If I asked you to picture a prototypical cyclist, you’d probably conjure an image of a lean white guy rocking a snug, Spandex-Lycra blend racing suit. You know, this guy, or maybe this one. It’s exactly this sort of image that inspired Jenna Burton to create Red, Bike & Green — a group that sets out to break the stereotype and get more African Americans riding bicycles.
It was 2007, and Burton — a Connecticut native and a graduate of Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C. — had moved to Oakland, drawn to the city’s history, diversity, and activist culture. Although she hadn’t been on a bike since she was 9 years old, Burton was inspired by the cyclists she saw hitting the streets each day, so she decided to join them.
“Being a recent grad, I wasn’t making a whole lot of money. It was nice not to have to worry about gas or car payments,” she says. “In this region, where the culture is already there, I didn’t feel like the oddball riding the bike.”
Among her family and her former college classmates, however, her decision to two-wheel it was seen as, well, different. Even in the bike-friendly Bay Area, a black cyclist was a bit of an aberration. This led Burton to start an all-black cycling group, simply because “I wanted other black people to be just as excited about bike riding as I was.”
For the group’s first ride, Burton called up friends with bikes, largely drawn from the activist community. Although there was enthusiasm among the 20 or so invitees, only a small handful actually showed up — but even as part of a group of three, Burton felt much more empowered than when she pedaled the streets alone. Red, Bike & Green was born.
These days, rides draw anywhere from 20 to 50 participants. One tradition that has held from the early days is the monthly ride during Oakland’s First Friday arts festival. As Burton describes it, she got the idea six years ago, when First Fridays were still a relatively subdued affair put on by a few Uptown art galleries and wine bars. It was a nice effort, she thought, but something was amiss: In racially diverse Oakland, the First Friday crowd was predominantly white.
“There was something that wasn’t cool about it,” Burton says, and she decided to try and fix that something with Red, Bike & Green. “There needed to be diversity, to represent the black people that have been in Oakland for generations.”
The First Friday rides draw mostly young, hip, more able riders, so Red, Bike & Green also developed a family-friendly ride on Saturday mornings, where folks show up with kids, grandparents, and dogs in tow. Along their routes, the group strives to patronize black-owned businesses, generating support from community members who aren’t necessarily interested in riding. It’s hard to disagree with Burton’s inclusive approach and her three-point plan, which outlines how cycling can empower black individuals and community through health, economic, and environmental benefits.
The only community that hasn’t been entirely supportive, ironically, is the cycling community. “I think because we’re casual, we don’t go really fast, the routes themselves aren’t that challenging, a lot of people don’t wear helmets on our bike rides … A lot of the really avid cyclists aren’t too impressed by us,” Burton says. “But that’s fine, because that’s just two different parts of cycling.”
Still, Red, Bike & Green operates under a fiscal sponsorship from the nonprofit East Bay Bicycle Coalition, and local chapters have arisen in Chicago and Atlanta. Representatives from all three chapters recently met at the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C., there to remind other stakeholders that not all cyclists look like white dudes in spandex (or hipsters on fixies).
Although she sees Red, Bike & Green’s voice as an important one in the national conversation on cycling, however, Burton is quick to point out that the group’s focus is squarely on organizing rides, rather than lobbying or political action: “We just don’t have the capacity,” she explains.
Just by its very presence, however, Red, Bike & Green makes a political statement. A crowd of black bicyclists at First Fridays makes a statement about Oakland’s shifting demographics and diverse history. “This is our city, too,” says Burton. It’s a diverse, complex, and changing city, but with the leadership of Red, Bike & Green, it’s one that the black community is proud to explore on two wheels, Spandex-Lycra blends be damned.