Kelli Samuelson grew up in a family of all boys, so she knows what it feels like to be outnumbered. This imbalanced male-to-female ratio carried over into her adult life, and she saw this disparity grow as she got more into cycling.
Samuelson says cycling changed her life—it gave her a chance to travel and race—so why should it be that women are less likely to be encouraged to join? And when they are, they often are faced with the uncomfortable feeling of being an outlier.
In 2015, Samuelson launched LA Sweat—a competitive elite cycling team created intentionally to empower women in the sport. The team was originally based in Los Angeles, but the current 15 members are located all across the United States. On race day, they drive or fly in to compete together in arduous crit races including the Tulsa Tough and Winton Salem Cycling Classic.
While that team was having success, Samuelson still noticed an even more discouraging number of entry points for junior riders. So, she decided to team up with Blackstone Bicycle Works, a youth program using bikes as a means to cultivate meaningful relationships and between the community and its underserved Black youth, in Chicago, Illinois to recruit candidates for the LA Sweat team. And thus, began the LA Sweat Junior Development Program, with the goal to make space for young women to enter the sport.
Samuelson says there’s “not another program like it.”
The three original members of the junior development team share what they’ve learned under Samuelson’s mentorship, as well as under their previous mentor at Blackstone. It’s worth mentioning that the team has noted that they will no longer be working with Blackstone Bicycling Works in response to the administrative board’s handling of the Experimental Station Union and pandemic safety for Blackstone employees. LA Sweat is in full support of the Experimental Station union which protects the workers of Blackstone.
After tough practices, long trips, a couple spills, and a lot of chai tea, the girls say they’ve bonded closer together since joining the team last year. And their relationship with their coaches as grown to feel more like a sisterhood than anything else.
Although the junior riders are barely in high school, they’re already thinking about college and LA Sweat is there to support them. Samuelson’s vision for the team is for it to serve as an avenue towards scholarships, character development, and academic success.
Makyah, 15, joined Blackstone when she was about 8 years old. She says visiting Blackstone Bicycle Works, or what the junior riders refer to as just “Bike Shop,” was one of her favorite things to do, especially since it was so conveniently located right next to her school. The vibrant community revolving around Bike Shop meant there was always someone to have conversations with and grow with. She says she felt even more comfortable there than at school, but even when her previous mentor DJ Fish was teaching her about bikes, he always encouraged her to work hard on her schoolwork and stay focused.
Before joining LA Sweat, Makyah had never considered herself a cyclist, and she’s proud to be one of the first riders to join the all-women junior team. Samuelson has guided her through some of the awkward and confusing parts of adolescence and womanhood, always answering questions and being understanding and accommodating. Makyah says the team has already been a great way to make friends and encourage one another on and off the bike.
Prior to joining the team, Makyah and her teammates weren’t necessarily equipped with the bike parts needed and instead had to use whatever was available. Makyah says she’s grateful for the resources her coaches and mentors provide.
Makayah is looking to attend an HBCU. She’s considering studying either theater, art, or dance. She’s also considering going into the STEM field to pursue a career in counseling.
Her advice to other young girls testing out cycling? “If you enjoy it, do it.”
Symone, 15, joined Blackstone a little after her teammate Makyah. Looking back, she also fondly remembers the parades and parties that revolved around Blackstone. She also recalls her mentor, DJ’s willingness for her to use the space to learn and bond. She says DJ always took the time to help the team learn and understand which has paid off well considering she was the first to be recruited by LA Sweat for the junior development program.
Symone is especially looking forward to her experience at LA Sweat because of all the women in the team. The senior members on the team are like big sisters and they feel especially close because they are women who can relate to one another’s experiences. She is also excited simply because she loves to race and would do it all the time if she could. Being a part of a team is new to her, but she’s learned to take her coaches’ leads and remember that racing is about more than just winning a trophy.
She says learning to clip into her bike was a challenge, as it is for most people. Also, she felt discouraged when she took a spill in Milwaukee. Samuelson heroically drove out to help her and tended to her injury. This kind of sisterhood is what LA Sweat is all about.
Symone has her eyes set on North Carolina A&T State University, another prospective HBCU student to potentially study the arts or STEM.
Imogen, 13, joined Blackstone a little later than the other teammates. Having joined Blackstone during the pandemic, most of Imogen’s participation with the team has been virtual. When Imogen couldn’t come into Blackstone for face-to-face lessons on bike parts, assembly, and maintenance, Imogen would work on her personal projects to support the team like twitch streaming from home. Imogen was scared for her first bike race at the Intelligentsia Cup in Chicago, but made it through the fears and nerves with a successful debut. All the while, providing all the fun and laughs for the team like usual.
Imogen is still in middle school, but has spent some time around the University of Chicago and would be interested in attending. Imogen intends to study drama.
How to support LA Sweat and the junior development team
To get involved, check out their webpage here where you can support the team through donations or their retail shop. You can also give them a follow on their instagram to watch the junior development team grow into pros.
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