This Black-led bicycle club may not be Kansas City's fastest, but they offer 'a place for everyone'
When Mitchell Williams first joined the area's bicycle scene, he didn’t see a lot of other people of color. It’s one reason he helped found the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Kansas City, and hosts Monday night rides open to anyone.
Growing up, Mitchell Williams was taught that bikes were toys. Once you reached 16 years old, it was time to put down the kickstand and pick up a set of car keys.
It wasn’t until he was in his 50s, and looking for a lifestyle change that could help keep him sober, when he realized riding his bike was still a lot of fun.
“When I was a kid, you'd ride a bicycle and you get that feeling of going downhill,” Williams said, “and the speed, and the rush, and the ‘WEEEE!’ I still get that ‘weeee’ experience now.”
Since picking it back up in middle-age, Williams’ riding 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 know as Cycling KC, one of the metro’s biggest bike nonprofits.
Back then, he said, “I did as much as I could to try to invite people of color and women to ride our club rides. It was difficult. I mean, they just weren't showing up.”
So, around 2014, he helped form the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Kansas City, one of many such clubs around the world. Williams’ goal was simple: Get more people of color in the saddle, and make 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 riders maintain a healthy weight, studies suggest it could lower the risk for Type 2 diabetes.
“We're not the fastest club. I mean, we’re not known for speed. We're not known for being on time,” Williams laughed. “So why do people come? Because they like being with us.”
Monday night group rides
Along with other rides throughout the week, the club hosts a Monday night group ride that’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 makes the drive there from Lee’s Summit nearly every Monday. When she moved to the area a couple years ago, the group welcomed her with open arms — and helped her learn her way around the city.
“I rode in Kentucky, but not nearly this much,” Brito said. “The most I rode in a year was like 160 miles. Last year, I rode 889 miles with these people!”
As she put on her helmet and clipped in for the year's first Monday night ride in mid-March, Brito also credited the group with showing her the city from a perspective she doesn’t get while navigating highways by car.
Denesha Snell’s connection to the club came after a years-long search for other Black women to ride with. Snell, who is the director of programming at American Public Square, said it’s not just the racial diversity that makes the group unique.
“They may be professional cyclists, or you may have somebody who is a novice — who is just starting out,” she said. “Because of that, there's a space and a place for everyone.”
That spirit of inclusion is part of why this ride begins and ends east of Kansas City’s historic racial dividing line, Troost Avenue.
“We want to be in certain areas, in certain neighborhoods. We want kids to be able to see us, we want folks to … see us who maybe say, ‘Black folks don't ride bikes,’” Snell said. “But we do, we're right here.”
Despite recent data showing Kansas Citians are biking more than they did before the pandemic, the increase could be driven mostly by wealthy, white residents. Prior research shows African Americans are more likely than other demographics to want to own a car, and less likely to include biking in their ideal mode of transit.
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 globe during a era of strict racial segregation. In 1899, he became the world cycling champion, just the second Black world champ in any sport.
Williams said he’s never had to deal with overt racism while cycling in Kansas City, but he takes another lesson from Taylor’s legacy: Do your best, and create community.
“We've met a lot of people, and a lot of people know us and know our kit,” Williams said. “Everywhere we go, people know our kit.”
It’s not just the club’s cream and olive-colored jersey people have come to know. Williams is a fixture on the bike scene. Despite being semi-retired, he stays busy teaching bike riding and safety for the advocacy group BikeWalkKC.
To his students, he’s known affectionately as “sensei.”
With 120 members around the country, and about 70 in the Kansas City area, it’s clear other Major Taylor Cycling Club members appreciate the effort.
“I like helping people to achieve their goals, seeing them become fulfilled, and that makes me happy,” Williams said. “So that's why I do this.”