Want to empower African American kids? Give them bikes
Cycling has a reputation for being a white man’s sport, hobby, and mode of transportation. It’s an image rooted in truth — white people accounted for about 80 percent of the cycling population in the U.S. as of 2009 — but it’s far from a complete picture. From 2001 to 2009, the rates of cycling among African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians grew far more than among whites.
Ed Ewing is working hard to keep that trend going. He’s the director of diversity and inclusion for the Cascade Bicycle Club and co-founder of the Major Taylor Project, a program that uses cycling to empower underserved youth in the Seattle area. The program is named after Major Taylor, the first African-American to win a cycling world championship race.
I sat down with Ewing at his office to talk about his work, his history in bike racing, racism he’s experienced as an African American cyclist, the importance of diversity, inclusion, and equity in cycling and bike advocacy, and much more. Through the course of our conversation, Ewing dove deep. He discussed the systemic issues of race and discrimination, policies like neighborhood redlining, and poverty that shape the lives of the students he works — and he explained how cycling is connected to all of it.
As he told me, it’s always about more than just getting kids on bikes.
Q. How did the Major Taylor Project get started?
A. Major Taylor got started in 2009 with me, Cascade’s former Executive Director Chuck Ayers, former King County Executive Ron Sims, Dr. Rayburn Lewis, and Dr. John Vassall. I had bumped into Ron on a bike ride. I’d bumped into Rayburn Lewis and John Vassall on a bike before STP, [the annual, 200-mile ride from Seattle to Portland].
To see other African American cyclists in general, but especially in Seattle — I think Seattle is the third or fifth whitest city in the United States—there was even more commonality and camaraderie between us. The project just skipped 10 steps. The purpose and the vision were clear. We all knew how bikes impacted our lives. We all knew that there are students out there who need access and opportunity. We all knew that it’s about more than just getting kids on bikes; it’s about bringing resources and attention to not only the students, but their communities too.
We started going out into the community and talking to folks about it. … People I’d known for years through racing. They all said just let us know when you’re ready for us to help. It was really cool. You race with somebody every week, then something like this enters the scene and their attention just shifts. People said, “It’s about time that this issue was addressed.”
There is such a lack of diversity in cycling or in any sport that has an economic entry. Cycling, golf, tennis, swimming, you name it; if there’s an initial investment you’re going to have low numbers in diversity. Then you start to peel back the layers of why that is. It’s the bigger conversation and it’s what we’re starting to do here at Cascade. The effort went from existing in the small Major Taylor program to existing throughout the whole organization. Now diversity and inclusion is one of our five values in our strategic vision.
Q. How does the project work?
A. We looked at where we could affect change right away and decided to start at the high school level where there were existing touchstones in the community. We said, “Let’s work with youth. Let’s use free and reduced lunch figures to determine where we can best affect change.”
We started with two schools. Our curriculum was riding one day per week for two to three hours from March to the end of the school year. Over the past six years we’ve built out the curriculum. At one particular high school, the Major Taylor Project is so popular students ride twice a week. Mondays they’re at capacity and there were enough students to create a second day of riding. There are over 40 students enrolled in that one program.
When we started, the idea of doing the Seattle to Portland ride was just a whim that we threw in front of the students. The first year, we had nine students who were interested, but were also like, “Why would you want to ride your bike to Portland?” We told them it’s a cool experience, you challenge yourself physically and mentally, and you end up in Portland. Some of them had never been past SeaTac [Airport]. We put together a plan, just like a racing training plan. We’re going to go five miles. Then we’re going to go 10, then 15, then 40. This year we have almost 40 students doing STP.
Q. How has the curriculum evolved over the years?
A. The after-school rides was the original program. Then in year three we started Earn-a-Bike. It was a six-week program delivered during the winter. We wanted to make [Major Taylor] a year-round effort. Students learn how to work on bikes for six weeks, build their mechanic skills, then get a chance to earn the bike. We give them a helmet and a lock and a set of lights.
The third phase grew from a debrief with the students. We asked them what they wanted to do next, what they like about bike club — they call the Major Taylor Project “bike club” on campus. They asked, “Can we use the bikes to raise money?” I said tell me about that.
“Well, maybe we could do some sort of bike-a-thon to raise money and create a scholarship for kids going to college.”
Well what would you need money for?
“Books. A laptop. Lunch money.”
From there it led to, “Could the bike help me get into college? Could the bike help me find a job?”
Q. And that helped shape the program?
A. It just flooded. One kid raised his hand and said, “I like doing the rides. But man, there are a lot of white people out there. It seems like when we go outside of our neighborhood people don’t look like us.”
I asked them if they knew why that is and they said no. Thank goodness one of our ride leaders does a lot of work with youth transformation and empowerment around race and equity. He broke down the redlining of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, and the geographic differences. And he explored that out, asking the students what else they notice when they ride to [the whiter, more affluent neighborhoods of] Ballard or Redmond or Alki Beach. The students pointed out those communities have grocery stores, bike lanes, nice roads, libraries, Starbucks. Everyone has nice bikes.
We asked them how that’s different than their communities. “Well, we have 7-11s, we have the corner store. We have people hanging out doing nothing. We don’t have bike lanes. We have potholes. We have a jail. We have payday loans. But we don’t have a grocery store.”
After that, this ride leader suggested we create a retreat to debrief and unpack that stuff with the students. It’s our responsibility, if we are going to go to these communities, to educate the students along the way.
Now we do the Youth Leadership Retreat every year. We pull five or six students from each club so we have 20 to 25 students for the weekend. We talk about leadership, personal power, race, diversity, food justice, equity, social justice. We always relate it back to the bike and how the bike affects each of those areas. They slowly start to unpack this stuff themselves. It led to the fourth phase of the project, having these conversations as a daily part of bike club.
Q. Tell me about your background in riding and racing.
A. My family grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Minneapolis. … Being African American and living in an African American community in the early ’50s and ’60s in Minneapolis, riding a bike just wasn’t something people did. But it was something my mom and dad loved to do. It was good exercise, a good way to see the community, and it was just fun.
My dad rode to work everyday when there wasn’t snow on the ground. I started riding with him. When I was old enough, they bought me my own 10-speed. I would ride and noticed there were guys out there with these cool wool shorts and wool jerseys on these cool bikes riding really fast and I was keeping up with them.
Then I saw a five-minute episode of the Wild World of Sports that showed this guy Greg LeMond in a race that lasted three weeks in France. I was like, “Oh my god, what is that?” … I was hooked. Everything about it — the shoes, the socks, the jerseys, the bikes, the way they looked on the bikes — that’s what I really wanted to do. I entered my first bike race and just loved it. After that I wanted to join a team.
Q. What was it like racing in Minneapolis in the ’80s?
A. The two big teams in Minneapolis were Kenwood Cyclery and Flanders Brothers. I had to get a racing bike and my dad said, “Ed, if you want to race and you’re serious about this, I’ll help you buy it.” The day he saw that drive in me, we were watching the ‘84 Olympics and Nelson Vails was winning the silver.
The day after we got my racing bike I went to Kenwood Cyclery for their Saturday morning training ride. I rolled up and it was just these really fit guys. All tan, all on brand new Bianchis, with their cycling caps perched on their head that certain way people did back then. These guys were cool. I just said, “Hey I’m Ed, is there a training ride?”
Out of 10 guys, maybe two talked to me. There was an older guy, about 6’4”. You could see every vein on his leg. He had an awesome handlebar mustache. You could tell this guy was legit. Every training ride he would give me a new tip: “Here’s how you want to ride over railroad tracks. Here’s what’s coming up with these city limit sprints. Watch and learn from the pack.”
That first training ride was 85 miles and I didn’t bring any food. But I didn’t tell anyone I was bonking. I got back to my parents place and they were on the back deck. I rolled in and just fell over. I woke up and my mom was standing over me and was like, “You alright, babe? I’ll get you some water.” My parents just saw that determination in me and fully supported it. I can’t remember a bike race my dad wasn’t at.
I raced all through college in Wisconsin and back in Minneapolis. I moved out to Seattle in 1988 for a job. I put bike racing away for a couple years, but came back. I joined a team out here and got heavily involved. In the mid-’90s I met Terry Buchanan and George Gibbs at the old shop on Lake Washington, Il Vecchio. They started the team that became Broadmark. Broadmark split and became Hagens and Carter. Then Carter morphed into Lenovo, which morphed into Audi. I’ve got a closet full of Broadmark, Lenovo, and Audi crap.
Q. I love the details, the handlebar mustache, the veiny legs.
A. I have such vivid memories. I remember the people who treated me well. And I remember the people who didn’t treat me well. A lot of that was based on race. You show up and you are doing a nontraditional sport, ignoring stereotypes. Some people don’t bat an eye at that. For other people it’s a big challenge for them mentally. Some people will get past it. Some won’t. They don’t like to see it. It makes them uncomfortable.
But it’s not my job to make them comfortable. My parents didn’t raise my brother and I that way. And that’s the essence of Major Taylor: to help position these students for success in their life through our passion: bikes.
Even today it’s still there. You have a lot of African American bike racers like Rahsaan Bahati, Giddeon Massie, they have the same stories. I remember the first time I went and did the Boise Twilight Crit. A lot of people were like “Hey man, can you tell me about your story?” And there were others yelling every racial epithet they could think of. You don’t accept it. But you understand it, anticipate it, navigate through it, and be successful in spite of it.
You can read a longer version of this interview on the Bicycle Story here.
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