Black history: Methods to Winning, LLC

February 7, 2021 § 8 Comments

Methods to Winning, LLC, is one of the first bike racing teams in the world founded by blacks for the promotion of blacks in cycling. I called up one of the four founders, Ken Vinson, and talked with him about MTW.

Seth Davidson: What was the motivation for founding Methods to Winning?

Ken Vinson: Our motivation was to have representation in the telling of the story of our athletes, Rahsaan Bahati, Justin Williams, Cory Williams, and Charon Smith. It was unique because we had someone from each generation. 20s, 30s, 40’s, and 50s. That’s a lot of cycling history and there’s a lot to delve into.

Seth: What is Methods to Winning?

Ken: It’s what I perceived to be three of the top African-American cyclists that were around when I came into the sport. They were operating on three separate islands and I talked to them about the leverage of unity and coming together in telling our story and in order to negotiate better endorsements, to attack the industry as a single sum of riders as opposed to as individuals. We came together for that purpose, to try and work together, to have unity and leverage with the purpose of representation in a sport where we have always felt like raisins in milk, and to show the younger generation that there are people in cycling who look like you and that you can do this, too.

Seth: What do mean by tell the story?

Ken: Typically when you are the first at something, or alone, the experiences that one can have that are different from everyone else. Rahsaan being the first black kid from an African-American family with an African-American upbringing in a completely white sport. Something as simple as music, something as simple as “How do I communicate that I like this and not be ostracized because I like something different and be deemed ‘not a team player’?” Those things were important. The other thing was to be able to show kids that this is an alternative to what’s commonly perceived in the inner city. Basketball, football, track and field, rap, and drugs. Here’s a sport that you can do, that we have the ability for if we can get over the cost barriers, and there are people already in it who look like you with your background. Methods to Winning was a way to figure out how to operate within a community that had none of us in there. For me, I saw Rahsaan like Nelson Vails, a pioneer. And of course we always heard the criticism that “You don’t ride in the Tour,” but people don’t understand that they experienced culture shock, ostracism, and no means of communication, that existing processes didn’t work well in Europe, understanding and integrating different cultures.

Seth: What is significant about telling “your” story?

Ken: We’re looking for opportunities to be the ones sharing our story through various media. As you know with our bike racing movie project, “Chocolate Rockets,” the story was getting hijacked. With a story it’s either us telling it from our experiences and pespectives vs. a white person telling us how they perceive our experience. I don’t need you to tell me how you perceive my experience; I can tell you exactly what the hell I experienced, ok? That’s important because with a person telling their own story, if the listener wants to hear them and provide the platform, we can provide the nuance, the detail, the motivations, the hopes and dreams vs. what you perceived it to be. That is dramatically important to us, and Methods to Winning was planned so that Justin and Cory and the younger guys could go off to attack the pro arena; now they have a UCI-registered Pro Continental team. We’re trying to tell our story and create an environment that benefits everyone, we’re trying to give the sport a cool factor to attract people who come from where we come from. Baseball among blacks was deemed slow, hot, and played in the summer, so not many blacks comparatively go into the sport. Cycling has those appearance issues, you have to wear tights for example, we have to get over some things to make it cool. Justin and Cory, starting with Rahsaan, put their flair on clothes and bikes, changing the environment around the races and events. If you let us lead, this is what we can do.

Seth: What was the initial reaction to the formation of Methods to Winning?

Ken: Someone sent an email saying “How arrogant for you to say that you know how win.” I responded, “Well, these guys have won quite a few races, I think they know a thing or two about winning.” But I was pretty hot at first.

Seth: Would that have happened if you’d had a white team made up of riders with as many wins under their belt?

Ken: No. The perception is that when blacks come together it is to exclude everyone else. That’s never been the case. You can look at any movement, MLK, even Malcolm X, who turned the corner and was more inviting of people who wanted to see good for everyone. Coming together means elevating ourselves but not at the exclusion of you. The perception is exclusion and an attack on white people. Not all whites feel that way but some do. Our teams have always been diverse, we have done that on purpose. There was one time early on when we talked about having a team of black riders only but we were shooting it down as we talked it through. That’s not who we are. We wanted talent but talent doesn’t know any one color. The reception of Methods to Winning has been okay but we’ve had issues. You try and help sponsors shine with social media content showing the products you receive, but even so with that we got a lot of negative comments from accepting sponsored high end bikes/shoes/clothing because of the pricing, of Rapha clothing, for example. They expected us to affect the pricing. We still get that today.

Seth: Why is Lance not expected to decrease the cost of Nike shoes and Justin is?

Ken: It’s perceived that we came from nothing and now we have to lower the prices for everyone.

Seth: What about Steph Curry? Same expecations?

Ken: No. These things are perceived as cool but no one expects these guys to lower the price.

Seth: Why is Justin being criticized, then?

Ken: Short of racism, I don’t know. Since George Floyd, in trying to understand things in the era of Trump, there is a lot of subliminal privilege that people don’t understand they have, implicit biases they don’t know they have, and Trump touched on and brought those out of people and that plays a part in people seeing these guys get all this product that, in their view, they may not have “earned.”

Seth: How does Methods to Winning play in with Black History Month?

Seth: It seems like there’s a double standard. Black rides are denied the opportunity to ride during that tiny window of opportunity you have to groom a Pro Tour rider, and then when the door is shut, they’re criticized for never riding in the Tour, for only riding “domestic US races.”

Ken: Since Major Taylor, one of the things we’ve done through the Bahati Foundation is identify a chronology of cyclists of color. There was Major Taylor, there were some black women who did the first major group rides back in 1929, rode 250 miles, then there was Nelson Vails. We’ve been trying to identify riders of color up through Rahsaan. He wasn’t in the world tour but if he’d had the support and resources, could he have been? If he’d had the resources, where would he have been? And for Methods to Winning, if we can get the support and resources, where can we go? That ties in with Black History Month, if we can get equal support, equal laws, equal equal equal, where can we go? We make the sport better. As human beings we enhance the world if we have a fair opportunity.

Ken There’s a video of Justin talking about being in Europe and always being viewed as angry. You’re correct.

Seth: Where is Methods to Winning on its trajectory?

Ken: We said that in 3-5 years we wanted to use contacts first between Charon Smith, Rahsaan Bahati, and Justin Williams, and then with Cory Williams and the Nsek brothers. We started an academy team to identify young talent to fill the gap so that when they don’t cycle out of the training scene at 18/19 because they have nowhere to go. Imeh Nsek was the first rider, and through Rahsaan’s contacts we got him signed with the Arola cycling team in Europe, but then his father died and he returned to the the US. While there he won races. The next rider was through our activities at the Eldo race series, Nigel Desota. His pro contract with Nordisk came through Methods to Winning. He’s in his thirrd year as a pro and doing exceptionally well. Given the opportunity we can have success. The other thing was to go out and find sponsors through Rahsaan and Zwift. Justin formed Legion LA and got the funding to really do what we think the next step is: Produce a team on the Pro Conti level with the goal of seeing talent get picked up by World Tour teams. In 2021 we have an elite pro team with a UCI license, and of course we have the old farts racing around here doing masters racing. Our next step is to try and get the talent on the Pro Conti team seen, and maybe on the World Tour, while putting on events that we’d like to see, events where some of the major world talent will fly here to race. We have dreams.

Seth: How are you adapting to covid?

Ken: Lots of Zwifting and riding in smaller groups. Individual training has continued because of our work ethic. We’re excited to come out of covid and show what we can do if we have the opportunity to race.

Seth: There’s been a big shift from USA Cycling to BWR-type mixed racing events. How will Methods to Winning react?

Ken: The Belgian Waffle Ride is unique and an excellent opportunity to expose hackers to pro riders. Like our MVMNT rides where the fast guys ride with the slow guys. When I was at the BWR, after the ride everyone mingled. Those events are huge and we’re building a relationship with Michael Marckx on Circle of Doom. BWR is legitimate, good, and here to stay. For Methods to Winning, we have people who are now doing more MTB, ‘cross, and that’s through Ama and Imeh Nsek via Imperium Coaching. Ama won the BWR’s Wafer ride a couple of years ago.

Seth: What are Methods to Winning’s plans for 2021?

Ken: Race-wise we are trying to figure out a way to focus on the academy team to develop a diverse group of talent. It has been a challenge to find 18/19 year-olds, and we’ve started thinking about reaching an even younger audience. That’s why we’re working closely with the Bahati Foundation to plant the seeds to sprout the talent. We’ve thought about developing a pump track where kids can ride their bikes and get familiar with bike sports at a much earlier age. Of course in 2021 we’ll have a masters team and continue to try and put on events, including the Eldo race series if Long Beach City will permit it. We suffered a fatality at the end of 2019 and then with covid we’re hoping the city will permit the event for 2021, pushing back the start until late April or possibly May. It depends on covid and the racing calendar. We’re also looking into races at the velodrome, as well as e-racing on Zwift. We’re not sure what the world is going to allow; covid is with us for the foreseeable future.

Seth: Do you think there are structural racial barriers to achieving your goals?

Ken: I’d like to see us with more of a voice in the licensing body. USAC has contracted with EF Cycling to visit historically black colleges to recruit new riders of color. Really? We already have Nelson Vails, Rahsaan, Cory, Justin, Charon, Ayesha, Tanile, why isn’t USAC finding the top African-American talent and asking them to come speak to these crowds? We’ve been contacted by no one. Again, it’s USAC saying to blacks, “We want to tell you how to do it,” rather than having someone who looks like these kids and has the same background as these kids going out there and talking with them. We can do the job far better than they ever could. USAC got Reggie Miller as a spokesperson, but he’s a name from the NBA. Why wouldn’t you get Nelson Vails or a top African-American cyclist? Those things present challenges.

Seth: Does Methods to Winning face racial issues that white teams don’t face?

Ken: Here’s a scenario. There aren’t a lot of blacks in the local LA sport cycling scene. So you have a black guy who is vocal, perhaps there is an argument, and because there are only a few of us, whites assume that the few blacks they know are the moderators for everybody else who is black. We deal with that, being lumped together, and it doesn’t feel very good. If I have an issue with a white person I don’t have a white godfather to go to, and there’s no black godfather. White guy has a problem with a black guy, work it out with him. You’re both adults. What does it have to do with me?

Seth: Do you think that 2020 has affected race relations in the cycling community?

Ken: At first blush yes because I believe that if you can change one person then that’s a bonus. Some people only count change if the number is larger than one but in my personal experience there are several people who sought me out and we had frank and difficult conversations. President Trump motivated and brought an undercurrent to the forefront and that forced a lot of people to have conversations, facing the divide in the road or the elephant in the room. 2020 has opened communications that didn’t exist before, or it has made them more truthful.

Seth: What is it about Ken Vinson that makes Methods to Winning such a mission?

Ken: I was born in 1966 and am a child of the teachings of diversity and multiculturalism, that diversity strengthens us. I grew up with parents who taught us to hold our heads high and be proud of ourselves. Look past the people who treat you poorly to those who don’t. My high school was predominantly black, my college was mostly white, and those experiences were studies in diversity. Then I spent 26 years working in multi-level marketing and that forced me to interact with everyone. I appreciate people and believe in diversity and multiculturalism. I think we are stronger together and we need to be able to listen. An example is law enforcement. You see how whites are treated by law enforcement and a completely different outcome derives with people of color. That is just one thing that reflects that we have to listen and talk among each other, which in my opinion means white people listening to us and believing what we’re saying. In a lot of cop encounters we end up dead. The last four years we had someone who said “American First” at the exclusion of diversity and multiculturalism, it spoke to white people who felt threatened. MAGA spoke to us as exclusion whereas we seek to use the platform of cycling by taking prominent African-American cyclists and using their notoriety for social engagement that benefits cycling and our communities as a whole. MVMNT rides where people pedal through communities they’ve only seen on the news. Cycling interaction, people breaking bread, the All Clubs BBQ, everything we do at MTW is to try to bring people together.

Seth: Thanks, Ken!

Ken: My pleasure.

END

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Whites know best

November 13, 2020 § 8 Comments

A friend sent me to a link to this story about diversity in cycling.

The title said it all, “US cycling powers are hoping to create change with a focus on diversity.”

The words were predictive of the story. “US cycling powers” immediately contrasts with something, of course, and that would be the “powerless.” Read a different way, white cyclists are going to fix things up for black ones. Black cyclists will be passive recipients of what white cyclists, who know better anyway, are going to do for them.

Blacks might be skeptical about what the “US cycling powers” have in store. I was skeptical and I’m not even black. One thing that immediately bothered was the word “hoping.” As a good friend who has tried more than 200 cases, most to victory, told me: “Hope is a weak word.”

It’s certainly not a plan, or a mission statement, or anything that Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Maya Angelou, Earvin Johnson, Henry Aaron, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Barbara Jordan, or John Lewis ever built a plan around.

They built plans around goals and commitment to success. They might have had hope, indeed, they were incredible purveyors of it, but it’s not what got shit done. Hope is what you build your spirit around. It’s not what drives execution.

But rather than dash hastily out to get myself a conclusion at Target or TJ Maxx, I did what probably seems weird to a lot of people. I asked an actual black cyclist what he thought about this “initiative” before making up my mind on an issue that affects, you know, black cyclists.

Ken Vinson has had his pulse on racism and cycling for a while, and has been instrumental in putting together Methods to Winning, an amateur bike racing team that is anchored around marquis black riders but that is also diverse in its inclusion of others as well. He understands better than any white person out there what the difficulties are in recruiting black riders, in bringing bike racing out of the purview of “white sport” and into the domain of “diverse sport.”

And truth be told, he is far from the only one. Marty Blount, Travis Wilkerson, and so many more … Los Angeles has numerous men and women who have mentored young black riders; Major Motion and the clubs that have grown of it–Major Taylor Cycling, Cali Riders– have a storied history of finding, funding, developing, and building cycling in the black community. Blacks have been racing and winning at bike racing since the sport was invented; no one has ever come close to surpassing the exploits of Marshal “Major” Taylor. Local cyclists have worked for decades to expand cycling in black communities; the only people who have recently “discovered the need” for “outreach” and “diversity” are … of course … whites. And predictably, they’ve selected white people to go lecture blacks about diversity.

So I reached out to Ken, and here’s what he had to say:

As for the this article, frankly, the telling of our stories, the build out or development and reaching of students and potential athletes, especially at HBCU’s being done by non athletes of color or representatives doesn’t even qualify as window dressing.

I can’t even imagine why a Justin, Rahsaan, Cory or Charon are not contacted in these situations. I can tell you this without doubt–we could rise the excitement and interest quicker than anyone from USAC or EF.

USAC & EF fail to understand the power of representation and there is NO excuse for that especially NOW.

Email exchange, 2020

This response hit me hard because I realized how completely I had failed to understand the real racism of the situation. My first reaction had simply been one of skepticism, doubting that USAC and EF were sincere. After all, both organizations have a long history of completely ignoring diversity, and with USAC, of overt racism.

But Ken’s response made me think a lot more deeply. This really was a matter, again, of white voices silencing black voices, of white “powerful” people telling the story of blacks to blacks and replacing the words of those who have long been stripped of their ability to speak.

And I thought, “Ken’s words are powerful. I have a blog. Set those black words down here and let people read the real voice of a black cyclist rather than imagining, perverting, supplanting, or twisting those voices.”

Then I thought about arrogance.

How arrogant would you have to be to think that you, a white bike racer, could talk more about the challenges of bike racing than a black racer could, especially when the audience is … blacks? Put another way, how would a Jewish kid feel about having a bible-thumping Baptist come to his synagogue and talk to him about the historic challenges Jews have faced trying to overcome global anti-semitism?

Or how would an all-white high school in a small Texas town in the Panhandle feel about having a black professor from an urban university in New York come and talk about the challenges that small rural high school graduates face in big-city colleges … especially when that high school had numerous graduates from their school doing exactly that?

Think of how little credibility those people would have in front of their audiences.

And then think of how fired up the students at a black college would be at listening to the stories of Rahsaan Bahati, Justin and Corey Williams, or Charon Smith as they, black athletes in a white sport, talked about how much success blacks can have and have had as bike racers. Isn’t the point to inspire black athletes to race bikes? To give them real examples of world-beaters, people who took on all comers and won? Then why wouldn’t you choose a black ambassador, especially when fantastic ones are RIGHT THERE?

I went to a talk one evening at Rapha in Santa Monica at the unveiling of the new Nelson Vails kit, and got to listen to Rahsaan and Justin talk about the days of Rock Racing.

It was exciting, riveting, amazing stuff.

But you know what was mind-blowing? Listening to Nelson Vails. That guy has done things that are simply overwhelming. Only black cyclist to ever win an Olympic medal. Only black cyclist to race professionally in keirin in Japan. Only black cyclist to win the professional US track title five times. Oh, and he is a great speaker. Oh, and he was born and raised in the housing projects in Harlem.

What about him? Has USAC forgotten about the only black amateur, and one of the few Americans in history, that USAC ever brought home from the Olympics with a medal?

Then of course it gets you to thinking. Because USAC hasn’t “forgotten” about Vails, and they haven’t “forgotten” about national champions Bahati and Williams. They are explicitly cutting them out, taking away their voice, replacing it with the voice of “the powerful.”

It is not an accident and it is not benign. It is not an oversight. It is part of an entrenched system, a system of racism, that quickly and efficiently adapts to whatever changes blacks demand through activism, law, or struggle.

If USAC and Education Last want to inspire, impress, attract, and motivate black students to get interested in bike racing, they need to reach out and utilize black ambassadors for the job.

Vails, Bahati, the Williams brothers, Smith? They’re only a phone call away. But I’d advise those guys not to clear out their travel schedule just yet.

END

History lesson

April 28, 2019 § 9 Comments

I was standing on a crowded shop floor, cyclists milling as cyclists mill, awkwardly, not sure where to put legs that aren’t positioned on pedals, talking about things that cyclists talk about, falling off bicycle incidents, today’s ride, friendly and familiar but still Cyclist Awkward.

There was a knot of people standing around the burly man in the back and he was holding court; it was his day, he was the king, and surrounding him were the princes of the national amateur cycling scene. In a few minutes he was going to talk.

When Nelson Vails began to speak, everyone shut up and listened. But that doesn’t last long with Nelson because pretty soon he had us laughing, then clapping, then looking on in amazement as he trotted us through a highlight video of his extraordinary life.

It’s a story that anyone who knows anything at all about U.S. cycling has heard repeatedly, but this time it was with the commentary that only Nelson himself can provide. He may be old, he may be long retired, he may not ride more than 20 miles at a pop, but when he glares at you and jokingly says “Sit the wheel!” you stiffen up and only laugh a few seconds later. Passing Nelson in a tight bunch on a velodrome was not for the faint of heart.

The youngest of ten children from a Harlem family, he started racing bikes, became a bike messenger in NYC, attracted the attention of the national team, and rode his way to a silver medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Vails is the first and still the only African-American to have won an Olympic medal in any cycling event, and as he reminds anyone who cares to listen, that’s not going to change anytime soon because “there ain’t nobody in the hopper.”

It’s not a slight to the two dominant African-American racers Justin and Corey Williams, it’s a slight to what Vails still calls “the federation.”

But the point of the evening wasn’t to deliver a rant on the failings of USA Cycling, and Nelson didn’t make it one. The point was to roll out his new clothing line, produced by Rapha, the Nelson Vails Collection. And he was blunt: “The great memories of riding in this kit will remain long after the pain of the price tag has gone.” I bought a jersey and bibs, rode in them the next day, and although they are the best looking, most comfortable bike clothes I own, it’s going to take a few more memories.

What was striking about Nelson’s talk was what he said and what he didn’t say. He didn’t talk about racism and discrimination in cycling, about hurdles he’d had to overcome, about the prejudices baked into such a pristinely white sport as track cycling in the 70s and 80s. Instead, he started his speech with a code word, the invocation of Marshal “Major” Taylor, America’s first and greatest world champion in any sport, before or since.

When African-American cyclists mention Major Taylor, they are telling you something. It’s subtle, and you either get it or you don’t. What they are telling you is that this sport you love and idolize so much, studded with names like Merckx, Hinault, Bartali, Anquetil, and Coppi, was first dominated, controlled, and ruled with invincible legs and will by an African-American named Major Taylor. And he didn’t do it to the adulation of the masses in what was the world’s most popular sport, he did it in the face of hatred and racism that are our American legacy.

Whatever you think about the conquests of your heroes, they pale compared to the achievements of a slightly-built man born in 1878 who became world champion, multi-national champion, and crusher of foreign professionals on their home turf in the face of physical violence, constant abuse, overt racism of every conceivable sort, and, when none of that worked, rule changes that excluded African-Americans from the nation’s cycling organizing body.

Taylor retired at age 32, unable to withstand any longer the punishing racism that was heaped upon him wherever he raced. He died penniless.

What does any of this have to do with the unveiling of the Vails Collection by Rapha? A lot, in fact …

First, by invoking Taylor and saying plainly that as the only African-American to win an Olympic medal in cycling, Vails is continuing in his tradition, it invites us to examine the history of cycling without actually coming out and saying “racism.” What does it mean to continue in the tradition of Taylor? You can’t know that unless you know your history, and once you do, you have to ask yourself why Eddy is your hero instead of Major? And to continue the question, why is it that the most influential and accomplished athlete in what was at the time the biggest competitive sport on earth, cycling, is not part of every rider’s tradition? Why doesn’t every Cat 5 racer know the Taylor story? Why is he not celebrated a thousand times more than Vince Lombardi or Babe Ruth?

The answers are uncomfortable, for some more than others.

Second, by invoking Taylor, Nelson was also pointing to himself. He too had multiple national professional titles, a financially lucrative multi-year career as a keirin racer in Japan and 6-day racer in Europe, and broke ground as Nike’s first ever sponsored cyclist. Flamboyant, fast, and able to deliver the goods on a global stage, where was the enthusiasm in America’s national governing body to discover and develop more young boys and girls from poor communities into the next generation Nelson Vails? Why was the path blazed by Taylor, then re-blazed by Nelson, left so quickly to overgrow with the same weeds and thorns of preconception and prejudice that had matted it for decades?

Third, by invoking Taylor on the sales floor of a high-end clothing store in Santa Monica, Vails was calling attention to a history of a different sort: The first time that a clothing manufacturer with the global, Pro Tour, luxury cachet of Rapha was partnering with a legend of cycling to put African-American prowess in cycling where it belongs: Front and center.

And for me, it was in some ways this third thing that meant the most, simply because the cycling community is so quick to mouth support for diversity, yet often so embarrassingly slow to put its money where its mouth is. Because no amount of hand-holding and nodding in agreement can make up for the fact that the first part of equality has to do with sharing the money–to clap a retired hero like Nelson on the back and tell him how much you admire him? Meh. To partner with him over a year-long process to design and develop a beautiful, comfortable, luxury riding kit that exceeds every standard there is?

Now you’re talking.

I got mine. You should get yours. There are worse things in life than collecting memories.

______________

END

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America’s first sporting superstar

March 1, 2014 § 21 Comments

I was pedaling along, talking to a pair of Cat 5’s about racing. A dude on a fancy bike passed us like we were tied to a stump. “Damn,” I said, “who does he think he is? Major Taylor?”

Stringbean looked at me. “Who’s Major Taylor?” he asked.

I didn’t know what to say, so I thought about it. “Ever heard of Eddy Merckx?” I asked.

Stringbean laughed. “Uh, yeah.”

Stumpy chipped in. “Merckx was the greatest ever. The Cannibal.”

“Why do you think he was the greatest ever?” I asked.

“Dude,” said Stumpy. “He fuggin won it all. He was The Cannibal.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I heard you the first time. So you reckon he was better than Major Taylor?”

“Who’s he?” Stringbean repeated. “Was he better than Merckx?”

“Couldn’t have been,” said Stumpy. “Merckx was The Cannibal.”

“Yeah,” said Stringbean. “Who was Major Taylor? I bet he wasn’t no cannibal.”

Der Sieger schreibt die Geschichte

Among black cyclists, Major Taylor needs no introduction. But for many whites, he’s an ancient name at best, a blank at worst. This is weird because you don’t have to race bikes for long before you hear his name. Although I knew, or thought I knew, the rough outlines of his story, it wasn’t until I read “Major” by Todd Balf that I got an appreciation for the man who was unquestionably America’s first sporting superstar and who, judged by his accomplishments, remains one of the greatest American athletes ever.

Had Taylor been white, his palmares would have been incredible. But dominating the domestic and international competition as a black man in the late 1800’s who faced threats of violence, blatant discrimination, and machinations to keep him from even entering races testifies to a stony will and indomitable competitive lust that makes the accomplishments of Eddy Merckx pale in comparison.

In his prime, Merckx was the undisputed patron of the peloton with a powerful team that protected him and worked tirelessly for his victories. Just as crucially, very little happened without Merckx’s consent. In his prime, Taylor had to fight for every position in every single race, and could look forward to racial epithets and overt discrimination wherever he traveled in the United States.

I thought about all this as I pedaled along with Stumpy and Stringbean. “Boys,” I said, “if you want to know what it means to be a champion, a real one, get yourself a bio of Major Taylor. He wasn’t The Cannibal. He was far tougher than that.”

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USA Cycling’s black eye

April 28, 2013 § 154 Comments

USA Cycling hates black people.

You think that’s an exaggeration? I don’t. And in fact, it’s hardly surprising. African-Americans have been discriminated against in the sport of cycling since its very inception. The greatest American bike racer of all time, and one of the greatest athletes ever, Major Taylor, was a black man. Virtually every race he ever started began and ended with racial epithets, threats of violence, and race hatred of the worst kind.

Cycling’s hatred of black people was global. When Taylor went to Europe and destroyed the best track racers in the world on their home turf, founder of the Tour de France Henri Desgrange, a noted racist, was so incensed that he refused to pay Taylor’s prize money in banknotes and insisted that he be paid in one-centime pieces.

Taylor quit the sport he dominated because he couldn’t take the relentless racial hatred. He died a pauper.

White people succeed, black people are a threat

The history of most major American sports goes like this: White people create the sport and set up the rules so that black people can’t play. African-Americans begin playing in segregated leagues, and they are so good that some white team somewhere decides it would rather risk the wrath of segregationists than keep losing, so it recruits a star black player.

The black player stomps the snot out of the white players, sets records, and generally blows away the competition. All the while he’s doing this, the athlete deals with death threats, constant harassment, segregated facilities, inferior wages, and grudging acceptance.

Finally, other teams begin recruiting blacks, and the African-American becomes much more highly represented in the professional league than he is as a percentage of the population. White people call this integration. Blacks call it having to be ten times better to get a fraction of the wages and benefits of their white counterparts.

Cycling’s no different

Like NASCAR, competitive cycling remains an extremely white sport in the U.S.A. Unlike stock car racers, though, there are tens of thousands of black recreational cyclists. Cities like Los Angeles have large and thriving African-American cycling clubs and riding groups. But when it comes to competition, there are few black racers compared to the number who ride recreationally.

Why?

One reason is likely cost. Unlike baseball, basketball, and football, which either have low equipment costs or are available through the schools, cycling requires kids to purchase expensive equipment that is beyond the reach of most working families.

Another reason is USA Cycling. In addition to having no blacks on its board, the organization does nothing to promote cycling among blacks. To the contrary, it goes out of its way to discourage them and to pass up opportunities to get poor children on bikes.

Remember Nelson Vails?

USA Cycling’s favorite way of passing up opportunities is by ignoring the sport’s black spokesmen. If you started racing in the 1980’s one of the guys you probably admired was Nelson Vails. In addition to his silver medal in the 1984 Olympics, he and Mark Gorski were the dominant track sprinters of their day.

Nowadays Nelson crisscrosses the country marketing his brand of cycling products and participating in “Ride with Nelly” events that bring together black cyclists as well as any others who want to chat and ride with a living legend.

USA Cycling’s interest in working together with Vails, or highlighting his contributions to the sport, or using him as an ambassador to the black community, or working with him to get more inner city kids on bikes? Zero. Vails does it on his own.

Contrast that with the old boy network at USA Cycling, an organization whose board is whiter than a Klansman’s bedsheet, and how it deals with other stars of the 80’s. Jim Ochowicz was head of USA Cycling for four years during Dopestrong’s heyday and as recently as 2012 was saying that Lance Armstrong “earned every victory he’s had” to anyone who would listen.

Mark Gorski worked for USA Cycling as director of corporate development, and Chris Carmichael, another white hero from back in the day, worked for USA Cycling from 1990-1997 as national director of coaching. Carmichael is infamous for the forced injection of drugs into junior national team cyclists, a despicable act that led to litigation and a confidential settlement in 2001.

Nelson Vails? The charismatic, gregarious, friendly Olympic silver medalist who travels year-round promoting cycling all over the USA? Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Why? In my opinion, it’s because he’s black.

Letting black racers know they’re not wanted

This policy of ignoring great black cyclists and turning a blind eye to the development of cycling in the black community isn’t limited to ignoring old heroes. The best black bike racer in cycling today, Rahsaan Bahati, former national champion and perennial force in big national crits, continues to be singled out by USA Cycling because he’s black.

Two years ago Bahati was deliberately crashed out at the Dana Point Grand Prix. The video is breathtaking. After the accident, Bahati slammed his sunglasses to the ground in anger, for which he was fined and suspended. [Update: Readers noted that Bahati actually threw his glasses at the oncoming pack, and later took responsibility for his fine and suspension.]

The rider who crashed him out received no penalty at all, even though the whole thing was on video and is one of the most brazen examples of evil and malicious bike riding you have ever seen. Check the video here if you don’t believe me. Seconds 39-42 are unbelievable, but not as unbelievable as the fact that the rider who got punished was Bahati.

Similarly, at an April race in Florida, a spectator reported Bahati as having caused a crash. USA Cycling suspended him, but not before telling him that he could “appeal” if he paid a $300 fee. As a courtesy, they provided him with the provisional ruling. Hint: After we take your money we’re still going to suspend you. Bahati has now missed three of the most important and potentially lucrative races on his calendar.

Get it? Someone intentionally crashes out the black dude and the black dude gets suspended. Someone reports that the black dude caused a crash, someone not even in the race, and the black dude gets suspended.

Get it? The black dude gets suspended.

The travesty goes beyond the obvious. Bahati is one of the few successful pros of any color who spends significant time and money spreading the cycling gospel. In Milwaukee last year he visited an elementary school to fire up black kids about cycling. USA Cycling, rather than lending a hand, prefers to designate him as Public Enemy.

Race and the local crit

The irony is that black bike racers don’t get into the sport to make a political statement. They do it because they like racing bikes. What’s even more to the point, among local racers in Southern California there’s relatively little racial friction when blacks race with whites, although the Rule of Black still applies: You better be twice as good as your white counterpart if you want their respect.

Respect, of course, is exactly what riders like Justin Williams, Corey Williams, Charon Smith, and Kelly Henderson have earned. Guys like Rome Mubarak in NorCal, and Mike Davis and Pischon Jones in SoCal are just a few of the black bike racers who mix it up in the group rides and races every week, but for every one of them there are a hundred more black cyclists who should be racing and winning.

USA Cycling’s approach to growing the black base? Suspend the most charismatic spokesman and ambassador of fair play in a kangaroo court.

Tell ’em how you feel

If you think that your voice doesn’t matter, you’re right. If you think it does matter, you’re right.

USA Cycling deserves to know that you find its treatment of Bahati and its failure to support black cycling despicable. Email their CEO, Steve Johnson, at sjohnson@usacycling.org with this simple message: “Free Bahati.”

And you can tell him I sent you.

Where do I lodge my official protest?

July 14, 2012 § 9 Comments

Dear Wankmeister:

I want to lodge a protest against guys who win a bunch of crits, especially that Charon dude. He sits in until the end and out-sprints everybody. What a big pussy. Plus, you know, there’s that OTHER thing…who does he think he is?

Krack R. Biggit

Dear Krack:

People like you make me barf. You are angry because he’s better than you are. If you put as much time into improving your own lack of skills as you do into criticizing his success, you might finish better than 43rd. But I doubt it. In the meantime, feel free to lodge your protest up your ass.

As for that OTHER thing, I can see how it would make you angry. There you were, on your nice ten thousand dollar bike with all your white friends, and then some black dude started winning all “your” races. Not just winning them, either, but winning them overwhelmingly, by multiple bike lengths. Plus, he’s such a nice and loyal guy that he’s become part of a team where everyone works for the victory, and everyone shares in the success, and no one cares about bullshit like what color the other person is.

That’s really different from your team, isn’t it, where everyone’s the designated winner, so no one ever wins, right? Where everyone’s jealous of everyone else? Where the composition of the team changes radically from year to year because everyone hates each other?

But back to the OTHER thing. Bike racing has always been a sport for white people. With the exception of tremendous riders like Nelson Vails, and one of the greatest cyclists in the history of the sport, Major Taylor, it’s been dominated by white people. When Major Taylor came to Europe and devastated the Euros at their own game, Henri Desgrange, founder of the Tour and racist, was so incensed that he demanded Taylor be paid in 10-centime pieces.

Most people who race against him could care less about Charon’s color, but a handful of grumblers and whiners and closet rednecks can’t stand getting their dicks stomped by a black dude in “their” sport.

See, Krack, here’s the thing: if you’re black in America and you rise to the top in ANYTHING it’s because you were better, and usually a lot better. Nobody ever woke up and had someone knock on the door and say, “Hey, any young black kids in here? We’d like to give them extra fancy horseback lessons or free TT bikes or a ten-year membership to the country club because they’re black.”

Doesn’t work that way. My buddy Lee, who grew up in Louisiana, finally quit riding bikes after five or six years because his family couldn’t afford tires, and riding around on steel rims just wasn’t very much fun, especially when the white kids came tearing by on bikes with tires and tubes.

If you’re a black athlete and you rip apart the competition a la Michael Jordan or Cam Newton, people say it’s because you’re “naturally talented,” i.e. you didn’t really have to work at it because it just came to you that way. If you’re a black athlete and you’re just average, or you’re projected to be great and you flame out, you’re called “lazy.” Natural talent, my ass. The Rahsaans and Charons and Justins of this sport work their butts off. Without an incredible work ethic their “natural talent” wouldn’t get them anywhere, much less on the podium.

When you’re a black dude breaking into a white sport, whether it’s cycling (Major Taylor), tennis (Arthur Ashe), baseball (Jackie Robinson), or any other job, you have to work harder, think smarter, and make the super-extra effort to improve and develop the personal relationships that underlie success, whether you’re trying to be a Supreme Court Justice, President of the United States, or world champion on the track. Show me a black guy who’s competing predominantly against white people and more often than not I’ll show you someone with far above average interpersonal skills, work ethic, and smarts.

The great thing about racing and riding in SoCal is that the vast majority of cyclists don’t care about color. We got the white dudes, the black dudes, the Hispanic dudes, the Asian dudes, and the dudes whose parents are from different races. It all works well, and for the most part color’s not part of the equation.

But when you’re blazing trails like Rahsaan Bahati, or Justin Williams, or Charon Smith, or Cory Williams, and when you’re blazing them over the dicks of white people, there will always be one or two who complain about the tread marks you leave on their tender parts. They were getting stomped before you ever came along, of course. But somehow it just hurts worse when they know you’re black.

So…

Please keep stomping.

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