Olatunji Oboi Reed had a typical all-American upbringing. Like most kids, a bicycle was his first means of transportation. And although he eventually grew out of cycling everywhere, years later—as he battled thoughts of suicide—the now-41-year-old had an idea that would help save his life.
“I was seriously considering doing something there was no coming back from,” admits Reed, a former Nike regional manager who struggled with depression, which was compounded by a failed relationship, an ailing parent and a stressful job. “Then one day I found an old bike in my basement and thought, ‘If you just go on a little ride, it could help you escape your problems.’”
He was right. Jumping on two wheels not only helped lift him out of his funk and kept the illness at bay, but it also inspired Reed’s search for camaraderie, which eventually led him to launch his own cycling club. In September 2014, he co-founded Slow Roll Chicago, a community-based organization that uses cycling to connect to underserved and often unappreciated communities like the one in which he grew up. The membership fee-free organization has attracted more than 2,000 riders, mainly via social media. It’s also provided a leisurely way for Chicagoans of all races and incomes to connect and learn more about local history while slowly biking through a neighborhood or two.
“We ride all over the city but try to focus on the South and West Sides,” he says of the biking group, primarily made up of people of color, who, according to a 2013 study published by the League of American Bicyclists and the Sierra Club, represent the fastest-growing segment of the cycling population. Biking not only provides a welcome alternative to public transit, but it also keeps the heart healthy and, in Chicago’s case, can help repair communities.
“These neighborhoods are really in need of bicycle love to get more people riding and get all of those inherent benefits that come with it: healthier people, healthier communities, safer [areas], less violence, more retail and more jobs,” says Reed, whose group purposefully stops at Black museums and Black-owned restaurants for refreshments and reflection. “We want all the benefits that people [in White neighborhoods] and downtown get to experience; we want those in our neighborhoods as well.”
Reed’s utopian framework actually took shape in another Midwestern city that had fallen on hard times: Detroit.
Slow Roll, an international organization founded in 2010 by Jason Hall and Mike MacKool and featured last year in a commercial for Apple, started as a weekly bike ride through the Motor City for anyone who was interested. Before they knew it, more than 4,000 people, attracted through social media, had joined them on jaunts around the city. Spreading into nine other cities—including three in Sweden, one in Iraq, Berlin and Cleveland—Reed and his childhood friend, Slow Roll Chicago co-founder Jamal Julien, also 41, were inspired to bring the concept to Chi-town after watching a Facebook video of a massive Detroit ride.
“There were, like, 3,000 people—incredibly diverse in background and in cycling styles—biking through the streets,” Reed says of a movement that connects folks from all walks of life through civic awareness and exercise. “The incredible vision just jumped out of our computer screens, and we knew we wanted to harness the same energy, spirit and love for Chicago.”
They have. Reed and Julien, a real estate professional and educator with three kids, lead signature rides each Wednesday between April and October starting at different points throughout the city. Teachers, coaches, judges, civic leaders and police officers, all with varying levels of experience, join them. Averaging about 75 cyclists per ride, members attempt to recruit those in the communities they ride through to join.
Slow Roll Chicago recently met in the city’s historic Pullman neighborhood, a former steel mill area located on the far South Side that once bustled with business and big homes, at the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum to ride to the nearby Big Marsh Park. In a partnership with the Chicago Park District and a few other community organizations, they assisted in cleaning up Big Marsh, a former industrial waste dump site that is being developed into a nearly 300-acre bicycle park. According to Julien, roughly 35 people came out to help, 25 of whom were kids interested in bikes.
“We did what we call a ‘trail date’ and invited local youth to clean up trails, connect with nature and help prepare us to bike the trail,” Julien explains. “The kids got introduced to something that is going to be phenomenal.”
Julien adds that the youngsters involved took pride in being at the forefront of something that’s going to benefit the community.
“I think it builds a pride of ownership, which is something we’re working to do,” he says. “We’re doing community outreach because we want [residents] to feel connected to the park. That’s why it’s important to get them involved—whether it be how the park is designed or the things the neighborhood would like to be included.”
Inclusion is one thing, but actual riding is another. The Slow Roll guys work hard to destroy myths about biking, one of which is the bike seats won’t fit more, um, ample posteriors. And that’s just not true, they say, because bike seats accomodate all sizes. They also offer free loaner bikes to people to give them a feel for the seat comfort.
The organization is even working on a prototype bicycle that will provide increased comfort for the ride.
“We’re doing some market research on the different body types,” says Julien. “We want feedback. This problem happens with small children as well.”
As far as pointers for beginners, they do offer a few.
“We have loaner bikes available,” Julien adds. “One of the most significant hurdles is that [beginners] may not have a bike or the one they have may not be in working condition. We do this because we want people to get comfortable with a bike without having to go through the expense.”
He suggests purchasing a bike from a specialty store as opposed to a department store.
“The big-box stores offer the same products, and they offer great entry-level products as long as people have the right expectations.”
Once the basic obstacles are overcome, it’s time to roll.
“We wave and smile at people as we ride through neighborhoods; many of them clap and yell for us,” Reed says of Slow Roll’s feel-good vibe. “We want to connect with people. This movement, our organization and our community bicycle rides are all vehicles for social change, one way or another.”
Rolling Along — 5 bike clubs to check out
Slow Roll isn’t the only organization through which people come together to ride. Check out these community cycling clubs in your hometown:
Black Women Bike
National Brotherhood of Cyclists
Metro Atlanta Cycling Club
Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota