Nichole Watson’s rapport with her students is evident as she pedals along, conversing with the young cyclists and complimenting them on their bikes’ bells and whistles.
At one point toward the end of the ride, a student has a mild fall from their bike. “Everyone should be helping,” Watson exclaims, “and asking ‘Are you OK?’”
“Are you OK?” one child echoes, then another.
“Everybody falls sometimes,” Watson reassures, as the rather large group continues pedaling back to their school after the turnaround.
It was the first Saturday in October 2020, and more than 300 students and families put on their face coverings and met on the playground of Prescott Elementary School in Northeast Portland for a short, socially distanced bike ride to the nearby middle school. Since Portland students have been distance learning this year, the event was a rare opportunity for students to safely connect with their peers and teachers without the help of a computer screen.
Organized by Watson — a huge cycling advocate and enthusiastic member of the Portland chapter of Black Girls Do Bike — the family-friendly Prescott Pedal let kids and their adults dip their toe into cycling with all the support they might need.
“It’s important to me that we build relational trust, and the best way to do that, I think, is in community,” says Watson, a longtime Portland school teacher who became the first Black principal at the diverse eastside school in fall 2020. “So I have to create a space for people to do that safely. A bike ride gives us a chance to be outside with our masks on. And it gives my babies permission to take the lane. And it gives them the opportunity to see themselves as cyclists.”
Before the ride, many children decorated their bicycles, and others got small repairs to their bikes at a table stacked with wrenches, tools, air pumps and tires. A couple of families waited for loaner bikes from the Community Cycling Center and Portland Safe Routes to School. A nearby wall read: “Be the ‘I’ in Kind.”
While riding a bike is easy once you acquire a bicycle and learn how to ride it, being a true cyclist involves much more equipment, thought and planning. Watson aims to break down those barriers.
Black Girls Do Bike
This wasn’t Watson’s first rodeo. In search of a challenging, sustainable form of exercise, the 39-year-old educator has been an avid cyclist since 2017. After borrowing a bicycle and going on a 6-mile ride with a friend, Watson says she fell in love with the sport: “We loved it from there. It just took a hold.”
She didn’t intend for her newfound passion to become political or revolutionary. She just wanted to bike as much as possible — as a fun hobby rather than a commute. “At [first], it was just the two of us. And then it was, like, four of us, and then it was, like, eight of us. And now we have a little crew.”
Shortly after their first group ride, friend and fellow cyclist Keyonda S. McQuarters started the Portland chapter of Black Girls Do Bike a national grassroots sisterhood that empowers Black women in their quest for wellness and camaraderie. The group has more than 90 chapters nationwide and more than 25,000 members in its Facebook group. The group empowers women like Watson who feel extra vulnerable when cycling. For instance, many feel endangered when vehicles drive too close and feel disrespected by other cyclists who may think they don’t know the language or belong on the bike path.
Riding with Black Girls Do Bike made the women feel more visible, Watson says. “It allowed us to realize what we’re feeling on our bikes is real, because there is this culture that Black girls don’t ride bikes — that there is this surprise when we ride by. There is this shock when we are in a bike store buying something and we know the language, or when someone sees us on the road.”
After McQuarters started the Portland chapter, the group began hosting rides by posting meet-up and roll-out times to the group’s Facebook page. The Portland chapter now includes nearly 500 members. While they started out by cycling around the neighborhood, they’ve been steadily increasing the intensity and distance, up to 100 miles.
In June 2020, Watson hosted a community ride that she thought would draw around 75 people — but was shocked and delighted to see 2,000 cyclists show up. “It just goes to show people only need permission and access,” she says. “Make it easy: ‘You show up. I have a bike for you and the helmet and the route. All you’ve got to do [is] show up.’”
Inspired to Teach
Watson, a native Portlander, has always pushed boundaries. When she was young, she wanted to become a fighter pilot in the United States Air Force. She participated in Airway Science for Kids, a program on Saturdays that helped youth in North and Northeast Portland learn aviation and how to fly airplanes. At age 13, Watson completed flight simulations on a computer and eventually went on to fly a Cessna 182 as well as a helicopter to log her hours.
She chose to attend Benson High School and participate in the school’s ROTC program so that she could fly an F-16 in the Air Force. But she was discouraged from the outset. In a room full of boys, she recalls that the male instructor “looked around, kind of chuckled and was like, ‘Well, we don’t want to waste your time because that’s not likely to happen, for three reasons: One, you’re a girl. Two, you’re a Black girl, and the math is too hard. And three, you’re a Black girl with glasses, and it requires 20/20 vision.’”
She never flew again. It wasn’t until taking classes at Portland Community College that she had a math teacher, a woman of color, who challenged Watson on her conviction that math wasn’t her thing and tutored her to help her earn an A in the class. It was a moment of realization for her. “Had somebody given me permission to be brilliant at 17, what could I be doing?” she says. “That’s when I decided to become a teacher.”
Watson is still passionate about aeronautics and wants to get her pilot’s license one day. She currently serves on the board of directors for Airway Science for Kids.
Now that her training has her biking anywhere from 10-mile to 100-mile routes, Watson feels it’s her responsibility to share the love and create more diversity, access and belonging for everyone interested in the cycling sport — especially for those pushed to the margins.
“For me it’s now become a way of starting a conversation with kids who look like me,” Watson says. “And curvy girls — to let them know that our bodies can do some pretty incredible things. And we deserve to be in the middle of traffic, taking up space in a way that we don’t get to take up space in an office building or in a room or in a meeting.”
It’s not that Black women don’t bike — many do, often from childhood — but there are significant financial barriers to biking safely, like the high cost of a bicycle that fits your frame, as well as a helmet, locks, lights, replacement parts, repairs, attire and more. Watson emphasizes that finding cycling gear that fits a diversity of body types is also challenging.
When shopping for bikes and parts at places like Sellwood Cycle, Watson says she brings a whole crew (including a bike mechanic) for support and expertise in finding the right fit. Now she’s the one helping others get gear.
“I don’t get the luxury of walking in the door and closing it behind me,” she says. “Because then that makes me no different than the people who did it before me. So I have to host rides. And I have to make sure that people know that I’m a cyclist so that it creates a different narrative, and it changes the story and the expectation about who we see on bikes.”
Check It Out:
Friendly bike shops: Watson recommends Sellwood Cycle, NW Pro Gear and Community Cycling Center as great places to shop for new and used bikes. Bikes 4 Humanity also offers lower-cost used bikes via their “adoption” program, by appointment only.
Helmet hacks: For Black women in particular, another challenge is finding a helmet that fits on top of our beautiful ancestral rooted hairstyles. Since it’s common for Black women to change hairstyles so often, she says having three different helmet styles can be helpful.
Favorite trails: Some of Watson’s top locations around Portland to cycle with her crew include the Springwater Corridor Trail and River View Cemetery, as well as steep rides like Council Crest and Rocky Butte to improve overall speed and endurance.
Organized rides: Look for the return of organized bike rides like Cycle Oregon’s Joyride, a women’s ride through the Willamette Valley with different distances and terrains to accommodate cyclists of different levels. In 2019 it was Watson’s first 60-mile ride — which she remembers by a photo of herself holding her bike up at the finish line. “I couldn’t believe what my body could do,” she says. “I could not believe these thick thighs climbed 60 miles in the middle of the country[side] and lived to talk about it.”
Community rides: Visit Black Girls Do Bike’s Facebook page for upcoming events; everyone is welcome to join.