In 2017, the cycling publication VeloNews pegged Josh Hartman, the 21-year-old who grew up in East New York, as a trending American talent in track sprinting. Hartman spent part of last year living at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the hope of qualifying for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
Since an early age, Hartman has been hard-wired for success (his uncle Randolph Toussaint rode for Guyana at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles). However, the spark that ignited Hartman’s love for the sport came from his initial rides as an 11-year-old around the 3-mile loop of Prospect Park, with a group of cyclists called the Brooklyn Red Caps, one of New York City’s pioneering black cycling groups.
“They let me know at a young age that I had talent,” Hartman said. “I learned a lot of life skills. They taught me how to change a flat and kept me safe on rides because I was young and sometimes didn’t know what was going on. I just took their advice.”
While Hartman represents the future, the Red Caps connect him to the city’s cycling past. The group, founded by Brooklyn riders in the 1970s, always meets at the entrance to Prospect Park at Ocean Avenue and Lincoln Road. From there, they start rides that can last for 100 miles or more.
Although the group is not featured in the current historical exhibition “Cycling in the City,” which is running at the Museum of the City of New York through Oct. 6, it is nonetheless part of New York’s history. The Red Caps provided representation for African-American cyclists in New York at a time when the sport was overwhelmingly white.
“We were just a bunch of guys who knew one another and we started riding,” said Otis Hughes, 73. the current captain of the Red Caps. “We just liked doing it.” Hughes said another founding member, Hank Ashley, “would take maps and find new places for us to go.”
Hughes also credits the late Ashley with the group’s name. During a ride early in the group’s history, Ashley saw that everyone was randomly wearing red caps. The name stuck. So did the hats.
Even before the Red Caps, black cyclists had a lasting, if irregular, impact in New York City. In 1896, Marshall “Major” Taylor, the first African-American world cycling champion, finished a grueling six-day race at Madison Square Garden in eighth place, a result that catapulted him to prominence (Taylor’s 1896 ride is featured in the “Cycling in the City” exhibition).
Years later, historian Marya McQuirter wrote about how five black women rode round-trip from New York City to Washington, D.C., in 1928. It was one of the first known tours completed by black women cyclists.
However, cycling groups formed by and for people of color were rare. It wasn’t until the Red Caps and another group, L & M, came along in the mid-to-late ’70s that predominantly black groups rode regularly.
These two groups couldn’t have been more different. L & M, founded by Manhattanite sisters Lucille Smith and Mildred Smith-Evans, was a touring group, not restricted by gender, which rode for leisure. The Red Caps, on the other hand, who have had just a handful of women ride with them over the years, competed among themselves on long, punishing treks to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, upstate New York, and Montauk on Long Island.
“These were crazy rides,” Tex Barnwell, 72, said. “I’m used to races, which are 40 miles. But these guys are doing 130 miles — and racing. Like, Damn! The guys who know the ride know which way to turn, and now you’re chasing.”
Despite the differences between the Red Caps and L & M, there was some membership overlap. Mel Corbett, a 66-year-old middle-school teacher, rode with both groups in the ’80s. Corbett first ran into the Red Caps when he moved to Brooklyn in the ’70s and discovered the racially diverse cycling scene there.
He said it was difficult to break into the group’s ranks, even if you were a seasoned cyclist.
“If you tried to ride with the Red Caps, they would just take off and leave you,” Corbett recalled. “And then they’d come back and smoke a blunt on the park bench. If you somehow made it back, they’d laugh at you: ‘Who’s this guy, trying to ride with us?’ You’d be humiliated.”
The competition is, indeed, fierce. One of the Red Caps regulars is James Joseph, a Guyanese Olympian. Joseph spends the bulk of his year competing in official races, but joins the Red Caps in his offseason — not to train but to relax and have fun.
“I’m not in competition,” Joseph said. “My competition is on the track, so I don’t try to go in front or hold the pace. I let them do their own thing. It’s recreation for me.”
Another member of the peloton is Luis Antonio Ramos, an actor known for his roles in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” and the Fox series “Martin.” Ramos is an avid cyclist who has a bike with him on every set. He first met the group in 1986 in Prospect Park. He said that riding with the Red Caps taught him discipline.
“Acting’s always been a physical endeavor, and cycling helps that,” Ramos said. “When I prepare for my work, I’m physically and mentally able to do it. My mind’s not cluttered. I’m already in that mold.”
As the temperatures warm, the Red Caps are breaking out their bikes for another season of rides. While Hughes estimates that the group ranges in age from 25 to 88, he said that most of the members are older, which means that what was once a year-round endeavor for the whole group has become contingent on nice weather.
The season began in April, when the Red Caps rode round-trip from Prospect Park to Jacob Riis Park in the Rockaways. It was a relatively easy route, less than 20 miles.
“I’m already getting ready for this summer,” Hughes said. “I’m doing my trainer, pumping a little bit of iron — but I don’t want to be muscle-bound, Lou Ferrigno-style,” he continued.
“I just need a little body strength. Because these guys are a bundle of fun. If they say, ‘Let’s go there today,’ we’re off and running.”