Name: Courtney Williams
Hometown: New York, New York
Occupation: Bicycling advocacy consultant, founder of The Brown Bike Girl
Time Cycling: 13-year street cyclist in NYC
Reason for Cycling:
At this point, cycling is so much a part of me that my honest response is: “If you can, why not?” I feel more grounded cycling in New York City because I’ve seen so many of its blocks with my own eyes.

I began cycling as a small child, riding on streets and driveways in the Midwest. I stopped during the course of my college and graduate education. But then, when I moved to New York for my first job, I was excited, overwhelmed, and inspired to bike by the throngs of adult people I witnessed using bikes everyday for all purposes. And then I remembered, “Oh, yeah I love bikes!” and “Oh, you can also do this as an adult!”

I quickly made my way to a local flea market, bought a powder blue Mixtie city bike that was unknowingly too small for me (sizing being a concept that I wasn’t familiar with yet), and began my learning journey to becoming the type of cyclist I wanted to be.

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I was indiscriminate when it came to cycling, and tried every type of club available, from the slow and nurturing women- and femmes-only group to the rowdier but super-friendly weekly social ride crew.

When I restarted cycling as an adult, I did so because I was overjoyed at the opportunity biking presented me to reconnect with the outdoors. This was both in the sense of appreciating that being on a bike literally removed me from the confinement of crowded, enclosed subways and buses and to the traditional bucolic concept of green leafy nature.

Getting to nature from inside the city required me to embrace distance cycling. Memories are foggy, but I’m certain I muddled through riding regimens that told me to ride every other day to increase my endurance, but I struggled so badly with recovery. I couldn’t adhere to the schedules because I’d be in such extreme aching pain and bad spirits from that pain for as much as three days after riding more than 15 miles or so. I turned to Edmund R. Burke’s and Ed Pavelka’s The Complete Book of Long-Distance Cycling and discovered it was a nutrition problem. I would be on the bike for hours and wasn’t fueling or rehydrating while in motion.

The amount of eye-opening content I was exposed to in my first cycling book made me realize how many types of adventures I could be undertaking. It introduced me to the concept of touring, which is my preferred leisure activity these days. Most importantly, the quantity of concepts in that single book ignited my interest in becoming a well-rounded cyclist who can ride, self-support, respect the safety of and assist other cyclists.

Having been raised with a spirit of community empowerment, it was only natural that my personal enrichment transitioned into advocacy, directed at ensuring the gatekeepers of cycling culture were mindfully extending themselves to inform other Black and Brown people how they could become involved and benefit similarly from cycling.

At the time that I started riding as an adult, in the early 2010’s, there were tours of each borough, sponsored by bicycling nonprofits. Folks loved the series, but there was a stark problem about these rides: They would affect the traffic for the day in these low-income Black and Brown neighborhoods. And every time, those Black and Brown neighbors seemed to be totally unaware (i.e. unengaged by the organizers).

People would call down to me from their window and ask if the tour was a “bike marathon.” It was obvious to me in many ways that even the most well-intended, white-led bike groups were not doing their due diligence in outreach to Black and Brown neighbors, who also represented only a sliver of the tour participants.

That’s when I decided that my future presence in cycling organizing would be about elevating the conversation of the socio-political aspects of cycling and demand that the gatekeepers of the culture learn to be inclusive.

I’m a Black woman, an urban planner specializing in the history development and the future of resource planning. I’d been raised in reverence of old and new civil rights activists, and I was a well-rounded cyclist. I was qualified to bring diversity, equity, inclusion, and access conversations to the fore, so I did.

I think of an individual’s cycling journey as having two parts. There’s the physical learning to ride a bike. Then, there’s learning to be a cyclist—a person who understands that this machine has transformed how they exist within the world, and accepts the responsibility of learning how to operate that bike in a way that honors all cyclists and keeps people safe.

I believe cyclists should expand their skills beyond riding faster and farther. No other cyclist in traffic or on a group ride wants another cyclist to suddenly stop, swerve across their lane with no signal, come head on at them going the wrong way in traffic, or otherwise act like they’re the only life that matters on the road. We’re already facing the dangers of cars. We don’t need willful recklessness from other bikes, too.

courtney williams
Elias Williams

During the pandemic, as cycling experienced an uptick, I was compelled to make a series of Facebook live broadcasts of #commuterknowhows—20-minute videos covering the essential things all cyclists needed to carry and do, including demos on changing front and rear tires. This was a way I could offer support to bike-riding New Yorkers. When it concluded, I began charting the activities I was going to do to support my city through COVID and filling out my paperwork to become NYC’s People’s Bike Mayor with the BYCS network, which I was motivated to join by the lack of city government’s leadership regarding transportation at the start of the pandemic.

While BYCS mayors are encouraged to advocate for policy changes that enable more cycling, end car dependency, and help meet climate emissions goals, I am also passionate about bringing more people of color into cycling, making resources and social opportunities more accessible, working to end prejudice against these communities and instead promote cyclist strength through unity, as well as increasing access to bike education.

    Annually, I also involve myself in either “racing,” organizing, or promoting the Cranksgiving charity alley cat races. Cranksgiving is now a national phenomenon that has riders chart their own course to checkpoints in their respective city as means of sourcing food donations for the end-of-year holidays, and was started here in NYC. After the founders moved, it changed hands a couple times and I’m proud to keep promoting it and keep the original race alive!

    After I became the bike mayor, I also started offering free bilingual virtual alternating presentations of “my lifesaving course,” called “Urban Road School,” a bike law and defensive biking intensive class explicitly tailored around the ground conditions one is likely to encounter in NYC, and a new course I created in the pandemic called “Commute and Carry.” This course teaches people how to use their bikes for errands like grocery shopping. Plus, I have my “All Weather Cycling” class to empower those who wanted and needed to ride through the cold months.

    In 2021, I reached out to every bike club in the city, especially BIPOC ones, to invite them to be change agents for street safety and expose their members and families to learn how to navigate more safely in the streets.

    The other week, I went to a film screening and was immediately approached by a woman who asked me if I was The Brown Bike Girl, and she told me, “I attended your classes at the beginning of the pandemic. You saved my life. You’ve probably saved it a couple times!” The chance meetings where you receive affirmation from folks that your guidance was transformational keeps me going as bike mayor.

    I just want to keep all people alive on their bikes, period. When I am able to do a philanthropic pop-up event like Big Fix Day or consult with an organization on a direct action in a Black and Brown geography, I am most excited because I know we are making measurable strikes against the institutional racism that established inequality and created the separation that is “the other side of town.”

    These three tips have helped made my cycling journey a success:

    1. Learn bike etiquette

    Learning how to balance when you were 8 years old is not an acceptable last lesson for adults who are out attempting to use the road inches away from multi-ton motor cars, buses, and trucks. No matter how long you’ve been riding, every cyclist should stay up to date on traffic laws and bike etiquette to keep themselves and others safe.

    2. Explore different disciplines

    After you get into cycling, don’t forget to stay curious about disciplines other than what brought you in. This is how you learn about skills that you may want to incorporate into your own riding or find yourself even branching out into something you find more satisfying.

    3. Be gracious with yourself

    Your ability changes with changes in your life circumstances. When I accepted this, the changes in my ride life made sense. I was also able to remember that I could and should be comfortable embracing “slow cycling” because for me, it has always been about basking in the outdoors and appreciating the experience of getting to the destination.

    Courtney’s Must-Have Gear

    Neck Muff: It’s winter now, and I particularly have to take care of my throat in cool and cold weather. So there’s a local jewelry artist who is also a cyclist and that hand makes neck warmers and scarves from salvaged fabrics.

    Tire Levers: Narrow rate tire levers are frequently used as free promo items at bike expos, etc. But all levers are not made equal. I say carry what’s available. But when you have the opportunity to purchase, go for something wide, flat, and made of plastic that reminds you more of a Lego than a milk container.

    We want to hear how cycling changed you! Send your story and submit your photos to us via this web form. We’ll pick one each week to highlight on the site.

    Headshot of Emily Shiffer
    Emily Shiffer

    Emily Shiffer is a freelance health and wellness writer living in Pennsylvania.