Growing up, Mitchell Williams learned that bikes were toys. Once you hit 16, it was time to put down the kickstand and grab a set of car keys.
It wasn’t until he was 50 and looking for a lifestyle change that could help him stay sober, that he realized riding a bike was still a lot of fun.
“When I was a kid, you rode a bike and you had this downhill feeling,” Williams said, “and the speed, and the rush, and the ‘WEEE!’ I still have that ‘weeee’ experience now.
Since he took it over in middle age, Williams’ constituency has taken off. After retiring from a job in financial services, he eventually became the first African-American president of the Kansas City Bicycle Club, now known as the K.C. Cycling, one of the largest bicycle associations in the metro.
At the time, he said, “I did everything I could to try to get people of color and women on our club rides. It was hard. I mean, they just didn’t show up.
So, around 2014, he helped form the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Kansas City, one of many such clubs in the world. Williams’ goal was simple: get more people of color in the saddle and have a positive impact on their health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans are more likely than their white counterparts to have high blood pressure and diabetes, and are more likely to be obese. Not only can regular cycling help cyclists maintain a healthy weight, studies suggest this could reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
“We are not the fastest club. I mean, we’re not known for our speed. We’re not known for being on time,” Williams laughed. “So why do people come? Because they like to be with us.
Monday evening group rides
In addition to other walks throughout the week, the club organizes a group ride on Monday evening it’s open to anyone with a bike and a helmet. The group meets in a parking lot in the 18th and Vine District, just behind the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Ivy Brito goes there almost every Monday from Lee’s Summit. When she moved to the area a few years ago, the group welcomed her with open arms and helped her get to know the city.
“I rode in Kentucky, but not as much,” Brito said. “The most I walked in a year was about 160 miles. Last year I walked 889 miles with these people!
As she donned her helmet and hung on for the first Monday night ride of the year in mid-March, Brito also credited the group with showing her the city from a perspective she didn’t. not while navigating highways by car.
Denesha Snell’s connection to the club came after a years-long search to find other black women to ride with. Snell, who is director of programming at American Public Square, said it’s not just racial diversity that makes the group unique.
“They can be professional cyclists, or you can have someone who’s a novice – just starting out,” she said. “Because of this, there is a space and a place for everyone.”
This spirit of inclusion is part of the reason this ride begins and ends east of Kansas City’s historic racial boundary, Troost Avenue.
“We want to be in certain areas, in certain neighborhoods. We want kids to be able to see us, we want people… to see us who maybe say, “Black people don’t ride bikes,” Snell said. “But we do, we’re right here.”
Despite recent data showing Kansas Citizens are cycling more than before the pandemic, the increase could be mainly due to wealthy white residents. Previous research shows African Americans are more likely than other demographic groups to want to own a car and less likely to include cycling as their ideal mode of transportation.
The Lessons and Legacy of Major Taylor
The inspiration for this club – Major Taylor, the man – was born and raised in Indianapolis and competed in cycling events around the world during a time of strict racial segregation. In 1899 he became world cycling champion, just the second black world champion in any sport.
Williams said he never faced overt racism while biking in Kansas City, but he takes another lesson from Taylor’s legacy: do your best and build community.
“We’ve met a lot of people, and a lot of people know us and our kit,” Williams said. “Everywhere we go people know our kit.”
It’s not just the club’s cream and olive shirt that people have come to know. Williams is a fixture on the bike scene. Although semi-retired, he remains busy teaching cycling and safety for the advocacy group BikeWalkKC.
To his students, he is affectionately nicknamed “sensei”.
With 120 members across the country and about 70 in the Kansas City area, it’s clear the other members of the Major Taylor Cycling Club appreciate the effort.
“I love helping people achieve their goals, seeing them come true, and that makes me happy,” Williams said. “So that’s why I’m doing this.”