By Peter Abraham — Like my recent interview with Tamika Butler, the following text is an edited transcription of my on-camera discussion with Peter Flax. He’s an LA-based journalist and the former editor-in-chief of Bicycling Magazine. I interviewed him for the fifth and final episode of my video series on HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) cycling. Peter provided context and background around the importance of getting all people on bikes. Peter was able to look at racial justice issues through the lens of his deep and nuanced understanding of the various facets of bike culture. I learned a lot from him during this discussion.
Peter Abraham: What’s your own connection to bikes?
Peter Flax: I’m a journalist based in Los Angeles who’s been in and writing about bike culture for about 25 years. I started as a child riding around suburban New York where I grew up, and I’ve done bike touring. I’ve done bike racing. I’ve been editor-in-chief of the largest bike magazine in the world. My bike life now is mostly transit riding. That’s how I get to and from work and how I go to the store. Over the scope of all that time, I’ve gotten to get to know a lot of the different subcultures within bike culture. For me, bikes just connect to almost everything important in life. Bikes connect to my relationships, to my community, to big issues in popular culture. So they’re way more important than just a way to get around or a toy or a fitness instrument.
P.A.: How are bikes are so valuable for creating connections?
P.F.: Bikes are important connectors for a couple of reasons. One is just the act of sitting on a bike and pedaling just has this way of opening people up in this almost spiritual sort of way where they’re more open to the world. People who ride a lot already feel like a little bit like an outsider, like you have this niche passion. And so you feel like connected to everybody else who is part of that world. A lot of times I feel connected to people who ostensibly might not seem to have a lot in common to me, but I feel like they’re my brothers and sisters because they ride bikes. It’s hard to even count all the ways that it matters, that all kinds of people get on bikes, get access to riding.
P.A.: Why is it important for everyone to have the opportunity to ride a bike? P.F.: As someone who just is so deeply in love with bike culture, I just want everyone to be a part of it. I want the tent to be open to everyone. The more people that ride, there’s just all these repercussive benefits to the people who’ve been there already and the new people as well. I want bike culture to reflect what’s important in the broader culture. Having it be a world where people don’t feel excluded is important, especially because for so long bike riding felt like the province of affluent white people, especially men. The more that other kinds of people feel comfortable being a part of the culture, the richer the experience is for everybody.
P.A.: How did you first hear about the Saint Augustine’s University cycling team?P.F: I learned a little bit about the Saint Augustine’s team just through social media and this idea that the kids are connected to a historically black university. They were going to get into cyclocross, which is one of the nichier areas of bike racing, and that just warms my heart. The idea that that this group of people who would normally not be a part of that subculture were suddenly getting the chance to join. That team getting a platform and people paying attention to it is one piece of a larger puzzle where people who are fans of bike racing are just seeing all these instances where where people who weren’t part of the culture just a few years ago are being welcomed into it.
P.A.: What does it mean for Black folks to get on bikes?
P.F.: There have been Black people racing bikes for a pretty long time in the US, but they’ve always been like lonely outsiders. Now you get this feeling like tides have shifted. I’m excited about that kind of inclusivity coming to bike racing. I think that Justin Williams and the Legion of Los Angeles team, that when you show up to a race and the people there reflect your community, reflect the city you live in, it’s a totally different feeling. I have been to so many bike races where it was all just middle aged white guys or guys in their twenties. And it doesn’t have that same kind of feeling of like hope and excitement of like being a part of something that reflects the world you live in.
P.A.: What will be the ripple effect of these 12 kids at an HBCU deciding to race bikes?
P.F.: When a team that is made up of of Black racers goes out into the world, their impact is so repercussive in a lot of communities. Young people are not going to even think about about getting on a bike or trying bike racing if they don’t see people out there already that look like them, that have a connection to their world experience. It’s the exponential effects of these pioneers, like they impact like hundreds or thousands of people because someone will be on social media and see something and be like, “This is actually like a world that’s open to me.” The impact, I think, is enormous.
P.A.: What can bikes teach us?
P.F.: When I think about issues like like race and sexism and community and urbanism and transportation and class, bikes connect to all of those issues. It’s been like an accelerant in the last couple years, where people that didn’t think about that connection now see it. When the racial justice movement exploded people saw these ways that bikes were connected to that issue. They see the struggles of of Black people and indigenous people and women and trans athletes. Bikes become a lens to understand those issues in a personal way that they didn’t see or digest before.
P.A.: Where is all this going, if you look a few years into the future?
P.F.: It’s really exciting to think about where all of this is leading. Recently for work, I had a Zoom call related to a hip hop project, and I was on the call with 15 people. I was the only white guy on the call. That experience where I got to feel what it was like to be different than everybody else was really exciting. And I see that kind of change happening within bike culture, where you could just show up and really just have a sense that like the the multitudes of different kinds of people in our culture are also on bikes. Being part of this rich tapestry of people is makes me feel even more special about loving bikes.
P.A.: Can bikes change the world?
P.F.: I know that bikes can change the world because I’ve met so many people and been in so many communities where I’ve seen it firsthand. They can make people’s lives better in a physical way and an emotional way. The ripple effects of how getting people on bikes changes things is profound. There are people who who can literally feel like bikes have saved their lives or just totally changed the arc of their lives. And it has for many.
P.A.: Is there power in riding bikes?
P.F.: 100% that bikes are like an avenue to power. During the Black Lives Matter protests you saw that that certain communities were using them as a way to activate and be a part of their communities. It became a form of protest. Bikes became a symbol of what they were fighting for, which is why people got so upset when they saw bicycles also in the hands of the police, being instruments of excessive policing that they don’t like. Both sides touched the nerves within bike culture because I think people understand that bikes are symbols of power, of symbols of the good life symbols of people connecting to each other and the place they they live.
P.A.: You mention bike culture a lot. Why is that important?
P.F.: More people are attuned to bike culture now than a year and a half ago. The more people that ride, the better and stronger bike culture is. Having more women, having more black people, having people of all kinds who feel connected to it will just have all these repercussive benefits. It’ll make the bike industry stronger. It will make bike racing a stronger long term sport in the US. It will mean that everybody is safer when they ride on the road. It will mean that that communities will be friendlier to people. It’s like when I look at, say, a team of Black riders starting to race and then think about all the ways their story like permeates their worlds, it’s going to have like really strong long term benefits for everybody.
P.A.: Why is so much joy present in riding a bike?
P.F.: A lot of people can relate back to that feeling of being a child when you learn how to ride and then it’s like initially it is like this sense of freedom, this sense of joy. Being an adult, a lot of those sort of joys from childhood get sucked out of us. And yet when you get on a bike, that feeling is still there. You still feel this kind of euphoria of of doing something that feels so good on a cellular level everywhere. Your body feels good and your mind is relaxed and thinking and you’re out in your community and you’re seeing and hearing things going on. You you when you finish your ride, you feel mentally sharper than you would have otherwise. You feel this kinship with other people who are riding or other people who are just out and about where you are. You feel a sense of place and a connection. You feel rooted in a place in a way that most of the time adults just don’t feel, and you certainly don’t feel that driving in a car or sitting at a desk. People who ride know exactly like the kind of thing I’m talking about. I’m an atheist, and I don’t believe in a lot of things, but I feel something spiritual about about riding, where I can connect to something important and bigger than myself.
P.A.: How is bike culture changing?
P.F.: I use the term bike culture a lot. And for me, that’s like the broadest possible sense of like this thing that connects people who ride where I think that, like the old conventional wisdom was that there were all these like bike tribes and that, like people who rode mountain bikes were part of like mountain bike culture and and road racers were part of this roadie culture, and people who rode to work were part of a commuting culture. My feeling now is that everybody is starting to realize that we’re all part of something bigger. Instead of just thinking about what divides us by like what kind of clothes we’re wearing or what kind of tires or on our bike, we’re all like part of this unified space that that people who love to ride and feel like it’s an important part of their life are are connected. What I notice now is more lay people might be interested in racing than they had been before and and bike racing fans are more interested in like transportation issues than they used to be.
The gravel riding trend has created the sense where people are like, “Oh, I want different kinds of bikes to do different kinds of things.” There’s more connecting us than ever before. The question of how that’s going to evolve and change is happening right in front of us, right now. There is a dominant US team that’s uplifting Black racers and and treating women equitably. And there are small teams taking on cyclocross. You can go to almost any city now and see there are emerging bike subcultures for people of color. It’s just going to continue. It’s going to be more inclusive, more multicultural. Trans folks are starting to really speak up. There’s just all these different people that are important that have like maybe felt shut out of by culture that are going to become a part of it. They’re going to enrich it because then it’s not a subculture run by middle aged white guys like me. I’m super excited to just listen and learn and be a part of something that’s like complicated and bigger than me.
P.A.: Why is it important for someone like Saint Augustine’s University to be first in what they’re doing?
P.F.: What’s happening with Saint Augustine’s is important because somebody has to kick the door down so everyone else can come through. Someone’s got to push it open and take that first step and show other people that it’s possible. Sports history is full of examples of people who kick that door down in every sport for different communities, for women, for Black people, for people of different religions. In every case, you need those pioneers to show people that that particular activity is like open for inclusion.
P.A.: What’s significant about the place we’re conducting this interview?
P.F.: This interview is happening in Manhattan Beach, which is a community of L.A. and specifically, we’re at this park that’s known as Bruce’s Beach, which has been in national news this year. In the 1920s this was a resort for Black beachgoers. And ultimately, the the city and community of Manhattan Beach pushed the Bruce family out. Now finally, the city and the county have have offered restitution to the Bruce family. The land down closest to the beach now belongs to the Bruce family, and now the county has to lease that land back from them. It’s important in the context of this conversation because it’s just like the tug of war of justice that’s happening in many places. You can feel the tide turning here. Just like that, a century of generational wealth was taken from the Bruce family. But now there’s progress happening there. While I may wish that inclusivity had come sooner, it’s happening in a really beautiful way right now.