Removing Barriers to the Cycling Community for People of Color

August 04, 2020

As the anti-racist movement grows across the globe, many of us in the cycling sphere recognize that our sport is long overdue for a change. Hopefully, all of us — companies, organizations, and individual riders — are thinking hard about including and representing people of color in this thing we love. Since our ambassadors, the PEARL iZUMi Crew, are a diverse group of people already doing positive things for the cycling community, we asked them for help.

“A great place to start is acknowledging that people of color do bike already, and might do so in different ways,” said Teresa Tarn, a Taiwanese first-generation American and mountain biker living in Denver. “We can do a lot to validate their presence and make sure we welcome them.”

A good example is people who ride for transportation out of necessity. “We don’t think about them as part of the cycling community. If we think about that, it’s strange. It’s noble to pursue this effort to bring people in, but they’re out there already, we just need to include them.”

Randy Barcena, a mountain biker and Filipino immigrant living in Las Vegas, phrases it another way. “What the cycling industry should be asking is, how do we approach the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) community and get to know their culture a little bit more and be part of it? Not the other way around.”

In light of that, it’s valuable to take a step back from the current cycling culture and see it through others’ eyes. Tarn said, “At least for mountain biking, a lot of it is about exploring and conquering, and those words are rooted in a white colonial legacy, I would say. For Black, Hispanic, and Native culture in the outdoors, that isn’t what it’s about for them. If marketing experts were to better understand other cultures, they could make material that better speaks to minorities.”

And in the day-to-day experience for riders of color, the cycling culture often has a direct and personal impact. “When it comes to MTB, it’s still very much a White, bro-ey culture,” Tarn said. “And in general, as a minority, there are very few things more unwelcoming than a bunch of competitive White men.” Tarn describes that environment as a lot of pressure to fit in, rather than allowing people to be who they actually are, which by default makes it less inclusive.

Teresa Tarn racing her mountain bike.

To go beyond cycling’s inner circle, to reach the people of color who aren’t already riders, Tarn believes the solution lies in bringing cycling to them in their own communities. “The main thing is to think about is how to create a more lasting change. Equipment is expensive, and you need to be privileged to access the trails and roads that support the sport.” She cites the state of Pennsylvania, where she grew up. “They designed state park systems to be within 25 miles of every home, and because of that, the trails have become really popular. In Hong Kong, there’s an amazing hiking trail system, with the trailheads accessible by the subway system. How can local MTB communities work with the transportation system to make trails more accessible to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access that opportunity?”

Making these infrastructure changes could be the turning point for many people of color, Tarn said. “You can’t do just a one-off event geared to minorities, but rather create something they can access all the time.”

The representation of people of color in cycling marketing and media has been discussed a lot recently, and it also remains a critical starting point, said Dana Dobbs, a Black triathlete living in Queenstown, Maryland. Showing more people of color is necessary, not only to reflect the riders who are already out there but also to break down barriers. “I think there is a belief in the Black community that certain sports or activities are for Whites. That belief comes from years and years of being excluded from those sports.” He mentions well-known Black athletes who have been successful in White-dominated sports like cycling and tennis — Nelson Vails and Serena Williams, for example — and while they are true superstars, “they still fight and struggle to be Black in their sport. I’ve read accounts of how the pro peloton treats Black riders, and it is appalling. All men and women have been created equally, but they are far from treated equally.”

Once people of color see themselves in cycling magazines and websites, a shift can take place. “Black people must be seen as people who enjoy racing, riding bikes at every level. There needs to be a more balanced representation in an advertisement. Until Black people can see that it’s okay and a lot of other Black people do this, it’s fun, it’s beneficial, then they see it’s okay to be interested in biking.”

Dobbs points out Black cycling and Black triathlon groups that are focused on change, and “while all of this is well and good, I’m not sure it will have the same impact as cycling clubs that are “White” pushing for the same things. What will White people or organizations do to encourage Black people to ride? I’m on the inside looking out, so I’m not sure of the answer to that. Perhaps if the big four, Trek, Cannondale, Specialized, and Giant can really start to take steps to include BIPOC in their ads in a more serious cycling role. Perhaps it means bike shops going into urban areas and teaching kids about the different kinds of cycling, and teaching them about famous Black cyclists. Having a kid look at you and say, “I want to be like Major Taylor,” would be so cool.”

Dana Dobbs on the bike portion of a triathlon race.
Maria Cesca riding with a new riding partner after meeting at a protest ride.

As industry leaders are working from the top, everyday riders shouldn’t forget the impact they can have. Many people who currently ride bikes can point to a particular person who introduced them to the sport, and that personal approach remains a great way to bring in others. Maria Cesca, a cyclist, certified coach, and Brazilian immigrant living in the Miami area, suggests that every White rider reach out to someone of color. “If everybody could invite someone who has never biked before, or introduce someone to their group, that would be a start.” She’s been doing this herself — connecting with people online, while training, at charity rides, and most recently at the rides forming as part of the current protest movement.

In June, she and her husband drove to Liberty City in Miami Dade County for a Pedal for Justice ride. “It’s reportedly one of the poorest neighborhoods in South Florida, and 95 percent Black. I started to talk to a lady cyclist there, and we exchanged numbers to ride again together.” Not only did they ride together the next week, but the woman Cesca met brought a friend. “I know and understand that for some people, it is very difficult to approach someone and try something new. But in order to create a more inclusive cycling community, it’s important for all of us to get out of our comfort zones, go places we wouldn’t normally go, meet new people, ride with them, learn about them and their culture. So these ladies and I will keep rotating between my area and theirs, and keep bringing more people along. I love how the bike brings people together.”

While there are many more great ideas for bringing people into the sport (see below), the Crew members hope that the cycling community won’t skip the all-important step of examining itself, finding its blind spots, and opening its arms to others as they are. Tarn said, “I believe more effort can be done towards acknowledging other communities’ traditions, preferences, limitations, and their relationship with cycling and the outdoors, and incorporate them into the current cycling culture. Not just wondering how might we bring more people into the community, but also how might we extend our community to include more people and meet them where they’re at.”

Randy Barcena has grown several group rides with fellow Filipino mountain bikers.

Here are more concrete actions we can all use to include and welcome people of color:

Dana Dobbs:
Cycling companies can go into schools (when they re-open again) to teach kids about cycling; reach out to youth centers to educate. Partner with organizations already doing this work, not only because it’s vital to support them, but also to avoid looking like the White Savior coming in to save the day.

Randy Barcena:
Getting the industry to open its focus beyond just recognizing competitive athletes, who are typically White. “If I look at the top athletes now, they are the guys and gals that got started at a young age. Their parents started them young because they could afford it. As an immigrant from the Philippines trying to make ends meet, I never had that opportunity when I was in my early teens growing up in California. So, nowadays cycling/MTB for me, and I’m sure I can speak for so many of my Filipino friends, it’s mainly just for fun. Sure, I’ve entered local races here and there, but to be honest with you, my day job is still more important than racing bikes.”

Teresa Tarn:
Since the cost of cycling and outdoor gear presents a constant hurdle, Tarn mentioned a program she encountered while mountain biking in Nepal, the Ladies MTB Library. The library maintains a fleet of well-maintained, modern bikes that women can take out at no cost. There are also skills clinics and weekly learning sessions, providing ongoing support for new riders. Here is a blog she wrote about her trip and the program.

Maria Cesca:

  • Outdoor industry companies should support diversity and equality in all business practices. They should deliberately try to hire a more diverse staff. When opportunities to promote individuals within the organization arise, thorough consideration should be given to candidates who represent non-white communities.
  • Lead or engage in the efforts of educating non-whites on the health benefits of cycling through programs, events, and clinics, partnering with organizations that work for racial and social justice. Offer cycling programs for kids, teenagers, and adults, with free clinics on the health benefits of cycling, the several modalities of biking, how to ride a bike safely, and how to maintain and repair a bicycle. Hold these events in those neighborhoods where the target population lives.
  • Provide free entries to biking events. Give complimentary entries to organizations that promote health to non-White communities. Give a part of the proceeds of biking events to those organizations.
  • A lot of people of color use bikes already for transportation. Promote the fun side of biking to those who only use their bikes as a means of transport (to work or school). Promote the vision that biking is a way of making friends, riding for fun, and traveling.
  • Have a well-established calendar of national biking days, such as Bike-to-Work Day, Bike-to-School Day, Bike-Trade-Day, Summer Solstice Biking Day, and give this calendar high visibility.
  • Perhaps on those days, manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers of bicycles, biking gear, and biking apparel would reduce prices to make those items very affordable and accessible.
  • Make biking more accessible for people in underrepresented communities. Partner with bike manufacturers and stores to make new or refurbished bikes free or affordable to kids and adults.
  • Companies can join an organization in a low-income area, donate some gear, create an item, and donate the proceeds of selling it. Example: An organization in Los Angeles called Bahati Foundation, which partnered with a sock manufacturer. The company created “Equality” socks and donates 100% of the proceeds from the sales of this sock to the foundation.
Teresa Tarn is a Vida mountain bike coach helping guide new women mountain bikers into the sport.
Dana Dobbs finishing a triathlon race.

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