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As HBCU’s first cycling program, Saint Augustine’s University sets the bar high

In a sport that isn’t known for its Black cyclists, the Falcons have lofty ambitions

On a cold and rainy day in late January, Brandon Valentine-Parris, the 25-year-old captain of the Saint Augustine’s University cycling team, mounted his Canyon cyclocross bike on his trainer from his home in Durham, North Carolina, for a 100-mile group ride on the Zwift indoor cycling app. The St. Vincent and the Grenadines native had never ridden more than 50 miles. He would have to cover the mostly flat 10.7-mile course repeatedly until he completed what cyclists call the “century ride.”

Last fall, the Saint Augustine’s Falcons cycling team formed to become the first for a historically Black college and university (HBCU). After the team was launched, Valentine-Parris had developed into the group’s best rider, but he was far from the elite level on the Zwift platform. He had made his mark as a 400-meter runner (45.39 personal best), representing his home country at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. At Saint Augustine’s, home to one of the most revered college track programs in the country, Valentine-Parris was named during his senior year a 2020 NCAA Division II Indoor Track and Field All-American.

“Track is still my life,” he said. But with the cold weather in Durham and no date set for his country’s Olympic trials for the Tokyo Games, he was staying fit mostly by riding his bike in his bedroom. Now determined to become a professional cyclist after less than a year of taking up the sport, he was trying to reach one of its most significant benchmarks.

Brandon Valentine-Parris is the 25-year-old captain of the Saint Augustine’s University cycling team.

Joshua Steadman

Through 60 miles Valentine-Parris was comfortable, averaging 30 mph. Then, near the 70-mile mark, he began to experience saddle soreness.

“Everything began to shut down,” he said. “I started to have leg spasms and my stomach started cramping. For me, it became mental at that point.”

He had some water, a snack and tried to stay relaxed. For the last 30 miles, he slowed down to 24 mph and endured the pain to finish the ride in a sprint at 4 hours and 28 minutes with riders from Baltimore’s Vegan Cycling team.

“My power levels were a little higher than normal,” he said. “I was pretty pleased with myself.”

Cycling is not a major NCAA sport. There are only 24 varsity and 125 club programs recognized by USA Cycling (USAC). Saint Augustine’s competes as a club team, but plans to begin offering scholarships within the next two years to gain varsity status. For Saint Augustine’s or any other HBCU, to have a cycling team is a remarkable achievement, considering the lack of Black cyclists at all levels of the sport. There are no African Americans among the 113 licensed professional riders on professional teams. A Black rider didn’t compete in the Tour de France until 2011, when France’s Yohann Gene rode for Team Europcar. Since 1984, when Nelson Vails became the first African American cyclist to win an Olympic medal when he took silver in the individual sprint, there have been only a handful of African Americans to compete on the national stage. In 2018, Justin Williams won the USA Cycling Amateur Road National Championship.

Even for recreational riders, there are challenges. “Cycling while Black” is a thing. In an analysis of traffic citations in Chicago and Tampa, Florida, Black cyclists in low-income neighborhoods were given tickets at disproportionately higher rates compared to white cyclists in affluent areas. A Chicago Tribune study of bike tickets from 2008 to 2016 found that seven of the top 10 most ticketed areas in that city were in African American neighborhoods. Three predominantly Latino communities filled out the top 10. According to a 2015 Tampa Bay Times investigation of 10,000 bike tickets issued by the Tampa police over 12 years, Black cyclists received 79% of the citations, despite making up less than a quarter of the city’s population of 388,000 residents. Last summer, in the days after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, many people in the bike industry called out their own racism. Rivendell Bicycle Works offered a 45% discount to Black customers as a form of reparations for racial inequality.

Saint Augustine’s all-Black team quickly embraced the sport’s history. At the turn of the 20th century, a Black man was the most famous cyclist in the world. Marshall “Major” Taylor, born in 1878 just 13 years after the Civil War ended, endured racism to become one of the most celebrated Black people of his time. In 1899, Taylor won the world track championships in the sprint and the U.S. sprint championship in 1899 and 1900. An Indianapolis native, the 11-year-old Taylor swept floors and performed tricks outside of a bike shop for $6 a week to develop his riding skills. After moving to Worcester, Massachusetts, with a benefactor in 1896, he trained by cycling up a notoriously difficult hill in the city.

“Taylor rode the hill two, three and four times a day, rode it as long and hard as he could until he couldn’t turn over his pedals and couldn’t see straight,” said Todd Balf, the author of Major: A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to Be the World’s Fastest Human. “When the wheels stopped, he fell to the ground.”

In 1899, bicyclist Marshall “Major” Taylor won the world track championships in the sprint and the U.S. sprint championship in 1899 and 1900.

Library of Congress/Getty Images

Taylor’s work ethic and resolve have been a source of inspiration for the Saint Augustine’s team.

“I didn’t even know that there were Black people in cycling until I joined the team,” Valentine-Parris said. “Taylor is such an amazing story. Knowing that history has really added so much to my appreciation of the sport and for what we’re doing here at St. Augustine.”

In the fall, Valentine-Parris and the other 11 members of the Saint Augustine’s cycling team began training on the university’s Raleigh, North Carolina, campus, where the school was founded in 1867 for former slaves. To create the safest outdoor training environment for the cyclists, the coaches built a 1-mile cyclocross loop on undeveloped campus land that allows them to cycle around with the eight men and four women on the team and monitor their techniques. A cyclocross course, which is covered with gravel, mud and grass, can be very challenging. Because of COVID-19 protocols during fall 2020, the coaching staff had just 10 weeks with the students, with much of their training occurring indoors on the Zwift app.

“We started from scratch,” said Mark Janas, a 53-year-old amateur competitive cyclist and a university sports program professor who started the team with his colleague Umar Muhammad. “The cyclists had zero experience.”

Janas has coaching help from the husband-and-wife team of Stephen and Suzanna Vogel. Stephen Vogel is a professional rider for Project Echelon Racing.

These beginners had to learn everything from the basics of shifting, balancing and cornering on the bike and where to position their pedals on a turn. In one of their main drills, the cyclists practice cornering by doing figure 8s in a parking lot along a 100-meter course.

“It’s a lot more to cycling than just pedaling,” said Aaliyah “Lele” Williams, a 24-year-old senior on the team who also plays on the Saint Augustine’s women’s basketball team. “At first I could only do two or three miles, but after I started training I could ride up to 20 miles.”

Williams injured her knee in a nasty fall while learning how to make turns on the bike. Valentine-Parris had his first fall during the team’s first practice. He was speeding through Lions Park, near campus, when he flew over his handlebars while trying to avoid a group of riders in front of him.

“I didn’t get hurt because apparently I fall pretty well,” he said. “I used that ability to my advantage since I fall so often. It’s not because I’m clumsy, but because I go all-out every time I’m on the bike.”

“It’s a lot more to cycling than just pedaling,” said Aaliyah “Lele” Williams, a 24-year-old senior on the team who also plays on the Saint Augustine’s women’s basketball team.

Joshua Steadman

COVID-19 postponed the team’s plans to compete last fall in the NCAA’s Atlantic Division with neighboring schools Duke, North Carolina State and Wake Forest. Janas said that the fall season was about building a strong foundation for the program.

“Together as a team we were figuring out what we could do as coaches, and the kids were figuring out their commitment in terms of discipline and training,” he said. “We’ve got a good baseline of miles behind us — some more than others.”

The idea for the team was first conceived in the fall of 2019 when the two professors, who met when they were owners of rival minor league basketball teams, introduced ecycling to students as a tool to teach esports, sports analytics and professional development. Muhammad has a grand design for what the cycling program could mean for the student-athletes. Like Valentine-Parris and Williams, many of the sports management students who joined the new cycling team are competitive athletes in other sports on campus.

“For African American students there are not enough off-ramps for them to take an exit to an internship with the same skills that they are exhibiting as student-athletes,” said the 42-year-old Muhammad, who oversees the university’s sport management program. “We have a demographic that is not exposed to the business side of sports. The cycling program allows us to engage the virtual gaming industry and develop partnerships with some of the companies that support us.”

Muhammad is also keen on the implications that this program could have for helping other HBCUs start cycling teams.

“We’re going down this road first,” he said. “We’ve been blessed with a lot of resources and help from the cycling industry. So we definitely want to see other HBCUs engage their students this way.”

Last April, when the team became the first HBCU to earn USA Cycling certification, they still didn’t have bikes, but after the university sent out a news release, the interests in the program began to grow around the country. Soon Canyon Bicycles provided the team with 12 cyclocross bikes. Canyon has also produced a series of short films featuring the program. Other cycling companies such as Zipp Wheels and Saris pitched in with support. Major Taylor Cycling Wear provided the team’s uniforms. When the NFL got wind of the story, it began using its HBCU-focused Campus Connection program to support the business school’s esports initiatives.

Finote Weldemariam was born in Eritrea, where cycling is the East African country’s most popular sport.

Joshua Steadman

As much as the vision of the team is guided by the broader objectives of the sports management program, there is equally an urgency to develop good riders.

“Even though we are technically a club and not a varsity team, our intention is to be competitive,” Janas said. “We want to build a team that becomes as well known as our track team.”

Through a central computer login, Janas is able to monitor the training rides of each cyclist. He was able to follow Valentine-Parris through his century ride.

“Brandon really takes the training serious,” Janas said. “He’s definitely our team leader and the one who puts in the most miles.”

Muhammad and Janas learned through student surveys that while all the students may have lacked serious cycling experience, they were interested in the sport and at least one of them had yearned to be a cyclist for most of his life.

Finote Weldemariam was born in Eritrea, where cycling is the East African country’s most popular sport. The Eritrean people began to embrace cycling in the 1930s when it was an Italian colony. In the capital city of Asmara, where Weldemariam was born in 1996, Eritreans formed their own cycling races and clubs in the 1930s when they were excluded from the all-Italian events. Between the 1956 Melbourne and 1972 Munich Games, 19 Eritrean cyclists competed in the Olympic Games, more than any other African nation in that sport. In 2015, Eritrean cyclists Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus became the first two Black Africans to compete in the Tour de France.

Growing up in Keren, the country’s second-largest city, Weldemariam understood this legacy very well. On Sundays after church with his grandmother, he watched the races as they went through town. The sprint was his favorite part of the race.

“I always wanted to know what it felt like to sprint through the finish line,” he said. “I loved how the riders were cheered by the fans.”

But the thought of his own cycling career quickly faded after he moved with his family to the United States as a teen. The formation of Saint Augustine’s cycling team allowed him to imagine he might be a cyclist sprinting to the finish in front of a large crowd.

“It was like waking up to a dream that had died,” said the 24-year-old senior organizational management major. “That was something I always wanted to do, but I didn’t think I would make it this far to actually not just be on a cycling team but the first HBCU team. We’re not just trying to be the first one. We want to be an example for others.”

After graduation in May, Weldemariam plans to stick around and train with the team. Long term he would like to race professionally and follow in the footsteps of his fellow countrymen who have represented Eritrea around the world in cycling.

“That would be one of the greatest honors of my life to wear the colors of Eritrea,” he said.

Valentine-Parris shares his teammate’s lofty ambition. Neither man could have imagined a year ago the hold that cycling now has over their lives. They want to race and hope they get a chance this fall if COVID-19 doesn’t thwart plans for club teams to resume their schedules. But they are more concerned now about the next ride. In his standard week of 150 miles on the bike, Valentine-Parris will start his mornings at 4 a.m. with a bowl of oatmeal before he hops in the saddle an hour later.

“I think I have the potential to be a professional cyclist,” said Valentine-Parris, who has earned his USAC coaching certification. “As an Olympic athlete, I know what it takes to be a world-class athlete.”

Farrell Evans has written about the intersection of race and sports for many publications including Sports Illustrated, Golf Magazine, GQ, The Oxford American, Bleacher Report, ESPN.com and Andscape, where he writes regularly about golf.