As I first reported last month, Rahsaan Bahati (Rock Racing) paid a special visit to Naperville in early May to spend time with Marc O'Shea's freshman literacy class, which has spent the year studying the life and legacy of Bahati's hero, Major Taylor.
Bahati grew up in Compton, Calif., but he has notable Midwest roots. He attended the University of Indiana, guiding his Team Major Taylor to a 2nd place at the 2003 Little 500. And the biggest wins of his career have come at Downers Grove, where he won the juniors and elite national championships in 2000.
This season Bahati has been plagued by a hip injury. He scored big with a victory at the Athens Twilight Criterium on April 26, but a week later his injury hobbled him on the uphill time trial to open the Joe Martin Stage Race, forcing him to miss the time cut. He's indicated on his blog that surgery is being considered, but he hopes to be on form for August's national championship, and this weekend he finished 19th at the CSC Invitational, a race he won in 2007.
In conjunction with its studies, the class designed and sold wrist-bands to raise funds for World Bicycle Relief. Their efforts will finance two bikes in developing countries. About 20 wristbands remain for a $5 donation. Contact O'Shea to see about purchasing one.
Without further adieu, here is a condensed transcript of the interview the students conducted. I'll make the full interview available soon, including discussion of his training regimen and more reflections on Taylor.
Why did you start racing, and what kept you going? (Ankit K.)
I was sitting in the classroom like you guys but I wasn't quiet like you guys. I was being the class clown, messing around, sitting in the back, doing the wrong things. It was the story of the boy who cried wolf. I had to go to the restroom that day and my teacher, Mr. Garmen, didn't believe me. And I'm sitting back there and I'm hurting and I really gotta go and he kept saying, "No, Mr. Bahati, no." So I took an eraser, and I threw it at him.
Honestly, I really didn't mean to hit him. He had his back towards the class and it was like in slow motion: The eraser came and it came and it came and he turned around. Splat, right in the face. You could see all these white lines on his face. The class went crazy.
He took me to the principal's office and told my parents that I had too much energy and it needed to go toward something. So he got me involved in this after-school program he got me involved in bike racing and racing on the velodrome.
What do you think is the most important thing when training for a race? (Nichole C.)
To be well rested. I think that is more `[Michael Ball and I] both have the same goal and passion, which is winning bike races and getting more people involved in the sport.’ important than going out and overdoing it. Some of my teammates and people I train with at home train 30 hours a week on a bike. I do half of that. Not because I'm lazy or I don't feel like doing it. It's just this time of the season there is no need to go out and bury yourself when you're out racing so much. I can go train at 80 percent and race at 100 percen, so usually when I go home after a race that's time to recover.
What are some of the most brutal wipeouts you've seen or experienced yourself? (Terry I.)
Well, I've seen a lot. I can tell you one of mine. I was 16, my Dad drove me all the way form L.A. to Oregon to do a five-day stage race. The first day I crashed coming down a hill at about 50 mph and didn't know why my shoulder hurt. I didn't know why it hurt, so I got up and grabbed my bike and one of my teammates yelled, "Uh, look at your shoulder!" And I look and my collarbone is actually broke and was sticking out of my skin and after that I freaked our and passed out! That was about it for seven weeks.
What types of injuries have you had and how did you race with them? Adriana C.)
I’m battling with an injury right now. My right femur, it’s overgrown for some strange reason. You have your hip, right? And you have the ball that goes into the hip socket. Well, the socket is too big, and so every time I pedal it’s bone touching bone, and it really hurts. Right now I’m just dealing with it.
How did you get into racing with Rock Racing? (Megan R.)
I got involved with Rock Racing in 2007. I was at track nationals in California. A friend called and came over with this guy. He said, "I've a buddy that owns a clothing company and he wants to sponsor you." I was getting ready for a race and I looked at him and said, "All right, buddy, I'll call you later."
I didn't know it was Rock and Republic. I knew about the company, but he didn't tell me it was a very popular clothing company. Michael Ball, the owner of the company, just wanted to sponsor me. After having a meeting with him, I explained to him that sponsoring me wouldn't help me progress as a cyclist. You need to start a team.
And so once he got wind that he could have his own team, he took it to the next level and it's something that I'm really happy about. At the time he met me I was thinking about not racing anymore and doing something else with my life. At the time I had been racing for 11 years. I wasn't getting tired of it, but I have ambitions to do other things. I'm a musician, I play the drums and I wanted to start a band and I wanted to do some other things. I've a degree in computer animation -- I could do that too. I wanted to be a cop. I was thinking about being a homicide detective two years ago. So, I think me and Michael have something special going on and I hope that he can tone it down a little bit and that Rock Racing can continue and become very powerful.
How does your personal philosophy blend with the philosophy of Rock racing? (Cecilee M.)
Good question! Rock Racing is really unorthodox. The guy that owns Rock and Republic clothing company, Michael Ball, he doesn't play by the rules per se, and cycling is a very traditional sport. It has been for a long time. So, in a way Michael and I don't see eye to eye on a lot of things, but we both have the same goal and passion, which is winning bike races and getting more people involved in the sport. So that's where we have a great compromise, but his philosophy and my philosophy on how to do things are totally different. But I'm not the boss.
In the NPR interview you mentioned the Tour de France. Are you reaching close to your goal, and how are you preparing for it? (Kayleigh K. )
I'm creeping to get to the Tour de France. It's a huge step. It's something I think I can accomplish. Rock Racing is trying to establish a team that can make it there in the next couple of years. If all goes as planned I'll be there. In 2-3 years I'll be racing the Tour.
Why do you think the behavior towards steroids has changed the view of professional sports? Has it every occurred to you that some of your pro peers have cheated or thought of cheating using illegal products? (Danny L.)
This is a really tough sport, and some people can't take the pressure of going out and doing it on their own. I've been lucky enough to not have been pressured by any type of performance-enhancing substances. I'm around people who do it. I race with people who do it. I know people who do it. And I think it's going to be a long time before things will change.
I think that it's going to take a lot of effort from you guys, the youth, to come up and change the way people will think about performance-enhancing drugs. They are really dangerous. I hope if anyone in here has an interest in sports, you shouldn't even consider [performance-enhancing drugs]; you can do it without it. I've won hundreds of races without it. I know people who've races and achieved higher things without it.
I don't do a lot of studying about it because I just don't get involved with it at all. Some people come to me and ask me questions like that and it's hard for me to answer because I don't study any kinds of steroids or drugs because I don't want anything to do with it -- absolutely nothing. It's something I'm very proud about that I can race and say that I'm clean.
In what major ways do you think Major Taylor and you are similar? (Nick B.)
Well, besides the obvious!
In 1998, I was getting ready to graduate from high school. My Dad said "You're going to college," and I didn't want to go because it was going to be my last year as a junior racer and I had goals to go to the world championship, win nationals, and my Dad compromised with me. He said OK, if that's what you want to do you've got to give it a good effort and achieve your goals. Well in 1898 and 1899, Major Taylor prepared for and won a world championship, so I thought it was destiny that I was going to win that year. Needless to say, I did go to the world championships and I didn't win, but it was a great experience for me.
From that point on, I looked to Major Taylor like an angel, like a guide. Everything I did I turned back to Major Taylor's book to see what he would do in certain situations and so I think we have a lot in common.
If you could go back in time to meet Major Taylor, what would you say to him? (Adam P.)
Knowing what I know now, first thing I'd do is just give him a hug. I would just want to sit down with him and have a coffee with him and just pick his brain. Because as you've read he was a very humble guy. A lot of people call me humble and modest, but he took that to the next level. I mean, to have a guy spit on you down get back up and win the race and then shake his hand. That takes a lot of, you know, that's a lot of man there. There is a lot of integrity to do that. I don't know many people that can get spit on and then congratulate the guy for getting third place. That would be amazing to back in time to talk to him to get a feel for his personality. You can get if from the book, but to actually talk to him face-to-face, eye-to-eye -- awesome.
One hundred years from now, how do you hope to inspire cyclists? (Andrea N.)
Well, every time, I get on my bike I know somebody's watching me, either good or bad, and I'm not in it to be the best or I want to have this record or that record . I'm just doing it because I love it and I know I'm inspiring people by what I'm doing and where I came from.
I just know that being African-American in a sport that is dominated by white America, it leaves an impression not only on people that look like me, but on people that look like you, too. I think that every time I get on the bike I have to watch what I do. I'm a good guy anyway, but I still have to watch what I do. I hope that one day this sport can grow to be international, like not just a white sort or a black sport, but a sport with everyone together.
`I just hope to get more people that look like me involved because it's a beautiful sport.
Right now I'm the only black professional out there, and it's been that way for a while. I just hope to get more people that look like me involved because it's a beautiful sport. You can stay healthy. It's fun. How many of you ride bikes? Have you ever been over 30 mph on your bike -- wearing a helmet, right? Well, that feeling to me going 40 mph down a hill, descending, is a great feeling. I don't think you can get it anywhere else.
Have you retaliated toward any racial comments thrown at you? (Nick B.)
In a very respectful way. Just yesterday I had an issue. You know, a lot of times, I think that it is not even that I'm black. It's just that they don't know what to think because they haven't seen me before. It's almost like, they think I'm an alien, kinda.
I was racing in Belgium one time and this guy looked at me and looked back and looked back at me again and again. He couldn't believe it! He didn't know I knew some of the cyclists around us. An Australian guy was his teammate and [the guy] says, "Henk, is this guy really racing?" And I heard him and I just turned around and I laughed. I mean there's really nothing I can say.
I get that day in and day out at races because they're surprised. Jealousy, maybe. Number one, nobody likes my team. Number two, it could be that I'm black. Number three, I know they could be jealous because I win a lot. And number four, I've had this stamp put on me that I'm a lazy bike racer and I don't train, so every time I win I always yell out that I'm lazy since they gave it to me anyway. You tell me I'm lazy and I beat you, so I just throw it back in their face.
What do you think motivates other people to lash out at people who are different? (Barbara B.)
I try not to give anybody any excuse to dislike me. My Mom always said: "You want to be nice to everyone. You never know if that person you met today could save your life the next day." So, I always try to be as nice as possible to everyone.
I was racing in Wisconsin last year and I had a guy say, "No one wants your black ass here." That's direct. You can't blame that on racing. I could have that guy pushing me; I can blame it on bike racing. He was in the heat of the moment. But that guy lashing out at me that way, I can't accept that.
How much pressure is on you from within yourself and from your sponsors? (Megan R.)
I don't have any pressure. The sponsors may have pressure, but like I said to a guy the other day, every race that I enter I feel I can win, so if you're my director and you tell me I got to win this race, well, I want to win anyway, so there is no pressure. `Every race that I enter I feel I can win, so if you're my director and you tell me I got to win this race, well, I want to win anyway.
I've had Michael Ball call me before Manhattan Beach. I wanted to win that race bad. I had a second and a third there, but never won there, so I wanted to win there really bad. But at 10:30 p.m. he calls me while I'm asleep. I answer it because I saw his name, and he goes, "You gotta win tomorrow!" Well, I was like, "Well, I want to win anyways!" and I hung up the phone. He thought he was giving me that pressure, but I don't need pressure. I don't deal with pressure.
How did you celebrate your first victory? (Mike R.)
(Holds his hand up in the air.) It's funny that I did that. That race was so hard for me. And so my first road race I got beat really bad like girls finished in front of me and everything. I think I finished in 8th place. And I was disappointed. I thought I should win because I just thought I should win. I don't know why I should win. I just thought I should win.
But the very next weekend I did pretty much the same race with the same kids and I won. I raced so hard, I was so excited, I reached my arms up and I almost collapsed because I was hurting in hear so much. (Rubs belly.) But the judges disqualified me because at that age -- you're like 14 -- they don't want you to have a cocky attitude. They want you to get into the sport and be good sportsmen. So they disqualified me from first to last but that was like a big moment for me because I realized that I could beat these kids. I was 14 and I beat 18-year-olds. It was a good feeling.
If you never started biking, where would you be today? (Maggie S.)
If I wasn't biking? Who knows?
Cycling took me away from the negative things going on in my life. I grew up in Compton, California, which is like really run down, gang-infested, drug-infested. There's really nothing positive coming out of Compton, but it was where my parents lived because they could afford it. We had a huge family, so they did what they could for us but I was following the trap of hanging with the wrong people, doing the wrong things. I'm really happy that cycling took me away from that.
Cycling took me to going to Kenosha, Wis., from Compton. I had never been on an airplane before and that was my first trip. I left L.A. for Kenosha to compete in the national championships, and it really helped me grow up and learn how to do the right things, hang out with the right people, make the right choices.
Maybe I'd be playing baseball. I was a catcher. I was really good. I was being recruited when I was really young for high school.
I really don't know what I'd be doing. I'm happy doing this.