Major Taylor Journal: If bikes saved my life, then bikes can save the world

Daniel Kofi Morteh explains how bikes transformed his life and gave him the confidence to push himself.

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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. These riders have informed perspectives on what it means to be a person of color in the U.S. cycling scene. We are honored to share their thoughts in a regular column series on in the coming months.

There will be many moments that define how you will live the rest of your life. I’m grateful that cycling has been in that moment, again and again, for me.

When I was a kid, a college breakup was the reason why I came close to having suicidal thoughts. Then, on June 30th, 2019, having ending a five-year relationship, I became afraid of having those thoughts again.

What did I do? I got out of bed and decided to ride 100 miles by myself. Upon returning home, I felt victorious, and my problems felt more manageable. That day, I accepted that life consists of wins and losses. Sometimes losses take a hold of your emotions. Every bike ride that tested my limits became a win, and an experience that helped me balance those everyday struggles and handle life’s challenges.

I owe my happiness and probably my life to a simple bicycle.

The author enjoying one of his big rides. Photo: Daniel Kofi Morteh

However you see cycling, riding a bike is also a metaphor for life. No matter what happens in life, as with cycling, I’ve learned to keep pedaling in order to move forward. I’ve also learned that you have to know when to go hard, and when to coast, and how to enjoy the ride. Most importantly, I’ve learned to look back and to appreciate and be proud of how far I’ve come. It is something that has helped me a lot over the years, and I try to show people the peace that comes from riding your bike great distances.

My name is Daniel Kofi Morteh and I was born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey. I ran track in high school but wasn’t introduced to cycling until much later. I graduated college in 2008 as an aspiring filmmaker. The industry is difficult to navigate, so I took a job working the opening shift at Starbucks in Hoboken. Public transportation wasn’t available, so with my first paycheck, I bought a mountain bike. That was the beginning of my cycling and to this day it remains my main source of transportation. In 2013 I took a job at a fitness center and I found myself taking a lot of spin classes taught by pro cyclist Sebaj Adele. I came to admire Sebaj who has been my cycling mentor.

Morteh modeling one of the new MTIR Black Lives Matter kits. Photo: Daniel Kofi Morteh

In 2015, my dad passing took a mental toll on me, and I needed a distraction. I bought a used single-speed bike for $250, and rode the Five Boro Bike Tour. It was surprisingly easy for me to complete. I found touring invigorating yet relaxing; that year I participated in as many bike events as possible, including the New York Century.

Cycling became my therapy. This was pure, unadulterated hedonism — a pursuit of pleasure. When you are biking, your troubles are left behind. Your bills, rent, or relationship issues all seem to fade into the distance. Afterward each ride, I would talk about the experience to my coworkers, and I eventually was convinced to get my spin certification. In less than three months I was teaching Spin classes. This gave me extra money, and most importantly, I enjoyed what I was doing.

Still, I was hesitant to go on big outdoor rides. In 2015 I accepted an invitation from Sebaj to ride in an 80-mile event out of Newark, New Jersey. When we arrived, I was completely stunned to see over 100 Black men and women looking like superheroes. I had heard of The Major Taylor Iron Riders, but I have never seen them together. My immediate response at my exhausted finish was: “When is the next one?” Not long after I became a member of Major Taylor New Jersey and The Iron Riders.

The author atop Bear Mountain, north of New York City. Photo: Daniel Kofi Morteh

I felt like cycling allowed me to break free of my perceived limitations, and it allowed me to explore my physical capabilities. I became obsessed. This new confidence spilled over into other areas of my life. Issues which had been problematic became manageable. Unequivocally, I believe cycling helped to lift me out of the depression I was secretly battling.

Cycling has given me opportunities I never would have had. I taught spin three times a week through a senior citizen program in Jersey City. I got involved in alternative transportation issues, and began building a lucrative career that I enjoyed. When the pandemic shut down gyms I began riding 200-plus miles a week until I figured out a way to make a living. One day, I rode past a friend’s bike shop; the line was around the block. I offered a day’s help and that favor turned into a full-time job. Four months later, I received a call from Grove Street/Giant Bicycles, a top shop in the area, and was offered an awesome position. I’ve since joined Bike JC’s board of directors and I’ve led several rides as far as Bear Mountain, and Philadelphia.

Cycling has been a social outlet during the pandemic. Countless people have begun to ride as an alternative to activities no longer available. During a time where activities were limited cycling offered an element of normalcy.

On June 14, 2020, my friend, Jeff and I decided to ride to Philadelphia. We opened the invite and I was surprised to see 12 riders of various backgrounds and ride experience eager to participate. A 100-mile bike ride can create lasting friendships that can transcend a global pandemic and civil unrest. When we entered Philadelphia I looked at my companions and said, “Wow, bikes could save the world right now!”

Morteh says that riding has become an emotional outlet for him. Photo: Daniel Kofi Morteh

Isolation is torture for an extrovert. In the era of social distancing, biking is an activity that allows people to connect while remaining apart. The website was initiated to record the testimonies of cyclists about what they gained from riding during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic inspired one of my cycling partners, Aliya Barnwell, to start Ride Upgrades, a nonprofit organization that introduces youngsters to competitive cycling. Ride Upgrades is the reason this year’s Philadelphia birthday ride is now a 200-mile, overnight fundraiser. Cycling has provided ways to stay healthy, physically and mentally, and even provided a few friends. Cycling has even given some joy, happiness, and a sense of well-being.

2020 will go down as surreal for everyone including myself. 2020 ended one of the most controversial presidential terms in U.S. history; it saw Civil Unrest, BLM, police shooting citizens, and a worldwide pandemic that endangered my livelihood, if not my life. Throughout the uncertainty, cycling offered much to many and became the nucleus of almost everything that came into my life. I feel mentally and physically stronger than I ever have. And simply riding with friends brought peace, normalcy, good health, camaraderie, employment, and good vibes on top. Every day I pass cyclists on the road. There isn’t insecurity, prejudice, or anger on their face, just the appearance of peace and serenity. It’s that simple; “Bikes Will Save The World’.

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