Pedaling through the pandemic, Black Baltimore bike groups find freedom

They were a sight to behold: Every weekend, a fleet of 30 cyclists zipped on their bikes through the streets of Baltimore, their front lights illuminating the pavement as the sun set, with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album booming out of mobile speakers. Onlookers cheered the party. Children ran up to the curbside, holding their hands out for high fives.

"Every now and then you get someone who wants to know the name of our group, and then we look at each other with a smirk, like to say, ‘Who wants to answer that?’” said Shaka Pitts, the co-founder of the Baltimore club. One of the cyclists would proudly shout out: “Black People!” And then, in a call-and-response that announced their title, the rest would answer: “Ride Bikes!”


When COVID-19 struck, their “SoulFood Saturday” rides came to a halt for a few months. But since May, the group Black People Ride Bikes has been getting people outside and socializing. The year-old team is also working on the bigger picture: encouraging newcomers, inspiring people who haven’t biked in years to climb back on — and sending the message that African Americans embrace recreational biking.

They are one of a few Black biking groups in the city that have been attracting large followings on social media, with African Americans in other cities and states joining in remotely and bonding over riding.


A 2013 national study by The League of American Bicyclists and the Sierra Club showed that the fastest growth in bicycling is among African Americans and other people of color. But Baltimore bikers and advocates say there have long been barriers to cycling in the Black community. They point to a limited number of resources, such as bike shops in Black neighborhoods, as well as the city’s infrastructure, where protected bike lanes have tended to be in predominantly white neighborhoods. There’s also been a lack of representation. When club members watch the Tour de France, they say they only see a handful of Black cyclists, and an even smaller number of Black women.

Pitts and his co-founder, Nia Reed-Jones, wanted to change that. After meeting at a bike party in 2019, they decided to launch an advocacy group that would educate beginner and intermediate riders, with mentorship from more seasoned cyclists. They would teach the importance of using the bike as a way to improve physical and mental health.

But first they needed to overcome misconceptions, such as the idea that riding bikes is for children, Pitts says. He remembers riding his first bike, a red longhorn with plastic wheels and white handle bars — a gift his blind uncle handcrafted for him. He would travel throughout his hometown of Brooklyn, New York, and ride across all five boroughs. He stopped at the age of 16.

“I thought that bikes were only for kids,” said Pitts, 50, who lives in Baltimore’s Bromo Arts District. He finally got back on the bike in 2018, after three decades away. “Once I realized that it’s not, it’s freedom … you’re feeling the wind, you’re hearing the birds, and it’s a total connection with the earth.”

Cyclist Shaka Pitts (left) gets an energy bar from Nia Reed-Jones prior to a recent ride with the group Black People Ride Bikes. The two co-founded the club.

The club has 15 core members, and two on each ride act as mentors. One of them, Gary Byrd, 50, teaches basics like how to change tires.

“I advised one young lady who didn’t know how to use the gears,” the East Baltimore man said. “Now she’s a speed demon … we have to try and catch up with her.”

Malaika Lesesne, 42, from Northeast Baltimore, joined two weeks ago. She was glad to know there would be someone who could help her if she struggled.

“I’m not an experienced biker, but I ride at least three days a week for leisure,” Lesesne said. “It’s good to see people who look like you, compared to other [bike] groups where you feel like an outcast.”


They’ve cycled to York, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., and more recently to Annapolis to the mural of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky.

“We’ve developed a family and that was our goal,” said Reed-Jones, 37, of Fells Point.

They now have an active membership of more than 1,400 cyclists. Most are local Black riders, though some are from as far away as Canada and different parts of the African continent. The Black riders post pictures of themselves on bikes as a form of solidarity.

Another group called Baltimore Bikers has taken a similar path with social media. The group, created to unite Black cyclists during the pandemic, launched on May 12. Now more than 3,000 bikers in the Baltimore region have become members.

“In a city like Baltimore, sometimes the picture that’s painted of the African American community is often negative. We have positive images of people together, all ages, riding through downtown, all different neighborhoods — it is something all people should see,” said Brian Henderson, 41, the group’s founder and a Northeast Baltimore resident.

Yet another club, the Baltimore chapter of Black Girls Do Bike, is a community for women of color who have a passion for biking.


Another effort, the Baltimore Youth Kinetic Energy (BYKE) Collective, enables teenagers in West Baltimore to learn the mechanics of bikes, including how to do repairs. They’re able to earn their own bikes.

Members of the group Black People Ride Bikes pedal up a bike path along West Franklin Street during a recent ride.

For Pitts, the bike has given him an excuse to venture off to places in the city that he wouldn’t have gone to otherwise, such as the Rawlings Conservatory.

“There are socioeconomic and racial divides where it feels as if Black people are not accepted to certain areas unless they are on a bike,” said Pitts. “A bike almost represents civility.”

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Del. Robbyn Lewis, a cyclist and the only car-free lawmaker in the General Assembly, says racial and socioeconomic divides are a barrier to Black riders.

“The right to mobility has been abridged, denied and controlled for all of Black people in Baltimore by limiting and denying one of the most fundamental rights to move from one point to another,” the Baltimore Democrat said.

She pointed to a “fantastic project” by the nonprofit advocacy group Bikemore called the Big Jump. The initiative is working to create bike lanes, walkways, and wheelchair accessible areas to connect east and west parts of the city.


Bikemore’s executive director, Liz Cornish, said that the majority of people who bike for transportation nationwide are Black. That means creating safe biking paths around the city is also important in terms of commuting to jobs.

Meanwhile, with the pandemic, Black People Ride Bikes has had to make changes to their recreational rides, like shrinking the number of cyclists to no more than 10 riders per trip. They’ve also dealt with the loss of one of their members, who died suddenly. Yet they pedal on.

“Our mantra is ‘ride that thang,’” said co-founder Reed-Jones. “When you feel like something is unattainable, you keep pushing forward, stay on that bike and ride up that hill.”

Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture.