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 § 131 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.

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