Telling it like it is: A conversation with Elijah Shabazz

Elijah has, as he will tell you, “been around.” With more than fifty local race wins and two state titles over a career that spans close to twenty-five years, if you’ve ridden or trained competitively in Los Angeles you have most certainly run across Elijah Shabazz.

Good-natured, competitive, friendly, and never afraid to speak his mind, Elijah is one person in the LA-area peloton who will call bullshit when he sees it. I’ve known him for years and reached out to him to see if he’d be willing to do an interview. He graciously agreed.

Seth Davidson: When did you start cycling?

Elijah Shabazz: I started in 1997 at the age of 14. I’m 38 now.

Seth Davidson: What got you into cycling?

Elijah Shabazz: I was getting into trouble in my early teens and a guy from the neighborhood introduced me to Rahsaan Bahati and he introduced me to David Pulliam. They got me my first bike and I’ve been going ever since.

Seth Davidson: When did you start racing?

Elijah Shabazz: When I was a junior. I raced extensively locally, I’ve won 50 races, and two state titles when I was young, but now I’m a regular old masters enjoying the scene, nothing serious.

Seth Davidson: How long have you been doing the competitive group rides in LA?

Elijah Shabazz: I’ve been doing them since about 1998 back when NPR was called the Morning Ride, and Montrose, and the Donut when it was a different route.

Seth Davidson: What is your favorite ride?

Elijah Shabazz: My all time favorite is still Montrose. I did it yesterday. Not that much climbing, I love racing down the street with 40-50 people, I love it.

Seth Davidson: Can you describe the ride?

Elijah Shabazz: The Montrose Ride is in Pasadena and it goes around there and the San Gabriel Valley. There is a long and short group, 45 miles and 35 miles, and the long loop is about 2,100 feet of climbing and the short route is about 1,500 and a little less. It’s been around since before I was around.

Seth Davidson: Are there many African-Americans on the ride?

Elijah Shabazz: Basically, per every twenty people there’s one black person. So no, not really. Recently they had an influx of black people since the covid came and they’ve been calling themselves covid riders, about twenty new black riders. It’s nice to see everybody’s getting on bikes.

Seth Davidson: How are relations between whites and blacks on NPR? [New Pier Ride is a regular Tuesday/Thursday ride on Westchester Parkway, fast and competitive.]

Elijah Shabazz: The relationship seems cool, everyone knows each other, so they’re normally pretty good. Personally I’ve heard a lot of smaller talk but I’ve never seen anything personally racist towards anybody and I’ve never heard anything racist either.

Seth Davidson: What is the general attitude towards black people showing up on a ride that is mostly white?

Elijah Shabazz: I’d say that since I’ve been around a long time the vibe is always cool to me, it’s inviting, they speak to you, I never see anything really negative especially with the rising of a lot of strong black athletes like the Williams brothers, Charon, Rahsaan, they’ve helped us earn respect in the peloton, they know we’ve got the racing, sprinting aspect of cycling covered.

Seth Davidson: What is the general attitude towards white people showing up on a ride that is mostly black?

Elijah Shabazz: We’ve had that a lot and honestly, it’s okay, we all like to blend in, on certain rides like Black Lives Matter ride and the MLK ride I personally like to keep it within one mixture of people, everyone has their own thing and culture, so it’s like me bombarding a Jewish ride on Rosh Hashana, I personally feel like I shouldn’t be there. An all brothers ride like the MLK ride, unless people are invited I feel like it’s for certain people. But we’ve had rides with other people, Movement Ride and such, and we’ve accepted other people and no one was ostracized, we’re all cyclists and under one umbrella. We want to keep it fair for everybody.

Seth Davidson: Have you witnessed or experienced racism in bike racing?

Elijah Shabazz: I can say that I’ve seen things personally where I thought it was racism or it was because a person was black, but it wasn’t directly said, but certain situations were taken away from people or magnified because they were black and it would have been different if it had been another race.

Seth Davidson: Do you consider yourself more outspoken than other black riders?

Elijah Shabazz: Absolutely, I have a lot of times where people will pull me to the side or tell me straight up, “You say what’s on everyone’s mind.” People appreciate me being me. People don’t always have the heart to say it and they really appreciate it, me being myself.

Seth Davidson: Would the situation be better if more people were like you?

Elijah Shabazz: It would make lines of communication clear, people wouldn’t be so frustrated, so you can get things off your chest. When I speak my mind I feel better because I didn’t hold it in and let it build up like a volcano. Like people going postal. I don’t have anything serious or violent in me because I address it then and go about my business. I let you know how I feel right then and I leave it at that rather than something going on over the years and turning into a fistfight. Life shouldn’t have fistfights and conflict, you should get it out at that very moment.

Seth Davidson: What needs to be done to get more black kids into the sport?

Elijah Shabazz: Honestly, they need more money, for one. Cycling is very expensive. I tell people cycling is so hard and so expensive you have to love it to do it. A lot of kids would get the opportunity if it happened when they were younger but I’ve realized how expensive it is, if my son wanted to do it, to get the top equipment, it’s crazy. The Specialized push-bike, carbon fiber, was $1,000 for a 3-year-old to ride for six months. Rahsaan, Justin, they do things where their sponsors donate bikes to kids, a stepping stone to get kids to ride. So many people say that cycling makes them feel free. But when they see the prices they back out. It takes a lot of riding and a lot of money. So it would really be the price points. A lot of people would do it more if it were cheaper. It deters a lot of people from actively getting into the sport. And also, when I was racing years ago, every race had 50-60 people, and kids had thirty racers at least. Racing was cheaper back then. The general consensus is that cycling is expensive and dangerous, and it’s gotten so expensive over the years, $50 for the first race $20 for the second, travel, food, the riders can afford the bike and wheels but I can’t afford $150 every week and risk crashing. Numbers have gone down and it’s a domino effect because promoters don’t give out quality prizes and money because they don’t have the attendance. I don’t care about a box of Clif bars. I’d rather have a medal and a jersey, something I can show my son even if it’s local. My son sees stuff like that he might be motivated to achieve things in life. Nobody cares about a box of Clif bars that expired three months ago. I don’t care about the money, I’d care about trophies, medals, jerseys that my son could see. I can buy gels off Amazon and get the flavor I want and it’s not out of date and I’m good. It’s not rocket science. Races used to be full, family events, nowadays nobody goes, the morale is down, and it’s not cheap enough to do. It shouldn’t be $75 to race two races.

Seth Davidson: What do white people need to know about racism?

Elijah Shabazz: The movement with Black Lives Matter and a lot of white people that jumped on or came down to the protests and did the ride and have been pushing for BLM, they’re not doing it for the hype or because it’s in style and I think they have to keep pushing that awareness to people who aren’t aware. White people have come to me and said, “I was racist and didn’t like black people but have learned through cycling that we’re all the same.” That shows a lot. Those type of people I respect more, they have the balls to admit they are learning. That’s important. People in California are diverse and they look outside the box more than the Bible Belt. Same for racism in cycling in different states. Here they’re a little more understanding and free, not as bad as Middle America or the South.

Seth Davidson: How does racism harm the cycling community?

Elijah Shabazz: Since the community is so small, we should all be together in life, but because we’re so small you have to figure like if I’m on the road by myself at 6:00 AM and two white guys who don’t like black people ride by and I’ve got a flat they’re going to ride by and leave me, which shouldn’t happen. You see someone on the side of the road you should wave and check in on people. It takes all of us. I’ve had times in cycling where people have asked me, “How can you afford this stuff?” What kind of question is that? Is it because I’m black? I have a good job and can afford it. We have to all be together.

Seth Davidson: Have you ever gotten in a confrontation with a white cyclist and been defended by other white people?

Elijah Shabazz: Yes. Plenty of times. I don’t want to say the guy’s or lady’s name who always come to my defense, but I don’t know if they do it privately to keep their names cool or in the loop or if they don’t want any problems. When something happens I speak my mind, I have people who always hit me up and say you weren’t wrong it’s okay. It’s not as genuine as if they would squash the situation. In a group the adrenaline is up, one thing happens, it’s a yelling fest. I need those people, anybody, to step up and say “Let’s chill. Relax. Let’s ride our bikes.” That’s more important, to address it right there in front of everybody.

Seth Davidson: What do you think about white people calling up certain black people to complain about a black person they have conflict with?

Elijah Shabazz: I took a break from cycling and when I came back people were telling me what to do and I was like man, I been around, so you got to give me more respect. I had a lot of confrontations and people would reach out to Rahsaan. I’ve known him since I was a kid but he’s not my father. I’m grown, right? They need to come talk to me. What is he, the liaison for the black community? I’m not the liaison for the black community. You talk to people individually, and with social media, Strava, if I get into it, I can find Strava, contact them personally and apologize. I don’t need to go through anybody. What would I need to go through you or someone else? Nowadays people do that. In the past year I haven’t had too much confrontation lately and it’s gotten better. I’m getting older. I just want to ride my bike, go home, and take care of my child. Now I don’t always tell people when they’re wrong and just leave it alone. It’s more peaceful for myself.

Seth Davidson: What do white people need to know about Black History Month?

Elijah Shabazz: White people need to know that black history was around way before slavery, people need to understand that we are just different people. We enjoy more flamboyant stuff, we come from African royalty because it’s in our lineage. People will see our flash and stuff like that and personally say things about Justin, for example, “They’re too flashy,” you gotta understand I’m not on your side on that. I knew his dad for years. They’re enjoying the moment, that’s in their culture to be that way, to be fly, and our history isn’t just a month, it’s all year, people create black history every day. We celebrate everybody else’s history too, Cinco de Mayo, I have Jewish friends, everyone’s history needs to be celebrated all the time.

Seth Davidson: Did George Floyd affect white-black relations in cycling?

Elijah Shabazz: It opened the door for everything. I saw a lot of people who never said much about anything come out and really represent, and really it was sad, but a lot of white people said, “Enough is enough,” but I say “Enough has been enough for a long time. But keep it up when it’s not trendy.” I don’t knock people for learning but I took it for what it is, we been pushing for a long time and I’m glad you finally showed up. Everyone doesn’t get good at the same time, just like in cycling, and I’m glad some people are stepping up, at least you finally came with it now. You have to see the glass is half-full, even if it was only last year that they realized it.

Seth Davidson: Whites often say, “I don’t see color.” What do you think of that?

Elijah Shabazz: Prove it. There’s a lot of racism that happens because they’ve never been discriminated against, that’s fine. Prove it, don’t just put it on a t-shirt. You have to live it and push through with it and be down with the struggle and in the trenches with us fighting for black rights and for all human rights. That will show me that you don’t see color.

Seth Davidson: Whites often say, “I didn’t invite any black people because I don’t know any.” What do you think of that?

Elijah Shabazz: At this point you should know everybody in cycling. Charon, Rahsaan, Justin, so many blacks in racing and riding and hanging out and working at bike shops. That’s an excuse. If you’re friends with someone, you have a certain group of people, there are black people in every club. I was in LaGrange for a year and I got invited to everything, so I think it’s just an excuse.

Seth Davidson: Have relations improved over your lifetime or worsened?

Elijah Shabazz: I think they’re pretty much the same. Racism has always existed, you’ve always had people who didn’t like blacks, people who fought for blacks, and blacks being misunderstood, which is about 90% of the time. Now people can express themselves better because of social media. It’s for the world to see. Like I said, you can post it but you have to live it. It’s like having all the bike stuff and not going and doing the rides. That’s the same as posting #BLM on social media, you have to live it.

Seth Davidson: You were recently on the cover of Cycling Tips. Tell me about that photo.

Elijah Shabazz: I did a photo shoot with them. Alonso Tal, a well-known African-American photographer, and when Cycling Tips had shoots available, he sent headshots and they asked for me. I have the look for cycling and I don’t have any ties to any sponsors where it’s a conflict of interest, for example I ride for one team so I can’t model someone else’s bike. I can cycle model for anyone. Alonso hit me up, we went up Highway 2 for about four hours and did a bunch of pictures, stills, drone shots. He’s very creative, one of the best creative minds I’ve ever seen.

Seth Davidson: Do you want this to continue?

Elijah Shabazz: It’s not a big goal of mine, but if people call me to do it and it fits my schedule, I’ll do it. I’m not trying to be a model, it’s just a side hustle and if it helps Alonso out then I’ll do it.

Seth Davidson: Thanks, Elijah.

Elijah Shabazz: You’re welcome.

END

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8 thoughts on “Telling it like it is: A conversation with Elijah Shabazz”

  1. I really like the way Elijah thinks, talks, and probably acts (since I’ve never seen him). He’s real and we white people would do well to be as real as he is. Please let him know, we’re working on it. I can tell he sees that in some of us and that’s encouraging.

    Good interview, Seth!

  2. He’s more than a pretty face!…I’ve known Elijah since he first started riding…in ’98…i started cycling in ’97, at 35…and he was 14, talking trash to us “old guys”…he’s always been fast and “flashy” which i love…we need some flash in this world! Elijah is one of those guys i wish i could spend more time with. Thanks for the story Seth. Personally, i see color, and kinda feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t!…

  3. “Now people can express themselves better because of social media”. Do people express themselves better, or simply more? I find that the written word doesn’t always express what I am feeling, and that sometimes what I write isn’t what is being read. Of course, I get Elijah is trying to imply here. Another good interview, with very good and thought provoking (for us whiteys out here) questions.

  4. The one theme that keeps coming across in your posts this month is cost. For a whole host of reasons, we live in an economic environment that makes certain sports beyond the reach of teens, and even young adults, who have modest economic ability to “invest” in this sport. A soccer league for my 13 year old son cost me about $500 – uniform, fees, and all. Multiply that for ten years and it’s still affordable….NOT true with the current state of bicycle racing. A great idea proposed in the Bay Area was to strictly limit the type of bikes, not to level the field (the good cyclist/athlete will always win out)… but to allow for more economic inclusion and eliminate the techno weenie virus that infects so many, and which serves as a barrier to entry for many. Ideas?

  5. Thanks Trilla_e for driving the message “don’t tell me show me”

    I spoke on a BLM panel last year hosted by a local club when it was all in vogue for white people to make an attempt to care, whilst I don’t discount the effort the effort went absolutely nowhere. So was it lip service, show me it wasn’t. To this day I ride around this west side and everything feels same, same attitude from the usual suspects. Why do I have to ride in the valley to feel welcomed, I bet if you were to ask Elijah some of the other reasons why he’s loves Montrose he’ll tell you because of the diversity. Why go where your not embraced and encouraged! This elitist attitude around here is like poison and it’s most prevalent around here; why is that???? I think you know that answer if your truthful with yourself.

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