A former bike messenger and amateur road cyclist, Damon Turner isn’t slowing down
Written by Senta Scarborough
Photographed by Alonso Tai
Cycling can often be cost-prohibitive for kids. Sponsors have helped, and now the program is opening its first bike repair shop. This will not only train the kids in how to maintain their own bikes, learning skills that could lead to a career but also help provide the community services that can sustain the program.
There’s no question the Los Angeles Bicycle Academy is full-throttle fierce. Fierce for embracing diversity. Fierce by loving the outdoors. Fierce in putting people, especially kids, over profits. And most of all, the Los Angeles Bicycle Academy is fierce is promoting freedom for all kids from all walks of life.
It’s that same kind of pursuit of freedom you find in all of Fierce Hazel’s line of outdoor bags and gear. Inspired by cycling, the Echelon All-Conditions Ride Pouch is perfect for any outdoor adventure, especially bicycling. It takes its name from the beautiful diagonal line a group of cyclists achieves while drafting in a fierce crosswind. It’s sustainably-made, super lightweight, weatherproof, and holds everything you need—even your phone.
Fierce Hazel loves supporting the cycling community and kids. So we sat down with Turner to learn more about his love of cycling and his passion for sharing it to change the lives of youth.
How did you get involved with cycling?
In 1997, I was riding a bike in downtown (Los Angeles) and stumbled upon a group of guys riding with huge backpacks on. I asked them, “What are you doing?.” They told me they were bike messengers delivering legal documents. “You get paid to deliver documents?” It intrigued me and I got on board.
It was a good source of employment. It was awesome to ride a bike eight hours a day except when there was a weather issue. I was in my mid-20s and it was fun. It was my introduction to riding at high speeds. We would have five-minute deadlines to get to the federal and state courts to get the documents in.
Visualize dodging cars and doing whatever you had to do to get those documents to the court. That is what you did. You would put your life at risk literally. The goal is to get the job done. You had to move at a fast pace and it was thrilling.
How did you get into racing?
From there, I got into the racing scene. As far as African-Americans specifically, there were not a lot of us in the sport. I grew up doing non-traditional sports from my community.
In high school, I surfed and would travel from south LA to the beach. I looked like a Martian—who is this guy with slippers on and a backpack and his surfboard? I also skateboarded and did a little motor cross.
I’m from Leimert Park. It’s small and within a ten-mile radius of downtown LA and USC. I was determined to be different. Like the first time I went to the beach and had fun. This was dope. I was a kid from south LA going to north San Diego—it was a whole other world.
My curiosity led to bike racing where (African-American) representation was few and far between.
How did Los Angeles Bicycle Academy come about?
When I began to race, I didn’t see people who looked like me. I understood I needed to be part of the solution in my community, so I decided to start a small team.
There were kids everywhere who could be a part of it and that is how the idea began. I could recruit a few kids and build a team. It started literally with two brothers from a foster home. The great thing is the foster parents could afford the road bike, which is the most expensive piece of the story. They bought the bikes and we started a team.
Tell us about the new Earn A Bike Program.
So how do we provide more opportunities to cycle and do more than just cycling? The more you are involved the more economic, environmental and health benefits there are.
The best way we thought of was to do an Earn A Bike program. It’s a retail training program. Once they finish an 8-to 10-week course, they receive a bike, lock and helmet.
We introduce the kids to what bicycle retail looks like. We teach them at the bike shop about inventory and wholesale and retail merchandising. We connect them to the bicycle industry and show the young people the career possibilities. We are nurturing through participation within the bicycle industry. They can see themselves in those positions and see their own potential.
The goal is to get more kids involved with that and racing is not the main priority. We hope to graduate 100 kids through the program, and then we can build a race team of boys and girls.
2020 was pretty much a bust because of Covid. We pivoted from our existing team of 13 young men and women and selected (four) to be the first group (in the Earn a Bike Program). They will learn bicycle mechanics and they will maintain their own bikes. Now that most everyone has gotten the vaccine, we can bring people together where it is safe.
One of the young people in the program absolutely needs it. He has been involved in violence, no fault of his own, and he is now out of the situation and enrolled in college and is part of the race team. He is the first to be in the program and is receiving a paid internship to learn bicycle mechanics.
What’s the mission for working with youth and cycling?
We live with gang violence and it is tough to be young in this day and time with social media and bullying. All this stuff that, me personally, I didn’t have to navigate when I was growing up.
We aim to create a program that opens doors and gives them opportunities—even something like a bike mechanic.
When you open the door and show them all this stuff that can come out of riding bikes they are interconnected through it. I met the owner of Fierce Hazel, Frankie Holt, through cycling. It launches things and leads to others. It connects the dots.
Tell me about your youth racing team.
We are currently working with 13 kids—ten boys and girls—ages 11 to 18, but we often work with kids between the ages of eight and eighteen. Each rider is accountable for doing a certain amount of training (riding) per week. Our Strava GPS app records the individual riding and training records.
We also get together as a team one day a week at somewhere in the city that is conducive to cycling. Locations include Dock 52 in Marina Del Rey, a bike trail south of Palos Verdes, and another one along the Pacific Coast Highway north of Pepperdine University. We also regularly go through Malibu Canyon and Griffith Park to the top of the Observatory.
It’s a huge part of our program because we connect with each other and show them that being responsible is how you move forward successfully. We are saying they need to be out training at 8 a.m. every day. We are teaching them a work ethic and to be accountable. They are required to train five days a week. They must ride 100 miles and we can go to the app and see who is doing it—it makes a big difference.
We always come back to how this prepares them to be on a team or perform at a high level. That way, it is just automatic for them. That is why we are suiting up, swiping up, and showing up and why it has been to be consistent.
Are you a non-profit or for-profit business?
We’ve been a non-profit since our inception. Counting on corporate sponsorships is not sustainable long-term. We offer services to the community to help fund the team.
For example, the Earn A Bike project will be based out of a retail store, and we will have bike repair services. We hope to have our storefront in June. We already have parts and supplies. We have several partners that provide products for us or help set off the costs. We have been blessed.
How do you incorporate civic-mindedness with cycling?
It’s a great country where we can openly ride our bikes. However, there are 47 states passing laws limiting voting rights. We have problems cycling won’t fix. We can’t just go ride our bikes and think it will all get fixed somehow.
My hope is that cycling creates an opportunity to be informed. We are a team made of black and brown bodies, and I let them know when we are riding to make sure and look around and see what is going on.
It’s about having them taking time and being informed about the decisions they will have to make sooner or later. Things are being taken away from one group, and if they are informed about what is going on they can make better educated decisions.
When we ride, we discuss what is going on in the country. As we ride and train, I ask the group, “Did you watch the news today?” and I get their opinions. I ask them about an attempted murderer who wasn’t charged or ask them about communities of color and policing.
It is out there, so I just try to help them understand their responsibility to be informed. I don’t expect every kid to be the next Al Sharpton, but I do expect them to be involved in some capacity. It is a part of team building. We give them the space to have a voice to express themselves.
What is the liberation of cycling?
I get on this bike and I turn the pedals and I am performing something. It liberates me and my life and I become empowered to go from here to where I want to go. At the end of the day, ownership is what they are achieving every step of the way.
It starts with riding a bike and goes to building relationships and then learning skills to dealing with the world as it is now.
We were out and about last week, and we get to the ocean at San Vicente and I stopped everyone and I said, “Look around you.”
There was lots of grass, dogs and surfing.
I asked them, “What do you see?” They answered, “Dogs, People with coffee.”
Then I ask them, “Where did we leave from?” Then we go.
I wanted them to experience it, no political commentary. What you see, Bam! It’s their decision, and it calls them to articulate it and think about it as they grow older.
What is your favorite success story?
I’ve had about 60 kids over the years participate in our racing teams.
One young man is Ali Kamara. We used to drag him out of bed to get him training and racing. He would always be running to the race at the last minute. He was part of the team and started training through us, which led to an opportunity to get a scholarship at Indiana University.
I tell those who want to be a pro that you can spend 10 years and not even be the best guy on the team. You can finish 145th in every race, but you’ve been helping with water bottles and traveling all over the world for 10 years. That alone is an incredible experience to help you follow your dream.
Everything we do is about the future and how they can chart it through this sport. We want to impact our community for the long term.
How can we help?
We are always looking for partners and donations; you can go to our website. As a non-profit, every donation is 100 percent deductible on your taxes.
Senta Scarborough is an award-winning journalist and Emmy-nominated producer. She is the founder of Sentamatic Media focusing primarily on screenwriting, journalism and non-fiction projects. Her work has appeared in Adweek, Into, USA Today, E! News, US Weekly Magazine and Asheville Poetry Review, among others. She is a lifetime member of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalist’s Association where she served as a board director for two terms. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside/Palm Desert.
Find her on social media @sentascar
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