The last decade has seen strident change in the way African Americans are seen in cycling.
From brothers Justin and Corey Williams and their L39ION Los Angeles team a squad champions diversity and inclusion, to Sika Henry smashing barriers by becoming the first African-American professional triathlete, to NBA star Reggie Miller, an ardent mountain biking aficionado, taking up a place on the USA Cycling Board of Directors, we see more recognition of the accomplishments of black cyclists, on roads and trails, and off. And it all was preceded by Major Taylor, who, amid Jim Crow era racial segregation, claimed the world and national championship titles in 1899 and 1900.
But how has that translated to African American kids in the city? On its face, cycling can be prohibitive (bikes can be expensive) and at its top can be insular. For some, it’s a sport. For others, it’s a way to get around. How do we get more African Americans to look at cycling as a mode of transport, a sport—and even a means to a way of life?
Last year, we celebrated our work with Bearings Bike Works, a nonprofit bike shop out of Atlanta, GA. While the group collects, repairs and sells bikes out of its sales and service center, it also serves as a job training center for the Atlanta area teens and young adults, many of whom are African American, as they look for chances to gain job skills they can carry beyond school into the work force.
We were also thrilled to have many of the program associates make the trek from Atlanta to American Bicycle Group headquarters in Chattanooga, Tenn. last summer for a day to learn the ins and outs of how bikes are made, serviced, painted and packed on the professional level from the guys doing it for a living. It went so well that we plan to do it again this summer.
While the Bearings team had eyes wide-open looking at the team weld, paint, build, adjust and pack new Litespeeds, Quintana Roos and Obeds and perhaps had visions of being in the same place spinning wrenches, they knew before they could run, they first had to crawl. That means learning to work on rusty old mountain bikes that have seen better days, and bringing them back to life.
And if there’s one thing that unites these Bearings Bike Works employees—the thing that draws them to the program—it’s the thing that keeps entertained for hours on end when young: bikes. Of course, back when they were younger, they did what any kid did with them: ride the snot out of ‘em. So they had to take ownership of the care of their bikes.
Photo: Jarvis Wagner
“I grew up riding bikes,” says 18-year-old Jarvis Wagner, a member of the Bearings Bike Works team. “I used to tear them up and my dad taught us how to at least keep ‘em going, so coming in the program here, at least I knew a little—how to change a tire, fix a chain.”
Photo: Ray Mackey
So said his colleague, 19-year-old Ray Mackey. He smashed through the neighborhood with friends on his bike, and learned trial by fire; fix it, or don’t ride. “We had to fix ‘em, nobody was doing it for us.” he recalls.
Mackey and Wagner are just part of the team turning repairing bikes at Bearings Bike Works. The two went from rote Tier 1 mechanical service—changing tubes on old mountain bikes on kid’s bikes—to Tier 2 service on mountain bikes with their suspension, to Tier 3 with full refurbishing of road bikes.
And like any trade, there’s a value to the skill of overhauling a bottom bracket... and even knowing the difference between a square taper, whether it’s Italian or English threaded, up to T47 BB30 and the rest of the standards that leave most pro mechanics scratching their heads. Mackey and Wagner are dialed. Mackey said he wants more. “I love working hands-on with the tools and would love to get into welding.”
Wagner’s challenges? The complexity of compatibility—a thing that even the most seasoned bike mechanic struggles with, when he can see a pressfit, Italian threaded and T47 bottom bracket, in the same day. “I love the challenge of learning the compatibilities—bottom brackets and cranks, shifters and derailleurs, trying to make a shifter work with a derailleur it’s not supposed to work with,” Wagner says. “I remember how confusing it was when I first started, but I’m getting it now.”
Wagner said he move to the Atlanta area in 2017 and his big brother, knowing his little brother loved bikes, introduced him to the team at Bearings Bike Works. “I’d come in and change a flat for a dollar,” he says. “I learned about the kid’s program, and signed up the first day, and have been advancing my skills since.” He graduated from the youth program to an internship. Today, he works a full-time 40-hour work week, servicing to four bikes a day.
There’s a pride for Mackey and Wagner in taking a bike destined for the dump and giving it a second life for some other community member that needs it to get to work. “When the bikes come in, a lot of ‘em are pretty beat up,” says Mackey. “It’s hard work, but to get them cleaned up and looking clean and seeing them roll out the door, it’s pretty cool feeling.
While the team earns a paycheck while learning skills, they also earn stars—credits toward their own bike. “I’ve already earned my Schwinn.” Mackey says.
Is Bearings Bike Works a stepping stool to another bike shop opportunity? For some, sure—and that’s a good thing. Because that’s the shop’s goal: bring in kids that wouldn’t ordinarily have a shot at a career in the bike industry, empower them with a skill, and send them out into the work force with a skill that can never be taken away. Give them the tools to commute around town, and maybe create the spark to compete like the Williams Brothers for national titles.
But for Wagner, at least—no way. Why leave, when you’re happy with the team that’s brought you up?
“When it comes to a bike shop, I’ll stay right here,” Wagner says. “They’ve helped me so much.”
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