This is an extract of an article originally published in Rouleur 20.7. Subscribe to Rouleur by Monday, October 20th, to receive the issue, and read the article in full.
As a Black man, I don’t always think about race. Like when I’m alone, I could be blue for all I know. When I’m suffering on a climb, I’m not sure who I am, much less what colour I am. But those careless moments wash away when I’m out there riding, I recognise it as second nature to approach all areas of life, like riding, differently than whites. Out of convention and necessity. Situations call for me to understand the coding that sees me as colour first, person second. Those roads weren’t built with me in mind.
There are things I must do to make getting along in the world smoother. But on any given day, feel free to invalidate any one of them. Because the fact is, there are no rules—the last months reminded me that anything can happen anywhere.
As bombastic and unforgiving as the George Floyd killing video is, Amy Cooper’s attempted weaponisation of the New York Police against a Black man who dared ask her to leash her dog in Central Park is equally pernicious. Moreover, there was the disturbing death of Ahmad Arbery, a jogger who was accosted by white men on the street and shot dead.
And so, white Americans began asking what’s happened with race. Whereas many black Americans (at least of my age) will have shrugged and thought: nothing's changed, it just you notice how repugnant this all is.
Racial abuse is thankfully rare these days. Exclusivity isn’t. Being talked down to is less photogenic, but equally as indelible as overt threats. I remember the back-handed compliment after my first ride with the school’s cycling club as a kid. The fact that I was one of the poorest at my mostly-white private high school was laid bare that day, when I rode up and just by instinct, we compared bikes.
My used-looking Power King had all the hallmarks of hard ownership. While it was a great bike, all my pride fell away when I saw my club-mate’s clean, celeste and chrome Bianchi. That was the first time I’d ever seen a Bianchi, cycling shoes, cycling shorts – or toe clips, for that matter. That first ride with them was unspectacular, I just remember this kid’s astonishment – which he was unable to hide – that I finished with the group.
Or, in another moment of long-simmered resentment, I recall the visit to an area bike shop in the mid-2000s, where in off-hand comments, I awakened to the notion that the sales guy presumed that I didn’t belong. Maybe it was a slip of the tongue, a small betrayal of thought.
But being Black has me constantly reading the curl on the ball.
Looking back, I don’t even remember exactly what was said, just how he said it – and how it made me feel. Maybe I should be thankful, because then, and even occasionally now, I rode thinking I had to prove myself to somebody. That errant remark may have been the fuel that sparked my cycling throughout the naughts.
I look at “The Rules” with the same bemusement. Rule #5 – yeah. And rule #9. But I’ll wear my glasses how I want, thanks very much. Save your turn-downs. Because I learned that respect is earned on the road. The road decides.