Major Taylor Journal: It takes a village to raise a cyclist

All cyclists benefit from mentorship. Author Kevin McNeill explains why having Black mentors helped him thrive in the sport.

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Named for Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor, the country’s first Black cycling champion, and the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, an all-Black unit known as the ‘Iron Riders,’ the Major Taylor Iron Riders club of New York City is comprised largely of Black, Latino, and Asian-American riders. We are honored to share their thoughts in a regular column series on in the coming months.  

There is a saying: “It takes a village to raise a child.” This saying can also be applied to a cyclist.

My name is Kevin McNeill, and my journey into the world of bike racing began in the mid-1970s when I was 14 years old and a fledgling track racer. Living in Brooklyn, I was fortunate to have the Kissena velodrome in Queens a short distance away. Most of my training then (and now) happened in Prospect Park, a closed 3.2-mile loop where almost all cyclist in our area did their workouts.

The Brooklyn cycling community provided me with mentors. Aside from the racers of the era, the most prominent mentors were the Brooklyn Red Caps. While not a racing team, they were a loosely-organize club of Black riders, and one of the first Black cycling clubs in the city. Most of the group’s riders were of Caribbean descent, with a few Americans mixed in. There were a handful of Hispanic riders too. The Red Caps were known for their epic 135-mile rides from Brooklyn to Montauk.

These gentlemen taught me the basics of cycling: riding in a pace line, bike handling, cycling etiquette. More importantly, they embraced and protected me as a new member of the cycling community. They made riding fun for a kid. During my time riding with them, thoughts of race or ethnicity in cycling never once crossed my mind.

The author racing the Haute Route. Photo: Kevin McNeill

That was 44 years ago. Today, I am 58 years old. I’m a Cat 2 road cyclist and occasional racer, and a proud member of the Major Taylor Iron Riders cycling club. Cycling has been an important part of my life. It’s given me a network of friends and business connections that spans from Brooklyn to Europe. Because of this sport, my friends, teammates, club members and I have traveled to parts of the world that we had previously only dreamed about. We have had opportunities to ride on some of the best amateur events, and up some of the highest Cols in Europe.

My connection to the bike spans decades. When I was 10 years old my parents sent me to a summer school program in Connecticut. Like many middle-class families, my parents wanted the best for their child and hoped that a summer school outside of chaotic Brooklyn would boost my education. They didn’t know that diversity — or lack thereof — was an issue at this school. I was one of only three Black students in the entire school. I was pretty timid with limited self-confidence, and I had a tough time standing up for myself.

My race became an issue, as I ended up with a racist bully roommate who enjoyed calling me any name other than my own.

And that’s where cycling came in. It was the only bright spot to the school. I had brought my yellow Schwinn Varsity 10-speed with me from my home in Crown Heights. Before this experience, all of my bike rides had been within a five-block radius of my house. At the school, one of the teachers was a touring cyclist, and he was kind enough to organize short touring rides for students.

I couldn’t get enough of those rides on the backroads of Connecticut. Additionally, he had stacks of cycling magazines that featured the big racers of the time. The images and cool bikes fascinated me. Both of these experiences had a big impact on me.

The author (center) with other members of the Major Taylor Iron Riders club. Photo: Kevin McNeill

This teacher, and the Red Caps, taught me that mentors are a critical part of the cycling culture. Every endeavor requires someone who has been there before to show you the way. Prior to that summer in Connecticut, the idea of road riding or bike racing never occurred to me. The exposure to the sport that summer showed me the freedom that a bike could provide. I discovered that there was much more to a bike than riding around the block. Not to mention a welcome respite from my idiot roommate. Mentorship by the Red Caps, Team Brooklyn, and other encouraging adults in my teenage years were critical to my growth as a cyclist and a man. These grown men modeled and encouraged a healthy lifestyle in a competitive environment that only helped the self-confidence of a timid teenager.

I actually discovered a sport that I could be good at.

My personal cycling experiences have always been with a diverse crowd, and I spent the better part of two decades focused on racing, being a pretend professional cyclist. In the last few years, I have been obsessed with multi-day bucket-list events like the Haute Route series. I’d love to do the Maratona des Dolomites, and a few other Grand European sportifs. Yep, I have spent a huge amount of time on training, diet, and racing — probably just like you.

Recently, the topics of race and diversity have come to the forefront in cycling. If our sport continues to grow, diversity and representation matter. I can tell you from experience, that when people of color see others like themselves, enjoying an activity, they are more likely to participate. Access to bikes, clothing, and equipment for an expensive activity like cycling needs to be available. For many juniors and new riders seeking to enter this sport, funds for these items are a huge barrier to entry.

The author and other club members standing atop the Col de la Madeleine in France. Photo: Kevin McNeill

Most important is mentorship and guidance — something I grew to appreciate so many years ago. It’s an important element of our club, and one of the reasons our club is, in my mind, so special. Since the inception of the Major Taylor Iron Riders Club there has been an unspoken level of support and caring that I have not witnessed in many other clubs or teams. It is one of the many reasons for the success of our club. Our club is a welcoming environment where seasoned racers, weekend enthusiasts, and newbies all mix together on rides and social events.

The club has created a safe space for new riders to learn the sport. The real secret to the Major Taylor Iron Riders is that we take care of each other.

When Mel Corbett sends an email saying that a new young member needs a bike or equipment, we answer the call. Members pool funds together for a purchase, or they give up an old bike or use a connection at a local shop to get the kid what he or she needs. On some occasions the more well-funded members of the club have just stepped up to pay it forward.

When a young Josh Hartman crashed racing at the Red Hook Crit and faced life-threatening injuries, Tonya Miller — who was club president at that time — rallied the troops and made sure he had the funding necessary to cover his medical bills. Younger members are mentored by older ones in cycling and life. Growth in any endeavor is about education, opportunity, finance and mentoring. Our club provides this opportunity.

Paying it forward is a quiet subtext of the club’s existence. But more importantly, with the help of the Major Taylor Iron Riders, there is an obligation to pay it forward, and spread the love of the sport to the next generation of riders.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.