Reckoning: Race, Racing and Cycling Culture
Reckoning: Race, Racing and Cycling Culture
by Marty Merritt
Marty Merritt is a Velocio Ambassador, a member of the cycling advocacy group, the Black Foxes, a lifelong athlete and American living and training abroad in Girona, Spain.
I am a late bloomer to cycling, at least when it comes to racing: as I write this I am 42. I was 36 when I “ formally” entered the wonderful/horrible world of cycling with any sort of seriousness. Until the age of 12, I grew up up in North Carolina and Virginia and always ripped around on my Huffy BMX bike with my brother and our then two best buds, Phil and Chris. We’d tear up the wooded trails that linked our Petersburg, VA neighborhood to others like it in the vicinity, splashing through mud puddles, setting up makeshift jump ramps, picking off ticks, and regularly coming home happily filthy. For me, at least subconsciously, those times bound together riding bikes and friendship in a visceral way.
Years later, in my second year at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, I discovered alcohol and fostered a rather unhealthy relationship with this drug that lasted through 2012. Around this time, my dear friend Edu warned me, “dude, you’re gonna kill yourself. You’re seriously going to end up dead in a ditch if you keep on like this.” Not unlike my childhood bike-ventures in Virginia, this moment would be etched in my mind forever. In 2013, I started running, quit tobacco, and gave up alcohol. Best choices I have ever made and I haven’t looked back since. I share all of this to point out that I did not fit the bill of someone likely to end up both qualifying for the Boston Marathon and competing in bike races, but here I am.
I have had indescribable experiences while clipped in and, now with a handful of years in the game, I am more in a place to reflect on some its highs and lows as a sport and as a community. Let’s start with the highs.
Training rides and the body work required for optimum performance give me a sense of purpose. The physiological gains and sheer joy I experience while in the saddle inspire me for continual self-betterment. I see FTP increases, more flexibility, and a general improvement in physical and mental health. There is even a spiritual element to physical activity: sometimes mid-run or mid-ride I am suddenly overcome with a feeling of profound gratitude that human words cannot describe. It’s a sentiment that has actually brought me to tears, and it is this very feeling that fuels my motivation.
The other treasure that pedaling has brought are the handful of what seem to be lifelong friendships. The fixed gear and cyclocross race scenes have been particularly rewarding in this sense. FavelaFrama (@favelaframa) was literally a dream come true. It’s a Barcelona-based collective made up of mostly Brazilians that I’d been admiring on Instagram even before moving to Spain back in 2016. Low and behold, they extended an invite to join the crew, introducing me to the global fixed gear crit racing community. The team became like a band of siblings for me and I will always be thankful. Events like the Chicago Cyclocross Cup, Red Hook Crit (please come back), Rad Race, and Spanish crits were paramount in cultivating relationships that are still evolving today.
Oddly enough, the blessings that cycling has given require that comment be had on its ugly sides as well. The first thing I notice about many of us roadies take ourselves way too seriously. How many people do you know who have rolled up to a group ride for the first time only to be greeted by, well….no greeting at all? Instead of smiles and a “Hey there! What’s your name? I’m______”, they are met by cold, calculating eyes, measuring them up and down, judging their gear, body type, sock tightness, skin color, or any other trivial thing having nothing to do with their personality. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end, you’ve been measured up against these unwritten tenets, norms, and dress codes. It’s childish, but there is a surplus of this destructive attitude.
Cycling is a super racist and insulated realm. There is a ton of work to do in making our sport genuinely inclusive, attainable, and equitable for more people. Those who do not match the typical cyclist avatar image have a harder time getting access to the “club.” Consequently, they either never start or get discouraged and quit. Why? Because we can be a callous lot who operate from a place of “us” against “them.” Because the industry has cultivated this code and because its blindspots are impeding its growth. What seems like simple economics (i.e. increasing consumers in a given marketplace = growth + increased sales + jobs) is something that too many companies overlook.
Likewise, brands have been deafeningly silent on the (ab)use of their products by law enforcement agencies around the nation to harm peaceful protestors. In the World Tour, the UCI and teams have failed to discipline openly bigoted riders. The message is clear: BIPOC (particularly those in the “B” category) are not welcome in this space.
“Why does this matter? Can’t we just keep politics out of sport?” asks the complicit racist. My reply is simple: any individual or company being silent, passive, or complicit in state-supported violence against citizens exercising constitutional rights (or in allowing overt racist/transphobic riders to go unchecked on the world stage) is worse than those who actively inflict this violence. Silence is compliance, full stop.
What is even worse is that most companies, teams, and governing bodies are more concerned with appearing not racist than actually working towards becoming anti-racist. Putting us in ads or posting black boxes on Instagram does not mean that one is an ally in the fight for justice and does not let them off the hook. Without concrete action, I fear we will continue witnessing the tokenization of our bodies and our pain.
Finally, and most importantly, if you are one of our white brothers or sisters in the cycling/outdoor community (especially industry reps) reading this and feel that itch of cognitive dissonance: instead of convincing yourself that you are not a part of the problem because you’re “not a racist” (as if this merits reward), or were “raised to not see color,” ask yourself how you may harbor racist beliefs in some form or fashion. Start from here: if we are to make a better world we have to work on ourselves first. Operating from empathy does not happen overnight and is a process. Company boardrooms and the community at large are collective bodies, not individuals, so don’t leave it up to others to do the work. I strongly urge you to be on the right side of history, not for history’s sake but for your own.
I love cycling. I love America. When you really love someone you want to see them manifest into their higher self. Riding bikes has provided me a place to focus my otherwise scattered energy. I have many friendships and a sense of purpose that connects me with my own higher self. And yet, the “cycling culture,” and the industry in general, have a long way to go when it comes to creating conditions for meaningful inclusion. By not having a long-term plan on how to cultivate and nurture a marketplace that actively includes BIPOC communities, it will continue shooting itself in the foot both culturally and economically.
The paragraphs above represent a Cliffs Notes of my experience and POV as a Black American man in an overwhelmingly white sport. My story is but a drop in the bucket of tens of thousands of others who aren’t “supposed” to be in this space, or in outdoors spaces in general. This mindset is so deeply ingrained in our society that even some of my fellow Black brothers and sisters are convinced that this is the way it is supposed to be! When companies begin hiring and retaining more BIPOC; when they stop exploiting our melanin for the sake of their image; when print and online media begin exposing our stories from our points of view; and when the community at large recognizes that there is not a cycling culture but many cultures within, then we will bear witness to (and participate in) the change that so many people claimed to support last June.
In the days ahead, my effort is aimed at diverse and compelling rides, races and more. I am excited to race the Catalan Road Race Series and the Catalan Cup Crit Series. My goal this season is to actually finish races! The amateur level here is higher than what I’m used to (plus a lot of climbing), and completing a few races would be a huge confidence booster. I am set up to peak for this May and hope to contribute to my team’s (@teamsmartdry) getting enough points to qualify for the Spanish Road Race Championship.
Gravel has now taken up more of my time in the saddle, and the proximity to nature it brings is always welcome! In June, a couple buddies of mine and I aim for a Barcelona to London bikepacking trip, ending at a Halo Burger for vegan junk food.
I look forward to facing new challenges and spreading the good word with The Black Foxes. I have faith that we can elevate cycling culture by amplifying new perspectives and raising awareness within the bike industry.