Erica Elle wants everyone to feel comfortable in the sport of cycling. But sometimes, that means we have to get a little uncomfortable!
Elle founded the Level Up Cycling Movement to increase minority participation in cycling and help riders find a pathway to the professional ranks. She’s used to working “behind the curtain,” shining the spotlight on others. But in late summer 2021, suddenly, the spotlight was on her! Elle and another cyclist, OJ Borg, joined Zwift Academy Road together and recorded their progress for Zwift’s “World of Zwift” YouTube series.
Borg, a British radio and television presenter, is high-energy and used to being on camera. Elle, a rider agent from Florida, is a more private person who was nervous about recording her training sessions.
“I’m a black woman and he’s a white guy in another country, and with our energy, we connected,” she says. “You would never guess when you put these two together, that you would come out with this outcome. . . . the end result was like magic.”
As part of Zwift Academy, Elle participated in her first structured training program and her first race. To add to the physical challenge, she was in the process of changing to a vegan diet at the time.
At the end of it all, she accomplished more than she thought she could.
“It forced me outside of my comfort zone, and in order to grow, you have to step outside of your comfort zone,” she says. “I’ll never forget that experience. I grew so much as a person, understanding how far I can push myself and understanding where my limits are. My limit is wherever I set it.”
Becoming a Cyclist
Elle loved cycling as a kid. She always gravitated toward bikes and would ride one around the nearby roads in south Florida. But that changed as she grew up. She started associating riding bicycles with poverty – not something to aspire to. There weren’t many black cyclists to look up to that would change her mind.
“It’s assumed in certain black communities that if you see an adult on a bike, that’s his or her only transportation,” Elle says.
She didn’t lose her love of bikes, though. When she went to college, Elle kept a hybrid bicycle around that she could ride in the neighborhood and her apartment complex.
She watched the Tour de France every year, but in her mind, road cycling was something that happened in another country, far away.
When she was in her 30s, she met an attorney who had a road bike in his office. She was intrigued and asked about it, and he encouraged her to try one of her own.
Elle bought an inexpensive bicycle online and started riding every weekend, pushing herself to go a little farther each time. Eventually, she went to a bike shop and bought a road bike. Elle would ride by herself or with her attorney friend, Jermaine.
One day, she asked Jermaine, “Where are the other black riders?”
“He said, ‘I’m the only one. I’ve been riding for seven years, and I haven’t seen any other black people on bikes,’” recalls Elle.
She refused to believe that. Elle started to join different bike clubs on rides, but sure enough, there weren’t any others there who looked like her.
She wanted to ride with them anyway, but she didn’t feel welcome as a newcomer. A mile or two after the ride started, Elle would be alone. Was she invisible?
Elle kept searching for a group where she felt comfortable. Eventually, she found a bike shop that hosted a ride with a bunch of Caribbean riders.
“I called Jermaine and said, ‘I found black people on bicycles!’” Elle says, laughing.
After that, she rode with that group of men – there were no other women at the time – on a regular basis. She felt more comfortable there – and seen.
Level Up Cycling Movement
As Elle started joining more group rides, charity rides, and races, she saw a clear lack of minority participation. She also noticed something else.
“There were very young and very talented racers in my bike community who won races over and over again on subpar equipment – and, at times, without a team,” she said.
Many of those racers said they wanted to race in Europe as a professional. But when Elle asked them how to do that, no one could answer. She decided she wanted to help these passionate young cyclists achieve their dreams.
“I gathered friends and cyclists closest to me who understood the mission and launched Level Up Cycling Movement,” Elle says. “One year later, I became the first black certified UCI Pro Rider Agent.”
Level Up is a nonprofit organization with three missions. First, it aims to expose the sport of cycling to minority communities and grow the cycling community as a whole. Second, it strives to build the community-to-pro pipeline. Third, it seeks to raise funds for benevolent causes.
The first two missions are linked, Elle says. As representation in the pro ranks grows, it will inspire representation in community spaces that have been mostly white. And as more black cyclists participate in this wider community, more will be able to become pro riders.
Explore and Celebrate
Cycling as a sport catered to certain types of people for a long time, Elle says. Now that more diverse riders are participating, people still tend to stick with others who are like them.
“Everybody is kind of understanding the sport in their comfort zones at this time, because that’s what we do,” Elle says. “We gravitate to people we can connect with initially.”
This gives people like her a chance to feel welcome and understood. But it also means cyclists of color can get sidelined and excluded, while others don’t even notice.
“In cycling, we love to say - because it’s true - that bikes make you feel free,” she says. “I use my bike to explore, and it has given me the confidence to explore in other areas of my life. We need to take that same energy of exploration and explore other communities in cycling.”
That can mean making an effort to welcome different types of riders, or seeking out other communities of riders who are different than you. Elle says white cyclists rarely attend the rides sponsored by Level Up in south Florida, even though they’re invited too!
Since 2020, the Level Up Cycling Movement has been working with Zwift on the Black Celebration Series. This series of group rides shines the spotlight on black cyclists and celebrate their achievements in the sport.
Elle was first introduced to Zwift by Rahsaan Bahati, a former professional cyclist and founder of the Bahati Foundation. The two got to know each other as Elle sought his advice on starting her nonprofit organization with a similar mission.
“I would always see him on Zwift, and he said, ‘You’ve got to get on here,’” she says. “Once I did get a trainer and finally got connected, I fell in love with it.”
She was especially excited to join and lead group rides. Partway through one of her first events, she had a technical problem and was left behind. This time, though, she didn’t feel alone. Other riders kept chatting with her, and she could follow along by watching their avatars.
“In south Florida and the Miami area, we can ride (outside) year-round,” says Elle. “I still Zwift because it connects me to people everywhere. If I want to ride with my friends or even just random people, I can. To be able to speak to people all over the world, that’s exciting to me.”
Zwift is also a safe place to explore, test your limits, and step outside that comfort zone.
With a smile, Elle says, “Your limits are wherever you set them.”