Midsummer, thousands of Coloradans took to the streets in protest of police brutality and the unjust deaths of Black Americans. For people of color, the marches symbolized hope, but the national political division also inspired fear, says Marcus Robinson, co-founder and board president of Ride for Racial Justice (RFRJ), a new Denver-based organization that provides resources to uplift cyclists of color and dismantle systemic racism.

“When George Floyd was killed, there was an uprising rooted in 400 years of pain as a Black person here in the United States,” says Robinson, 65, a Black American who grew up in Denver riding and commuting on a single-speed. “It was traumatic here in Denver. My friend and coach Neal Henderson called me, and I told him I was afraid to ride my bicycle because of the color of my skin. My wife was afraid for me. I felt like there was a target on my back, and I couldn’t do the sport I love. Neal said, ‘We have to do something.’”

On June 20, 2020, Robinson and Henderson hosted the inaugural RFRJ 10-mile community ride around Denver. Nearly 100 riders of all ages and backgrounds joined in. “We wanted to use what we love—riding bikes—as a vehicle to have a conversation. Neal and I pedaled back and forth through the Peloton, and everyone spilled their deep fears about what’s going on racially in America,” says Robinson.

Participants were so enthusiastic that the duo organized more solidarity rides in Boulder, Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs: Close to 600 riders joined on the pavement. Seeing the need in the community, the pair expanded the board of directors to five—bringing on Massimo Alpian, Renee Marino, and Alisha Zellner—and filed for nonprofit status (still pending at press time). Beyond hosting these community rides, RFRJ has plans to offer statewide workshops—like how to ride a bike, fix tires, and bike maintenance—and funnel resources to open additional chapters nationwide.

Ride for Racial Justice
Courtesy of Ride for Racial Justice

But now, RFRJ is going even further. Robinson reached out to friend Mark Satkiewicz, former president of Smartwool and race director and cofounder of SBT GRVL, a world-class gravel race hosted in Steamboat that offers three routes ranging from 64 to 144 miles, topped off with 4,100- to 9,400-feet of ascent. “I said, ‘What do you think about us trying to put BIPOC folks on start line of SBT GRVL?’ He said, ‘I’m in,’” says Robinson.

Leading up to STB GRVL’s first event in 2019, Satkiewicz—as well as co-founder Amy Charity and Ken Benesh—were not satisfied with the gender representation reflected in the registration, which sold out in December 2018. They knew they could do better. So, in February 2019, they opened an additional 200 spots for women to join the inaugural event. It worked. The number of female riders doubled to 450 and they comprised 30 percent of cyclists in the debut race. Now, through their partnership with RFRJ, they’re working to increase the event’s racial diversity, as well, in the 2021 ride (the 2020 event was canceled due to COVID-19).

“As Mark and I talked, we realized there was no other race director in the history of cycling that had invited 25 BIPOC athletes into a world-class race,” says Robinson. When Satkiewicz passed away in August 2020, Charity stepped in to solidify the partnership and get the SBT GRVL x RFRJ BIPOC Athlete Program off the ground. Nearly 100 adult cyclists from across the country submitted applications for the program, which includes entry into the SBT GRVL race on August 15, as well as a head-to-toe kit, bike, virtual coaching, equipment including a heart-rate monitor, and travel stipend.

“Cycling has been homogenous in both race and gender. That historical exclusion ultimately results in lower participation from the BIPOC community, particularly at events,” says Massimo Alpian, RFRJ board member. “The BIPOC Athlete Program fosters inclusivity, representation, and Colorado—which is arguably the cycling mecca of the United States—is the perfect place to launch this model.”

Over the next month, the board of directors will score and select a team of 25 athletes of color who represent a diverse range of age, geography, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomics, and backgrounds. Ultimately, the selected athletes will line up at the race start together, and become RFRJ ambassadors to encourage others to participate in endurance sports.

“Our hope for this program is that it gets replicated not only in cycling, but in other endurance sports from running to skiing,” Alpian says. “National events are already paying attention to this program, and we will see change in 2021.”

Get involved: You can support the Ride for Racial Justice and SBT GRVL BIPOC Athlete Program by making a donation to help RFRJ meet its $25,000 goal.