Diversity in US cycling: How inclusion is being 'built from the ground up'

The USA Cycling National Championships
(Image credit: Jonathan Devich)

February is Black History Month in the United States and Cyclingnews will be featuring stories both looking back at Black accomplishments in the sport and toward the future. 

In this feature, we check in with USA Cycling about its exciting new grant programme to fund cycling teams at Historically Black and Tribal Colleges and Universities. While not exactly Black History, the application period ends February 12, so we wanted to publish this as the first instalment of the series.

In 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement and the mass protests across the country highlighted the vast racial inequalities in the United States. It also forced the country's cycling federation to look closer at the lack of diversity in the sport and make plans to make cycling more inclusive.

"We are committed to finding ways to make cycling look more like the population of the United States but we're a long way from that," CEO Rob De Martini said at the time.

USA Cycling found out just how far it had to go by doing a demographic survey of its current or past members and finding they are overwhelmingly white (86 per cent), male (83 per cent), and middle-aged (50 per cent) - the very definition of the dreaded MAMIL (middle-aged [white] men in lycra) cycling stereotype.

But these numbers clearly do not reflect the actual percentages of those who enjoy riding bikes – only those that the federation has reached.

The unrest of 2020 was a tipping point for many industries to devote more effort and money to inclusion. Specialized committed $10 million to its Outride programme, with the promise to bring bikes to more underserved communities. Le39ION of Los Angeles raised $125,000 to support its diversity initiatives, enough to expand its reach to a domestic elite women's team and Continental men's squad.

St. Augustine's University in Raleigh, NC became the first HBCU to independently launch a cycling programme and the ambitious group of novice racers gained support from Canyon Bicycles.

Then EF Pro Cycling and Cannondale stepped in last year to fund a three-year, $300,000 grant programme for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCU), which will fund three new cycling teams in these schools. (Applications close on February 12 – click here for more information)

The HBCU/TCU grant was expanded thanks to a raffle that gave away a limited edition Cannondale/Palace/Rapha bike that EF Pro Cycling used in the 2020 Giro d'Italia, which raised $93,460 from 2,642 individual contributors. Individual donors to the DEI programme can also designate funds to the HBCU/TCU grant programme.

A committee will review the applications and award the three three-year grants for the 2021-2022 academic year. 

"We are looking for programs we feel have the best opportunity for success - not success in the sense of winning races, but success in the sense that they're in a community that would be able to help support the programme, they've got kind of someone that can be a point of contact, and they've got a passion and interest," USA Cycling's Kelsey Erickson says.

The grants will cover "everything to be able to have a successful [gender-balanced] team of eight riders and to continue that support over those three years", including equipment, coaching, race expenses, and licenses. 

"We're definitely hoping that we'll be able to bring in additional schools during that time period if we do additional fundraising because presumably, the cost of running each of the programmes will go down from year to year. The first year is going to be significant with the equipment [costs] but, presumably, in year two you wouldn't be adding a full fleet of bikes. Our hope is that this is just the beginning and we'll be able to add additional programs as we move forward."

Once established, the new collegiate teams would become part of the existing conferences and will compete in whichever disciplines they choose. USA Cycling will help the teams get started by pairing them with licensed coaches and mentors who can help them get started.

"The cool thing about the program is it's not limited to road cycling - some of them might want to do BMX, some are doing cyclo-cross," says Erickson. "The cool thing about a new program is that you can be flexible and dynamic and see what comes out of it and adjust. The plan is to make this long-term sustainable."

Task force

USA Cycling is working on plenty of other initiatives, having brought together a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force to create a more welcoming environment in the sport, where everyone can enjoy cycling "regardless of gender, gender identity, race, class, or any other perceived difference".

It took a bit of humility and the realization that the organisation needed to hear the voices of the groups they intended to help, task force head Erickson explains to Cyclingnews.

"I think it's been an opportunity for us to recognize that we don't have to have all the answers and actually our community has a ton of great things to bring to the table. A lot of the frustrations and assumptions that people have about USA Cycling are wrong, but that's on us because we haven't communicated who we are and what we do. 

"I think this has been a good chance for us to kind of take stock of where are our opportunities, where are our strengths and how can we be more engaging with our community and work together towards what we all want, which is a more inclusive and accessible sport. We don't actually have to have all the answers and we don't have to do it alone."

The group includes six USA Cycling employees and six external members, including athletes Ayesha McGowan and Chelsea Wolfe, bicycle advocacy experts Pete Taylor and Ed Ewing and attorney, equity and inclusion strategist Ashland Johnson and Wrestle like a Girl COO Amy Zirneklis.

"It has been a concerted and intentional effort to build inclusion from the ground up, engaging with the community – including anyone who commented or criticized the federation's social media posts around diversity," Erickson says.

"We started out by first inviting just those that have commented on any of our social media posts around diversity equity and inclusion, inviting them to be a part of the conversation and then based on interest, we invited the whole community. I think we ended up hosting nine round-tables.

"We got a ton of really great insights. We learned a lot about our community. I think they learned a lot about us and then we've used that information. There's been a lot of a lot of forward movement."

The coronavirus pandemic has not slowed the effort. If anything, the lack of racing and the necessity of remote video conferences helped with participation in the various round-table meetings. Several themes emerged from the meetings, with a focus on removing barriers to cycling in order to get better representation, access and inclusion.

The grants will help develop a more diverse set of racers, a professional mentorship programme aims to bring more women and people of colour to the whole of the cycling industry, while the planned Let's Ride Camps aim to help children who might not otherwise have access to bikes get into cycling. 

"We're looking to get 20,000 kids on bikes and of those we want 25 per cent to be kids that wouldn't otherwise have access to cycling equipment," Erickson says.

Between adding new collegiate programs, getting more kids on bikes and helping with professional mentorship to bring a more diverse workforce into the industry, Erickson says, "We're absolutely you looking to increase access and inclusion across the entire sport and we are trying to be strategic in the way that we do this and really making sure that everything that we do connects across the lifespan of an athlete."

Hopefully, down the road, the demographics of cycling in the US will look a lot different than middle-aged white men in lycra and more like the whole of the US.

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Laura Weislo
Managing Editor

Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Managing Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. As former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks. Laura's specialises in covering doping, anti-doping, UCI governance and performing data analysis.