicyclists cites people of color as the fastest growing segment of the cycling population. Part of the group's mission is to make cycling more accessible. That means addressing big issues like street safety as well as more personal ones like how to prevent helmet hair. Davis says that's the number one question she gets.

DAVIS: The secret to biking and having good hair is you need a satin scarf. It cannot be any other type of scarf. For a lot of black women, we sleep in satin scarves, so many of us have years of practice with the satin scarf.

OBER: No one here seems deterred by the potential of helmet hair for today's 10-mile ride.

DAVIS: So we want to thank you all for coming out today. We have a no drop rule, so we will leave no woman behind. So we want everyone to have fun today. Yay.


DAVIS: All right. There we go.

OBER: There are all types of female cyclists here, from middle-aged moms on fat-tire cruisers to twentysomethings on sleek road bikes. Today's ride goes through Anacostia, a part of the city that Davis says is key to the group's mission. It likes to show off trails in historically black neighborhoods and expose residents there to a critical mass of black cyclists. As the women ride here, they get smiles and even a few high-fives from folks walking along the trail. Cyclist Mariah Craven says for her, that's the best part.

MARIAH CRAVEN: When people see us, they get excited and enthusiastic. They give us encouragement. They wave at us. It really makes a difference.

OBER: That's the group's ultimate goal: to show people that lots of black women do ride bicycles. If they achieve it, maybe next time Davis or any of the other members roll past that little girl outside the housing project, seeing them won't be a surprise. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Ober. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.