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Nehemiah Brown and Strava have been together for a long time, and like any relationship, it started out with romance and inspiration but hit a few bumps along the way.
“When I first came into cycling, it was commuting on a fixed gear bike because I wanted to avoid parking,” Brown said. “Then, I got a road bike with gears, joined Strava in 2013, then you start to see segments, which leads to routes and ‘how do I get faster?’”
Brown, 40, is a San Francisco-based cyclist who dabbles in road, gravel, and mountain biking and is a fixture on group rides like the Rapha Cycling Club Stammtisch Ride and the Tuesday/Thursday Fatcake Club rides. He’s got Grinduro’s and Grasshopper’s under his belt, and has toured from Reno to Mendocino. His evolution from road racing to gravel and adventure riding stemmed partly from being annoyed with having to drive over an hour to race for 45 minutes and partly from discovering the magical marriage of using the bike to move to and through amazing places.
Brown says that the San Francisco-area bike scene has always felt friendly and inclusive to him, even though he’s usually the only or “one of a handful” of black cyclists at races and on group rides. Nevertheless, when his friend and fellow cyclist Christopher Stricklen reached out and asked him to join a conversation on Instagram live on June 1 to discuss race and the local cycling scene, Brown jumped in.
“We talked about the issues,” Brown said. “The next day was #blackouttuesday. I asked myself, ‘how do I continue the conversation we were having?’ We need action, not just black screens.”
On Tuesday, June 2, amidst a scroll of black screens Brown’s Instagram post stood out from the crowd. His square was Strava orange.
Brown says that as a long-time Strava user, he’d always been bothered by some of the user-created segment names in two of San Francisco’s historically black neighborhoods, Bayview and Visitation Valley (VeloNews has declined to publish the names of the segments in question). In the past two months, Brown had reached out to Strava’s support team twice to ask to have the offensive segments removed, but his requests for customer service had gone unacknowledged. As he reflected on the questions and comments about cycling and its own role in perpetuating racism that people had submitted during the Instagram live talk, Brown’s unanswered Strava service tickets came to mind.
“I thought, ‘let’s see if we can get more than “likes” for my Instagram talk,’” Brown said.
Brown’s #blackouttuesday post was a direct message to Strava asking them to remove the offensive segments.
“These titles are highly offensive and blatantly disrespectful,” Brown’s post read. “This is not a joke. This is part of the problem.”
Followers chimed in on the post, tagging @strava and demanding action. Brown said that it was hard to stay engaged with the “Zoom marathon” calls he was on for work while also monitoring the activity on his social media page. He said that he kept the links to the offensive Strava segments open in a web browser on his computer, and when he went to refresh them at the end of the workday, he got the message.
“The requested segment could not be found.”
Nearly four hours after Brown’s Instagram post went up, Strava had taken down the segments in question. Brown says he was playing phone tag with someone from the company all day, and when they finally spoke, the Strava employee reference his original service ticket.
“She told me, ‘Hey, this is something that now we’re looking at. We had no idea these segments existed, they’re user-generated. We’re trying to figure out with team how to move forward on issues like this,’” Brown said.
Strava declined to comment on this story, referring us instead to the company’s recent statement, which addressed Strava’s plans to become an anti-racist organization.
Although some of the cycling industry’s reaction to the new national dialogue on racial injustice and police brutality has been scrutinized or labeled as virtue signaling, Brown says that if a tipping point is what it took for people to pay attention, then fine.
“I focus on being part of the solution rather than digging up the past, especially in the context of right now,” Brown said. “Being solution-oriented and helping people be a part of creating a better future is where the momentum needs to continue.”
Just like cycling is an endurance sport for many, Brown says that the wheel cannot stop turning once the spotlight stops shining on current events. If the cycling industry means what it says about promoting diversity and inclusion, it can’t be “business as usual” once the dust has settled, and that’s where the greatest challenge lies. Brown says that, while he hasn’t experienced cycling to be implicitly racist, he does see it as an arena where people’s pre-existing attitudes and behaviors, cycling-specific or not, are amplified.
“Just because my cycling community embraced me, that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem,” he said. “We’ve gotta understand that the peloton is made up of people. There’s not a magic hat or helmet that people put on when they ride, or they say ‘I ride to escape politics,’ or it’s a magical circle that 100 percent egalitarian. That’s a reality that doesn’t exist.”
So what if the reality is that, right now, cyclists and the cycling industry want to listen and change the culture of the sport for the better? That’s the momentum that Brown is rolling with.
On Saturday, in conjunction with the San Francisco Cycling Club, Brown has helped organize the Ride for Justice, a bike ride and fundraiser for the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization that works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality. June 20 is the longest day of the year, and Brown knew that he, and many others, would be putting in huge days on the bike. The fundraiser asks people to A) ride as many miles as possible, and B) donate $1/mile to the EJI.
Oh, and riders can sign up to participate via Strava.
Ultimately, Brown says that he’s encouraged by Strava’s response to his #blackouttuesday post. Both his action — calling Strava out — and Strava’s response can serve as an example of sorts for those who want to speak out but aren’t sure how to.
“I know people are afraid, say ‘I don’t know how to engage, I don’t want to be inauthentic,’ Brown said. “Just show up, say you’re not OK with the status quo.”
Learning from your mistakes is the hallmark of a good relationship.