The Compton native discusses his unlikely path to becoming a world-class cyclist, and how his foundation has given back to his community.
Athlete Rahsaan Bahati
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with cyclist, Rahsaan Bahati. The seven-time U.S. Championship professional gives back to the community through his Bahati Foundation.
Then we’ll pivot to a conversation with director, Rob Reiner, and his son, Nick Reiner, about their very personal film, “Being Charlie”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. All that coming up right now.
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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
Tavis: Rahsaan Bahati followed an unlikely path to becoming a professional cyclist. The seven-time U.S. Championship pro was born and raised here in Compton, California. He currently rides for his own cycling team and gives back to the community through the Bahati Foundation. Rahsaan, good to have you on this program.
Rahsaan Bahati: Thanks for having me today.
Tavis: Let me start with the obvious question now that the audience can see what you look like. What’s a brother doing in cycling and winning, no less?
Bahati: You know, it was in my cards. I was going to a middle school in Compton, Davis Middle School, and I got into a little bit of trouble. One thing led to the next–Mr. Garman was his name, the teacher–and he invited me to get involved with an after-school sport. It was either golf or bikes. I chose bikes because I thought he was talking about motorcycles.
Tavis: Right [laugh].
Bahati: Little did I know it was cycling and I was very turned off by it. I think my father saw that I was turned off by seeing a bunch of white guys in tights and funny helmets. It was actually a form of punishment and I literally fell in love with the sport, and the rest is history.
Tavis: For what reason? What turned you on about it?
Bahati: Just ride on a Velodrome and going really fast and meeting different people. It was a melting pot at the Velodrome of kids from Compton, kids from L.A. And then you had the other kids that were coming from the beach communities in Santa Monica and stuff like that that had everything.
And then you see the guys like me who didn’t have anything. The little guys are starting to beat up on the older guys and, next thing you know, we’re at championships and whatnot.
Tavis: Yeah. It’s one thing to be turned on–I get that–by traveling around the country and traveling around the world meeting people of different races and cultures. But when you first started, how does one navigate–how does one balance, I should say–a love for the sport with trying to get in where you fit in because you are so unusual?
Bahati: Mine was very cut and dried. I did a particular race where I beat a kid who was 18 and I was 14. The coaches there went crazy. They took me to Kenosha, Wisconsin. That was my first ever big bike race and it was the National Championships.
I won four medals as a 14-year-old and I remember telling my dad, “I want to come back to Wisconsin because when you win they give you a cheese head.” I didn’t care about the medals [laugh]. As a 14-year-old, all I wanted was the cheese head, yeah.
Tavis: You wanted the cheese head, right.
Bahati: Yeah. So he was like, “All right. If you want to get more into it, I’ll invest a little bit more.” I didn’t know that Nationals traveled. Next year, it was in like Pennsylvania. You know, that was my motivation was to become really good so I could win a cheese head. That was my connection to the sport. I want to be really good to win a cheese head and that was it.
Tavis: So you start out hanging out and winning in Wisconsin, but you end up going to school at a place called Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. The audience knows, of course, I’m a proud IU alum. I know what it means to hang out in Bloomington. You were there from what years?
Bahati: 2000 and 2005.
Tavis: So you were there a little bit behind me. I’m a little bit older than you [laugh]. Lying. You’re a whole lot older than me. Anyway, what did you make of your time in Bloomington?
Bahati: I actually loved it. I had a little bit of everything, you know, discrimination, racism, profiling, you name it, but I didn’t let those things bring me down and run me out of town. I ended up just really falling in love with Bloomington.
Being in Compton, you know, is a concrete jungle. Just being so green, being able to get on my bicycle and ride out in Brown County, stuff like that. It was really good for me. I met just some tremendous people.
Tavis: I think most of the audience knows the famous movie made about Indiana, about Bloomington, called “Breaking Away”, famous biking movie. And everybody knows the Little 500, the bike race that happens on campus every year that all the fraternities and sororities are very much into. You started a biking team when you were at IU, yes?
Bahati: So I didn’t start it.
Tavis: You were part of it, though?
Bahati: Yeah, I was part of it. It was named after Major Taylor.
Tavis: Major Taylor, sure.
Bahati: And we formed a team composed of a bunch of different Blacks that was at the school that were non-fraternity. We were like the Cutters, but a Black team. And it became a really big mess. I wasn’t able to race, number one, because by the time I got to university, I was always a pro, so I was out of the question.
But we had another guy who was really good, but he was never a pro cyclist. And when other fraternities found out, teams found out, that Josh was going to be doing this event, man, we had stones thrown at our house, tires slashed. The day before the race, the riders protested and put their bikes down and walked off the track.
I mean, it was a lot of stuff that went on weeks and months before Little 500. He ended up racing and we end up that year, we got second place. But it was a lot of negativity surrounding our Major Taylor team.
Tavis: How do you end up having to endure that and not–if you are, I can’t tell it. Maybe you’ve gotten over it–but end up not being bitter?
Bahati: I owe that to my parents, you know. They taught us how to be grounded, how to respect people, how to just take it on the chin. If I respond to everything that–you know, every dog that bark at me, I’ll never get anywhere.
So it was like one of those things I learned at a young age is just I can’t control what they think about me. We had our tightknit group and we supported each other and we went about our business.
Tavis: As you mentioned earlier, you are a pro and have been for some years now. Let me switch gears to that topic that you knew was going to come up, which is how you think all of the doping and the rise and fall of one Lance Armstrong, what’s all that done to the sport of cycling? Are we past that now? What’s your…
Bahati: We’re absolutely not past it. It was detrimental to the sport. As much as people hate him now, when they loved him, when he was the American hero, he brought a lot of good to the sport, now matter how he did it. You know, let’s put that aside. He actually really was really good for the sport.
It activated some sponsorship for me, you know, indirectly from his success and what he was doing for the sport. And at the end of the day, he had this cause to help fight a disease that’s killing people left and right. I think we should focus more on that than everything else.
You know, if you talk to people–I’ve been around some of his teammates–if you talk to people that really know him, that guy, great athlete, you know. So if he wasn’t such a bad guy, perhaps none of this will even be a topic today.
Tavis: What’s been the personal–if there has been–when you’re in a sport and you, again, have benefitted indirectly from what Lance and others have meant to the sport, is there personal takeaway from watching somebody rise and fall in that way in your sphere of influence, in your circle? Is there a takeaway for you?
Bahati: You know, I always say–and I say this to young guys. I understand why certain people do certain things, right? I understood why he did it because, at that level, I’m not going to say they all do it…
Tavis; But a lot of folk were, though.
Bahati: A lot of folk were. You just have to make your own decision. It’s something that I decided not to do and maybe my buddy, the next guy or my teammate, decides to do it and I can’t judge that. He’s doing it for his own reasons. I have not did it for my own reasons. That’s really how I stand on that.
Tavis: But when you’re competing with people who you know are cheating, how do you navigate that journey?
Bahati: It makes me feel good when I beat them.
Tavis: But when you lose to them, though?
Bahati: I try harder. I mean, I did a race this weekend knowing there’s a few guys out there…
Tavis: Who were juicing, you mean?
Bahati: Oh, yeah. And just to be a wheel or two wheels off of them for a guy like me who works full-time now and only rides about six hours a week, just to be in there in the top 10 and be able to compete and actually have those guys look at me as a threat, it’s very humbling.
It’s flattering. You know what I mean? So I don’t let those things like hold me back or bring me down. It’s like, if they’re doing, they’re doing it. That’s their decision and I don’t let it bother me. I really don’t.
Tavis: Tell me about your team, your racing team.
Bahati: So I started a team back in 2010. It was a professional team. It had a lot to do with Lance indirectly because I hired Floyd Landis. So Floyd was on the team and I remember getting a call late at night. They were like “I need to talk to you.” I was like, “Dude, it’s like two in the morning. What do you need to talk about?” “Meet me in Temecula.”
I live in L.A. Temecula is far, right? So I end up driving out to Temecula and he told me what he was going to do. Said I got all this information and I’m going to lay it on the line. Where I’m from, I said, “You tell on yourself if you’re going to tell, but you…
Tavis: But you don’t snitch.
Bahati: Yeah, you don’t snitch.
Tavis: No snitching in Compton, yeah [laugh].
Bahati: I mean, I get that you have some monkey on your back that you want–just talk about yourself. And if everything else comes out, then it does, but focus on you. He’s a guy, when he makes his mind up, you can’t change it.
Sure enough, Tour California that year, he came out with these allegations and pretty much this team that I worked so hard to build, which we raised close to a million dollars, was gone overnight.
Sponsors just pulling off left and right and, out of the 20 guys on my team, I was down to one guy which I still respect to this day, Matty Rice, a kid from Australia. He hung tough with me all the way to the last race and we’re still good friends today.
So, yeah, I don’t have a “professional” team anymore. Right now I’m focused on my Bahati Foundation. It’s helped the inner city youth. My for–profit business is a cycling club. I want to grow the largest cycling club in North American, which will be 10,000 members.
Tavis: Cycling club means and does what, for those who don’t know?
Bahati: So a cycling club, think of Starbucks and Costco and just think of bicycles. So you buy a membership, you get the cool experience of Starbucks. You can come and get your bike fixed, you can come buy things, you can shop online. So we’re basically offering a service for cycling because most bike shops, you walk in, you get your bike fixed, you buy something, you get 10% and you think you’re happy.
We’re actually offering like 20%, we’re taking people on trips, we’re doing barbecues, we’re doing kickbacks, whatever we can think of. Father’s Day breakfasts, anything that we could think of that’s different and outside the box, that’s what we’re offering to our club members.
Tavis: Over the years of your racing, have you seen, are you seeing, the coloring of the sport?
Tavis: Still not?
Bahati: No, not at all.
Bahati: Not at all. It’s a tough sport to break into…
Tavis: I’ve seen some Black folk on the ice now. I see some Black folk playing hockey now and still no brothers in cycling?
Bahati: There is not one professional road athlete that’s racing in the European Peloton right now. Oh, I take that back. I stand corrected. There’s actually two now. I take that back.
On the U.S. side, you get a handful, but it’s so disappointing because I had the opportunity to race over there, which I did, but because I didn’t make that decision, I was sent home. That’s how I ended up in Indiana, you know. And I feel like my friends…
Tavis: You were sent to Indiana as punishment [laugh].
Bahati: Not punishment, but…
Tavis: Boom! You go to Indiana! [laugh]
Bahati: I went to Indiana because I wasn’t racing in Europe anymore, you know.
Tavis: Yeah, I got it, yeah.
Bahati: It’s like the kids that are African American here, they have that same opportunity, but they don’t have the guys who really put their arm around them and nurture them, which the white kids do have.
Tavis: Maybe the cycling club will.
Bahati: If I can get to 10,000 members, I’ll have enough money to sponsor another team and take care of my family and make sure that these kids have an equal opportunity to race on a pro Peloton.
Tavis: I wish you all the best on that.
Bahati: I appreciate it.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you come on, Bahati. Thanks for your foundation work for kids, man.
Bahati: Thank you. Appreciate it.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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