Cycling race

Advocates for minority bike riders find ways to spread the word

Bikers from Red, Bike and Green's April 23 ride hang by a mural dedicated to the world's first black cycling champion.

In contrast to the alley cat fixie fiends and placid Venice Beach cruisers, some of Los Angeles' most ardent bicyclists were going unnoticed and underserved by bike advocacy groups. Working class Latinos are often the only ones on two wheels in several of the city's most disadvantaged communities — but you weren't going to catch them at Critical Mass or grabbing a seat at L.A. County Bike Coalition meetings.

The organizers of the community group Ciudad de Luces recognized that these riders, often stuck commuting on the L.A.'s most dangerous roads with substandard safety gear and rickety bikes, needed a voice in the development of the city's biking infrastructure, and were being missed by the biking movement's traditional outreach tactics.

The organization started distributing bike lights and Day-Glo visibility vests at day laborer centers; started a weekly bike repair workshop at one of the sites in response to popular demand from workers; and, in 2010, convinced the city to install 73 much-needed bike racks throughout the low income Pico-Union neighborhood. Ciudad de Luces coined a term to describe the community it works with: the invisible riders.

Biking is not a white middle class privilege, but many times the popular face of bike activism is perceived as such. In the case of Ciudad de Luce's struggle for recognition, that meant the minority communities that do ride aren't given necessary resources to keep them safe and secure. And according to Jenna Burton of the Oakland community bike group Red, Bike and Green, it also harms cycling's popularity among some prospective riders.

"If you see something that is predominantly white, it's automatically not going to be as appealing to the black community," she said in a phone interview with the Guardian. Burton moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast, and was taken by the strong biking culture. Looking for community, she assumed there had to be some kind of African American bicycle meet-up. ("The Bay Area has everything, right?") She was surprised to find that one didn't exist.

Burton realized that blacks were underrepresented in the biking community. When she asked acquaintances about their reluctance to pedal through their daily lives, she found that many were intimidated by the ubiquity of bikes in the area. "It can be really intimidating to get out there for the first time. The culture is so strong here, it seems hardcore to people who are curious about biking."

"There needed to be a targeted effort toward the black community." Burton's solution: create an organization that spoke directly to African Americans about why they should bike. She developed a Black Panthers-style three-point plan to break it down. Black people on average make less money and biking is cheap; black people are subject to chronic health problems and biking makes people stronger; black people are often the subjects of environmental racism and biking is a way to speak out against carcinogenic injustice. To spread the word, the group would hold social rides so riders could see that black bike riders really did exist.

Nick James didn't own a bike, but when Burton told him about Red, Bike and Green, he was compelled to buy one. Already an activist for HIV/AIDS, education, youth, and health causes, James said in an e-mail interview with the Guardian that he believed Burton had hit upon a way to pull all those social issues together — through an experience that would not only be positive, but fun. Now he uses his bike to get to work and run everyday errands.

"Any space where African Americans can get out stress, laugh, communicate, or heal, I'm there," he said. "Red, Bike and Green is a space where exercise, socializing, and activism flows seamlessly."

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