LA Sweat Cycling – Meet the Junior Development Team riders
Kelli Samuelson grew up in a family of boys, so she knows what it’s like to be outnumbered. This unbalanced gender ratio continued into her adult life, and she saw this disparity grow as she became more interested in cycling.
Samuelson says cycling changed her life – it gave her the opportunity to travel and run – so why would women be less likely to be encouraged to join? And when they are, they are often faced with the uncomfortable feeling of being an outlier.
In 2015, Samuelson launched LA Sweat, an elite competitive cycling team created intentionally to empower women in the sport. The team was originally based in Los Angeles, but the current 15 members are spread across the United States. On race day, they drive or fly to compete together in tough critical races, including the Tulsa Tough and the Winton Salem Cycling Classic.
While this team was successful, Samuelson still noticed an even more discouraging number of entry points for junior riders. So she decided to team up with Blackstone Bicycle Works, a program for youth using bicycles as a way to cultivate meaningful relationships between the community and its underserved black youth, in Chicago, Ill., to recruit candidates for the LA Sweat team. And so began the LA Sweat Junior development program, with the goal of making room for young women to take up the sport.
Samuelson says there is “no other program like this”.
The original three members of the Junior Development Team share what they learned under Samuelson’s mentorship, as well as their previous mentor at Blackstone. It should be mentioned that the team noted that they will no longer be working with Blackstone Bicycling Works in response to the management by the board of directors of the Union of Experimental Stations and pandemic safety for Blackstone employees. LA Sweat fully supports the Experimental Station union which protects Blackstone workers.
After tough workouts, long trips, a few knockdowns and lots of chai tea, the girls say they’ve come closer since joining the team last year. And their relationship with their coaches has grown to be more like a brotherhood than anything else.
Although junior riders are barely in high school, they are already thinking about college and LA Sweat is here to support them. Samuelson’s vision for the team is for it to serve as an avenue to scholarship, character development and academic success.
Makyah, 15, joined Blackstone when she was around 8 years old. She says visiting Blackstone Bicycle Works, or what junior cyclists simply call “Bike Shop,” was one of her favorite things to do, especially since it was conveniently located right next to her school. The vibrant community around Bike Shop meant there was always someone to chat with and grow with. She says she felt even more comfortable there than at school, but even when her former mentor DJ Fish taught her to ride a bike, he always encouraged her to work hard on her homework and stay focused.
Prior to joining LA Sweat, Makyah had never considered herself a cyclist and she is proud to be one of the first cyclists to join the all-female junior team. Samuelson Walked her through some of the delicate and confusing parts of adolescence and femininity, always answering questions and being understanding and accommodating. Makyah says the team has already been a great way to make friends and encourage each other on and off the bike.
Before joining the team, Makyah and his teammates weren’t necessarily equipped with the necessary bike parts and instead had to use whatever was available. Makyah says she is grateful for the resources her coaches and mentors provide.
Makayah is looking to attend an HBCU. She plans to study theater, art or dance. She is also considering entering the STEM field to pursue a career in counseling.
Her advice to other young girls who try cycling? “If you like it, do it.”
Symone, 15, joined Blackstone soon after her teammate Makyah. Looking back, she also fondly remembers the parades and parties that revolved around Blackstone. She also remembers the willingness of her mentor, DJ, to use the space to learn and bond. She says DJ has always taken the time to help the team learn and understand what paid off well given that she was the first to be recruited by LA Sweat for the Junior Development Program.
Symone is especially looking forward to her LA Sweat experience because of all the women on the team. Senior team members are like big sisters and they feel especially close as they are women who can relate to each other. She’s also turned on just because she loves to run and would do it all the time if she could. Being part of a team is new to her, but she has learned to follow the example of her coaches and remember that racing is more than winning a trophy.
She says learning to hang on to her bike was a challenge, as it is for most people. Plus, she felt disheartened when she suffered a spill in Milwaukee. Samuelson heroically drove to help him and healed his injury. This kind of brotherhood is the very essence of LA Sweat.
Symone has her eyes set on North Carolina A&T State University, another potential HBCU student to potentially study arts or STEM.
Imogen James Downie
Imogen, 13, joined Blackstone a bit later than the other teammates. Having joined Blackstone during the pandemic, most of Imogen’s involvement with the team has been virtual. When Imogen couldn’t come to Blackstone for face-to-face classes on bike parts, assembly and maintenance, Imogen was working on her personal projects to support the team, like streaming Twitch from home. Imogen was scared for his first Intelligentsia Cup bike race in Chicago, but managed to overcome his fears and nerves with a successful debut. All the while providing all the fun and laughs for the team as usual.
Imogen is still in college, but has spent some time at the University of Chicago and would be interested in attending. Imogen intends to study drama.
How to support LA Sweat and the junior development team
To participate, visit their web page here where you can support the team through donations or their retail store. You can also give them a follow-up on their instagram to watch the junior development team turn pros.
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