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Embracing equity in the sport of cycling means to expose and expand.

Sneaking off on our bicycles to pedal in endless circles through neighborhoods that represented “a good life”, provided needed doses of hope. Growing up confined within city limits that have one the highest violent crime rates in Florida (as reported by the FBI), number 15 of 16 siblings, daughter to an immigrant mother and father who only completed a seventh-grade education—statistically I was born to become a teen mom, endure a lifetime of poverty, jailed, or murdered.

Erica Elle Candid Portrait

While the world may have rightfully stacked the odds against me, it was my parents and a few others along the way who exposed me to different things, which expanded my horizons beyond those city limits.

In spite of what it looked like and how unfortunate it may have felt at times growing up in a fast-paced environment, my parents constantly reminded us to be good to others, and this was the key to becoming whatever we dreamt to be. In his white 1988 Ford pickup work truck, riddled with dents and dings from construction hauls, my father would drive us through the neighborhood streets of Billionaire’s Row Palm Beach at least once a month. Settled a dozen miles south it boasts the homes of the ultra-wealthy like the Trumps and Bill Gates. As we observed in awe, my dad would ask us to guess the costs of the mega yachts and mansions.

Miami Skyline
Next Level Up Group Ride Collage

Then using the tools he was equipped with, immediately affirmed us by saying we can achieve the same. Not having much, yet still equipped with powerful tools of belief and affirmation, my dad believed his children were equal to all children and often used his gestures and words to affirm us. As a result, we not only learned how to survive, as hopefuls we also learned how to thrive within our environment.

Recreational sports were the only outlet for children in my city. At the ages of 10 and 11, my older brother and I begged to participate in sports, football, and cheerleading respectively. Understanding our participation could be an additional financial obligation and strain with transportation, our parents acquiesced. Many times, we walked and rode bikes to practices and game days and other times we were stranded—we were basically on our own.

Next Level Up Group Ride

It was during these years I learned discipline, competition, team dynamics, accountability and practice makes improvements. I had grown competitive, so I practiced endlessly. I worked hard for tryouts, making the cheerleading competition squad—however, my parents could not afford special uniforms nor travel fees for competitionSo, I also learned how awful it felt to discover that hard work alone wasn't enough to access the next level of my competitive sports journey. Resources were also a necessity. 

Eventually someone stepped in to advocate on my behalf convincing the Parks & Recreation Department to waive fees and provide a scholarship for me to be able to compete in team competitions. That bold someone was my cheerleading coach ensuring I, that one kid, was provided the vehicle needed to have equitable access to progress in sports. Carrying away from recreational sports the spirit of excellence, great sportsmanship, and how to win from losses added to the special tools in my toolbox needed to thrive and change the odds a bit more in favor of achieving a “good life.”

Erica sips a post ride coconut water.

As we outgrew recreational sports, we had more time with bikes. On any given day from where we now lived, we could see directly across the intercoastal. On the opposite side was the beach, condominiums, luxury cars, restaurants, big homes, and freedom—or at least that’s what it looked like to us. At every chance, we pedaled over the humongous bridge that was known to separate the island from the inland, the poor from the rich, the life of luxury from the life of poverty, peace from violence.

The more we pedaled over that bridge to get a peek of freedom, pick out our future homes and pretend we belonged as we rode up and down the neighborhood streets, the more my perception transformed. The humongous bridge eventually no longer represented separation but instead due to repeated exposure began to represent connection. It now connected the inland and the island, the poor and the rich, the life of luxury and the life of poverty, peace was now within reach although violence was still afoot.

Collage of cyclists on group ride

All I had to do was be bold enough to use my tools, which was my bike and my audacity to ride over, in order to gain access to a place totally opposite that represented freedom and expanded horizons. These adventures and new expanded point of view assured me as a kid I can acquire tools, be it earned or extended by the good grace of others who embrace equity, to thrive within my environment and create the life I dream.

Not long before becoming of age, the neighborhood high school was converted into a magnet school giving me access to a quality high school education. When it was time to apply for college, my counselor provided waivers for college applications and SAT test fees. I was accepted into my first choice at a major Florida University and went on merit-based scholarships and grants, some income-based. During college years I worked in different sectors of finance at one time taking advantage of the work study program created for college students.

Erica with her bike at the beach

After graduation I was hired at a big bank for a program specifically designed for recent college grads who show potential for leadership within the financial industry. In the management trainee program, I did well, operating in the spirit of excellence and was immediately promoted to an officer position. A few years later at the age of 24, I became VP of a large Florida market.

Along my life’s journey there were individuals, known and unknown who provided opportunities, tools, programs, and resources that significantly impacted each stage of my life. For every odd and disadvantage stacked against a kid like me, someone had already come along ahead of me and created and implemented a tool or program to assist before I arrived. Unlike my cheerleader coach, a program did not exist, and she went into bold action for me, to get a program created that is still being used to create equity for youth athletes today.

Collage of Next Level Up cyclists

I am a living testament of how embracing equity can change a predetermined statistical trajectory of a person's life. It is my duty to now pay it forward for those behind me. I have spent the last fifteen years creating programs and opportunities for those less fortunate and for little boys and girls with predetermined statistical trajectories similar to mine.

In addition to creating community financial literacy programs on behalf of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) I also had the honor to create, alongside my team, a number of programs, events, and opportunities within the sport of cycling under the umbrella of Level Up Cycling Movement, Inc., a nonprofit organization with the mission to expose the sport of cycling to minority communities and create a pathway to the highest levels of cycling.

Collage of Erica in Miami

This includes Pedal with Pros—(a ride to introduce health benefits to cycling to minority communities), 200 bikes given away to underprivileged youth living in high-crime areas, creation of Future Olympian Scholarship —(sending the first African-American female and first Filipino-American male to Olympic Development Academy in the Netherlands), creating social platforms for budding minority pro racers to be discovered, ChocLIT Pedals (a women’s ride experience), and curating a 2023 Black Celebration Series leading 50+ event rides to honor to Black Clubs and Black-Owned Bike shops one mile at a time for the month of February.

At Next Level Up Leadership Academy, I will multiply efforts by continuing to assist those who understand “embrace” is an action word. The Academy is a coactive learning experience that provides tools unique to each person’s environment. Its educational content enables them to effectively lead and build equity in spaces that were originally created for our grandfathers.

Children from underprivileged areas will be the future beneficiaries of the programs created by these new community leaders. Information for Next Level Up Leadership Academy can be found at www.ericaelle.com.

Ocean texture
Erica Elle with bike on beach

Embracing equity requires abandoning your comfort zone to experience something new. For so long the sport of cycling has been so inaccessible, it has passed the time to expose and expand.

There is an astronomical potential for growth in the sport of cycling through the activities of inviting the uninvited, educating the uninformed, learning unfamiliarity of others, teaching those who are willing to learn, outreach efforts to those untouched, and understanding how we can all change the trajectory of our lives and the lives of those around us using cycling—like my life.

Exposure, as it did for me, will expand the cycling industry’s horizons, spawning the creation of new avenues, new products, new services, new experiences and upgraded work environments. There will then be a need to expand the search criteria for new talent, enlarge territories, expand product offerings and services.

Words by Erica Elle. Photos by Eric Arce.