Justin Grant is a member of the Black Watts Cycling Club.
Even for the most experienced road bikers, the uphill climb on Walker Road in West Orange is brutal. The road rises nearly 400 feet at its steepest point, making it one of the toughest roads for cyclists in the Oranges. In fact, members of the Black Watts Cycling club, myself included, single out Walker Road as one of the most difficult stretches along our various routes across north, central and western New Jersey.
“It was no joke the first time we all did it on Father’s Day,” Walter Douglas, Jr. said of the experience riding up Walker.
For us men of the Black Watts Cycling Club—a group of more than a dozen husbands and fathers in Orange, South Orange and West Orange— Walker Road can be seen as metaphor for life as Black people in the United States. Although it can be a difficult, uphill battle at times—there is joy and motivation from knowing that you’re not alone as you push your way to the top.
“When you’re done with the ride, you’re like, ‘Man, I feel good. That hill was crazy, but I feel good – I didn’t do it alone,’” said Chad Bennett, 38, the owner of CRTVE, a talent and diversity, equity & inclusion firm. “I did it with the same group of brothers who are experiencing the same struggle to climb that hill.”
Richard Nunes agreed, adding that inspiration from the group is a necessary motivator.
“To have all the brothers greet you at the top, just waiting for you, and not in a negative way—is a very positive thing,” said Nunes, a 50-year-old lawyer. “As we’re struggling up hills and finding new pathways, or attaining new personal records, it’s bringing achievement and joy through all of this.”
The metaphor of uphill struggle is apt for Black Watts, because the club was formed in what’s been a historically difficult year for the Black community. Black people are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 and three times more likely to get infected by the virus as their White counterparts, according to the National Urban League.
Thanks to the economic fallout from the pandemic, Black-owned small businesses have shuttered at nearly twice the rate as small businesses in the U.S. overall, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, leaving behind thousands of lost jobs in its wake.
Meanwhile, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, have placed a renewed focus on unarmed Black Americans dying at the hands of the police.
It was against this backdrop that Bennett invited a few friends out for a simple, 14-mile ride on Father’s Day. From there, the number of riders and distances quickly grew, and weeks later the Black Watts Cycling Club was officially born.
As the group expanded to more than a dozen members, Jamison Antoine said he noticed the positive reaction Black Watts received from people of all races as they took to the roads. Weather-permitting, Black Watts rides every Sunday morning, and routinely switch up the routes, which usually begin at Flood’s Hill Park in South Orange and can go as far south as Metuchen and Rahway, or west through Morristown. The group has also tackled the famous 9W cycling route in New York.
“I remember one ride, we were coming through Montclair and passed a restaurant with outdoor seating, and there was one woman in particular,” the 43-year-old marketing executive recalled. “She just yelled out, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and everyone at that restaurant turned their heads. I felt encouraged, and because of everything that was happening in our society at the time, you could see it in people’s faces. They were like, wow – look at these brothers moving.”
Privileged to Ride
Road biking is an expensive hobby, and Black Watts members say they’ve spent thousands of dollars on bikes, cycling kits, bike shoes and other equipment. My fellow cyclists feel fortunate, they say, that they’re still able to afford the hobby despite the economic fallout from the coronavirus. This realization has inspired us to seek out ways to support local small businesses along our routes, and to provide resources to organizations dedicated to helping people who are in need.
Aquil Jannah led the way in pushing Black Watts to identify small businesses where we can spend money on food, coffee and other refreshments to refuel during long-haul adventures that now exceed more than 50 miles. Montclair Bread Company, Harper’s Café in West Orange, Clean Juice in Morristown and even Papillon, a home furnishing and gift store in Metuchen, are among our favorites.
“It’s our responsibility said Jannah, a 45-year-old network engineer with New York’s MTA. “There’s a lot of work we’ve got to do locally.”
Douglas agrees. “We just can’t be out here riding in vain,” said Douglas, a 52-year-old healthcare executive. “Our support of small business is going to keep this country going. These bikes cost money. This gear costs money, and we’re all blessed to continue to live our best lives during this period when so many are without.”
Antoine also pushed the group to contribute to people in need through the Isaiah House Shelter, which provides temporary housing, food and other resources to children, adults and families in East Orange.
“When we’re doing our morning rides, we see people—when they’re on their bikes, they’re going to work. We’re out here riding just for fun, so giving back is something that’s always top of mind for me,” said Antoine, who’s led the way on Black Watts contributing money, clothing and sanitary napkins to Isaiah House. So far, the group has contributed nearly $1,200 in charitable donations, along with dozens of boxes of supplies, as well as toys, bikes and infant care packages.
“I just wanted to make sure we’re giving back because we’re blessed to live where we live, have the women in our lives that we have—and our kids.”
Drawing Power from the Uniform
Beyond the size of our group, the Black Watts crew is hard to miss as we make our way through north and central New Jersey, thanks to our eye-popping uniforms, which feature hand-drawn designs created by the members’ children.
The black-and-white kits feature children’s drawings of men on bikes with the words “Dad” and “New Jersey” sprinkled throughout. The kits give us a distinctive, official look that has helped us connect to people of different backgrounds during a time when Americans have been polarized by politics and race.
In recalling the positive reactions Black Watts has received in rides through predominantly white towns and neighborhoods, Nunes said: “The ride to Metuchen was the first ride with the group so deep, and it was the first ride in our official kits. And I just felt the level of positivity from all the people watching us pass through.”
For Douglas, the Black Watts cycling kit is more than a uniform. It’s a bond between Black men and the community at a time when unity is desperately needed.
“When you have that fraternal bond that comes out of pure love, that comes out of fatherhood, shared purpose, vision and complementary values—it’s the best stress reliever that I have.”
Visit the Black Watts Cycling Facebook page to inquire about membership opportunities and to learn more.