The pandemic sparked a Black cycling movement in South L.A. — and a new business
In April 2020, during the earliest days of the pandemic lockdown, Kellie Hart found herself itching to get out of the house.
A former athlete who played college basketball, she craved activity. A social butterfly, she missed hanging out with friends and meeting people. To alleviate those wants, she started a bike club. More than a year later, the RideWitUs LA Bike Club & Store on Slauson Avenue near La Brea has expanded into a brick-and-mortar store.
The success of RideWitUs happened in a complex and frightening climate for Black businesses. The pandemic had a devastating effect on many. But it also inspired entrepreneurship.
Researchers found that 440,000 Black business owners nationally shuttered their businesses between February and April 2020 — a 41% plunge. Those numbers represent a tremendous loss for Black communities, but they don’t paint the full picture. New data show there’s also been a surge in new businesses despite the pandemic, with Black communities experiencing the greatest increase in business registrations.
“The greatest risks often yield the best rewards,” Hart said. “I eased into the business slowly, and once I knew I had a good, profitable thing going, I gave it my all. And honestly I’m rooted in the mind-set of ‘Scared money don’t make no money.’ I leaned into that as my motivation.”
Her road to business ownership began with heartbreak. Just two years before, she had a big plan to open a carwash. Hart thought she had found the perfect location, a modest storefront on a large lot not too far from her house. The space had many past lives: as a boutique, a convenience store, a smoke shop and a carwash before becoming vacant. She put together a business plan, met a man to discuss renting the space, and paid him a $5,000 deposit.
But she was crushed during a subsequent visit to the lot when she met the real owners, an elderly couple who informed Hart that she had been scammed by someone pretending to own the lot.
“They seized it back and busted up the asphalt so that nobody could use it. Then they threw a ‘for sale’ sign up,” Hart recalled. “It tore me apart. This is a block that I come up and down all the time. For two years, it was just a reminder.”
One year after the letdown, she was still recovering. Then the pandemic came. Riding her bike took her mind off of it all. It was therapeutic, she says, at a time when most other activities were shut down. As the pandemic dragged on, she invited friends to ride with her.
Hart, 35, has a background in business but she’s a community organizer by nature. Reiichi Nickleberry, a leader with RideWitUs, has known her since high school and says even back then, Hart was “fun” and “smart” with a “cool temperament.”
“She’s always had that team, bigger-than-me mentality. I remember her just always embracing other people,” Nickleberry said. “You know, some people hang out with the cool kids and not the uncool kids. Kelly was kind of loved by everybody.”
The rides became more frequent, and one by one, Hart’s crew got bigger. Friends brought friends, and sometimes people out biking alone saw the group of young, mostly Black and Latino cyclists and joined them. By April 2020, the informal bike rides had a schedule and the group had evolved into a club.
Nickleberry had stayed connected with Hart via social media in the years since they graduated, and he reached out when he saw her posting about the bike rides. He’s been a part of RideWitUs since the earliest days and also serves as its resident photographer, documenting each ride. He says he’s amazed by the club’s rapid growth.
“I use a fixed-focus lens and I noticed because, with each group photo, I would have to step back one more step or find another angle. We needed bigger parking lots or I’d have to go across the street to take photos of all these people on bikes,” he said. “It’s fun. Riding bikes like little kids, and we’re all 30-plus years old. It’s exhilarating and exciting. You literally got hooked.”
Members of the RideWitUs bike club are mostly in their 30s and 40s. Most are Black or Latino and hail from South L.A. neighborhoods. They number about 150 strong and ride between 12 and 25 miles three times a week including to Santa Monica, Redondo Beach and downtown L.A. Most did not see themselves becoming cyclists when they took their first rides, but they came back for the sense of community.
“Everyone’s accepted. Everyone feels welcome,” Nickleberry said. “You get a flat, it doesn’t matter. Someone’s gonna stop. I don’t know your name. But I’m going to stop to help you because you’re here with us.”
Derrick Chappelle’s insistence on safe riding and bike maintenance has earned him the nickname “The General.” Back in June 2020, when Chappelle went on his first ride, he was about 30 pounds heavier and struggling to keep up during a 25-mile trip.
“They didn’t leave me. I was the last person, and it was like a no-drop ride, meaning no one left behind,” he said. “Kellie told me, ‘You keep putting in the effort and we’ll wait on you.’ Right then and there, I knew I needed to be a part of this.”
“If it was just me riding my bike out here, I would be just another rider on the street,” Hart added. “But it’s all the people who come that make it what it is, so I always give credit to the community.”
Many also have come for the unique benefits of cycling during a pandemic, when, until recently, gyms were closed and riding a bike could be done at a safe distance.
The group continued to grow throughout the pandemic, as did the rides. In July 2020, Hart realized it was time to open a bike shop.
“In the beginning, I used to always say I won’t call it a movement until we can get 100 riders out on a Tuesday,” Hart said. “By July 2020, we had our first Tuesday ride with more than 100 people. I only knew about 15 of those people prior to RideWitUs. I knew then it was something special, it was bigger than me, that these people needed it, and I can’t let up.”
Early on, Hart used her savings to buy three bikes and sold them within 24 hours. The next day, she bought five bikes and those sold immediately too.
“I haven’t stopped since that first day and the business has been booming,” she said.
In late March of 2021, Hart was riding down Slauson and saw that the old lot she wanted for her carwash had been repaved and there was a “for rent” sign out front. Now, what Hart had seen before as a perfect lot for a carwash was suddenly the perfect lot for a bike shop with plenty of space for her crew to gather.
Hart said she reached out to the new owners and started negotiating. There was another interested party, someone who wanted to turn the lot into a private dog park.
“I said, ‘Oh, no. Sir, this community don’t want to see no dog park. Give me the application right now,’” Hart said. “And we put it together.”
The RideWitUs bike shop grand opening in April was like a block party. It was open to all, and plenty of people came out. There was a bounce house for kids, food trucks, a DJ. Cocktails flowed, music played and people danced as they celebrated all they’d built together in just a year’s time.
The shop itself is painted “Nipsey Blue” in honor of the late Crenshaw-based rapper Nipsey Hussle, who inspired many in the neighborhood with his motto: “The marathon continues.”
It’s a small shop on a big lot for which Hart has even bigger plans. She wants to open it up for a juice bar, an event space, a community center, a once-a-month farmer’s market.
“I want people to have a good time. I have a good time when people are having a good time. And the more the merrier,” Hart said. “That is the vibe I want to create. Everybody come have a good time. It’s a safe space. Be who you are, and let’s just keep it rolling.”
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