Hilena Tibebe is pedaling 300 miles this week to get to the nation’s capital and make a statement for Black lives and for Black cyclists.

“Because our lives matter,” said Tibebe, 28.

Tibebe is the organizer of Ride to D.C., a group of more than 100 bicyclists riding from New York for Friday’s March on Washington, which is expected to draw thousands to the Lincoln Memorial in a rally for racial justice and equality.

The six-day ride, which culminates Thursday at Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House, is in itself a civil rights protest, designed to highlight the many challenges communities of color face when it comes to biking. Participants want to raise awareness about issues like “biking while Black” and advocate for safer cycling opportunities for all people of color.

“There are racial disparities within the biking community,” said Tibebe, a high school teacher from Brooklyn. “We are fighting for access to bikes and access to road infrastructure that is suitable for bikes. Though we are focused on bikes, we’re essentially fighting for racial equality.”

'Biking while Black'

Biking is on the rise in the United States, and Americans of color represent one of the fastest-growing segments. However, Black and Brown cyclists say they continue to struggle for acceptance in the cycling world. Black and Hispanic cyclists are more likely to be ticketed while riding and have a greater likelihood of being harassed by police or being assaulted, experts say, while their communities are more likely to lack bike infrastructure found in White and affluent neighborhoods.

A recent study by Smart Growth America, titled “Dangerous by Design,” found that the victims of traffic fatalities are disproportionately Native American, Black and Hispanic.

Much like other transportation trends aimed at providing people with more travel options, the push toward bikes and other personal mobility devices has been slow to arrive in communities of color, as a well as low-income neighborhoods whose residents might benefit most, advocates said. Services such as Citi Bike in New York and Capital Bikeshare in the Washington region have historically given preference to Whiter, more affluent parts of the communities they serve, advocates said.

Lower-income communities, many overwhelmingly Black or Hispanic, often are not designed for bike use, experts say, citing a lack of safe roads for biking.

“We are disproportionately more likely to be hit and killed by a car. We don’t have access to quality bicycle infrastructure,” said Charles T. Brown, a senior researcher at the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers.

“The data shows that police officers throughout this country are targeting, and racially discriminating against, people of color, in particular Black and Brown people.

“Our mobility has been arrested,” said Brown, who is Black and is one of the nation’s top leaders in transportation equity and justice.

Brown said the bike world also has created a certain image of what a cyclist should look like and how they should dress, citing Lance Armstrong as an example.

“Thus, many of us who want to bike feel like we can’t relate unless we have the attire,” he said.

These issues are why bringing transportation equity to the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement not only makes sense but also is crucial to the advancement of Americans of color, Brown said.

Transportation experts say some progress has been made in recent years with movements such as Complete Streets, transportation policies intended to improve safety and access for pedestrians, cyclists and other road users; and with efforts to build trails and the push to install bike lanes, which improve safety for all riders.

But more needs to be done to prioritize communities of color, activists and experts say.

“For too long the resources of transportation agencies have been used to sort of outstrip infrastructure in higher-income communities or communities that are predominantly White. What is starting to happen with the call for justice is now we take those resources and direct them into the communities that need them the most,” Brown said.

Time to take action

Earlier this summer, after 86 days in quarantine in her Brooklyn studio apartment, Tibebe decided to take some action. She used her bike as a vehicle of protest, joining Black Lives Matter rides in New York. She witnessed protesters using bikes as shields from police — and police using bikes to intimidate protesters.

When she heard about Friday’s rally, timed to coincide with the 57th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech, Tibebe looked at her Giant Avail bike and thought why not just bike to Washington?

Maybe, she thought, she could get a friend to bike with her.

A week later she had a RidetoDC Instagram page, a website and scores of strangers signing up. Participants masked up, got tested for the novel coronavirus and trained.

On Saturday, the cyclists, some whom had just recently picked up biking and others who have done cross-country rides, departed Central Park’s Seneca Village, an area that was an enclave of free African American property owners in the mid-1800s. They traveled along Underground Railroad routes, crossing bridges in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, on trails and bike lanes and on rough roadways in mixed traffic.

They passed big pro-Trump signs in rural America and through poor, run-down neighborhoods with crumbling streets. The messages on their backs — “Good Trouble,” “Matter is a Minimum” and “Amplify Black Voices” — caught the attention from residents.

Some cheered them on.

Tibebe said attention to the movement for racial equality is what she was hoping for, but the ride does not end the mission. She wants to change the world of cycling to make it more diverse. She wants her students, most of whom are Black and Hispanic, to have access to bikes and be able to ride without fear of being targeted. She wants to make it clear that Black women with Afros can and do bike.

“There is something special that happens when I am on a bike. I feel empowered. I want my students to have that,” she said. “Everyone should have access to bike.”

A native of Ethiopia, Tibebe grew up in Michigan, where she and her family biked for fun. She stopped riding as a teenager and returned to the joys of pedaling in college. But soon after joining various bike organizations, she said, she did not feel as if she belonged.

“I didn’t feel like there are people that look like me in the world of cycling. I would ride 30-plus miles every other day, but I didn’t even consider myself a cyclist. I didn’t feel like I was included,” she said.

Ride to D.C. is now as diverse as it can be, she said, with no clear majority.

“We want to create a community where we redefine what it means to be a cyclist, an inclusive and diverse community where people feel like they belong,” Tibebe said.

On Wednesday, just before reaching the finish line, the group took to the streets of West Baltimore, an area known for crime and run-down rowhouses, near the public housing complex where Freddie Gray was arrested before he died in police custody five years ago, igniting mass protests.

“This is a very underserved community, and we want the riders to experience and witness this,” said Roberto Godinez, a 29-year-old Mexican American who is in charge of logistics for the group and part of the team that helped Tibebe organize the ride. “Because Ride to D.C. is about addressing these issues of social injustice and inequalities.”

Sara Restrepo Cortes, 25, joined the ride because she wants to do her part for justice. After the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police in May, Restrepo Cortes left her quarantine at home to join bike protests in New York. A new cyclist, she trained vigorously for six weeks to make the trip to Washington.

“Every day, physically and mentally, has been very challenging,” said Restrepo Cortes, who wore a “It’s not the moment, it’s the movement” sign pinned to her backpack. “And it’s not just this one bike ride. It’s like we are fighting. And we’re going to keep fighting until there’s equity.”

Floyd’s death — the images aired over and over of his last minutes, begging for his life, calling to his mother and gasping for air and pinned beneath an officer’s knee — was also the spark that prompted Tibebe to action.

“You get to a point where you’re like enough is enough,” Tibebe said. “It is a traumatic experience to know that the main reason why George lost his life was because of the color of his skin.”

Then there are others, she said, like Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in the middle of the night in her Louisville apartment, and Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed while jogging in Glynn County, Ga.

“I am also a Black person in America. That can be me,” Tibebe said.