Who advocated for the Marshall “Major” Taylor Bike Trail to be completed in 2007, so that South Siders can enjoy the same safety, access, and convenience that designated trails provide their North Side neighbors? A Black man. More precisely, Keith Holt.
If that opening graph reminded you of the anthemic history lesson, “Black Man” on Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” album, then know that the proliferation of Black bike clubs, wellness riders, and road riders kicked off with your generation. And cycling enthusiasts like Holt have led the way.
Holt of Chicago will tell you he’s no road rider, though he has been commuting by bike to work since the 1990s. His street cred has more to do with his advocacy in the Black community. He co-led the creation of the Major Taylor Cycling Club Chicago. Ever heard of them? You can catch, or rather, hear this group as they swoosh past on your left along the scenic lakefront bike trail at a pace that will make you think you’re standing still. Then, just as quickly, a crease in the universe opens and their red-and-black club jerseys disappear in a ball of twinkling light. Not really—it just seems that way.
The point is, we’re out there. Since the 1980s, Black bike clubs have grown across America, surging most recently in the last seven or eight years with groups such as Black Girls Do Bike. The gap between what motivates a road rider and an everyday rider to get around on two wheels has narrowed. During COVID-19, bicycling has seen a spike in popularity, attracting riders of all skill levels and inspiring even more bike clubs. Some of the latest, such as Streets Calling, Cycle the Shore, and Vanessa, are generating a different type of G-force — a force for ‘good’ — by riding with a purpose.
Keith fits that mold. The 56-year-old got into riding after moving back to Chicago from attending college at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. One day, he went to the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation to get a bike map and ended up being hired to do summer outreach as a bicycle ambassador.
“At the time, there were no Black bicycle advocates being paid full time, pretty much, in the country,” he said. “It was very rare.”
Through his outreach, he uncovered several informal Black bike clubs in the city. “Everyone knew of each other, but they were all doing separate things,” he said. “I believed that Chicago needed a predominately Black bike club, especially on the South Side, that could grow and give access to Black folks who wanted to do road riding.”
Keith wrote an article for the federation’s newsletter called for Black riders to organize around fitness, fun, and camaraderie.
“Everyone agreed, but some people were nervous about the idea because others would accuse the group of being separatists,” Keith said. “I said, ‘It’s more about location than race,’ but we acknowledged that race was a part of it. We realized it was good to have one group come together and be known for it.”
Now, Keith, a sales associate at Wheel and Sprocket, a bike retailer in Oak Park, is working on behalf of communities of color through nonprofits Ride Illinois and Working Bikes. Wheel and Sprocket are also looking to hire diverse talent in its Oak Park, Evanston, and its new Park Ridge stores. The key requirement: Must love bikes.
Even with the cycling boom among African Americans, Keith believes there is more advocacy work to be done in communities of color: “Bicycling can be used as a tool for change.”