Ellis pedals toward fitness diversity

Lisa Powell/DAYTON DAILY NEWS

It’s been a goal of state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, to get more African Americans and Latinos on bicycles. His purpose is simple: Riding bicycles on a regular basis can improve their health and well-being through a fairly inexpensive and available activity they can do throughout their lives.

Ellis also is taking his message of diversity to the bicycling community, which has failed to make significant inroads in communities of color. Today, in San Antonio, he plans to make a case about why the cycling community should be aggressive about getting more minorities on bicycles.

“My message is simple; if you want to build more hike and bike trails, more infrastructure for cycling in urban areas and South Texas then you will need to appeal to the voters who live in those communities and many of them happen to be Hispanic and African American.”

Ellis, who is speaking at the annual Texas Trails and Active Transportation cycling conference hosted by Austin-based Bike Texas, makes good points. Cycling infrastructure is not cheap, and cities, such as Austin and San Antonio, have built it largely by passing bond packages to finance construction of bike lanes, paths, trails and other improvements for cycling.

Voter support for bond packages that included bicycle infrastructure has been widespread in Austin. In November 2010, Austin voters passed $90 million in bonds for streets and mobility projects, which included about $14 million for bike paths, trails and transit infrastructure across the city.

Even in Austin, home to the world’s best-known and perhaps most successful cyclist, the sport has failed to catch fire in minority communities.

“One of Austin’s and the state’s most spectacular bike trails is the (Lady Bird) Lake hike and bike trail,” Ellis said. “But over at Huston-Tillotson University, they aren’t riding bikes.”

Cycling champion Lance Armstrong has been a formidable ambassador for the sport, raising its profile and popularity in Austin and across the country. He is a household name. Not as well-known is another cycling giant, Major Taylor, a world champion American cyclist who more than 100 years ago broke records and the color line when blacks were banned from many cycling clubs and races across the nation. In 1898, Taylor held several world records.

Ellis, also African American and an avid cyclist, believes Taylor’s legacy could stir interest in and raise cycling’s profile among minorities. And that would be a very good thing if it reduces the amount of time children and adults spend watching television or playing video games and gets people doing something fun outdoors. But he also sees cycling as a way to combat obesity and diabetes among minorities who suffer disproportionately from those illnesses.

Nearly 36 percent of Texas African Americans are overweight or obese, and the same is true for Hispanics. That compares with about a quarter of white Texans who are obese. All Texans can benefit from strategies that help manage and control their weight. Being severely overweight increases the risk for other diseases, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Obesity rates are highest in households with lower incomes and lower in households with incomes greater than $50,000, according to figures from the Texas Department of State Health Services. Among black Texans, a stunning 16.5 percent have been diagnosed with diabetes — twice the rate for Anglo Texans of 8.2 percent. Eleven percent of Hispanics have diabetes, according to state health department figures.

Diet and exercise are important in managing diabetes and obesity and that is a message Ellis wants to drive home with his talks — and bicycle rides — in San Antonio, Houston, Austin and other cities.

Ellis credits cycling with helping to manage his own weight and stress issues. And cycling, he says, is relatively inexpensive because it does not require a gym membership or expensive equipment or fees. Bicycles come in various price ranges, sizes and shapes, including three-wheelers for adults with balance issues. Getting started is easy; call or email Bike Texas for help at 512-476-RIDE or biketexas.org.

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