I did not start working in the non-profit sector, specifically with youth living in public housing, because I fully understood the complexities of poverty, or even because I had any desire to fix it. The organization I work for, Richmond Cycling Corps (RCC) , uses the sport of high school mountain bike racing, coupled with intensive, one-on-one programming, as a means of engaging youth in Richmond’s public housing neighborhoods. Everything we do it designed to produce fundamental shifts in behavior that empower youth to escape poverty. I knew none of that when I moved to Richmond to work with RCC in 2014. I had recently retired from my career as a professional cyclist, and I thought I was coming on board just to be a cycling coach. I had no idea, at that time, that these youth needed a lot more than a mere cycling program, and that a lot more would be asked of me than my racing background.
I grew up in an affluent suburb of New York City. My house, on a leafy street, had a big yard and we even had a small swimming pool. My high school bustled with opportunity and those sure of the gleaming futures they, and their parents, envisioned for them. I had my own version of that, and by my senior year of high school, was well on my way to a professional road cycling career. By senior year, I was missing weeks of school at a time to compete internationally. My first World Cup race, Holland’s Heuvelland Tour in 2003, was a milestone in my burgeoning career, and it showed me the extremes of what would lie ahead in the next few years. The competition was absolutely vicious; the best young riders in the world, all out for blood and glory, and happy to attack each other nonstop on tiny, rain slicked roads. It was here that I was first struck by what a vast disparity in opportunity looks like. On my $4,000 bike, my legs were being torn off by guys from former Soviet states astride glorified clunkers. These were bikes not much better than I would find at a yard sale back home. I had to wonder, then, what heights they might reach with the resources I had. A massage therapist on staff. Carbon fiber wheels. Oakley sunglasses with an array of lenses designed for any weather condition. I sailed on to a career in the sport, but I never saw the names of any of those lesser equipped riders again.
I can taste that inequity again in Richmond. As you cross The MLK bridge, heading east on Leigh Street, the road spills out onto the apron of Mosby Court public housing. In the rearview, the city. Gleaming towers atop culture, movement, excitement, growth. There is a palpable sense of opportunity and mobility. Ahead, separated by a chasm far deeper than the valley the rail line cuts through, sit four of the city’s five public housing communities, densely packed into a corner of the city loosely referred to as “the east end.” A sub culture exists here, with fraught and fragile ties to the richness of mainstream Richmond. The life expectancy is 20 years lower than the other side of town. Being born to this corner of the city is akin to starting a race on a bike that still needs wheels.
I stopped racing years ago. Recognizing and addressing disparity in opportunity now drives me. My work is devoted to providing opportunity to youth living in public housing, but there are a myriad of factors that hinder one’s escape velocity toward new horizons, whether they be addiction, incarceration, trauma, or any number of limiting factors.
Which brings me to UnBoundRVA, and the incredible work they do placing driven and capable people in a position to succeed at establishing their own businesses. The fact is simply that opportunity is not equal. Which is not to diminish anyone who succeeds as an entrepreneur. I think one might fairly admit that life is so beset with challenges that no matter your background, succeeding in such in endeavor is noteworthy. The fact is just that, for some, the starting line for success is a little further behind the one used by the majority in the race. I like to think that UnBoundRVA brings their candidates forward to the mainstream starting line (and maybe a little ahead of it).
And then there’s Royal McCargo. When I met him at a Synapse meeting last August, he was well on the way to capitalizing on the turbo-charging effect of UnBound RVA for his newly established 1010 Post Construction. Happily, Richmond Cycling Corps was in the midst of constructing our new headquarters at 2123 Fairmount Avenue, just blocks from the public housing neighborhoods we serve. Serendipity is the word that first comes to mind when I look back on meeting Royal that day. Both of our eyes lit up at the same time when we saw the easy connection between his work and ours. So, indeed, this is a story of how Royal McCargo came to connect his new business to our construction project. A man who grew up in public housing, now owning his own business, and using it to work with a non-profit organization that is actively empowering young people who’s position in life he once shared.
The implications all really came together at a Richmond Cycling Corps fundraiser we held in September to raise the final funds for the new building. Naturally Royal was in attendance, and almost immediately upon his arrival, he saw it, over by the pool: a life size action photo of Tawante Nash, an RCC program youth, riding with his head down and charging up Libby Hill.
“Hey, I know that guy. That’s Wonwon!” (Tawante’s nickname)
I can’t think of anyone I would rather have putting the finishing touches on the home of Richmond Cycling Corps than a man who knows one of our youth by his family nickname (turns out T and Royal go WAY back).
I will never forget that experience of racing in Holland against those guys on shoddy machines, nor my first days becoming entrenched in Richmond’s public housing. I like to remember a passage from the beginning of the Great Gatsby, because it reminds me that we come from varying backgrounds, that we don’t all start the race with the same equipment. Nick Carraway, the protagonist, remembers this in the opening pages of the novel:
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
Thank you UnBoundRVA for providing those advantages, and for making it possible for Richmond Cycling Corps to team up with Royal McCargo. I would call that the best possible use of opportunity!
Matt Crane is the director of development for Richmond Cycling Corps, and has lived in Richmond since 2014. He is a former professional road cyclist and a prior member of the U.S. National Cycling Team. He is a freelance fiction writer and journalist who also serves on the UnBound RVA Emerging Leaders Board.
*Cover photo was taken by Jerry Osborne.