Keyonda McQuarters Didn’t Feel Welcome in Portland’s Bike Community. She’s Working to Change That.

“I just remember feeling so out of place. I’m grateful that I always remember that feeling because I try to never have a person in my group feel that way.”

When cyclist Keyonda McQuarters moved to Portland, she thought public group rides would help her break into the city's bike scene.

She was wrong.

"The assumption was that I was a seasoned rider and that I knew everything, but I didn't," she says. "I just remember feeling so out of place. I'm grateful that I always remember that feeling because I try to never have a person in my group feel that way."

Now, McQuarters leads her own rides as the head of the Portland chapter of Black Girls Do Bike, a national network of group rides and Facebook forums for black women cyclists. But when McQuarters first moved here from Chicago, she found that while Portland's bike culture was more active than in her hometown, it was very closed off.

"The upper-class, middle-aged white men with their $2,500 bikes, they're not looking for me," says McQuarters. "That's OK. That does not make them a bad person. But what I did was, I found my tribe."

Portland's chapter of Black Girls Do Bike was founded three years ago, but when McQuarters joined, it was largely inactive. So McQuarters decided to start leading rides herself.

The first group she led met at a coffee shop in Sellwood in June 2016. Since then, McQuarters has led two rides every week, and the Portland chapter's Facebook group now has over 200 members. WW talked to McQuarters about how to make cycling more inclusive.

WW: What do you do to help your riders feel more comfortable?

Keyonda McQuarters: Before every ride, we go over safety. I'm always leading the ride, so I always have an experienced rider in the rear. That new person, we keep sandwiched in between us. I always tell them, "If you're not feeling safe, just communicate that to me."

Is that unusual for a group ride?

Yes. I would say that other rides expect that when you come to a ride, you must be speedy. But I also think that that is one of the barriers that keeps black women or people of color from riding. For my target community, I recognize that it is essential that they feel safe, and I also recognize that a lot of them have not been on a bike in years. If they do ride, they don't ride with traffic.

On the other side of that, I've heard you mention a group ride you went to after you had become an experienced rider, and some dude in the group basically assumed you weren't.

I think that because I'm not on a road bike, people make a lot of assumptions. But I can climb hills with the best of them right on my hybrid. But yeah, he had made a lot of assumptions about me before we got started. I've had that happen to me a couple times. One time I went to a ride and I didn't read the fine print. I didn't know this, but they had said drop bars only. I got there, and I was the only one who did not have the drop handlebars. But I still did the ride.

If we're talking about barriers, insisting on drop handlebars seems like a pretty arbitrary one.

Right? But I think they make an assumption that if you don't have a particular kind of bike, can you really be serious about riding or can you really be a seasoned rider? But that's not understanding that not everybody wants to ride a bike like that and not everyone can afford to ride a bike like that. I still get the question: "Keyonda, what's the right bike?" I always say that the right bike is the bike that you have access to.

What are some other barriers Black Girls Do Bike helps to break?

Being visible. I live in Happy Valley, but I often ride in neighborhoods of color. I'll go out to Gresham and ride sometimes; I ride in North and Northeast Portland a lot. Whenever I see women of color, people of color, I always ring my bell. We have to really see ourselves out there doing it to even begin to think about the fact that "Oh yeah, maybe I can do this." But another thing that I'm finding is that a lot of people associate biking with something, I don't want to say negative, but something like, "People bike because they don't have a car." You don't have to be a commuter to love biking, you don't to be the spandex drop-bar guy to love biking. It's not about how fast you go. I used to be a runner, and I ran a marathon. Was I the fastest? Never. I simply finished my own race. It's the same thing with biking.

Why do you feel that biking is so important to share?

I grew up in what would be considered a poor, minority neighborhood. But bikes level the playing field. On my bike, I could go anywhere. I could go past the eight-block radius of my neighborhood. I can still remember where I was when I learned how to ride with no hands. The bike, for me, it really did expand my world as a child. When I got back on a bike as an adult, that same feeling came back. You hear a lot about self care. Part of self care is regular exercise, and biking gave me that.  I really hope that they would get that joy, that freedom that I feel when I'm out there.

What does Portland need to do to make its bike culture more inclusive?

I think giving people access, but also making people feel welcome. I will always remember the experience of going to a group ride and not feeling welcome. I don't know what it was about me that didn't make me fit in with that group. I don't know if it was because I was a woman or because I was a black or because I didn't have a $2,500 bike. But what I can say is that because I felt unwelcome, then you leave me to try and figure it out, and that's an awful feeling. But the truth is, if we're honest, everybody's not going to do that. Everybody's not going to make someone who does not fit a certain demographic feel welcome, because they don't know if they really want that person in their group. So with that, what I say to people is, "Find your tribe," 'cause your tribe really is out there. And I'm hoping that Black Girls Do Bike Portland will be someone's tribe.

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