NYC’s Oldest Bike Race, The Harlem Skyscraper Classic, Returns on Juneteenth With These Influential Cyclists

Lyle Ellerbee
Photo credit: Matt Cannon

Photo credit: Matt Cannon

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The Harlem Skyscraper Cycling Classic—the oldest continually held cycling event in New York City and the oldest bike race in New York—is back for its 50th edition this Sunday. This historical event is now a part of the recently announced American Criterium Cup. It will be hosted on Father’s Day and the inaugural Juneteenth observation—the commemoration of the ending of slavery.

Created in 1973 by the New York Police Department community affairs officer David A. Walker, the Harlem Crit (as many call it) promoted bicycling safety. Since then, the event has grown from a summertime staple in historically black Harlem to a worldwide attraction. In 2021, 215 racers spread over six different fields lined up to race. This year, more than 350 youth and adult cyclists and adult cyclists—from amateurs to international professionals—will gather in Marcus Garvey Park.

Named after the famous Jamaican journalist and civil rights activist Marcus Garvey, the park is situated between Madison Avenue and Mount Morris Park West in Upper Manhattan. Steeped between blocks of historic brownstones and saturated with musical, artistic, and culinary history, the locale sets the stage for what may be one of the most tantalizing crit races of the year.

On race day, traffic barricades will line the four-corner, 3/4-mile course, bringing city traffic to a halt. Between grabbing a bite at the Uptown Juice Bar, competitors and community members will get a chance to see and meet new and familiar faces. For example, Harlem Crit winner and supporter, Nelson Vails will be on hand to witness the next generation of cyclists test their VO2 max and microburst training. Jason Marshall, a Harlem transplant and community staple, returns for his fourth appearance in the sold-out amateur field. And newly-minted female pro-cyclist Kaya Cattouse, representing LA Sweat, will make her debut this Juneteenth.

In the city that never sleeps, the Harlem Skyscraper Classic is sure to be a showstopper for these competitors and the community at large.

Nelson Vails

Photo credit: Christopher Malcolm

Photo credit: Christopher Malcolm

Harlem Native and former bicycle messenger turned pro road and track cyclist Vails, “The Cheetah,” has experienced the Skyscraper Classic from multiple perspectives. Early in his career, he dominated this event, winning his first series of amateur races. Vails credits those wins with transforming his career. “It was because of the Harlem race that I grew to become a world-class cyclist,” says Vails.” [That event] made it fun for me to race each year, become a representative of Harlem on a bicycle, and go to the Olympics and the world stage.”

Since leapfrogging from “street rider” to “bike racer,” the Olympic silver medalist and Bicycle Hall of Famer is no longer pinning on a race number; however, he is still involved in the audience attraction for the event. The Vails fixed-gear race and other events at the Skyscraper Classic address a longstanding issue in cycling: pay parity. “Even with a small field of women, all sponsors and all involved decided that ladies needed equal pay. Even if someone has to take a pay cut,” shared Vails. He wants to ensure this equality sustains, as “this is how it’s going to be done moving forward.”

Photo credit: Courtesy Eric Zaltas

Photo credit: Courtesy Eric Zaltas

Related Story:This Is the First Book About Black Bike Racers—by a Black Bike Racer—in 100 Years

Jason Marshall

Photo credit: Joel Caldwell / Courtesy Jason Marshall

Photo credit: Joel Caldwell / Courtesy Jason Marshall

With prize money business addressed, the sold-out Cat 4/5 men’s field will feature notable competitors, including Jason Marshall. Marshall, 39, a renowned baritone saxophone player, has graced stages with legendary vocalists like Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, and The Roots. A jazz player by day, Marshall’s studio work is complemented by his evening shift at his home bike studio Seneca Village Bicycles.

Marshall’s introduction to cycling came out of true New York necessity. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy battered New York City and crippled its transportation infrastructure. With a new baby and his wife on crutches, Marshall’s search for reliable transportation led him to his local bike shop, located down the street from the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space at the time. Driven by practicality and “because I didn’t know any better,” he purchased a red, flat-bar hybrid.

Soon after, Marshall was in an accident. “I got hit in front of the [local bike] shop, on a bike that I learned how to build.” With torn rotator cuffs and herniated discs, Marshall decided that his experience with the bike shop made him want to be his own “mechanic,” and he opted to rehab his injuries using sports medicine techniques rather than going under the knife. With his injuries healed, Marshall committed to cycling more, and soon he was “faster than his cycling friends, and then I needed new friends.”

With the Skyscraper Classic just across the street from his home, Marshall viewed it as “the only visibly Black bike event in New York.” He toed the line for the first time in 2015, and today, he prepares to line up on Father’s Day—with his family watching and the song “When Your Life was Low” by Joe Sample and Lalah Hathaway playing in the background.

Kaya Cattouse

Photo credit: Trevor Raab

Photo credit: Trevor Raab

Another racer vying for the podium: The first Belizean female professional cyclist and LA Sweat racer, Kaya Cattouse. A cycling trailblazer in her country, Cattouse, a.k.a. “Champ,” 30, boasts an impressive resume that includes a first-place finish at the 2022 Cedral Classic, a silver medal at the 2021 Caribbean Cycling Championship, and second place and two third-place finishes in the 2021 Intelligentsia Cup.

In preparation for her debut at the Harlem Skyscraper Cycling Classic, Cattouse has been “racing with guys in Belize and motor pacing” to prepare for “the speed and intensity of the race,” she told Bicycling. Having only recently heard about the Harlem Crit, she is ready to toe the line. “Four corners, it’s not hilly, it’s not technical—that course sounds ideal to me,” she says.

As a multi-sport athlete, Cattouse’s ability to push through tough times is indisputable. She started racing in her early teenage years and continued to compete at a high amateur level through her 20s. Cattouse has represented Belize in soccer, triathlon, track and field, and basketball.

In 2012, she decided to focus on cycling. Though she excelled in every sport, coming from a cycling family made the decision easier. “My dad and my three brothers race bikes, and my cousins also raced bikes, so it wasn’t a hard decision. Our Sundays and our family times are all-around cycling,” Cattouse shared.

Shifting to focus on cycling, Cattouse remained an amateur until 2021. Belize, like many smaller countries, does not have professional sports teams. So Cattouse raced solo at local and international races. In 2021, while racing at the Intelligentsia Cup in Chicago, her impressive performance caught the eye of criterium-focused, female-only LA Sweat team owner, Kelli Samuelson.

Before turning pro in 2022, Cattouse had to adjust her riding style. With a primary road-racing background, her first Intelligentsia Cup experience in 2018 was less than ideal. “Not having any prior knowledge of cornering, on my first day of [Intelligentsia], I went up a curve, onto a man’s lawn, and into his garage door and fell off my bike. I lost my position in every corner until I was off the back and pulled out of the race,” she said.

Determined to master cornering, Cattouse “went home and watched YouTube videos to figure out what the apex was.” The next day, she tested her knowledge. “I was riding and singing ‘outside, inside, outside,’” she shared. Over the next ten days of the Intelligentsia Cup, Cattouse still didn’t get the hang of it, but it all sank in when she returned to Belize. “I swept off the corner of my streets, and I was just coming into it, hitting the corners hard,” she recalled.

Cattouse’s countless hours of cornering practice paid off. She returned to the Intelligentsia Cup in 2019 in the women’s category 3 field. Though she was solo again, she was on the podium by the third day, and on the final day, she won her race.

“[I went] from not knowing what cornering was to being able to do it good enough to win a race,” she said, showing how her determination pays off in podium finishes.

Cattouse is now living her dream as a pro racer, and she will have support from her fellow LA Sweat team
in the Harlem Crit peloton.

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