Telling the Story of HBCU Cycling

The team during practice at their own cyclocross track on campus. Photo by Joshua Steadman.

In the wake of the George Floyd murder last year, my client Canyon Bicycles came out with an ambitious action plan built to increase diversity in cycling. Part of the plan was to sponsor the groundbreaking St Augustine’s University cycling team in Raleigh, North Carolina. This was the nation’s first Black college bike racing program, and I was excited about the possibilities.

As a lifelong cyclist, I knew how badly the sport needed diversity. I imagined what the bike ecosystem could look like if it more accurately reflected the racial mix of our entire country. Together with Canyon and Bicycling Magazine, I’m leading a year-long media campaign to tell the story of the St Augustine’s team.

My idea was to create a season-long narrative in video episodes, with photos and written content along the way. I’d watched how the Netflix show Last Chance U did a good job of breaking a college football season into episodes. The pandemic and related school closures have stretched out our story into a season-and-a-half, but we’re plowing ahead. The fun, and hard, thing about documentary filmmaking is that you don’t know what you’re going to get. You start a project like this with a point of view, an angle, and then you have to let real life run its course. And hopefully you’re there to get some of it on camera.

With my key collaborators Chris Gallo (Director of Photography), Tony Vamvakitis (Editor) and Phat X. Chiem (Copywriter) in place, I flew to Raleigh in October to start shooting. In addition, we were supported by Canyon’s US President Blair Clark and Director of Marketing Devin Riley as well as North Carolina photographer Joshua Steadman.

Interviewing SAU professor and cycling coach Umar Muhammad. Photo by Joshua Steadman.

I’m almost embarrassed to say that I’d never set foot on an HBCU campus before this shoot. There are 101 HBCU schools in the US. They’re all in the area framed by Texas, Florida and Virginia. Most were built after the Civil War when Blacks were not allowed to attend universities in the South. Spending four days on campus was like visiting an alternate Black universe: virtually all the students are Black and 95% of the faculty and staff are Black. I found it energizing.

As I interviewed the student athletes on the team, and they got more comfortable with me, I asked them to describe racism that they themselves had experienced. The stories they told made me sad. One student, Landon Bishop, on his way to law school, told me, “Last month the cops here in Raleigh planted weed in my car so they could arrest me.” We know that racism still exists everywhere, and we see evidence of it regularly. But hearing the firsthand accounts from all of these bright young students had a huge impact on me.

Here’s how I’ve organized the series so far, halfway through the project:

Episode 1: The goal was to introduce the team, the school and what they’re doing. The cycling team exists under the umbrella of the School of Business, Management & Technology. Originally conceived by Professors (and now team coaches) Mark Janas and Umar Muhammad, the cycling program was an entry for students into the world of eSports (via Zwift and other virtual cycling platforms). Then word got out, Canyon got involved, many students showed interest in participating, and it’s taken on a life of its own. I wanted to highlight the monumental effort just to get the team started. I also tried to provide some historical context with a quick section about Major Taylor, the late 19th Century world champion Black track cyclist.

Episode 1 of Chasing History

Episode 2: While using more video that we’d shot on campus in October, I also wanted to give some more background on Blacks in competitive cycling. So I shot an interview with 1984 Olympic Silver Medalist Nelson Vails. Editor Tony Vamvakitis did a great job weaving his story into the interviews with student athletes.

Episode 2

Episode 3: This one threw me a curveball. I’d planned to go back to Raleigh this spring to shoot on campus again. But the pandemic forced the university into remote education mode. Many of the cycling team athletes were hundreds or thousands of miles away from school. I made the decision to have the kids all shoot their own vlog material. I’d been thinking about how to get a more intimate look at their lives, which isn’t possible when I parachute in for a few days with a film crew. This new vlog style also forced me to grow creatively; I’d never done an entirely remote shoot like this. Some of the athletes got really into it, shooting scenes from multiple angles and documenting all different parts of their lives, from brushing their teeth to riding their bikes to attending remote classes. I enjoyed interacting directly with the kids and asking them for more shots and angles that would help tell their story.

Episode 3

We have three more episodes to finish. I’ve got Episode 4 in the can, with some very good surprise interviews. And I’ll travel back to Raleigh in the fall to shoot the team riding outside at some actual bike races. My hope is that seeing the team go from riding in gym shorts and tennis shoes in Fall of 2020 to actually competing in Fall of 2021 will be a nice bookend for the series.

The team has also been discovered by the mainstream press, and I thought The Undefeated did a nice job with this profile.

Stay tuned!

Director of Photography Chris Gallo on campus. Photo by Joshua Steadman.



Founder, Abraham Content Marketing Studio

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