A mile marker for the African American cycling community

Major Taylor racing in Paris
Major Taylor racing in Paris
Photo courtesy of the Major Taylor Association

Cyclists from across the country were in St. Paul this weekend for what's believed to be the first event of its kind: an African American-focused bike festival.

Organizers gave away bikes, took people on rides and held demonstrations in Martin Luther King Park, alongside the annual Rondo Days festival. They said cycling could be the cure for many problems in the black community, including the obesity epidemic.

Anthony Taylor, one of the festival organizers and one of the founders of the Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota, said you often hear the phrase "black people don't swim" in the African American community.

"Of course they swim, but in America we hear it all the time. It has become the truth and so now you see kids who say black folks don't swim. That's a barrier to living better, living healthier," Taylor said.

Taylor said a similar myth has developed around biking. He said many African Americans just don't see biking as something that black people do.

"And we have to say that isn't true, because I know the African American community is focused on improving their quality of life, improving their health, and we see the bike as a solution to that," he said.

Major Taylor -- no relation to Anthony -- was an Indiana native who became the first African American world champion in cycling in the late 1800s.

Major Taylor was conscious of being a representative for African Americans -- he didn't drink or race on Sundays. Taylor toured the world and was famous in Europe. But he soon dropped into obscurity and died in poverty.

He was largely forgotten until author Andrew Ritchie's biography came out in 1988. Since then, Major Taylor cycling groups have formed independently in cities across the country.

Participants rest at the bike fest
Participants rest at what may have been the first ever African American-focused cycling festival. The festival also doubled as the first summit of Major Taylor bike clubs, attracting participants from Minnesota to Georgia.
MPR Photo/Rupa Shenoy

This weekend's urban bike festival in St. Paul doubled as the first national summit of Major Taylor bike clubs -- together known as the National Brotherhood of Cyclists. Ritchie was in town for the meeting, along with cycling pros and bikers of all levels.

"You have to remember he's doing this at a time where it's a completely unique thing for a black guy to take on his white rivals and to thoroughly thrash them," Ritchie said. "He rode away from them and they didn't like it one bit."

Participants took long rides in the morning and sprawled on the lawn of MLK Park in the afternoon. Kids crowded information booths, BMX demonstrations and a bicycle-powered smoothie stand. They eyed 50 new bikes that were given away this weekend.

The bikes were donated by a black biking group in Atlanta. Neil Walker drove them here. He said he drove over 1,000 miles from Atlanta, Ga.

"Believe me, half way through I was like 'what have I gotten myself into?' but I had to think about the bigger picture," Walker said.

He said that bigger picture is what cycling could do for African Americans if the sport was more popular among blacks.

"We play football, track, baseball -- those things can be taxing on the body, the joints, and we have a huge problem with obesity in our community," Walker said. "So in hard economic times... for me it's a win win win win situation."

It was certainly a win for 11-year-old Bryce Brown and his grandmother, Darlene Adams.

Both of them won bikes at the festival this weekend. Bryce taught himself to ride years ago -- he said he likes how the wind feels in his hair.

"My mom came and told me 'you won a bike, you won a bike'. I was like 'oh wow,'" Brown said.

Adams said the belief that "black people don't bike" has never been true.

"...now my husband bikes, my grandson bikes, my kids have bikes," she said. "We've always had bikes. I have six children and 10 grandchildren and one on the way. So, no -- I think that's what you call a myth? Yes."

The Major Taylor groups hope, with more events like this weekend's, that myth will be forgotten.

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