'Black Girls Do Bike' Changes The Face Of Cycling In Cleveland

At the corner of Jennings Road and Harvard Avenue in Cleveland, workers are laying concrete for a trail that will eventually connect the Towpath Trail – which stretches into the Cuyahoga Valley National Park – to existing paths leading all the way downtown – and throughout Greater Cleveland.

A map of the Cuyahoga Greenways Plan from the Climate Change Action Plan shows existing and future multi-use trails. [Cuyahoga County Planning Commission]

The in-progress plan is known as the Cuyahoga Greenways – over 800 miles of connected trails that will be especially useful to cyclists. County Executive Armond Budish recently highlighted the Greenways as part of his Climate Change Action Plan.

“We can and should be a trailblazer in tackling climate change,” said Budish at the State of the County in April. “By filling in gaps in the existing array of paths and trails throughout the county, the Greenway should encourage more healthier lifestyles, boost property values, improve storm water capture, and reduce carbon emissions.”

Jacob VanSickle of Bike Cleveland agrees: “Promoting biking and walking as alternative transportation is certainly about the environment, it's about equity in our communities and it's about having fun,” he said.

Jacob VanSickle of Bike Cleveland stands in front of an in-progess bike trail in the flats. [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]

We met VanSickle at another under-construction trail in the flats. He’s been peddling the idea of a bike-friendly community since 2012.

“The work that we do around advocating for connected infrastructure that will get people where they need to go on a bike safely is important. But the other key piece of that is education,” he said. “So, educating people that don't necessarily look like me how to bike safely so that we can have a great inclusive movement of people biking around Cleveland.”

But part of building that “inclusive movement” – and getting riders on all these new trails – also involves changing the idea of what a cyclist looks like.

“I always thought a biker had to be like Lance Armstrong, a skinny guy that can, you know, ride in tandem with everything. That's what I saw on TV. I always saw that type of person.” said Lindsey Komora.

Lindsey Komora is a member of Black Girls Do Bike, Cleveland. [Stephanie Jarvis/ideastream]

Komora is, physically, Lance Armstrong’s opposite. She’s not white, she’s not male, and she’s a self-described “thicker woman.”

“We defy the stereotype because even though we don't look like a stereotypical biker we can perform just as well,” said Komora, who’s been riding with an organization called Black Girls Do Bike for a couple of years. Black Girls Do Bike began in Pittsburgh in 2015 and now has over 80 chapters nationwide.

“Black Girls Do Bike is a great community of women that just like to do the same thing,” said Komora. “We all like to ride on two wheels.”

“I ride with various groups here in the Greater Cleveland area, and I would find me being the only woman of color on the bike ride,” said Deltrece Daniels, the “shero,” or head of the Akron chapter of Black Girls Do Bike. “If you don't see people that look like you, you wonder if you actually fit in.”

Deltrece Daniels, the "shero," or head, of the Akron chapter of Black Girls Do Bike. [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]

Daniels draws strength from the women of Black Girls Do Bike because they’re also a ready-made support system.

“We depend on each other,” said Diana Hildebrand, the shero of Black Girls Do Bike, Cleveland. “Like, I’ll get a text message, ‘Hey Diana, we’re out riding, I'll call you if I have a flat!’ There's always that sense of security. You’re always going to have somebody who's going to take care of you.”

Diana Hildebrand, who goes by DevahD, says it’s also about trying to be a visible part of a community that they’ve often felt shut out of.

Diana Hildebrand, who goes by DevahD, runs the Cleveland chapter of Black Girls Do Bike. [Stephanie Jarvis/ideastream]

“I talk to a lot of women of color that feel like they're not visible in the community and that we have no voice,” said Hildebrand. “The cycling community is predominantly Caucasian men. The ultimate goal of Black Girls Do Bike is to actually change the culture of cycling.”

And members of Black Girls Do Bike were out in full force at a special Juneteenth edition of Slow Roll, a large, recurring group bike ride. But Hildebrand was also there as a volunteer on the Squad, the team in charge of safety.

The ride also attracted a mix of ages, races, and genders from throughout the city – all departing from Shaker Square and making stops at African American cultural landmarks in the Buckeye Shaker neighborhood.

Slow Roll riders ready themselves to depart from Shaker Square for the Juneteenth ride. [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]

At one point, the ride got tense when some of the younger, African American riders in the group started popping wheelies – which Squad members considered a safety concern for the group.

“It was comments of ‘Can you not wheelie?’ ‘Can you put the wheel down? We're looking for the safety of all the other people.’ And then somebody got called a jerk,” said Donald Black. Black is a Shaker Heights artist that frequently rides with kids in his neighborhood. He says the tricks they do are inspired by the dirt bike riders they see on the street.  

Organizers of Slow Roll had asked Black to come on the ride and discuss a mural he created at the Harvey Rice branch of the Cleveland Public Library, the last stop on the Juneteenth ride. 

Black called out the organizers when he spoke to the group at the mural: “The goal is not for us not to come. The goal is for us to be able to ride. We’re gonna find our own space,” he said. “So we might need y’all to be patient, but the reality is you're not gonna bully us, you're not gonna pick on us, you’re not gonna disrespect these kids.”

Hildebrand was torn. “I am a part of Slow Roll, plus, you know, I'm an African-American woman,” she said. “We want to keep everybody safe, but then at the same time, I understand where he's coming from, because if we’re really trying to bridge the gap between all cyclists within the community we're going to have to be understanding of the different types of cyclists that is going to be coming around us.”

That night, after the ride, Black explained to Hildebrand that he felt the other riders were more likely to feel threatened by him, as an African American man. “My face is different than your face,” Black told her. “The alarm, the triggered alert, is a little different.”

Shaker Heights artist Donald Black speaks to Diana Hildebrand after the Juneteenth Slow Roll ride. [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]

That really stuck with Hildebrand. “I kept thinking about this on my way home. My face is more familiar and I don't feel a lot of people don't feel like they have to put their guard up when I'm around,” she said.

Hildebrand said she’s committed to bridging the gap between the cycling worlds: the “urban cyclists,” who are less familiar with bike laws, and the “elite cyclists,” whose staunch commitment to safety seems unwelcoming.  

“I'm trying to bridge the gap to bring the elite cyclists with us, and say, ‘Hey, we don't always have to follow this rule, we can bend it a little bit and we can make it a little bit more flexible,’” said Hildebrand.

“I really truly believe that the cycling community and the cycling culture can change and will change.”

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