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Denesha Snell is accustomed to being the only Black woman at a bike race. At Unbound Gravel, this wasn’t the case.
“A few months ago, I did a ride, a metric century,” said Snell, who handles public relations for the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Kansas City. “I was the only Black women out there. I posted on Instagram, ‘this has been nice, the ride was great, but I’m the only Black woman out there.’ For us to go to Unbound Gravel and bring our folks with us — I was not the only Black woman on the Unbound 100 course. There were at least eight of us women of color out there.”
“What we bring to this is people who never would have thought about doing a gravel ride or cycling event, period,” she said.
Snell was one of 65 members of Major Taylor Cycling Club riders to attend Unbound this year through a special partnership with the race’s organizer, Life Time. The group was given entries that would allow members to bypass the onerous lottery process. The spots that weren’t filled by Major Taylor Kansas City riders were offered to members of the nation’s other Major Taylor Cycling Clubs (MTCC).
For the event, the partnership was a step toward a more diverse and inclusive start line in Emporia. For the club, it was an opportunity to expose riders to a new type of riding and then work collectively toward a goal. The group had participants across the 50, 100, and 200 mile distances, with one rider doing the 350-mile Unbound XL.
An image issue
The Major Taylor Cycling Club of Kansas City has 90 members and was founded in 2014. Like all of the Major Taylor clubs across the country, the Kansas City chapter prioritizes inclusivity above all else.
“We run the gamut of types of riders,” Snell said. “Some have never ridden and want to exercise for their health. We have some who’ve raced. It’s not an exclusive club. But we understand that this is not always accessible for everyone. We want to bridge those gaps in the ways that we can. Whether through partnerships with Unbound, or whatever, we want to make sure we do that.”
The burgeoning relationship between Unbound Gravel and Major Taylor’s Kansas City chapter is a result of fortuitous timing. Snell said that before the race was canceled in 2020, a few of the group’s members were thinking about going, so she and the club’s president, Mitchell Williams, reached out to Life Time. They were directed to speak with longtime event director Kristi Mohn.
The challenges of 2020 have led to some truly positive changes and collaborations. Our commitment to creating a more diverse sport makes these collaborations crucial to be successful. We are SO excited to team up with the Major Taylor Cycling Club in 2021https://t.co/CPeavCMDua pic.twitter.com/B0MvAZOSFm
— UNBOUND Gravel (@unboundgravel) December 18, 2020
Snell was ambitious in her request; she asked Mohn for 100 race entries, knowing that she might get a fraction of that. Unbound is notoriously hard to get into, and that challenge often leads to friends and families having to make a decision to go to Kansas solo if their riding partners don’t make the cut. Snell said she was shocked when Mohn came back with 65 entries for Major Taylor riders — for both 2021 and 2022.
And, yes, there was a backstory.
“We understood that they had an image issue,” Williams said. “Because they had an image issue, it’s a win-win for Unbound and for us.”
The spring and summer of 2020 were particularly challenging for the event. There was an ongoing and at times contentious debate about changing the race’s name from “Dirty Kanza,” which had been its title for 14 years. Then, Life Time parted ways with Jim Cummins, one of the founders of the event, after he wrote a post on Facebook about the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man in Atlanta who was gunned down by police on June 12, 2020.
Rather than deter Major Taylor KC from entering into a relationship with the event, Snell said its members embraced the opportunity.
“It was exciting because they had a DEI plan,” she said. “We felt very good about it. They invited us to a couple training rides in Emporia. We felt a lot of love and appreciation. First of all, there’s a sense of community among cyclists anyway. Being a Black cyclist, I’m used to being one of the few people on a ride. I don’t like it, but I’m used to it. When we went there to the training rides it’s like we’ve known these people forever.”
For most of the Major Taylor members who traveled to Emporia for race weekend, the event would mark the first time they’d ridden such a distance on gravel. Most of the Kansas City club rides are on the road or trail; the opportunity to attend Unbound simply opened up another door.
When Shequaya Bailey, who is the president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Major Taylor Cycling Club, heard that the Kansas City chapter had some entries to Unbound, she decided to sign up. The 36-year old had purchased a gravel bike last year and was involved in the outreach and activism of the Black Foxes, a collective of Black cyclists and outdoors-people who aim to normalize Blackness in those spaces.
Before Unbound, Bailey had only done three other gravel events. The chance to go to Unbound appealed to her less for the racing than for the opportunity to meet fellow Major Taylor cyclists.
“It was a way for me to link up with KC Major Taylor club,” Bailey said. “To be honest, I would have never even done the event if it wasn’t for Major Taylor. For me, there’s no reason to do this race all the way across the country with no other brown and Black people being there. If I want to race a bunch of white people I can race in my area. It’s a bunch of money to get there, I can do that here.”
Spending the weekend with the other Major Taylor riders turned out to be the highlight of Bailey’s weekend. She had a great day on the bike, finishing 30 minutes faster than her goal time, but what made the event memorable was the camaraderie of the other cyclists.
“It helped me feel like not just like a speck in the sea of all the whiteness at this event,” she said. “It felt like community. We had the dinner, the shakeout ride, so it was much more of a social aspect. We got together and ate at a restaurant in town. It was so nice to be around other Black and brown people at this event in Kansas.
While Denesha Snell and Mitchell Williams of the Kansas City chapter are already making plans for next year’s event — both for their own training and for rallying the club members who might want to attend — Bailey’s attitude is more nuanced. Pittsburgh is 1,000 miles away from Emporia, which meant there was a significant cost involved in traveling to and staying at the race venue. Without the added lure of a contingent of new Major Taylor riders to meet, she’s not sure if she’d do it again.
“I think in the future I would only go to this if Major Taylor is involved,” she said. “To me it’s just another gravel event. I know it’s a big deal and they did do a great job on how well put together it is. I see the amount of production that goes into it. But it’s ungodly expensive, so I probably wouldn’t even consider doing this as a repeat.”
For that reason, Bailey hopes to see the partnership between Unbound and Major Taylor continue longer than the stated two years. She believes that Unbound put their words into action by partnering with Major Taylor, but, she said “don’t just do it one time, you gotta keep trying.”
As for Snell, her experience on the bike in the Flint Hills was enough to bring her back year after year. A self-proclaimed ‘indoors city kid,’ she was always more comfortable riding urban pavement. Gravel took her outside of her comfort zone — and it created a space for her to reflect.
“I get to talk to myself,” she said. “I get to look around. It’s something I don’t get on a regular basis, it’s really nice. To be able to introduce that to other people, especially people of color and Black folks, for us to be able to reclaim some of what was taken and say, ‘this is not something that just white people do. This is what Black people do. Filipinos do. Latinos do.’ For young people to be able to see this, for my 16-year-old daughter to see this, it definitely helps.”