The accessibility of cycling and its pros
It's getting better, and in some ways it's already unmatched
Cycling’s reputation as an elitist, expensive, homogenous sport is finally starting to change. Groups like the Major Taylor Cycling Clubs around the country, named after the first African-American world cycling champion, are broadening and diversifying the sport.
But where cycling already sets itself apart from other sports is in access to some of its top athletes, or at least its domestic pros.
Last March at Birmingham’s Hammerfest, anyone picking up their race packet – from novice to pro – was in the same line. I talked to Kendall Ryan, the women’s U.S. National Criterium champion, and Justin Williams, the Belizean-American who founded and manages the most prominent U.S. cycling team, L39ion of Los Angeles. His goal, besides winning races, is to expand the diversity and representation of the sport, particularly among African Americans and Hispanics. But at Cahaba Brewing in Birmingham, Alabama, that night he was just another former national champion getting something to eat and registering to race the next day.
A number of Birmingham cyclists have hosted racers in their homes, forming friendships that last beyond the weekend of racing. Granted, it’s a niche sport, but I don’t think there’s any other that provides that kind of opportunity to get to know people at the top of their game in the same way.
And there’s Ashton Lambie, a U.S. cyclist who set a world record on the velodrome, becoming the first person ever to break the 4 minute barrier in the 4 kilometer individual pursuit. He’s now a gravel racer, among other things, and he’s sponsored by Lauf Cycling, the Icelandic company that makes the gravel bike I ride. I’ve had several minor questions about the bike, and at least twice when I’ve used the chat function on the Lauf website, the customer service agent was identified as Ashton, with an unmistakeable picture of Ashton Lambie.
I think I laughed out loud the first time I saw it. I remember thinking how smart it was to have your agents identify as Ashton to remind current and prospective customers of your company’s connection to a well-known cyclist.
Except it’s not a joke. When I asked about the best travel bag for my bike, the real Ashton Lambie told me which bag he’s used for the past two seasons and that it fits the frame with no problem. We’re doing the same race in July, and I’m going to make a point of finding him there. A New York Times profile of him today confirmed that he sometimes does customer support for Lauf.
These aren’t one-off encounters, and they’re not at events with thousands of cyclists.
I was at the Mississippi Gravel Cup series’ first race, in Oxford last month, and when I came out to my bike after getting something to eat there was a guy looking it over. I asked if he wanted to take it for a spin; he declined but we ended up talking for about 15 minutes.
It turns out I was talking to Ian Boswell, a U.S. rider who raced on the UCI WorldTour for Team Sky, and competed in all three of the grand tours: the Vuelta a España, the Giro d’Italia, and the Tour de France. He won a stage at the Vuelta.
We talked about the bike, the South and hospitality, and other races he’s planning to do around the country. I didn’t get a picture with him because, well, it just would have seemed weird to me. Maybe it was because on that day, standing outside the University of Mississippi agricultural field station where we’d both just finished the same roughly 100-mile gravel race, we were just two guys who raced bikes. At least that’s how I’ll choose to think of it.