Envisioning Detroit Youth as Future Champions

DETROIT—Yvonne Rucker envisions a group of Detroit youth riding and training at the International Velodrome at Bloomer Park in Rochester Hills this summer. Making that a reality, however, has its challenges.

The pilot program, the first of its kind in the state in an urban area, will work to integrate underrepresented youth into the elite sport of track racing or velodrome racing. For the Detroit young people involved, some of whom have little opportunity to leave their neighborhoods, it’s designed to create a passion for cycling and to change the way they view the world and what they are capable of tackling.

The logistics – recruitment, bikes, transportation, trainers, etc. – are daunting, but Rucker is bound and determined to make the program happen with support from Dale Hughes, IVBP’s managing director.

Rucker, founder and president of BikeVON, whose mission is to see more diversity in cycling, has found a strong partner in Hughes. He’s pledged to provide the bicycles and training at no cost. What’s more, he’s pulling together money to pay the kids $7.50 an hour to train (two hours a day, three days a week for six weeks) as a motivator for them to stick with the program long enough to see if they like it.

Hughes and Rucker have managed to get a number of suburban organizations on board, including Wolverine Sports Club, Michigan Youth Cycling, American Cycle and Fitness, Trek Bikes, Downtown Ferndale Bike Shop, Cadieux Bike Club, Mental Health Resources Associates, and others.

But support from within the City of Detroit has been thin. Rucker is working with Back Alley Bikes (The Hub) and Detroit Eastside Community Coalition, which already have interested youth signed up for the program, but she needs financial backing from Detroit-based organizations, businesses, and individuals to cover the cost of transportation.

“What has frustrated me is the lack of progress I am getting with support from Detroiters,” says Rucker. “Without someone to match Dale’s funds and provide transportation, this opportunity will not happen for the kids.”

She’s set up meetings with council members, state legislators representing Detroit, local businesspeople, and others and continues to pound the pavement to “sell” the program. “If I get one dollar, yes, one dollar, but end up with the Dan Gilbert of cycling, than [sic] that is a win.”

Rucker wants to see more people of color cycling, period. But the Velodrome Program is particularly enticing for her because it is not a mainstream sport, yet there is a history of African Americans in velodrome cycling.

African American Cyclists

Rucker points to these examples:

Marshall Walter "Major" Taylor was an American cyclist who won the world one-mile track cycling championship in 1899 after setting numerous world records and overcoming racial discrimination.

Taylor was the first African American athlete to achieve the level of world champion and only the second black man to win a world championship.

Nelson Vails, who grew up in Harlem, New York, was the first African American cyclist to win an Olympic medal: a silver medal in the 1994 Olympics.

He was inducted to the U.S. Bicycle Hall of Fame in 2009.

Rahsaan Bahati is an American racing cyclist who currently rides for his own cycling team. He specializes in criterium racing and track cycling.

In 2000 he won the amateur USCF National Criterium Championships, and in 2008 he won the elite USPRO National Criterium Championships.

While African Americans have had some impressive accolades in competitive cycling, they are still underrepresented, both in racing and in recreational cycling.

Rucker says that integrating people of color into the sport has to start somewhere; so, despite the Velodrome Program’s logistical challenges, with the IVBP located 25 miles from the city, she is moving forward.

“It is a doable thing. If we let distance be the determinate factor, schools would have never been integrated.”

Plus, velodrome cycling is exciting, and Rucker wants to bring that excitement to the youth. A velodrome is a steeply banked bicycling track; bicycles for velodrome riding use a single fixed gear and have no brakes.

“I was overwhelmed when I first saw [the track],” says Rucker. “It seems impossible to ride on that curve ... and then being clipped in pedals on a bike without breaks. Between you and me that is scary, like scary exciting. I cannot ask the kids to do something I won’t, so I will try it with them.”

Fourteen youth ages 14 to 16, both males and females, have already been recruited for the Velodrome Program. They will need to take the League of American Bicyclists’ Smart Cycling class and be required to complete the IVBP Class 101, which is a learn-to-ride-the-velodrome program.

To date, Rucker has volunteered all her time because cycling is her passion and she wants to share it. She started the nonprofit BikeVON to fulfill the mission of the Equity Initiative, as defined by the League of American Bicyclists, in Detroit. LAB seeks to engage leaders from traditionally underrepresented demographics and bridge the current gap between diverse communities and bicycle advocates.

Not only will the Velodrome Program offer a chance for Detroit youth to get fit, earn some money, and do something exotic, but it will prepare them to qualify for the U.S. National Championships.

Support Her Cause

More funding is needed for the transportation aspect of the program and for other program incidentals.

Rucker is also holding a fundraiser from 1 - 4 p.m. Sunday, March 16, at the Boll YMCA in Detroit. The event will show “Rising from Ashes”, a feature-length documentary about cycling guru Jock Boyer helping a group of struggling genocide survivors in Rwanda build national cycling team.

The movie starts at 1:30 p.m.; tickets can be purchased on the day of the event at the door for $15. Refreshments and a bike auction will be part of the mix.

Interested donors and sponsors can visit the online fundraising site or contact Rucker directly.

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