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Virtual reality exhibit brings Black cycling history to life during Maryland Cycling Classic weekend.

Rahsaan Bahati (left), national cycling champion, Ursula Spencer (center), and Nelson Vails, Olympic silver-medalist (right)
Rahsaan Bahati (left), national cycling champion, Ursula Spencer (center), and Nelson Vails, Olympic silver-medalist (right)

Baltimore City is awash with all things bicycle related this weekend in anticipation of the Maryland Cycling Classic on Sunday, a professional race that will take the world’s top cyclists through 121 miles of the city and county.

“Pedals of Resilience” is a pop-up exhibit, currently open at the Inner Harbor’s Light Street Pavilion, that uses virtual reality to teach visitors about the history of important but often overlooked Black pioneers in the sport of cycling.

Swipe a phone over a picture of Marshall Major Taylor and soon you’ll watch a video about the athlete’s life, learning about his strict training discipline that helped him become the world’s fastest cyclist and the challenges he faced as an athlete during the era of Jim Crow.

Taylor is sort of a main character in the exhibit.

“He was America’s, by all standards, the first pro athlete, and he was also by modern standards, the fastest cyclist in the world,” explained Ursula Spencer, the founder of Dope Nerds, a Black-led virtual reality company based in Baltimore. The Baltimore Times, one of the media partners for the Maryland Cycling Classic, spearheaded “Pedals of Resilience” and together with Dope Nerds they created the whole exhibit from concept to execution in three weeks, said Spencer.

Paris Brown, the associate publisher of The Baltimore Times, said this year the cycling festival wanted to “create a more diverse audience,” especially after realizing the DMV area has a “huge population” of Black cyclists.

“At The Baltimore Times we tell stories, right? And so we thought, how can we tell the story of Black cyclists using a different platform?” said Brown.

It’s not all QR codes and scanning, there’s a virtual “race”. Put on a VR headset so you can go back to the year 1890 to race against Major Taylor. You start in 1890, in Baltimore, and ride through time into the 1970’s, 2010s, and finally 2023. The graphics aren’t hyper-realistic, a bit more reminiscent of a 90’s computer game but the streets are noticeably Baltimore with recognizable sites like Inner Harbor and the Washington Monument.

During each era, participants meet and learn about a new Black cyclist including Rahsaan Bahati, Nelson Vails, and the Williams Brothers.

Bahati, winner of ten national titles, spoke about how exhibits like this challenge the perception of who is a professional cyclist. He recalled growing up in Los Angeles and knowing lots of Black people that used bikes for transportation, however, cycling for sport was another story.

“It wasn't foreign to see people on bikes, it was foreign to see black people actually cycling or as a passion as a hobby. For recreation, you know what I mean? Never saw that,” said Bahati.

“Over the last 10 years, the African American community has been the largest growing demographic, and we're still overlooked,” he said. “It’s something that the industry needs to pay more attention to and if they don't, to be frank… we're going to just make our own lane and then they're going to miss out.”

Studies, including a 2013 report from the American Bike League and Sierra Club, found that cycling is growing among minorities but mostly so among African Americans.

“Maybe America has not recognized that yet. But it is growing… especially in the city of Baltimore,” said Nelson Vails, who won silver for the US in the 1984 Olympics. He was the first African American to medal in cycling. Even though he’s been in the sport for decades, he said he still learned new facts at the small one-room exhibit.

"Pedals of Resilience" ends September 3rd.

Emily is a general assignment news reporter for WYPR.