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Groundbreaking Black College Cycling Team in the Spotlight

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Last year in April, St. Augustine’s University (SAU) located in Raleigh, North Carolina, became the first Historically Black College or University (HBCU) in the U.S. to establish its own cycling team: the Falcons. The fact that this is big news should not come as a surprise to followers of competitive cycling who have watched international road races and Grand Tours year after year with almost no road racers of colour in the competitions.

The idea for the team came from Mark Janas, a professor in the SAU business school and an avid cyclist. The team’s goal is to break down racial barriers in the sport and make a little history, inspired by the legendary “Major” Taylor, the first Black world cycling champion. Known as “the Worcester Whirlwind,” Taylor became world champion in 1899, American cycling sprint champion a year later and set a number of track cycling records while battling discrimination and racism.

Janas explains in a video on the website of Canyon Bicycles: “We soon found out that there are no cycling teams at HBCU schools. That’s when we knew we had to do it.”

In a blog post on the Canyon website, Umar Muhammad, a professor of sport management at SAU and team co-leader with Janas, said: “The benefit of competing in a sport that is traditionally white is that we’re bringing diversity, awareness and talent. SAU being out in cycling allows us to tell our story but also allows us to carry other stories home with us. And share with other HBCU campuses that we’re part of a bigger community, part of a bigger landscape of cycling in this world.”

The co-ed squad of twelve riders – some of whom are champion track and field athletes – will compete in USA Cycling’s Atlantic division, which includes more established and experienced club teams from Duke, NC State, and Wake Forest. The Falcons will begin with cyclocross and e-sports like Zwift and plan to move up to BMX and road disciplines in the future. They know that there will be a steep learning curve and a number of harsh lessons to learn before they can be truly competitive.

Fortunately, they are receiving a lot of help from notable sponsors, including Canyon Bicycles, Zipp Wheels, Saris, Stages Cycling, Major Taylor Cycling Wear and Fizik.

The team is recording its groundbreaking journey and the first two videos are now available here. The second video, released on January 26, highlights another Black cycling inspiration, Nathan Vails, the first African-American cyclist to win an Olympic silver medal in the 1984 Games. No other Black rider has come close to what Vails achieved, and Black riders are still a rarity at the highest levels of pro cycling.

The Falcons cycling team is hoping to help change that. “Black kids, white kids, all kids grew up riding bikes,” said Janas in a Canyon blog post. “For some reason, the separation seems to happen somewhere around early adulthood where lots of white riders continue to ride bikes, where not as many African Americans [do].”

According to Samuel Cudjoe, an SAU team member from Trinidad and Tobago, the team is all about the future, “For us, being part of a sport that is predominantly white, it’s a game-changer,” he said. “We’re pioneers in cycling. We’re starting something, not just for us but for other HBCUs.”