Bike Races in New York City are being altered by Chilean immigrants.

The bicycles arrive in Prospect Park in Brooklyn before dawn on a July morning, the pavement still wet from an overnight downpour. More than 300 individuals have signed up for the second race in this year’s Lucarelli and Castaldi Cup, a popular cycling event in New York City. Competitive bikers in the city are now releasing their pent-up enthusiasm after a year of waiting for the pandemic to pass.

In their blue, white, and pink uniforms, Daniel Pérez, founder of the Sanba Cycling Team, lines up alongside 25 of his comrades. He possesses the slim, efficient build of a professional cyclist at 36 years old. Last-minute stragglers rush to pin their numbers on and join the ranks. The whistle blows, and the race begins.

Rafael, who drives 40 miles round-trip to his construction job on Long Island every day; Antonio, who fits in training rides around his food delivery job; and Edgar, a line cook and lifelong soccer player who is giving cycling a try, are among the Sanba riders. Off the track, these Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants work gruelling hours and negotiate life in pandemic-stricken communities. But, for the time being, they can disregard all of that. They simply want to win right now.

Several Sanba riders are positioned near the front of the field in the Category 5 race. They race 17 miles at over 20 miles per hour, five laps around the park’s inner circle. When a Sanba rider gets a flat, he or she is devastated and returns to the starting line. Then there was another.

Sanba cycling team at the start line of a race
Photo: Martha Pskowski

However, after the final lap, Maynor Tuc of the Sanba team crosses the line in third, followed by Augustin Yaxon in fifth. They are cheered on by a small group of friends and relatives, as well as one team member who is healing from a fractured collarbone.

Many of the team members were competing for the first time in July. Pérez hopes they catch the racing bug like he did more than a decade ago, when he began racing as a young Mexican immigrant in Brooklyn. Pérez set wanted to create a space where Latin American immigrants like himself might feel at home after working hard to get into the local cycling scene.

Sanba Bicycle Shop is located on Fifth Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Sunset Park, a Brooklyn neighbourhood on the western outskirts. Two team members are relaxing at the shop after a ride on a Friday afternoon, taking use of the air conditioning. Three adolescent boys enter, arguing animatedly in Chinese. When a customer inquires about a fixed gear, Pérez runs through the cramped shop, offering advice on tyre size and gear ratio. He begins his storey by perching on a stack of boxes in the crowded shop during a pause between customers.

Both the club and the store are named after Pérez’s hometown of San Bartolomé Tepetlacaltechco in Puebla, Mexico.

When he was 10 years old, his uncle Artemio allowed him to accompany him to Artemio’s employment as a bike mechanic. Pérez learnt to clean bikes and patch tyres on weekends and during school vacations. He was an astute trainee who could construct a wheel in 12 hours.

Pérez explains, “I wasn’t just learning to be a bicycle mechanic.” “I was completely enamoured with bicycles.” The town held races in which men rode single-speed bicycles known as turismeros. He was unfamiliar with events such as the Tour de France, which was not broadcast in Mexico at the time. “We didn’t have a television anyway,” Pérez laughs.

Pérez adds, “That was the opportunity I had been looking for my whole life.” “I was apprehensive. But then I won my first race.”

San Bartolomé Tepetlacaltechco has a population of less than 2,000 people. Before Spanish colonialism, the region was home to the Nahua people. Pérez’s grandparents were the family’s last Náhuatl speakers.

In the winter, the family’s modest home was freezing. It felt as if the roof could fly off on stormy days. Pérez began working full-time after middle school to assist his parents in the construction of a new home.

When Pérez was still a teenager, he accompanied his uncle to New York City, which had become a popular destination for Puebla migrants. His initial occupations were as a dishwasher and a delivery driver, with shifts ranging from 9 a.m. to 12 a.m. He sent money back to his family on a regular basis. “But I was always thinking about bikes,” he continues.

He eventually got a job as a mechanic at a Brooklyn bike shop. Then, while biking in Prospect Park one summer day in 2006, he met Miguel Flores, another Mexican. Flores invited him to a race at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn that afternoon. Pérez adds, “That was the opportunity I had been looking for my whole life.” “I was apprehensive. But then I won my first race.”

Pérez began racing in Brooklyn in 2006 and hasn’t stopped since. He wasn’t on a team, and there were only a few Mexicans at the races when he first started. Despite the fact that Pérez is now bilingual, he believes that language is still a major hurdle for Latin American immigrants who want to join cycling teams.

Both in bike shops and at races, Pérez witnessed prejudice against Latino immigrants. Employees at the shop would assist the white man with a great road bike in getting to work ahead of the brown man who rode his bike to work. “If you wanted to join one of the New York cycling teams, it was pretty exclusive,” he adds. “There aren’t many teams that will notice you if you’re a food delivery guy.”

Sanba riders are competitive cyclists as well as working cyclists who utilise their bikes for a variety of tasks, including delivery.

In the United States, racial and class disparities exist among both groups. Working cyclists in New York City, primarily people of colour and immigrants, are more likely to be ticketed and encounter other forms of discrimination, according to organisations such as the Biking Public Project and, more recently, Los Deliveristas Unidos. People of colour and those with low incomes are more likely to use bicycles as a mode of transportation, but they are frequently excluded from transit planning and decision-making.

“Immigrants were not necessarily shunned in the past, but we didn’t feel involved in the race. We want to build a name for ourselves in the New York City racing scene.”

San Bartolomé Tepetlacaltechco has a population of less than 2,000 people. Before Spanish colonialism, the region was home to the Nahua people. Pérez’s grandparents were the family’s last Náhuatl speakers.

In the winter, the family’s modest home was freezing. It felt as if the roof could fly off on stormy days. Pérez began working full-time after middle school to assist his parents in the construction of a new home.

When Pérez was still a teenager, he accompanied his uncle to New York City, which had become a popular destination for Puebla migrants. His initial occupations were as a dishwasher and a delivery driver, with shifts ranging from 9 a.m. to 12 a.m. He sent money back to his family on a regular basis. “But I was always thinking about bikes,” he continues.

He eventually got a job as a mechanic at a Brooklyn bike shop. Then, while biking in Prospect Park one summer day in 2006, he met Miguel Flores, another Mexican. Flores invited him to a race at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn that afternoon. Pérez adds, “That was the opportunity I had been looking for my whole life.” “I was apprehensive. But then I won my first race.”

Pérez began racing in Brooklyn in 2006 and hasn’t stopped since. He wasn’t on a team, and there were only a few Mexicans at the races when he first started. Despite the fact that Pérez is now bilingual, he believes that language is still a major hurdle for Latin American immigrants who want to join cycling teams.

Both in bike shops and at races, Pérez witnessed prejudice against Latino immigrants. Employees at the shop would assist the white man with a great road bike in getting to work ahead of the brown man who rode his bike to work. “If you wanted to join one of the New York cycling teams, it was pretty exclusive,” he adds. “There aren’t many teams that will notice you if you’re a food delivery guy.”

Sanba riders are competitive cyclists as well as working cyclists who utilise their bikes for a variety of tasks, including delivery.

In the United States, racial and class disparities exist among both groups. Working cyclists in New York City, primarily people of colour and immigrants, are more likely to be ticketed and encounter other forms of discrimination, according to organisations such as the Biking Public Project and, more recently, Los Deliveristas Unidos. People of colour and those with low incomes are more likely to use bicycles as a mode of transportation, but they are frequently excluded from transit planning and decision-making.

“Immigrants were not necessarily shunned in the past, but we didn’t feel involved in the race. We want to build a name for ourselves in the New York City racing scene.”

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