It’s Labor Day weekend 2022, and you are sitting at the starting line of the biggest ride for Black cyclists: MACC One Love Century. The sun is still rising, yet you can feel the Georgia heat along with 2,000 other riders. It’s a sea of cyclists, donned in kit combinations of black, red, and green.
Suddenly, a group of 100 cyclists ride into the event together on their bikes. It's a grand entrance in size but also style, as this impressive team sports peach jerseys with maroon bibs, standing in stark contrast to the rest of the crowd. Someone yells, “It’s KRT!”
There are other colorful characters at this event too. A man unloading bikes from a large white bus with a phoenix in the middle of the word SOAR. There’s also a dark-skinned woman with a big smile sporting an athletic hijab. You also see another set of cyclists roasting one another and casually using the word “jawn.” What do these people have in common? They’re all from Philly.
“We aren’t the first generation of Black cyclists to come out of Philly...” comments Curran Swint, Co-Founder of KRT/QRT Cycling, “...we’re just the first generation to publicly document it.”
KRT (Kings Rule Together) and QRT (Queens Rule Together) stands on the shoulders of its “oldheads,” a generation of athletes who laid the foundation for the cycling scene in Philadelphia. The first brick was laid in 1989 by the Bikin’ Blazers, a group of skiers that wanted to stay in shape during the summer months.
“There were a lot of cycling clubs around back then, but there were no African-American cycling clubs at that time,” remarks Claire Washington, “It was good to have one of our own.” Affectionately known as “Ms. Claire,” Washington is a veteran cyclist with thirty years of cycling under her belt. As she describes the early days of the Bikin’ Blazers, a wide smile runs across her face. She goes on to say, “We weren’t wearing kits…we were wearing regular sneakers. My first bike was huge, and I had to stick my foot inside cages. In ‘96, I did my first Seagull Century and that’s when I started to learn about the different clothes to wear.” If you’re familiar with Cyclists By the Sea, a ride led by Black cyclists the day before Sea Gull Century, know that Washington had a hand in that, too. Washington proudly serves as a founding member of this ride.
Fast forward to 2019, while cycling on the Schuylkill River Trail, a group of young Black men ride past her. Familiar with Black cyclists in the community, she’s awestruck by these young kids she’s never seen before. After an Instagram picture and an exchange of numbers, a mentor/mentee relationship was born. In the early days of KRT/QRT, Washington showed up to group rides teaching everyone about proper nutrition, gear, and cycling clothing.
There were other clubs that added to this foundation, most notably, Team Cycling Royalty (TCR). Founded in 2017, co-founder Malaku Mekonnen wanted to create a community specifically for Black cyclists. He states, “Many of the cyclists that got in 2020, have no idea of what it was in 2017. Others that are caught up in the sensation of Black cyclists, forget that police used bikes to detain and harm [Black people] in the name of police brutality.”
After riding in several Gran Fondos where he was the only person of color, Mekonnen was determined to host a Gran Fondo in Philadelphia. He did just that. TCR hosted its first Gran Fondo in 2019 and later expanded into wellness rides such as the Health is Wealth ride.
It was at TCR’s 2020 Health is Wealth Ride where cyclist Siddeeq Shabazz connected with Bill Strickland, writer and editor for Bicycle Magazine. Recalling the fateful encounter, Shabazz simply states, “Right place, right time.” Months later Shabazz was featured on the cover of Bicycling Magazine. Since then, two more Black cyclists from Philadelphia were also pictured on the cover. And they come from this incredible network.
TCR is also linked to the popular cycling pit stop, Tricycle Cafe and Bike Shop (Tricycle). Michael “Cycle Michael” Brown, co-founder of TCR, opened Tricycle to create a safe space to buy bikes. Brown recalls a time when he went to purchase a bike for an upcoming race. At the shop, Brown was met with elitism and was questioned on whether he knew what he was doing. He noticed that other cyclists of color, women, and LGBTQ all had a similar experience. He decided to do something about it.
“It’s easy to complain about things, easy to write down reviews, but why not make it happen? I decided I wanted to be the change that I wanted in the bike industry.” - Michael “Cycle Michael '' Brown. Brown has since opened another bike shop, Velo Jawn, located in the heart of West Philadelphia.
With that same entrepreneurial spirit, Brown also co-founded SOAR Foundation Racing (SOAR) along with Lana “PureShaka” Harshaw. In the former racing world, Black cyclists were hard to come by. Long-time racer Eric Williams shares, “It was difficult at times to be honest because I would be the only Black guy at a lot of those rides, especially when it came to racing. I had to find my place in the cycling community.” Today SOAR provides community and financial support to cycling athletes of color, responding to that inner dialogue that Eric had years ago.
Beyond the racing kits and a cool looking bus, SOAR uses a portion of its fundraising towards community programing. This past year SOAR has sponsored bike builds for youth in West Philadelphia and hosted financial literacy seminars open to the community To Brown and Harshaw, its more than just jerseys, it’s fueling the community with “Strength, Optimism, Achievement and Respect.”
There are others investing in Philadelphia’s future cyclists. Neighborhood Bike Works (NBW) provides teens with an opportunity to earn a bike while also teaching them how to fix bikes. NBW also opens their bike shop workspace to adults and community programming. There’s also Bicycle Coalition Youth Program (BCYC) which uses competitive cycling to build skills such as leadership and advocacy in youth. Mekonnen currently serves as program director and sees himself as a father figure to the youth, “I often have to make morality decisions and choices to make sure that the youth are safe so that they aren’t taken advantage of by big business.” She is Focused uses cycling to empower and uplift teenage girls in the areas of fitness and emotional health. Let’s just say that the kids are in good hands.
So don’t just observe the cyclists from Philadelphia at the next big cycling event. Come to Philadelphia and experience it all for yourself. Join a KRT/QRT group ride, which will also have cyclists from TCR and Major Taylor. Ride along the Schuylkill River Trail and grab a snack at Tricycle. Buy a colorful bike bag from R.E.Load Bags or get your bike tuned up at Velo Jawn. From there you will see that Philadelphia is not a community of segregated Black cycling groups, but has a strong network built on brotherly love.
Story by Emily Dawn Clauna. Photos by Chanea “Shay” Whittington