"Why would we think that cycling has somehow escaped the racism that has affected other parts of our society?" says Dr. Steven B. Thomas, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Minority Health. "We want to get African Americans linked to cycling by showing them their history in it."
Thomas and the Center hope to eliminate "racial and ethnic disparities in health" through a process Thomas labels "cultural tailoring" -- linking physical activity with a historical or cultural event. Now, together with some key members of the local Adventure Cycling Association, the Center plans to join bicycling and the Underground Railroad: the route used by many slaves during the Civil War era to escape from the South to the North
If all goes as planned, the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route will be completed within three years. Other cycling trails tied to history, such as the Lewis and Clark Bicycle Route and the Tidewater Potomac Heritage Bicycle Route, have been received well by cyclists. Rachel Gooen, development coordinator for the cycling club, says her organization has attracted few African-American members because cycling is "notoriously an activity that isn't necessarily cross-cultural"; association with Underground Railroad could help broaden her organization's membership, she allows.
Thomas blames the lack of African American participation on both expense and the time commitment needed for the cycling tours, which are often a week long. He also blames past racism, pointing to Marshall W. "Major" Taylor, an African-American who held seven world cycling records in 1898, at age 20, but whom the League of American Wheelman voted to ban from racing thereafter. It took more than 100 years for the organization to issue a formal apology.
Taylor's story may indeed inspire more black cyclists, but "we need to engage them now in the name of health and wellness," Thomas says. "Part of the value of riding the Underground Railroad trail is not just the physical benefit, but also the spiritual and mental benefits of knowing that, while we have come a long way in this country in the fight against racism and discrimination, we still have a long way to go."