Rachel Olzer is a cross-country racer, Specialized ambassador and co-founder of @pedal2thepeople.
I’m giddy as I slowly pull into the parking lot of the bike shop. It’s my first group ride since making the long drive from my former home in Tucson, Arizona, to my new home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, attended university in Arizona, and worked for some time in the tropics so I was used to the heat, and was not prepared for the long, grueling winter I knew was coming in my new Midwestern home. But it was summer so I was taking as much advantage of the long, warm days as I could.
Immediately, I find the ride leader, a cute blonde woman I recognize from her Facebook profile picture. I’m a little early, which is atypical for me. Usually I’m the one running late. As people start pulling into the parking lot and meeting up with the group, I am attempting to keep track of every new name I learn. By the time 7 p.m. rolls around, our group is 10 strong. The ride is specifically meant for self-identifying women, trans and femme folks. Even still, I feel out of place. I’m the only Woman of Color in the group. I am here to ride, and I will ride, but the pang in my chest at being the only Woman of Color in the group won’t die.
Why would a ride for FTW-identifying folks have only white people, other than me? This isn’t inclusion, I think to myself.
For many cyclists and outdoor enthusiasts, summer is the ultimate season. We wait all year for the clouds to part, the snow to melt and the summer sun to come out so we can play. Traditionally, summer brings the anticipated group rides—a chance to ride with like-minded individuals, test the fitness you’ve been building throughout the winter and potentially make new connections with other riders. I’m no exception. I live for summer. I love group rides and the general camaraderie of riding outside. However, there is often a lot of anxiety about whether I will once again, be ‘the only’ at the group ride.
I identify as a Queer Black woman. I use she/her and they/them pronouns. I am also a Trans-racial adoptee—I’m Black, my family is white. I often joke that I’m the literal Black sheep of my family (I believe that humor is one of the greatest medicines).
My family does not practice anti-racism and that did not change when they adopted me. On the contrary, the struggles I’ve had with my identity stem from their attitudes and beliefs about race. Growing up, my grandmother was perhaps the worst offender. She flagrantly used racial slurs to refer to people who look like me. She openly hated interracial couples and forbid me to date Black men. At a young age, I learned to hate the color of my skin, the curl of my hair, and the deep color of my eyes. Before bed I would pray that my skin would transform overnight; that I would awaken in another body with another identity more acceptable to the people I loved.
For most of my adolescence, I had an underlying assumption that I wasn’t beautiful. Even after coming to see myself as attractive later in my teenage years, I assumed I would never be as beautiful as my best friend, a young white girl. I don’t think it was a conscious thought that she was more beautiful because she was white, but looking back, that is what I unknowingly believed.
I grew up in a suburb of Las Vegas, Nevada. Like most modern-American suburbs, my town was primarily white. My K-12 educators were all white. My classmates and close friends were mostly white. By the time I went to college, I was used to being the only Person of Color in a classroom or among my social circles. In some ways, being ‘the only’ felt more natural to me than being surrounded by other people like me.
When I moved to Minnesota for graduate school, I became hyper-aware of my identity and race. Frequently, I was stared at in public by white onlookers. Minneapolis is one of the most racially-segregated cities in the US, and because of that I felt trapped in a sea of whiteness once again. It felt suffocating.
When I started graduate school, I began to rely on cycling as an opportunity to breathe again. I used it as a tool for managing stress. I love that cycling gives me the ability to get out of my head and be fully present in my body, if even for a few minutes. It’s been six years since I moved to Minneapolis and I can count on one hand the number of times I haven’t been ‘the only’ at the group ride. More often than not, I’m the only Black person—woman, man or non-binary—at the ride. I’ve come to accept this as commonplace, but the pang in my chest remains. It doesn’t mean that I’m not stoked to ride, but it’s disappointing.
Representation is not simply about wanting to see Black people for the sake of seeing Black people. It’s about what the absence of seeing Black people means. It’s not an accident that we aren’t there—it’s an intentional system of practices and policies that you know you are just lucky enough to have survived. The absence of anyone who looks like you symbolizes all the barriers that we, as a people, have faced because of structural inequality. When you don’t see someone who looks like you, it’s a reminder of the hundreds of years of racist practices that have led up to that moment when you got to the trailhead and you were the only one.
Representation matters because not being ‘the only’ matters. You can do it when you think you are ‘the only,’ but you can do it so much better when you know that you are not ‘the only’—when you know that there are others like you quietly cheering on your success. Representation matters because there is so much strength in numbers. There is strength in knowing others with shared histories—sharing space with people who can validate your experiences and existence.
The experience of being ‘the only’ in the room primed me for everything I have ever attempted to do in life. Without role models, or anyone who looked like me to lead the way, I had to forge my own path and try not to think much about whether I could or should do it. I decided a long time ago that even though there were no Black outdoor enthusiasts, cyclists or academics in my life, I was going to do it anyway. I am grateful to my younger self for her bravery and quite frankly, her naivete. Without that, I am certain I wouldn’t be where I am today: a competent cyclist and a PhD candidate.
Last November, I started Pedal 2 the People, an Instagram account aimed to build community and increase representation of Black, Indigenous and People of Color in cycling. While cycling has historically been dominated by white men, and more recently white women, the bike has long been an important tool for BIPoC communities.
At Pedal 2 the People we aim to provide a space where BIPoC cyclists feel seen and heard—recognizing that every individual has a unique story to tell—and the community has quickly grown to 6,500 followers. We also want to create a space for BIPoC to connect with each other, because so often we feel as though we are ‘the only.’ In reality, there is a network of us throughout the world and there is power and strength in that. My goal is for others to have the opportunity to learn self-acceptance and self-love through seeing themselves reflected in others.
All were always welcome, now maybe all will come in