Interview: Brian Park
Words: Wesley Ferguson
Illustrations: Taj Mihelich
Wesley Ferguson is a joyful, positive person. He’s happy-go-lucky, and absolutely loving life. He works at a non-profit bike shop in a historically poor part of Minneapolis that’s working to improve diversity in the cycling world. His background is in film studies, and he’s recently gotten into mountain biking.
But he’s angry too. Angry that he has to explain the existence of racism and justify his frustration. Angry that the sum of his experiences don’t allow him to give people the benefit of the doubt—“Did that person refuse my help because they don’t need it, or because I’m Black?”
We sat down with Wesley to listen to his perspective on mountain biking.
Let’s start with who are you and what do you do?
My name is Wesley Ferguson. Work-wise, I am the barista manager here at Venture North Bikes Walk and Coffee, which is a non-profit bike and coffee shop here in North Minneapolis. We help to get the youth out on bikes, people on lower income out on bikes, and we accept donations that we refurbish and get back out onto the streets, try to give them a second life. That’s what I do for work. I went to school for film at Columbia College in Chicago, so I’m really into movies. Basically, if I’m not riding a bike I’m watching something constantly. So if I’m not doing one of those two things I’m just hanging out with my dog, Harvey.
How’d you get into mountain biking?
That was kind of just by accident. I went to school in Chicago, and that’s where I really got my start of love of cycling. I was on a fixie or a single-speed constantly. I moved back here after college, and I only had a single-speed. And then the manager of the shop was like, “Well, we have this single-speed mountain bike, try it out.” And then I’ve just been kind of hooked ever since.
It was kind of funny. Once I finished everything on that Giant, and put on some SRAM Eagle, which had a 12 speed on it. The day before I was riding my Low Side, which is a fully rigid singlespeed, so I kind of forgot about gears and everyone was making fun of me. They’re like, “Dude, you have 12 speeds, shift. You can shift now.” I’m like, “Oh, yeah. I don’t have to stand up or walk up this rock climb. I can just chill.”
It’s so overkill. [laughs]
I’ve never seen that All City Electric Queen before. That thing looks good.
It’s basically like the Karate Monkey, but without the horizontal dropouts in the rear. It’s a thru axle. Plus I run 1×11 and a front fork.
I really just go out there for fun. Me and my friends, we started a YouTube page [Biking with Wesley & Friends-Ed.], and now it’s easy to go out there and make new friends. And now we’re even more motivated, so I can just use that kind of as an excuse for my second job of like, “I need to go riding, get some more footage. Sorry, I can’t hang out guys, bummer.”
It’s a stress reliever, especially right now in COVID, a great way how to stay in shape and stay active. I just do it to stay happy. We have Theodore Worth Trail, which is less than a mile away from the shop. So at the end of almost every day we just go ride from the shop.
Did you ever do any racing?
I used to do some road racing. Racing in general is kind of a weird climate, especially for a Black man because it’s not the most inviting environment. It is fun to compete, but it is very intimidating to go there by yourself. You’re the only person who looks like you skin color-wise, but then also everyone is dressed up the exact same. You have five people in a row all wearing bright blue. They have the same bike, and their bike cost more than your car.
And you’re riding on a hand-me-down bike, which, my hand-me-down bike is great and everything. It’s an old Tommaso, full campy Super Record and everything. But at the same time I’m seeing all these guys and thinking, “Dude, you literally walk faster than me because of your helmet design.”
The racers are just so uninviting to the sport. You feel like you can’t be entry-level without a $10,000 bike. So yeah, I wasn’t really trying to get into that too much. But I have been watching just quick Instagram videos of cyclocross races and mountain bike races. And I’ve always lived in the city and haven’t really been able to get out there like that, so now I’m noticing that does look like a completely different animal than what road races are. I’ve been talking with the Minnesota Cycling Federation and trying to do some work with that to have more representation at races.
In some ways racers’ job is to be intimidating.
It’s more the comments of like, “Oh, how do you afford that bike?”
Is mountain biking that different from road racing in terms of an “inaccessible” vibe?
Mountain biking doesn’t really seem like it talks to Black communities all that much either, so how are Black people even going to know about it if you’re not advertising to their main communities, and how are they going to show up?
It’s really expensive too. How are people going to compete when entry fees can be up to like four or $500 dollars sometimes? And then a racing mountain bike can be like $2,000–$3,000 just at the basic level. Like, “Yo, go play basketball. That’s just a ball.”
The money thing is important for sure, but is it the whole story? Every time anyone talks about race in the mountain bike media, we see comments suggesting that the lack of diversity in the sport is just bikes being too expensive and downplaying any underlying race issues. Is it as simple as that?
Whenever someone says, “No, I’ve never heard of any sort of racism in mountain biking,” I ask, “Well, do you talk to Black people? Do they trust you enough to talk to you about racism in mountain biking? Do you mountain bike with them? Are you actually friends with them? Are they real? Are you making this up?”
No. There’s so many more barriers (than just bikes being expensive). For example, if we want to ride more “real” trails we kind of have to drive about 30, 40 minutes to really any mountain bike place. And when you leave this area, just know that you’re probably not going to see anybody who looks like you for the rest of the day at this mountain bike place. I really challenge every White person, when was the last time that happened, that you went a whole day and you saw nobody who looked like you? That’s my reality a lot of the time in mountain biking. That was also my reality growing up in Minnesota and the suburbs of Minnesota. There would be days if my buddy Jared didn’t show up to class, it would be like, “Hey, dad. You’re the only Black guy that I saw today.”
That drive up there to Elm Creek, I did it a couple of weeks ago. The amount of Blue Lives Matters flags and Back our Boys flags that I saw made me uncomfortable. And they’ll pull up on their truck with Confederate flags in the back like, “All right, that’s great…”
Another example, out on the trail so many people ask me how I got my bike. I tell them I work at a shop. And whenever we see someone on the side we always ask if they need help. I’m usually the one in front, and more often than not the rider on the side of the trail is like, “No, I’m good.” And then I’ll hear Simon or Ian (who are White) ask behind me, and all of a sudden they need help after all. What the hell? Why couldn’t I help? What was wrong with me?
It’s the subtly that is really noticed after a while, and when it happens so often—it’s not blatant racism, when it’s subtle like that you can’t help just but question it at all times. So maybe that person didn’t avoid my help because I’m Black; they just realized they actually do need help and changed their mind. But after enough times it’s hard to give people the benefit of the doubt. I’m still questioning that guy, how can I not question it?
Why do you think we don’t see more Black mountain bikers and we do see, for example, Asian mountain bikers and Indo-Canadian mountain bikers? Or maybe that’s just a Vancouver thing?
I mean money plays a factor, but I think the access, information, and education are the three big things that needs to happen in Black communities. Just, one, have a store that sells mountain bikes that’s ready to have that in Black communities, and see how that changes what they’re riding. If it’s available to them right there, people will buy it. It just literally takes the access, the know-how and the information to do it.
Just see how things change when you really find out that other people like you are getting into it—look how many Black people got into comic books after Black Panther came out. They gave you a dose of it, and Black people realized we can try this thing out. Then people who may have started off on a Black Panther story get into it more. “It was cool and everything, but now I’m actually just reading a random comic book that has nothing to do with Black Panther or Black people, just space aliens or whatever.”
The downstream effect of representation has to be huge. The example I’d heard before is that how impactful the Little Mermaid was for red haired kids.
I do like how they are making the Little Mermaid Black, and people were mad about that. But if you really want to stick to the original story, then she kills herself in the end.
Also she’s a mermaid. She’s a fictional character. We’re not going for historical accuracy here…
I really feel all the problems that we see of racism in society are just concentrated smaller and smaller and smaller in different ways and forms. And so when it comes to the mountain bike community, it’s just like it still exists, it may exist in a different form. It’s not just violent hate. It’s just where is that inclusion? And that all really just starts with the invitations and letting people know what you’re doing.
There’s a backdrop of bigger issues outside of the mountain bike community, but I don’t think anybody in good faith believes it’s an either or thing. We can try and fix big-picture problems, but we can also try and improve the mountain bike world and community.
It doesn’t need to be big and complicated. It can be as simple as finding a high school team and POCs that need your old frame. Give somebody the start to at least get them into it. If you have a friend with young kids who ride bikes, tell them about mountain biking and about how much of a positive experience it can be—mountain biking will keep so many kids out of trouble and doing dumb stuff.
Really introduce them and maybe they will introduce somebody else. It’s just kind of that string effect because it’s a fun sport and not enough Black people do it.
You gotta have Black friends to be able to loan your Black friend a mountain bike though…
Maybe we need that weird celebrity endorsement. Black people weren’t playing golf until Tiger Woods, really. There was a huge boom with that. Go look at a tennis court now, see how many Black girls are there. If Kendrick Lamar does a song about singletrack…
Someone’s got to know how we can get Kendrick a bike.
Do you think that if you had seen more Black pro mountain bikers that you would have come to the sport earlier?
Yeah. I live in Minnesota. I own three hockey jerseys, and they’re all Black hockey players. It’s kind of like the unwritten rule like, “Yo, I’m cheering for anybody Black,” kind of thing.
It’s not always just cheering for anyone Black. I do go for ideas or skill, but at the end I see the struggle that they have gone through to get to this point and I recognize it, so I am cheering for them.
Biking is such a healthy hobby already. Obviously riding is healthy, but even just getting to the level of when you feel comfortable tinkering on your bike, having those hand skills, it does positive things for your brain and gives you a sense of accomplishment, no matter what you do on your bike. “Yeah, I just torqued-down this stem correctly. Hell, yeah. I’m going to go drink a beer now.”
A huge part of growing up for me was working in a shop and getting the confidence of knowing, “Oh, yeah, I can work on this bike. Yeah, that’s a $10K bike, sure, but I know how to do this. I’m not going to scratch it. It’s okay.”
Our head mechanic built a $10,000 bike for a customer, and then he goes, “All right, Wesley, you get to ride it. You get to test ride it.” I’m like, “What? That means I’m responsible if it breaks…”
Thanks for sitting down and talking with us today. Anything else you want to say to the Pinkbike community?
I hope that COVID is done ASAP so we can all do a big, dumb, after-COVID ride together. At this point I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of bike advocacy just in Minneapolis. And then my voice is just now actually somewhat being heard thanks to Surly and y’all and just other people that I feel like we will be able to have a giant mountain bike festival once COVID is up. After COVID, everybody at Pinkbike that’s going to read this, we’re going to meet in some backyard for a mountain bike festival. We will.
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