Kimmie Li and Curvan Alleyne found themselves looking for friendship and physical activity as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic continued to keep most of their Canadian city of Toronto on lockdown. Seeking exercise and community, they both came across the ManDem Cycling Club, which was, contrary to typical cycling clubs in Canada, run by a Black man.
“Seeing a diverse cycling group like this is just so unusual and important,” Li told Bicycling.
Christopher McGarrell, who recognized the lack of cycling clubs in the area with participants who looked like him, started the ManDem Cycling Club earlier this year. The organization grew from about seven men to more than 100 Torontonians—men, women, nonbinary people, Black and Brown folks, and even occasionally kids—biking throughout the city each weekend. McGarrell encouraged participants to bike with whatever they had and wanted everyone to know that they didn’t need expensive gear to participate in his club.
“To be honest, I didn’t initially recognize the impact of me being a Black guy leading a cycling club in Toronto,” McGarrell told Bicycling. “It wasn’t until strangers approached me saying, ‘You know, it’s a really big deal that you’re a Black man doing this positive thing in the community—and in our community.’”
Before May 2020, the last time McGarrell biked was during a 2014 trip to Amsterdam. For him, cycling was something he did when he was younger—not an everyday activity. The Guyanese-Canadian marketing manager and Scarborough, Toronto, native didn’t consider himself a cyclist, but after the pandemic shut down life as he knew it in Canada, McGarrell found himself feeling trapped in his apartment and in need of an activity that could bring him joy.
When his old friend Corwin Miller a.k.a. “Beefy” shared a picture of his new bike with McGarrell and his friend Mark Mayers, the two of them, in need of something to break the isolation and lack of physical activity, decided to give bike riding another try.
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“I had to go an hour and a half outside of town to get an affordable bike, but it was worth it,” McGarrell said. “Before I knew it, I found myself on the bike all the time, and I just loved it.”
McGarrell, happier than he’d been in months, continued riding with Mayers, and eventually, other close friends began to join them on rides around Toronto. Eventually, the rides grew longer, and as McGarrell began to post more on social media about the freedom and friendship he was feeling, others requested to tag along. While sitting on his couch, McGarrell made a joke about starting a “ManDem” club (“man dem” is a slang term with patois roots that means a group or crew of friends), and was shocked when his friends said, “That’s actually a really good idea.”
“I started doing more promotion through Instagram, and you know what happens when you get started on Instagram,” he said.
Members like Li and Alleyne benefitted from his social media efforts.
“I look forward to my ride with ManDem every week. From small rides to our long trip to Niagara Falls, this group has just been such a relief and a way to connect different types of people,” Li said.
Alleyne has found the group a welcome change in a city where cycling groups are often populated by white, elite cyclists who can afford expensive equipment.
“This club is really unique in our city,” Alleyne told Bicycling. “It doesn’t matter who you are, what race you are, nor what gender. You just bring yourself and your bike, and you’re on your way to making new friendships and having conversations about issues that matter in our world.”
The inclusive nature of the group has attracted kids, too. Many parents have struggled to find appropriate places for their children to have good role models and get exercise during the pandemic, and ManDem has tried to counter that challenge.
“There’s no community center or school open right now during COVID-19, so people come out and bring their sons to ride with us to keep them in a safe and healthy environment,” said McGarrell. “The parents appreciate having a positive Black figure for their kids.”
Many people have continued to join the club, building friendships along each and every ride.
“We’re tapping into that childhood experience of just getting on a bike with your friends and going for a bike ride, so it didn’t matter what equipment you had or what clothes you had. With us, you’re just going for a nice ride.”
In addition to the frustration and depression brought on by COVID-19 for many club participants, McGarrell was also well aware of the racial justice protests and conversations taking place throughout North America. As a Black man, he felt his presence was essential, and the rides became opportunities not only for safe social connections, but deep conversation.
To build this type of cycling community, McGarrell surrounded himself with others trying to do good work through biking. His close friend and fellow ManDem participant Matthew Cuesta led a cycling challenge in Toronto to honor George Floyd and address some of the negative stereotypes surrounding Black men in Canada—one of many efforts from Black runners and cyclists to raise awareness about racism in fitness communities.
While the magnitude of racial justice protests is heightened in the United States, racism is embedded in Canada, and difficult conversations about race and racism—and other social issues like classism and homophobia—have become crucial dialogue for people like McGarrell.
“I use the opportunity to make it known that our organization stands for inclusivity. We don’t exclude because of your age, your experience level, your gender, or gender identity. Instead, we want you to feel like you’re a part of a group. Everyone—regardless of their identity—deserves a safe space to cycle with others. So if you want to come on a bike ride and check out Toronto and look at beautiful scenery, then I say let’s roll.”
For McGarrell, his inclusive bike club should be one of hundreds—and he knows that his organization is unique.
“It feels like a movement is starting,” McGarrell said. “For the longest time, people like myself assumed that cycling was for a certain type. No more. I hope more Black people jump into this incredible biking world and take other marginalized people with them.”
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