Latoya Shauntay Snell Has Some Advice for New Riders: Keep Showing Up

Eufemia Didonato

Photo credit: W. Eric Snell Sr. From Bicycling I’ve lived in Brooklyn my whole life, and that’s where I learned how to ride a bike with my best friend when I was 10 years old. We went to the Boys and Girls High School track on Fulton Street. This was […]

Photo credit: W. Eric Snell Sr.
Photo credit: W. Eric Snell Sr.

From Bicycling

I’ve lived in Brooklyn my whole life, and that’s where I learned how to ride a bike with my best friend when I was 10 years old. We went to the Boys and Girls High School track on Fulton Street. This was before they had cleaned it up, before Bed-Stuy [Bedford–Stuyvesant] and Crown Heights were like they are today. It was more of the do-or-die neighborhood, like what Biggie’s songs reference—that’s what I grew up with.

No one in my neighborhood had a high-end bike; our bikes came from Toys ‘R’ Us. So when I decided to learn how to ride, I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect. I fell off one time, and that was all she wrote, because I didn’t have many people to encourage me to get back on.

That represented my experience with sports. After the bad experience of falling off a bike, I just avoided sports in general for a long time. The thought of being hurt made me not want to try things. While my dad was an adventurer, my mom was not, so as a girl, I deferred to my mom’s way of thinking. If my mom wasn’t doing those things, I wouldn’t either.

When I saw the elite versions of sports, it was very clear that Black and Brown people didn’t have access. When you don’t see anyone who looks like you, it’s very hard to think that it’s possible for you. When I think back to early memories of bikes and sports in general, I thought they were just clearly not for me.

In my twenties, I was just really getting into the culinary scene, and I had a friend who offered to pay for me to go to culinary school. But during that time, I was also diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, and my health just started failing tremendously. I can remember my doctor looking me in the eye and saying, “You’re going to die.” It was one of the lowest points of my life.

Typically, this is a wakeup call for people. But for me, it was like, you know what, I’m tired. Sometimes it’s really tough to admit that you’re at your lowest point. And when you slip into that level of depression, even the people around you—the ones you love—aren’t enough to pull you out. That’s when you have to tap into your own grit. That’s when you have to find something that defines you, that makes your heart warm.

Eventually, I got inspired. I found someone online leading workouts who didn’t look like all the other beach bodies, and I decided to give it a try. Within two months, I was feeling better, and I started looking at bikes again. I hadn’t fully done my research though, and I bought a mountain bike, the worst bike to have in New York City. But that’s okay—sometimes you have to just dive in to see if it’s really a passion.

Photo credit: W. Eric Snell Sr.
Photo credit: W. Eric Snell Sr.

At 28 years old, I started learning to ride all over again, and one time, I was practicing at a park with a bunch of kids around. I know kids can be brutal, but also low-key encouraging. This time when I fell, a kid laughed, but also said, “So you’re not gonna get back on?” And I realized that you can be inspired by someone you’d never expect to be inspired by. That day my inspiration came from that kid. Part of my ego was bruised, but it also made me think that if these kids have the courage to do this, I’m not going to be the adult who walks away. I love my mom, but in that moment, I realized that I had adopted the fears that prevented her from being as brave as she possibly could be. I decided that for my own son, I would lead by example, and I would keep trying to ride my bike.

I wasn’t instantly great at riding a bike just because I kept trying, though. But I came to like failing forward. I had to remove the worry and fear of not looking like everyone else. Instead, I started telling myself, “I can go just a little bit farther today, I can make just a little more effort, I can stay on this bike just a little bit longer.” And that’s success.

That’s not to say that biking is easy. I have to create a tunnel vision for myself and ignore all the things that deter me. Over and over, I have to remind myself why I’m showing up, and why I’m staying. That’s what keeps me on the road. Within two months of riding, I was addicted. I was trying to find every cycling event out there. I signed up for things that terrified me, like a century ride, and I just kept going.

But I still had my rinky-dink mountain bike. I took it into a shop one day and told them that I just couldn’t get faster. And finally, finally someone told me that I had the wrong bike. That’s when I realized that the only thing more intimidating than riding is the financial accessibility of it.

One of the biggest hurdles, especially for Black and Brown communities, is that cycling is expensive. And it’s more than just getting a bike. As a plus-sized person, I had to find bicycling shorts that actually fit me, I had to learn about the right seat for me, I had to learn about pedals and cleats, and everything else that goes with biking.

Photo credit: W. Eric Snell Sr.
Photo credit: W. Eric Snell Sr.

There’s also so much to learn—you’re never done learning. I remember after a few months of riding, feeling like I couldn’t ask people about certain things because I’d been riding for a while and I’d look stupid if I still didn’t know something. I didn’t know how to change a flat, I didn’t know what I was supposed to carry, I didn’t know the basics. And I had to learn the hard way.

At the time, I was usually riding from Brooklyn into the deep end of Queens, many times at night. One night, I got a flat tire right next to a cemetery, and I had such an anxiety attack. I felt like everything that could go wrong was happening all at once. But that’s when I realized that my pride will kill me. If you don’t humble yourself enough to ask the questions or research the things that you need to know, you’ll end up in the worst-case scenario.

[Gravel! prepares you with everything you need to know to crush it, including the best gear, how to train, and much more!]

Now, I’m okay with asking questions—lots of questions. Too many of us get hung up on the idea that we have to always be walking around knowing everything instead of walking around knowing that we’re forever teachers and students. Be able to walk into something knowing that you’re not the smartest person. Be open enough to ask the questions that will help you grow as a person, and possibly even allow you to spread knowledge to someone else. That’s what will make you brilliant.

Like a lot of people, I had big plans for 2020. It was going to be the year of the triathlon for me. I was ready to commit to learning how to swim, improving on the bike, and becoming a faster runner. And then COVID-19 hit, and it was like watching every opportunity walk away from me. Within two months, I knew 13 people who died. It got to the point that I was terrified of leaving the house. So I got on my trainer. Sometimes I rode my bike at 1 a.m., sometimes 3 a.m. That’s what got me through. It was the only thing that held me together—the only way I knew how to breathe.

One thing I would like to tell people who are intimidated or scared of trying something new is: Fitness doesn’t have a look, a background, or an origin story. Fitness is just about moving and celebrating the body. The only way to “get fit” is just the act of doing it over and over again, and always taking the lesson that your ride or your adventure provides you with. If you fall six times on a ride, take the lesson in that. And if you don’t fall at all, there’s a lesson there as well. Whether you’re working on winning a race, just completing a race, or having an adventure, keep showing up. Keep looking for ways to learn and to teach.

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