Most adult cycling is data-driven: the number of miles ridden, average speed, max heart rate and other criteria folks use to establish credibility on two wheels. However, in the bicycle universe being built by Marshall Thomas, memories are as important as metrics, and more attention is devoted to personal style than athletic personal-bests.
“I come from the sneaker world, so if someone has a fresh pair of kicks I can design the color of their bike to fit that fresh pair of kicks,” says Thomas, 48, known around Atlanta as DJ Mars. “I create custom bikes for people to give them their own personal individuality. We all can go ride the black bike or the green bike, but when you get a Made by Mars bike I put a little touch to it so it’s yours.”
After two years of modifying BMX-style bikes for local celebrities like Greg Street and Big Tigger and for parents wanting to surprise their children with the dopest bike in the neighborhood, Thomas has partnered with Atlanta Influences Everything to host a Made by Mars pop-up shop, dubbed “The Pull Up,” at Atlantic Station throughout April.
The hybrid retailer fuses fashion and fitness, with Atlanta Influences Everything apparel displayed beside some of Thomas’s BMX creations as well as esteemed cycling brands like VAAST and Marin gravel bikes, Fuji single-speeds, and Cannondale mountain bikes. The rides that are Made by Mars are easy to distinguish from traditional bikes, with designs inspired by sports teams, Greek-letter organizations, and high school and collegiate colors.
“Most bike shops look like your dad’s garage, so we’re trying to steer away from that,” Thomas says. “We’re selling fun: You walk into the store, we’ve got bright, colorful merchandise, we’ve got dope music, we feature dope DJs on the weekend, and we just create a different vibe.”
The day before his fiftieth birthday, Arnold Lizana was in the pop-up shop brainstorming with Thomas about how to personalize the Marin hybrid bike he was purchasing so he could join his wife on rides.
“Now that Covid is sort of starting to turn the corner, I felt like I needed to get out more and be more active and get some exercise,” Lizana says. “One of the things I like about the store is that it really is Atlanta-focused, just kind of promoting Atlanta, which is dope. I wanted to support that and support a Black business.”
The pop-up shop has brought a new local flavor to Atlantic Station, and the energetic response from shoppers and Atlanta’s booming Black cycling scene have organizers hopeful their temporary market can establish a fixed presence.
“I think it’s very important for people of the community, of the culture, to be in Atlantic Station,” says Tory Edwards, 48, co-owner of Atlanta Influences Everything. “I think we can actually bring a lot to the table and broaden the spectrum here, and I think it’s inspiration for independents and entrepreneurs with smaller brands to come here and [succeed].”
Like all cyclists in Atlanta, Black folks who ride bicycles are accustomed to irate car horns and hurled expletives. But it’s also not uncommon for them to receive a surprisingly warm reception—an encouraging gratitude that even the United States’ first cycling world champion, a Black man named Marshall “Major” Taylor, was denied during the height of his career at the turn of the 20th century.
“There are kids coming off of their porch with their bikes trying to ride with us, people clapping and cheering and smiling, and people feeling motivated,” says Zahra Alabanza, 40, cofounder of the Atlanta chapter of Red, Bike, & Green, which hosts a ride the second Saturday of every month from April to October. “There’s just joy in it: Those people [on bikes] look happy doing that, and that makes me happy.”
Black cyclists have long drawn attention while riding through Atlanta, says Kevin Price, president of Velo Atlanta Cycling Club, one of the city’s more established majority-Black bicycle groups. “It’s amazing where sometimes we’ll be riding and we’ll hear, Oh wow, they’re all Black!” Price, 48, says. “And people will take their phones out to get a video because they’re not used to seeing that.”
Our society’s narrow construct of what constitutes “Black culture” makes it inspiring to see Black folks participating in activities that are “not stuff we do,” says Kris Dunbar, owner of Aztec Cycles in Stone Mountain, and A/C Clutch Bicycle Shop along the Westside BeltLine. Dunbar, 43, developed a lifelong passion for bikes by the time he was a teenager, tinkering with his own ride and becoming his neighborhood’s young mechanic.
“When you walk into our Stone Mountain location, you walk into my 12-year-old [self’s] dream come true,” says Dunbar, who marvels at how Atlanta’s Black cycling culture has evolved since he arrived in 1996. “The seeds have been planted and watered, and things are starting to bloom.”
If Dunbar’s two bike shops are the hub of Atlanta’s Black cycling scene, the spokes are the almost dozen cycling clubs that encourage folks to explore the metro on two wheels. From the O.G.’s at Metro Atlanta Cycling Club, which started in 1986, to Covid-era upstarts like ATL Pedal Bikers, the area’s Black cycling groups are broadening perceptions of who rides bicycles and creating social circles centered around healthy living. “Instagram is also part of this, because a lot of people are seeing the groups online and they want to be there,” says Nedra Deadwyler, founder of Civil Bikes, who also attributes the uptick in Black people riding bicycles to BeltLine fever.
While most of the Black cycling clubs are social-fitness outlets rather than advocacy organizations, their presence alone helps contradict notions about a hobby and sport heavily associated with white people. Plus, the groups have led get-out-the-vote rides, clothing and school supply drives, and MACC’s annual “One Love” Century ride has raised roughly $100,000 for organizations supporting underprivileged youth since 2006.
As more Black cycling clubs are created and grow, Alabanza of Red, Bike, & Green hopes traversing the city by bike also instills a new vision in the cyclists so they can empower communities in which the arrival of bike lanes is commonly perceived as an unwelcome harbinger of gentrification and displacement.
“This year, we did an urban farm tour, and the west side likely has the highest concentration of Black urban growing spaces in this entire country. People won’t know that because they’re not necessarily looking for it,” Alabanza says. “Once you show them that, they’re like, I didn’t know I could buy from a Black farmer right down the street from wherever I live on the west side.”
Who’s who when it comes to Black cycling clubs in Atlanta
MACC & Velo @metroatlantacyclingclub @veloatl
When members of the Metro Atlanta Cycling Club first participated in events in the 1980s like the Bike Ride Across Georgia, they attracted the attention of small-town reporters who had never seen a group of Black cyclists. “They wanted to interview us because we were different,” says Greg Masterson, 61, the group’s board president. Since then, MACC has developed a reputation among hardcore cyclists that drew more than 1,350 riders from across the country to its 2019 One Love century ride. Members of MACC and Velo Atlanta Cycling Club, started in 2011 by members of MACC, often ride together.
Dope Pedalers @dopepedalers
Known for showcasing some of the sexiest bicycles in Atlanta, the Dope Pedalers Bike Club, founded in 2014, has humble origins. “I went to Walmart and bought six bikes for me and these young ladies to ride the BeltLine,” says founder Jay Reid. Social media attracted more riders, and Dope Pedalers was born. “We gave that visibility to the culture that people could say, That’s something I can get into,” Reid says.
M.O.B.B. ATL @mobbatl
Attracting new demographics to cycling depends as much on how you look as how you ride, a mindset that has fueled the growth of M.O.B.B. ATL since Tahra Chatard founded the primarily fixed-gear cycling club in 2012. “We are Black people, colorful people, and we gotta be fresh,” says Chatard. “Yes, there is a [cycling] culture here in the Southeast, and because this is a predominantly Black city, we need to be a representation of that culture, too.”
Bonafide Riders @bonafideriderscc
As the Black cycling population continues to rise across the metro area, Bonafide Riders Cycling Club also hopes to elevate the community’s cycling knowledge. “It’s about helping people become actual cyclists,” says Mark Christian, the group’s founder. In addition to its weekly rides, the nonprofit endowed a scholarship for one of its members going off to college last year.
Sistas on Bikes @sistasonbikes
With cycling typically considered a white, male-dominated activity, it can be intimidating for Black women to find a comfortable space. “Some women are nervous about getting out and riding,” says Veyla Barnes, 40, who created Sistas on Bikes in 2020. “I wanted to make a safe space for women to get out and be active, ride your bike and socialize. It’s not based upon what someone’s wearing, what type of bike you have. It’s just a real chill vibe.”
Duncan Teague was feeling cute after primping for his debut in Atlanta’s Black gay social scene in August 1984, but the recent college graduate from Kansas soon learned he was underdressed for a backyard soiree hosted by Henri McTerry.
“When I came out of the bedroom and went into the living room, I asked them, Why are y’all dressed like y’all are going to church? and they said, What in the hell do you have on?” recalls Teague, who now serves as minister for the Abundant Love Unitarian Universalist Congregation in West End. “They re-dressed me. They wouldn’t let me wear the little picnic outfit I had on because I dressed like I was going to a damn picnic.”
There were at least 200 immaculately attired attendees at McTerry’s barbecue that weekend. Witnessing such a gathering unlocked a new world for Teague.
“They were so beautiful,” Teague breathlessly remembers. “I had never seen an outdoor event during the daylight in somebody’s backyard with this many Black gay men—it was astounding.”
Teague would learn McTerry’s picnic was one of many Black gay gatherings occurring across the city every Labor Day, and those parties created a 40-year legacy of Black queer folks from across the country flocking to Atlanta during the final weekend of summer.
In the Life Atlanta (ITLA) was the first group to formalize the Labor Day celebrations into Black Gay Pride in 1996, by supplementing the weekend of partying with health workshops, poetry slams, panel discussions, and, occasionally, a march through Atlanta’s streets.
“We weren’t different or better than people who clearly came here for the bathhouse or clubs, but we really came for the whole cultural experience of what Black Gay Pride was about,” says Raymond R. Oquendo-Duke, former president of ITLA.
Atlanta has reigned supreme on the national Black LGBTQ+ Pride circuit by attracting stars like Nicki Minaj and Brandy and by evolving into a bona-fide summer festival with food and retail vendors in Piedmont Park—as LGBTQ+ families sprawl across picnic blankets like they once did in McTerry’s backyard.
Melissa Scott, owner of the promotion group Traxx Girls, which produces the Pure Heat Community Festival that is also part of the weekend, says, “Black people in Atlanta thrive, and so, when people come here, you get to feel the energy and the positivity of successful, educated people of color.”
Just one story tall and tucked between 7th and 8th streets on Peachtree, a tiny gay bar has built a reputation that towers over many of the skyscrapers that surround it.
“It’s not just a landmark in Atlanta; it’s a landmark globally,” says Brent Cochran, operations manager at Bulldogs, which has been located in the heart of Midtown for 42 years. “I’ve had people who would come here from Paris tell me they knew this was where you had to go.”
Magellan Thompson was 22 years old when he arrived in Atlanta from Chicago during Black Pride weekend in 2012 and found himself at Bulldogs on his first day in town.
“We went over to Bulldogs after an event because I guess it was tradition,” says Thompson, owner of the clothing line 79th & Magallenes. Although Bulldogs is known for a mature crowd, it became Thompson’s favorite bar, and he considers it a guidepost for Black gay Atlanta, linking generations throughout decades of dynamic change—although it served a predominantly white clientele until the late 1980s.
“I think we would kind of be lost when it comes to nightlife without Bulldogs,” Thompson says of the bar that has been the only constant in a Black gay party scene which often feels transitional, with promoters renting venues across the city rather than hosting at a consistent location.
Atlanta would lose something if Bulldogs ever closed as well. The line of folks who begin gathering along Peachtree Street around 11 p.m. on weekends offers a broader representation of Black gay men than media depicts. From young men dressed for the runway and others buff enough to be a UGA running back to older professionals who look like they just left the boardroom, the regulars at Bulldogs provide a snapshot of why Atlanta is considered a Black gay Mecca.
Within a few years of Cochran starting to work as a doorman at Bulldogs in 1998, high-rise buildings were replacing gay bars and no-tell motels in Midtown, and the studio apartments and triplexes that attracted young queer people for decades were being phased out for single-family housing and condos. Bulldogs has outlasted other legendary gay clubs like Backstreet and the Armory, and it has stood its ground amid persistent threats from new neighbors and developers.
“It’s never-ending,” Cochran says of the pressures the bar faces in an evolving Midtown. Having withstood gentrification, the emergence of online dating, and even the AIDS epidemic, Bulldogs now tries to survive another crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Prior to the current conditions we’re all going through, I would have said there was no chance of us going anywhere at any time,” Cochran says. “I’m hopeful things will recover and we’ll weather the storm, but I can’t predict the future.”
Rumors of closure have become as much a part of Bulldogs’s lore as its heavyweight drinks, which Thompson attributes to how frequently venues come and go in Atlanta’s LGBTQ+ nightlife. Confident of the bar’s staying power, he says, “Pretty much everything closes, but Bulldogs doesn’t.”
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