As longtime Seattle cyclist Reginald “Doc” Wilson tells it, Peace Peloton started almost as a lark.
In early June, he and Ed Ewing, the deputy director of Bike Works (a Seattle nonprofit that promotes bicycling as a way to empower youth and build resilient communities), were guest interviewees on Seattle’s popular Ron & Don podcast show. They were talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, when inspiration seized Wilson.
“As the interview was closing, I got this idea that we’ve got this audience; why don’t we do something with it?” Wilson, a life coach by vocation, told Bicycling. “So I just blurted out, ‘Oh, by the way guys, we’re going to organize a [social justice] ride on Saturday. Tell everyone to come out.’ And Ed says ‘Dude, you didn’t tell me anything about that beforehand,’ and I said ‘Yeah, I just made it up.’”
The podcast was released on Thursday, June 5, giving Wilson and Ewing just three days to plan. They quickly assembled a route and did some quick social-media advertising.
“I expected maybe 30 to 60 people would show up,” Wilson said. Instead, 300 riders came out, wearing masks and spacing out on both the rides and during stops.
Now planning its sixth edition, for August 22, Peace Peloton is gaining momentum, like a pack of riders on a long downhill.
Wilson emphasized that Peace Peloton isn’t strictly a protest ride. It serves a different goal: direct economic reform for Black people and Black-owned businesses. Every Peace Peloton ride starts at a Black-owned business (often a coffeeshop or other restaurant) where attendees can fuel up. The no-drop ride—typically around two hours at a very easy pace—then visits historically Black neighborhoods and landmarks around Seattle, like the Northwest African American Museum, and more Black-owned businesses, before finishing back at or near the start. For those interested in joining an upcoming ride, check the Peace Peloton website for the next date and route.
“The idea is that I can make a difference [individually],” he said. “I can make economic reform actionable.”
Bicycles have emerged on both sides of the Black Lives Matter movement. Bike-mounted police have been criticized for weaponizing their bicycles to confront even peaceful protesters. And demonstrators have embraced the bicycle’s power as a tool of change, with numerous protest rides emerging in cities across the country.
Wilson has attended “a ton of protests,” but said that he’s frustrated that momentum seems hard to sustain after the moment. The idea behind Peace Peloton is that these introductions create new, repeat customers, and durable links between residents and businesses.
“What we’re doing is taking a critical mass of mission-aligned cyclists to businesses that are owned by Black and brown people,” Wilson said. “And we do that again and again, because a one-time thing isn’t sustainable.”
“It’s super welcoming,” Michelle Johnson, Development Director of Seattle’s well-known Cascade Cycling Club, told Bicycling. (Ewing founded and formerly directed Cascade's youth program, the Major Taylor Project, and the club has helped publicize Peace Peloton, but there’s no formal connection between the two organizations; Johnson attends because she’s committed to racial justice.) “I’ve seen all body types, all different kinds of bikes, there are a ton of kids.”
Older attendees are numerous, Johnson thinks partly because with the coronavirus pandemic, a bike ride provides a safer, more socially distanced way to participate. The range of attendees gratifies Wilson, a lifelong cyclist who switched from mountain biking to road (in 2017, he took a three-month bike tour of Southeast Asia), but has noted recreational cycling’s largely white ridership wherever he’s lived.
“There’s nothing wrong with older white men riding bikes,” he said with a laugh. “I just want to see a bit more diversity in cycling, more young people, more Black and brown people.”
Additionally, Peace Peloton has brought in guest speakers, who address attendees before the ride to educate and enlighten about Black history, racism, and other serious topics. Attendees expect some difficult conversations, both with others and internally.
“It feels actionable but not performative,” Johnson said. “You’re supporting the businesses, you’re learning something, and telling other people about it. The community is key.”
After years of sporadic support from the public for economic and social justice for the Black community, Wilson is naturally a little wary of the newfound popularity of the cause, coming in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
“I sometimes hear my white friends say, ‘Oh, I want things to get back to normal,’” Wilson said. “Well, normal worked for you; it did not work for people who look like me. What I want to encourage instead is positive change.”
That’s where Peace Peloton comes in; Johnson described it as an ideal first step for people who want to support racial justice, but are hesitant about doing or saying the wrong thing. By starting with a shared community, around the bike, Peace Peloton “gives people a chance to try to get it right,” she said.
Amid this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, there’s been much discussion of issues like allyship and criticism, as in Portland, of whether white protesters were seizing the narrative. “Listen to understand, not to respond,” was Wilson’s response when I asked how white people could best show support.
“Exercise a healthy degree of empathy. Black and brown people have a story to tell that’s valuable and valid; you don’t have to take the lead.”
More than two months in, Wilson is starting to plan for the group’s growth; he’s been busy getting 501(c)3 non-profit status. On August 9, Peace Peloton held its first satellite event, down the road in Tacoma, and he’s planning other Peace Peloton rides in other cities, targeting Portland, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York City, and London first.
But he’s moving deliberately and cautiously. Because Tacoma’s ride went well, expansion plans are proceeding, but he wants the right partners—especially the ride captains who will direct each city’s rides—in place.
“We could roll this out to 100 cities, but if we screw it up it’s going to diminish our mission and purpose,” he said.
In July, through a mutual contact, he connected with Mary Wittenberg, the president of the EF Pro Cycling team. “I was struck by Doc’s commitment and clarity of vision,” she told Bicycling, emphasizing EF’s support of Peace Peloton. “Doc has done it all; we’re just trying to help him grow however we can.”
Additionally, EF pro rider Tejay van Garderen, who’s from nearby Tacoma and has spoken in support of Black Lives Matter, arranged to donate one of his bikes to raise money. (Wittenberg and Wilson said plans for more fundraising and other support from EF, like help expanding to other cities, are in the works).
And while the bicycle is a tool for progress, Wilson reminds us that it’s just that—a tool.
“You don’t need it to advance positive change. Whether you’re a cyclist or not, examine the way you behave in environments without people of color; examine the practices in your workplace.”
Being alert to how you respond to a racial joke, or pushing your employer to diversify leadership—not just staff—are things you can do every day to encourage change in your community, said Wilson.
If a bike ride wakes you up to that, all the better. But what begins on two wheels doesn’t have to stay on two wheels.
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