News feature, October 14, 2008
Bahati paving the way
By Phil Sheehan
Bahati in a familiar pose, here at Superweek
Photo ©: Mark Zalewski
"No-one likes us, we don't care." For anyone who's not au fait with
London soccer clubs, that's the unofficial creed of Millwall FC, a
lower league team that punches above its weight in terms of the
headlines it's grabbed over the years – mostly negative. That motto
could just as well apply to cycling's own Rock Racing. The US-based
Continental outfit certainly provoked plenty of column inches, most of
them outraged, when its participation in the 2008 Tour of Britain was
Whatever you make of owner Michael Ball's employment of Tyler
Hamilton, Oscar Sevilla and Santiago Botero, you can't deny the fact
that his team gets noticed. One thing that stood out about the Rock
line-up at this year's Tour of Britain,
though, was that it included the event's first black rider, Rahsaan
Bahati. Some are struck by the lack of racial diversity in the pro
peloton. Of course, many know about Marhsall 'Major' Taylor's story
over a hundred years ago, but it seems like things haven't moved on a
great deal since then.
Taylor, for those unfamiliar with his exploits, was the fastest man
on two wheels at the turn of the last century. Dominant on the track,
he broke seven world records in one year alone. 1899 may have been a
fine year for records in the velodrome, but it wasn't for racial
harmony. Despite his ability to draw huge crowds and the invitations he
received to race as far afield as Europe and Australia, Taylor was the
victim of terrible prejudice and dirty tricks, sometimes even physical
violence, from his white peers on the track.
Bahati fully concentrates during the race on the task at hand
Photo ©: Mark Zalewski
He rose above it with great dignity and he arguably paved the way
for other African Americans to break into professional sports. However,
I've racked my brains to come up with the names of more black cyclists
who've made it big since Major Taylor. I can think of a mere handful. I
know of Maurice Burton, who carved out a decent career as a Six Day
rider in Belgium. I remember Yohann Gene riding in the Giro d'Italia
for Bouygues Telecom a couple of years ago, and I know Jean Rene
Bernaudeau has another black rider on his books at Bouygues - Ronny
Martias. And of course there's the superb French trackie Gregory Bauge.
Can I think of any more? Not really, I'm struggling.
But there is Bahati, the 26-year-old Californian who had been talked
up by Ball in the weeks before the Tour of Britain as quicker than Mark
Cavendish over shorter distances. As it was, that sprint duel would
have to wait for another time because the Manx Express had been sent
Stateside by Team Columbia to headline the Tour of Missouri.
Bahati himself has had a good year, the crowning achievement being
his victory in the US National Criterium Championships. Maybe packing
early in the Tour of Britain had dented his morale a bit because Bahati
seemed slightly lost for words when asked about his boss's bold
pronouncements. Pressed about his opinion on Cavendish, he admitted to
keeping tabs on the young Briton, being a fan even. But Bahati got
hooked on cycling at a young age by sprinting legend Mario Cipollini.
Bahati revealed he studied the stylish Italian's victories on video
over and over again.
Starting out embarrassed
Bahati couldn't get used to the lycra and funny clothing at first
Photo ©: Vero Image
Bahati's own entry into the sport was nothing if not unorthodox.
Coming from the tough Los Angeles neighbourhood of Compton, where
basketball and baseball were king, he used to ride over to the
velodrome at Carson and jump the fence to ride a few laps for fun.
Eventually he was noticed and the first inkling that he had something
special in him came when aged 13 he beat a 19-year-old national
champion in a scratch race. By then he was a member of local club Major
Motion, named after Marshall Taylor, Bahati's other cycling hero.
Despite his enthusiasm and his talent, Bahati explained how it
wasn't always easy being a young cyclist from his neck of the woods.
"When I started I was embarrassed about what I had to wear, the outfit,
the helmet, the shoes and all that," but he said that the jibes about
garish lycra were eventually put aside at high school. "Kids looked up
to me because I got a chance to travel and to do something they would
never ever do."
Even so, his first forays on European soil were eye opening,
cringe-worthy even. "When I first raced there as a junior it was very
shocking to me. I had people after the race wanting to touch my hair,
touch my skin. There are black people in Belgium and Germany but none
really in bike racing." He's glad he took those slightly surreal
experiences on the chin because he acknowledged that getting angry
might have backfired on him. A sense of humour was his friend – "it's
kind of hard to miss me when I'm here. I was always telling people I
look like a raisin in milk."
Rahsaan Bahati managed to win the national criterium championships this year
Photo ©: Mark Zalewski
Bahati gave it some thought on why there aren't more black cyclists.
Expense is certainly a factor that comes up but not, he said, an
insurmountable barrier. Whatever one might think about Ball and Rock
Racing, Bahati is quick to point out that just as certain riders on the
team have been given what he calls a second chance, others have been
given a big hand up the ladder by the sponsor, filling a void left by
cycling's own authorities.
Asked if he thinks the powers-that-be do enough to help ethnic
minorities and under-privileged kids in his own country he stated a
firm "No." The Rock Racing rider was certain of a vast pool of
potentially undiscovered talent. "Somehow we need to learn to tap into
this system, whether it's bringing after-school programs back, or
getting Fortune 500 companies donating a little bit of money. I would
go into the hard hit places that need help, places like New Orleans
that got hit by Hurricane Katrina - those are the people that need an
Bahati is a regular winner when it comes down to a sprint
Photo ©: Vero Image
Breaking down racial stereotypes is vital, and he pointed out that
it's been done in other sports – in reverse. "Take the movie 'White Men
Can't Jump'. For a long time we had this perception that white guys
couldn't jump but some of the best basketball players in the NBA are
from different places in the world and they're not black."
Bahati acknowledged that it's not necessarily easy to promote
cycling in a car-centric country like the United States, but the
soaring cost of fuel is slowly helping push folks back to pedal power.
As far as getting them into the sport he reckons the short city-centre
criterium races at which he excels are ideal for holding spectators'
attention. There's no doubt he has a few good years left in his legs,
and he's the first to admit he's still learning even at the age of 26,
but he sees himself as a promoter when he eventually stops turning his
cranks in anger, "Hopefully I can help this movement to get more
African American kids, more inner city kids involved because it's a fun
It's a sport that's taken him further than he or his contemporaries
in Compton would have imagined maybe a decade ago – being on the same
team (albeit briefly) as his sporting idol Cipollini, travelling
abroad, and getting paid for pursuing his passion. And just like his
other idol, Major Taylor, Rahsaan Bahati is proud to be a little
different from the majority of his peers, even if that difference is
only skin deep. At the end of the day a good rider is a good rider, no
matter what his or her background is.
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here
More Cyclingnews features
Copyright 2006 - 2008 Future Publishing Limited. All
rights reserved. Future Publishing Limited is part of the Future plc
group. Future Publishing Limited is a company registered in England and
Wales with company registration number 2008885 whose registered office
is at Beauford Court 30 Monmouth Street Bath, UK BA1 2BW England.