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In April 2020, St. Augustine’s University (SAU), located in Raleigh, North Carolina, took a pioneering step in sports and became the first Historically Black College or University (HBCU) in the U.S. to formally establish a cycling team. With the intention to shake up the perceptions around what a classically trained cyclist should look like or what sports a Black athlete should play, they set out on a journey that could change cycling in a positive way.
Featuring interviews with Nelson Vails, Jeremiah Bishop, Tamika Butler, Rahsaan Bahati, and Justin Williams, the series forces us to reflect on the state of the sport today. Watch their groundbreaking journey unfold in a five-video series called Chasing History.
Episode 1 - A Collegiate Team's Unlikely Pursuit
The first video introduces the riders from the small private liberal arts college in Raleigh, North Carolina. The team will compete in USA Cycling’s Atlantic division, which includes more established and experienced club teams from Duke, NC State, and Wake Forest. The Falcons are tackling cyclocross and esports, such as Zwift, first and plan to move to BMX and road disciplines in the future.
The co-ed squad of 12 riders knows it’s not going to be all tailwinds out there. A few racers on the team are champion track and field athletes, and one or two have their sights set on cycling at the Olympic level. But others haven’t ridden since childhood, and they face a steep learning curve as they try to master cornering, shifting, and racing tactics.
But unlike traditionally mostly white cycling teams, the Falcons’ goals extend far beyond podiums and race rankings.
“This team plays a strong role in the racial justice movement,” Lavar Stubbs, a Falcons' cyclist from the Bahamas, said in the blog post on Canyon’s website. “We’re the first HBCU school with a cycling team… [Being] a trailblazer, that does not scare me. You can’t worry about falling. Stay headstrong. Have no fear.”
Episode 2 - The Road Rarely Taken
The second video details how Nelson Vails, the first African-American cyclist to win an Olympic medal—silver in the 1984 Games—serves as a major inspiration for this team. No other Black rider has come close to what Vails achieved, and Black riders are still few and far between at the highest levels of pro cycling.
The Falcons’ cycling team is hoping to change that. “Black kids, white kids, all kids grew up riding bikes,” Janas said in a blog post. “For some reason, the separation seems to happen somewhere around early adulthood where lots of white riders continue to ride bikes, where not as many African Americans [do].”
Episode 3 - Pandemic Journals
This episode, titled ‘Pandemic Journals,’ shows how members of the team have been forced to adjust because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Five of the Falcons riders vlogged about their day-to-day lives, revealing how they juggle the demands of classes, work, family, and other responsibilities, on top of training as a student-athlete (“definitely a student before athlete,” Aaliyah Williams said).
Episode 4 - Taking Flight
The fourth episode details the first race for SAU athletes Brandon Valentine-Parris and Finote Weldemariam at the Rock Hill Criterium Course in Rock Hill, South Carolina. “Eight months ago, I barely knew how to pedal a bike,” Valentine-Parris said, “and now I’m competing in races.” Professional mountain bike racer, Jeremiah Bishop, shares his advice and helps the riders get ready for their first sanctioned race. A 50 minute, 20 lap circuit race.
“The benefit of competing in a sport that is traditionally white is that we’re bringing diversity, awareness, and talent,” Umar Muhammad, a professor of sport management at SAU and the team’s other co-leader, said in a blog post on Canyon’s website. “SAU being out in cycling allows us to tell our story but also allows us to carry other stories home with us. And share with other HBCU campuses that we’re part of a bigger community, part of a bigger landscape of cycling in this world.”
Episode 5 - We Are Pioneers
In the series final episode, the Falcons tackle the discipline of cyclocross for the first time and reflect on what this journey has meant to them.
The video opens up with a Justin Williams interview, a professional rider for Legion of LA, and includes appearances by Tamika Butler, the former executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, and Peter Flax, Bicycling's former editor in chief.
“What’s happening with St. Augustine is important because somebody has to take that first step and show other people that it’s possible,” says Peter Flax. “Sports history is full of examples of people who kicked that door down, for women, for Black people. In every case, you need those pioneers to show people that that particular activity is open to inclusion,” added Flax.
Tamika Butler, put it this way: “Bikes and power are intrinsically linked. Bikes have given us freedom, not just as kids, but as adults... Black folks are often limited by other people’s expectations of us.”
The team is backed by a number of sponsors, including Canyon Bicycles, Zipp Wheels, Saris, Stages Cycling, Major Taylor Cycling Wear, and Fizik. The Chasing History video series has been sponsored by Canyon and Bicycling.
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