New Louisiana cycling club honors black world champion of 1899


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Shortly before 7 a.m., on a steamy Sunday morning, more than a dozen cyclists converged upon the Tammany Trace trailhead in Mandeville. There was the usual banter about training, family, the work week. Then New Orleans native Omar Berry ran through a checklist to ensure that each rider had the equipment necessary to stay hydrated and fueled or to fix a flat tire to conquer the hills on this 50-plus-mile North Shore trek.

This gathering of “guys on bikes’’ is seemingly like any other group of cycling enthusiasts, save one thing: The majority of them are African American.

They are members of the newly minted Major Taylor Cycling Club of Louisiana, which honors the professional black cyclist crowned world champion in 1899 and holder of American sprint titles. The first African American athlete to achieve superstar status internationally, Taylor excelled, owning seven world records in one year while confronting the ugliness of racism.

He attributed his success to humility, “clean living’’ and sportmanship.

“He was a humble man, he was a spiritual man. He persevered. He never stopped. He never settled. That’s our motto,’’ said Kevin Tripeaux of Baton Rouge.

Cycling traditionally has been the sport of the white middle class. An American Bicyclist study in 2010 found that while 11 percent of the nation’s adult population was African American, only 5.1 percent of bike riders were black.

But participation in cycling is on the rise nationwide, especially among communities of color, according to the American League of Cyclists and the Sierra Club. Biking was found to be the third-most-popular outdoor activity among African Americans. And black cyclists are banding together in clubs around the country, many in the name of Major Taylor.

The Louisiana group began five years ago when Tripeaux and five others started meeting for weekly rides. Their journey has taken them around the state — a Memorial Day trek rolled from the River Parishes to Audubon Park — and to rides in Georgia and Mississippi.

During a Labor Day ride last year in Atlanta with 3,000 cyclists, many from other Major Taylor clubs around the nation, the riders began talking about creating a Louisiana chapter. “It inspired us to do this for the benefit of our community at home,’’ Tripeaux said. “If we’re all healthy mentally, physically and spiritually, we become better people.’’

So last month, Major Taylor Cycling Club of Louisiana came to be. The members, from Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Mandeville and Houma, range in age from early 30s to 51. But they’ve had experienced cyclists in their late 70s join them.

Tripeaux, 51, stressed that the group welcomes everyone, just as they’ve been embraced. Along the way, they’ve partnered with Tour de Friends of Baton Rouge, 4D Racing of Baton Rouge, BCC of Thibodaux and Urban South Cycling of New Orleans.

“We’re not one-dimensional — that we’re only for black people, only for men,’’ Berry said. “We’re diverse.’’

Each time the men mount their bikes, Taylor’s accomplishments are celebrated. Yet beyond recreation and fellowship, they aim to bring together folks of all walks of life — particularly African Americans — in the name of health and fitness.

The loss of a couple of close friends to heart attacks and strokes motivates Tripeaux to do more. “These were young brothers, just dying,’’ he said. “It is too much.’’

“You have to invest time in yourself,’’ Berry said. “You have to take care of yourself at a young age or even at middle age. You pay for your health now or you’re going to pay for it later in medications. It’s a lifestyle change.’’

Educator Leon Veal, 38, of Houma weighed 270 pounds when he started riding more than three years ago. A former college basketball player turned coach, Veal was looking to drop a few pounds when he came across a bike ride.

“Starting out, I wanted to lose weight. But as the group grew, it became more about camaraderie,’’ he said.“We enjoy each other.’’

He’s lost about 40 pounds. Last year, he rode more than 3,500 miles.

Like with most physical activity, there is no doubt about the benefits: better sleep, weight loss and improved mood. “It’s total relaxation and rejuvenation,’’ Tripeaux said.

The club plans to create programs to encourage cyclists of all levels to find success at their own pace. Members also feel an obligation to serve as good role models and to help empower young people. “What kids don’t understand is that you don’t have to be the next great basketball player or rapper,’’ Veal said. “You just find your niche in life and work hard at it.

“We want to change lives. We want to inspire,’’ Veal said. “We’ve got something for everyone. We want more people to ride and get fit.’’

Said Tripeaux: “The benefit to riding with us is camaraderie, community service, and discovering the beauty of Louisiana.’’

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