ON A LATE JULY RIDE through Central Park, Lisa Gillespie looked beyond her handlebars. Just ahead on the paved bike trail, one of her fellow riders eased off her pedals. After one lap around the Park, this new rider wanted to quit.

Lisa wasn’t having any of it. 

“I’m like, ‘No, we’re doing this,’” Lisa says. “‘We do this together. You’re here. You’re not going to quit. We’ve got one more lap. You’re going to do another lap.’”

Letting off her own pedals, Lisa told the rider to get on Lisa’s back wheel and pedal behind her. Half an hour later, the new rider finished. After a cool-down, Lisa checked the rider’s progress on an app on her phone — she’d just set multiple PRs.

“This is what happens when we all work together,” Lisa said. “[The rider] had a good ride, she got stronger, and she learned better skills. Win-win-win. That’s how we roll.” 

Lisa’s talking figuratively — and literally. For the past 1.5 years, Lisa has led the New York City chapter of Black Girls Do Bike (BGDB), a worldwide nonprofit of more than 25,000 cyclists “committed to growing a community of women of color who share a passion for cycling.” Since 2013, BGDB has championed efforts to introduce the joy of cycling to all women, especially women and girls of color, through group rides, skill-sharing and removing barriers to entry.

“We’re 100 percent volunteer, all women,” Lisa says. “We have all aspects of riders — from moms who ride with their kids on the back of their bikes to competitive triathletes. We want riders to have access to everything.”

When Lisa took the helm of the NYC Chapter in 2020, she kicked things off with off-the-bike strength training and yoga. In March, she brought them outside and, over four weeks, took them from five- to 30-mile rides. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they rode laps around Central Park’s six-mile loop. On Wednesdays, they swam. Week after week, Lisa and the women lengthened their rides — from 50 miles to 60 to 70 and on. This summer, the riders finished their first century (100 miles) — and their second.

““Without the [group training], I wouldn’t do as many laps in Central Park,” Lisa says. “I wouldn’t be swimming. I wouldn’t be trying to push myself harder. When I swim with [my training partner], even though we’re in different lanes, it’s always the same question at the end: ‘How much did you do?’ I’m still trying to beat her.”

Lisa discovered her love for competitive riding back in the 1980s, racing against New York City’s Fastest: the thousands of breakneck bike messengers. “If you ride your bike on a New York City street, and you pass another cyclist, it’s the unspoken race,” Lisa says.

When some of the bike messengers started switching to mountain bikes, so did Lisa. Three decades (and several injuries) later, Lisa switched to a used road bike, because she was “sick of crashing.” A few years after that, in her mid-50s, she received an invitation to join the multisport community — by way of the 56-mile bike leg of a mid-pandemic, virtual triathlon in Virginia — and she never looked back.

“That [triathlon] community just took me in,” Lisa says. “At that point, I’d just started being the leader of the [BGDB NYC Chapter] and realized we had a lot of triathletes, so I started doing events with them. I thought, ‘Here is this community of people who are competitive like me, that want to go faster.’”

Unfortunately, that community — female BIPOC cyclists and triathletes — is also one that’s often underrepresented at endurance events. Earlier this month, Lisa traveled to  Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to ride SBT GRVL with Team Ride for Racial Justice, a group of 30 BIPOC cyclists who received financial assistance to train for and compete in the iconic gravel event. Of the 3,000-plus riders at SBT, only 12 others came from the BIPOC community. 

“It’s crazy that the [BIPOC] numbers aren’t bigger,” Lisa says. “The issue is that unless people see themselves represented at events, it’s hard to see yourself there. Unless they have people who have done rides like that and are willing to train them, they don’t have the access.”

Enter: Black Girls Do Bike. By giving women of color the training, visibility and access to ride, Lisa and the other women are beginning to demystify cycling and usher new riders past barriers to entry and into the larger cycling community. Change is small and gradual — for now — but Lisa and her fellow “sheroes” are sticking to the game plan: just keep going.

“Unless you’re a certain look, a certain physique, using certain equipment, then you’re automatically discounted,” Lisa says. “People look at me, and they don’t believe I can do stuff. They see me riding fast, and they’re like, ‘Oh ok. Good job!’ It’s not ‘good job’; this is what I do.

“It’s a constant struggle to create a space and to be recognized within that space. You just have to keep showing up and supporting each other.”

The next stop on their narrative-changing journey? The 2023 New York City Triathlon on October 1. This fall, Lisa and a group of seven BGDB riders will chase NYC Tri history down the West Side Highway and through Central Park. Last year, Lisa had to defer her entry for health reasons. Those health issues haven’t gone away — but neither has her drive to compete, to keep going.

“I have to do things that make me happy,” Lisa says. “I need a knee replacement, so I really can’t run. I don’t know how I’m going to do a 10K. I’m just going to do it. I’ll be in pain, and then it’ll be done. I’m going to walk most of it and then jog a little. I just want to get it done.

“I see my riders get really frustrated that they’re not strong enough, not fast enough. I’m like, ‘Just keep going. Because if you’re going at that same speed, once that person slows, you’re going to gain ground. You just have to keep going.’”

Between now and race day, Lisa and the women will continue their weekly regimen — bike loops around Central Park on Tuesdays and Thursdays, lap swimming on Wednesdays — sticking together with every pedal, always pushing each other forward.

““[On race day], everyone will be waiting at the end for everyone to come through,” Lisa says. “We struggle because we’re 100 percent volunteer, and we don’t charge any membership fees. That’s the issue of the group, but it’s also the community of the group because anyone can join. We’re BIPOC, but we have everyone in our group. We ride together. We support each other. No woman is ever left behind.”

If you’re interested in learning more and/or supporting Black Girls Do Bike, you can check out their website and find them on social media.

Article composed by Kevin Horner, August 31, 2023. Image credit: Black Girls Do Bike.