Bahati Foundation: Rahsaan, Racing and Racism

“The reason I started the foundation. I just wanted to get more kids that looked like me on bikes.” — Rahsaan Bahati

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Three years ago, in a VeloNews interview, African American cycling champ Rahsaan Bahati, in response to a question on confronting racial injustice in the sport, said: “It’s time for our community to support the Bahati Foundation…and all the other organizations out there. We can’t do it alone. A lot of people say, ‘I don’t see color.’ I call [that] BS. The problem is, you have to understand it. I say, ‘Let’s understand it.’ The more stories, the better.” Well, this is one more story dealing with racism in cycling, and it’s one in which Bahati, at age 40, says he is still being victimized in American bike racing.

Bahati grew up in Compton, just south of downtown Los Angeles, which is one of America’s 10 most dangerous cities and notorious for gun violence and gangsta rap. “I saw someone killed when I was 7,” Bahati has said. He was 10 in 1992 when riots broke out following the acquittal of four white LAPD officers of using excessive force, beating an unarmed Black man, Rodney King, despite a citizen’s video showing the brutality of the attack. When I asked Rahsaan’s father, Rashid Bahati, whether those riots influenced his son’s perspective on how bad things were in LA at the time, he replied, “I’m sure it increased his awareness on some level of certain things, on the social dynamic in a predominantly Black community, but we’ve never discussed that actually.”

So, I asked Rahsaan what he remembers about those riots (which saw 63 deaths, damage to more than 3,000 businesses and some 7,000 fires) and how they have affected his life. “The only thing I really remember is seeing our city one way physically and then over the next few days seeing it another way, and not really knowing why,” he said. “Also, in an unfortunate situation, my uncle was an opportunist, and he actually took me with him to go riot, which didn’t settle too well of course with my parents—because they were out working at the time. Luckily, we were both safe…but I don’t remember much. I do remember the cops beating Rodney King—but I don’t know if it has affected me, being that I was so young.”

As for Rashid Bahati, he told me, “I just know that being his father, being around him from the beginning of his being involved in cycling and any athletic endeavor—because he played baseball at 7, 8 years old and then played Pop Warner football before he was introduced to cycling—I’ve seen a level of his awareness and growth, how he’s looked at that and what things have transpired with him being an African American in a predominantly white sport.”

Rahsaan Bahati grew up in Compton and helps kids in the Los Angeles area through his Bahati Foundation.

I suggested to Rahsaan that where he grew up, there wasn’t much chance of Black kids getting on bikes. “Not really,” he replied, “but there was this program that I got involved with at Cal State Dominguez Hills, sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Foundation. The AAF started after the ’84 LA Olympics; they raised a lot of money, and this nonprofit was formed. I got started in ’94. The program I was in, after school twice a week, was full of Black kids and brown kids. But as I progressed in the sport that number just declined and when I became pro there was no one.”

So, I then asked him that when he went to Europe, as the only Black kid racing, whether he had any problems because of his ethnicity. “Not as a junior,” he said. “Maybe I was oblivious to it, but I don’t recall having any serious issues in bike races. There was some ignorance outside of bike racing, like spectators wanting to touch my skin, things like that. But when I was older, in under-23 racing and as a pro, I don’t think things changed, but I think I was more aware.”

Rahsaan then added, “When I was racing in Europe and didn’t see anyone [like me], that was the ultimate moment…the reason I started the foundation. I just wanted to get more kids that looked like me on bikes.”

Regarding his experience of European racing, he said, “You could tell there was some positional aggression towards me…a lack of what you could call ‘sportsmanship’ towards me. I know these things sometimes happen, but in one race in France I was purposely pushed off the road and didn’t make the echelon. I never figured that out. But to be honest with you, I’ve had more issues when it comes to race here in America than I did in Europe.”

So, when I asked Rashaan if he thought there was any improvement within the sport in this country when it came to race, he replied. “Not really.” He then revealed that he’d had “an issue” only this past August at the 10-day Intelligentsia Cup crit series near Chicago. “I haven’t publicly said this before,” he said, “but I had an issue with these two brothers, Ryan and Rob White, and it escalated to the point where racial slurs were thrown towards me on the last day, the Sunday. And it happened in front of about 10 of the staff of the race, and no one came to my defense. Everyone pretended as if they didn’t hear them, and I had to take matters into my own hands.”

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Asked what they were saying, Rahsaan said, “They didn’t use the N-word…but called me all sorts of names…for instance, ‘You’re an asshole. You’re an asshole because you’re Black.’ Stuff like that. And then also like insinuating that I steal from my foundation. All kinds of stuff. It was so bizarre.

“I’ve never filed a formal complaint with USA Cycling for anything, but I did with this one. At the end of the day, it was kind of funny—they gave me a $100 fine for using obscene language towards them, saying you know what towards them, but all they got was a 15-day suspension. I just wanted to show you how disconnected USA Cycling is, and the people they have, making decisions.”

Perhaps the governing body should punish offenders more harshly to discourage racial slurs and similar behavior. USA Cycling does have an ethics rule titled the Fan Code of Conduct—though it applies to all attendees at federation-sanctioned events, including the athletes, not just fans. And even when you discover it in the rulebook, you have to scroll down to the seventh of 10 items that are prohibited before you get to this one—and even then “race” is the 20th word in the item.

  • Displaying signs, symbols, images, using language, or making gestures that are threatening, abusive, or discriminatory on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity, ability, or sexual orientation.

By being buried in the Fan Code of Conduct the item’s impact is weakened, making the prohibition of “racial discrimination” almost like an afterthought. This was a topic that came up in our interview with Rahsaan’s father, Rashid Bahati, the foundation’s executive director, who said, “The inequity involved in the sport is very glaring…to the point that it’s one of the things that motivates us right now. We have a program called Be Smart. Cycle. And that program is designed to find the next Rahsaan. I get young people of elementary school age—because that’s where he started, at 11 years old—and we get them out to the track. We have professional coaching, they have access to track bikes, so it’s a very challenging concept.

“We’ve had conversations with USA Cycling. I’ve talked to their inclusion and diversity people and as far as I’m concerned—whether you want this on the record or off the record—I just really think that it’s a political football. Because I think more could be done to encourage young people of color to get involved in the sport; but the will is not really there. I think there’s a lot of, you know, what they call diversity, inclusion, but it’s just a political term because I haven’t seen the commitment yet. If it is happening, I haven’t seen it and I’m around quite a few influential people that are serving, you know, what you’d call underserved or under-represented communities. And I just don’t see the consistency from the top down, where USA Cycling or other resources are being pumped into these underserved and under-represented areas where we can develop the talent.”

Besides his work for the foundation, Rashid Bahati has a film production business that frequently takes him to West Africa. On a recent trip, he was in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. “I have a couple of projects I’m working on there that are taking up a lot of my time,” he explained. “Let me talk about the one that’s related to cycling. They have a film festival in Burkina Faso called FESPACO. Cinema is a big deal there. I learned they also have a bike race, the Tour du Faso. I was never ever able to make contact with anybody from the race. On my previous trip there I met a member of the African Cycling Confederation who introduced me to some people, and when I went there this time, I met with some heads of the cycling federation.

“The University of Ouagadougou has a cycling team, and I am now in direct connection with them. I’m looking to see how we can support them. For instance, they’re interested in riding the track, but there’s no track available to them. And their equipment is not really up to date, so I’m hoping I can get Giant or another bike manufacturer to be interested in supporting them. Maybe we can also help them with their kit and get some ancillary bike equipment like helmets and such, all matching.”

Helping Black cyclists in Africa may seem like a stretch from encouraging inner-city kids of color competing in America, but it’s people like Rashid and Rahsaan Bahati who can help change the racial disparity in bike racing. It’s only in recent years that Black Africans have started to make strides in the upper echelons of pro cycling, partly through efforts made by the Union Cycliste Internationale and its training camps and with stage races like the Tour du Faso and the upcoming La Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Gabon. It was those two entities that groomed Eritrean national champ Biniam Girmay on the way to his 2022 breakthrough as the first Black African to win a spring classic (Ghent–Wevelgem) and a stage of a grand tour (the Giro d’Italia).

When I asked Rahsaan Bahati whether Girmay’s success could inspire other Black cyclists to attain such victories, he was skeptical. “If you look at the trajectory,” he said, “that to even get to him it’s just been a couple of guys every five years. In this country, if you look back from Major Taylor to Nelson [Vails]—and I’m sure there were some names in between—there’s essentially been since then only riders like Tony Cruz; I know he’s Latino but he’s also a Black guy. Then there was me and now Justin [Williams]. So, you can count on one hand how many African American cyclists have made it as pros.”

But Rahsaan didn’t discount this proposition: With Black kids coming through foundations like his, and with such programs spreading to other parts of the country (maybe with the help of USA Cycling), that’s the only way we’re going to get more of them competing, and therefore becoming successful, right? “Yeah, for sure,” he said, not without a touch of irony.

Learn more about the Bahati Foundation.

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