That was the summer we cycled out of celebration. That was the summer we cycled out of resistance. Can you picture it? More than 1,000 of us moving through an empty central London like a flock of birds. There was no hierarchy or dress code. There were racing bikes and there were mountain bikes and there were rented Santander bikes. Men and women. Middle-aged adults, teenagers and children. Almost all of us were Black. We had come from all over the country. We had come by ourselves, or in pairs, or in larger groups, until out of many, came a larger whole. A hybrid family, glittering in multicoloured clothing as if we had passed through a rainbow.
The pandemic was still new. In this time of death and anxiety, some of us turned to two wheels to get by. The first Black Unity Bike Ride, in the summer of 2020, was about more than just cycling or exercise. It was a way to feel close in a time of isolation, an escape from a suffocating period. As the pandemic years passed, the annual ride would become tradition. In a time when it felt as if the boundaries between months and years had dissolved, the Black Unity Bike Ride was a reassuringly permanent point on the calendar. During these years, when Black communities across the UK were, at times, at the centre of these upheavals, the bike ride was always there. In my mind, it became a benchmark, helping me register the different phases of the pandemic and to notice how the upheavals were surfacing in our daily lives. More than that, the ride’s existence would become a story in itself, a year-by-year record of a community pulling close during a time of wider hostility and uncertainty. What follows is an account of that unfolding.
The memories of March 2020 are strangely elusive. That time feels both recent and distant. Whenever I attempt to remember it, the picture blurs, as if that part of history is begging to be forgotten.
What I do remember is how death became an everyday presence in our lives. It was there on evenings spent watching officials announcing that a new fraction of the population was no longer with us. It was there in the early reports that those of Black African or Black Caribbean ethnicity were four times more likely to die of Covid-19 than those who were white. It was there on phone calls to family and friends, on social media, in stories of people I knew who had lost a father or a brother or more. A member of the church who had not made it. A rapper who had lost a parent, and then posted a desperate video on social media, tears rolling from his red eyes as he begged people to stay indoors.
Among this chaos was a reckoning. The brutal killings of three unarmed Black people in the US – Ahmed Arbery in February, Breonna Taylor in March, George Floyd in May – became the catalyst for the biggest civil rights movement of our time. The Black Lives Matter movement took root in countries all across the world. In Britain, where the well of Black activism runs generations deep, protests were organised throughout the country: London and Cardiff, Liverpool and Belfast, Manchester and Glasgow, Barnstaple and Basingstoke, Yeovil and Southend-On-Sea. Statues were toppled in Bristol. A crowd of 500 gathered at the Guildhall in Southampton. Thousands signed a petition to rename Glasgow streets called after slave plantation owners.
After protesting came organising. Inquiries into police brutality broadened into demands for racial equality in education and employment, in the health sector and on the football pitch. In July 2020, Tokunbo Ajasa-Oluwa, the CEO of a social mobility charity, decided to stage a mass bike ride through London in the hope that it would bring a sense of unity and empowerment to the Black community suffering a painful hour. Cycling would be a joyful antidote to the darkness.
The first Black Unity Bike Ride was set for 1 August, the same day as Black Pound Day, a new initiative encouraging people to spend with Black businesses on the first Saturday of every month. The plan was simple: to ride from Walthamstow in north London through to Brixton in the south, with a few pit stops in between. Anybody was free to join.
And so, on a warm summer afternoon, we cycled. My partner and I joined the ride at Angel on the borders of central and north London, our rented bikes melting into the flock. London felt like a city abandoned. We turned from empty street to empty street, seeing shuttered shops and restaurants and pubs. There were few cars and almost no tourists. For long stretches it felt as if it was just us out there, the hum of a thousand whining rubber tyres.
As we progressed, the city began to show signs of life. On the edges of Soho, people had sought sanctuary on the curbs, gathering outside bars that were selling alcohol in plastic cups from their front doors. The groups, predominantly white, were stirred from conversation as we passed, at first seemingly confused by the procession. Then, unexpectedly, they broke into applause and cheers. Slightly further along, by the green on Parliament Square, a small group of protesters carrying placards in support of Donald Trump turned and, on seeing us, screamed “All lives matter”, and that the then US president was “our saviour”.
A few months earlier I had been here, in Parliament Square, after Floyd’s murder. Thousands had gathered, and chants of “Black Lives Matter” and “No justice, no peace” rang out into the afternoon air. There was grief for Floyd, resignation that it had come to this – again – and there was hope that this time things could perhaps be different. And there was a feeling of sorrow and anguish that, despite the world as we knew it burning, we had still landed here. Even an apocalypse at our shores provided no safe passage or humanity for a Black person in the street.
Seeing the handful of Trump loyalists jeer our presence was a realisation that the very essence of Blackness, our skin, was politicised. A realisation that Black prompted extremes, that we were so rarely granted the safety of obscurity, that we could not cycle together without an assumed meaning, that in others, our presence stoked applause or fear and anger, with little else in between. George Floyd was a victim of such thinking.
As I cycled, I noticed that we were made up of many smaller fraternities. There were the cycling clubs in professional gear who set the pace at the front. There were groups of friends, or family, or strangers who had fallen into conversation with one another, binding into new packs of their own. There was a self-designated soundperson blasting music from a backpack speaker, a trail of listeners in their wake. For the most part, I followed the music, tailed a woman playing the soft bounce of UK garage, and then moved on to a man blasting Afrobeats. There was rap and dancehall, soca and reggae, the many sounds of Britain’s Black communities echoing through the streets.
I felt something out there. In a year where the Notting Hill carnival had been cancelled, where Nigerian 60th birthdays and Jamaican nine-night grieving ceremonies had been scaled down to Zoom, where weddings were delayed and baptism celebrations abandoned, where it felt like a time when we only gathered en masse in agony, for those killed, the ride was a release. Here, on the road, in the absence of our old customs, we had found ourselves again.
This was not a protest, or a march. Many had come here for fun. But somewhere on these empty streets, the ride had taken on new meaning. A Black man driving a bus banged his horn in elation, smiling wide and stretching his arm in salute as we passed. Other Black people nodded, or smiled. When another, slightly younger Black man, saw the parade of bikes, he leaped from his car and beat the air in joy. Near Tottenham Court Road, when moving between packs, the music fading into the distance, I saw a cyclist raise her hand from the wheel and trail her Black fist in the air, a quiet salute for all who had pulled in close during this uncertain time.
In August 2021, we hit the road again. We gathered in similar numbers, but for the second annual Black Unity Bike Ride, things felt different. This time we would ride from Walthamstow into the West End before jerking back east and finishing at Shoreditch Park in Hackney. The weather had changed, too. Rain sprinkled the streets in weak bursts, and ponchos were handed out to the riders at every checkpoint. I still followed the music, trailing after a man with a huge speaker in his backpack, and allowed the sounds of 90s hip-hop to waft over me. But we no longer had London to ourselves.
In the months before the ride, London had started to change. The city was correcting itself. There was a time, in the late stretches of 2020, around the second and third national lockdowns, when I would walk every weekend through a near-empty Oxford Street or Regent Street, the centre of the city dormant as a suburban village. By late spring 2021, restrictions were being lifted. Restaurants began offering al fresco dining. We made do with what we could. London gradually reanimated, growing busier with every passing weekend.
During one of my last weekend walks, I stood outside Nike Town at Oxford Circus and saw people streaming across the road in their thousands, bikes hurtling down the street, people spilling over every inch of pavement. I remember the noise, the underscore of a thousand buzzing conversations and car engines. It felt as if all of London’s 9 million population had descended on this spot. The city was overcorrecting, trying to claw back a pre-pandemic version of herself that had been for ever lost. People pushed through the street, pushed strangers aside, pushed away the past eight months to the darkest corners of their minds. A brief history was being erased, a city trying to forget lockdowns and grief and misery and everything that came with the pandemic’s first and second waves. But there were things that could not be buried, incidents I struggled to forget.
A year had passed since the arrival of Covid. By now, the “new normal” formed a part of day-to-day life. Working from home, social distancing and masks had become routine.
Other things were new. By late spring 2021, all adults were eligible for their Covid vaccine. But in pockets of London, vaccine hesitancy was high. I saw it surface in conversations with friends who warned me sternly that standard vaccines take years, sometimes decades, of testing before they are deemed ready. The rapid arrival of the Covid vaccine made them suspicious. I saw it on WhatsApp, in broadcasts passed through African communities, claims that vaccines would change your DNA, that they would place a tracker in your body, that they would be used to sterilise Black people en masse. Many advised diet alterations instead. Some shared claims from a widely circulated yet disproven and ultimately retracted study asserting that the MMR vaccine led to a spike of autism among young Black boys. They worried that this Covid-19 jab may be no different. Others shared historical accounts of racial abuse in the medical industry, such as the Tuskegee syphilis study, where 600 impoverished Black men were – without knowing – experimented on by the US public health service for four decades. The past had bred scepticism and distrust. The history of state racism loomed large. In exchanges with friends, or in WhatsApp groups or on the social media platform Clubhouse, people spoke about the Windrush scandal. They spoke about the death of Belly Mujinga. About Breonna Taylor and Ahmed Arbery and George Floyd. For some, all good faith had been eroded. The vaccine was a boundary they could not cross.
That Spring, at a Jamaican takeaway shop in south London, I stood in the queue, listening to a tense conversation about the first dose. On hearing the exchange, a middle-aged Black man standing behind me cut in. “Don’t take the vaccine,” he said, raising his voice, warning all who were present. “Those people have never given us nothing good. Nothing.” Then he walked out.
Reports from health officials began to bear out these local encounters. In March 2021, analysis by the Office for National Statistics found that while 90.2% of all over-70s in England had received at least one jab, the figure for Black Africans was 58.8%, the lowest in the country. Black Caribbean people over 70 had the second-lowest rate of take-up.
To stave off Covid, many I knew turned to “natural methods” – supplements and herbal remedies with alleged immune-boosting and antiviral qualities. There was lemongrass and turmeric tea for anti-inflammatory purposes. There was alkaline water to allegedly balance the pH of the body. There was the fruit soursop to fortify the immune system.
One of the most popular supplements was sea moss, a type of seaweed or algae native to the Atlantic shores of North America, Europe and the islands of the Caribbean. It’s claimed that it has beneficial effects on the immune system and heart, on digestive and thyroid function, and even that it nourishes the skin.
Sea moss was everywhere that spring and summer. I saw it sold at local food markets by bakers who placed dried packages of the moss next to their chocolate brownies. I saw it on Instagram, posted by independent sellers who blended the moss into a gel and were now selling it by the tub.
I tried it, too. A friend gave me a package to blend and then spoon into my smoothies and stews. Other times, I would be walking the street or waiting at a bus stop, when somebody would approach, and on seeing my grown-out hair, uncut since the beginning of the pandemic, assumed I was a potential customer. They were carrying sea moss in their rucksacks, ready for purchase.
At a housing estate in north-west London, where Covid rates were among the highest in the country, I was offered sea moss and alkaline water by a middle-aged man. “It beats cancer and all dem tings there,” he told me, patting my shoulder softly as he spoke. In his other hand was a bottle of beer.
By the time the second Black Unity Bike Ride came around, on Saturday 7 August 2021, the previous year’s broad enthusiasm for racial equality felt as if it had waned.
Professional footballers were being booed for taking a knee. The home secretary, Priti Patel had, described the protests as “dreadful”, and Downing Street repeatedly refused to confirm whether then prime minister Boris Johnson supported the wider Black Lives Matter movement.
There was a feeling among friends, too, that pledges made across many industries in the heat of 2020 were not being fulfilled, a worry that promises of structural change were being walked back or quietly dropped, that racial equality had been the theme for a season, and now that season was over. To survive, Black people were carving out community spaces of their own.
The bike ride offered me a feeling of freedom that I struggled to find elsewhere. When venues had reopened in July, I had tried revisiting nightclubs, but the closed spaces and the sweat and the heat made me anxious, paranoid that Covid was climbing the walls. I tried festivals, but mass gatherings on this scale still felt somehow unnatural.
I tried football, too. The major communal event that summer was Euro 2020, held over from the previous year. For a month there was the distinct buzz only a big tournament can bring. Every match day, the roads around London were washed with supporters in England jerseys and St George’s flags. Collective war cries echoed around the streets. It felt as if the entire country had turned its focus to this one event.
The team became a focus for the tensions of the past year. At two pre-tournament friendlies, sections of England fans had booed when the team took a knee ahead of kick off. The same happened in their opening game at Wembley, against Croatia. Afterwards, Patel called the act of taking a knee “gesture politics”, while Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said, “the prime minister is more focused on action rather than gestures”.
England’s run to the final became about more than just football. On the weekend of the quarter-finals, my 29th birthday weekend, I was walking through the teeming streets around London Bridge, feeling part of a shared, national moment, when I heard chants of “EDL” boom through the noise. I turned and saw a group of men laughing as they sang. The moment stung, a reminder that this was something I could never fully embrace. One of the most diverse squads in English history could not erase what was hidden beneath the surface.
After the final, in which three Black players – Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka – had missed their penalties, there was an inevitability about what was coming. I braced for impact. But the force of what followed rocked me. The three players were racially abused across social media. The N-word trended on Twitter. Friends on their way home from bars after the game were harassed. A mural of Rashford in Manchester was vandalised. A man accused of racially abusing the footballer on social media by tweeting “Pack them bags and get to ya own country,” later admitted that his children had benefited from the footballer’s activism around free school meals. “He’s absolutely brilliant. He’s helped my family and I can’t thank him enough,” he would say.
Our sense of belonging here still came with an asterisk, with a wariness about some of our own supposed countrymen. We were on unsteady ground. The line between adulation and anger, a compatriot and somebody to be preyed on as thin and as frivolous as a missed penalty.
The bike ride was where I found a sense of quiet liberation. It was a place where I could exist without conditions. It was a loosening of the shoulders. A pilgrimage of sorts. Even though the roads were busy and wet, we were insulated, surrounded by one another. Here, for the second year, I could find refuge.
We didn’t ride in a huge pack like the previous year. Groups were separated throughout the journey, pulled apart by the busy London traffic. At times we were walking the bikes more than we were riding them. Towards the end of the Strand, as the traffic lights turned green, a few metres of open road teased out ahead. The pack began to move forward, eager to ride. Then, a crowd of pedestrians who had missed their green signal, angled to walk out ahead of us, blocking our path. Some of the cyclists, myself included, began to retreat, when a voice from the rear of the pack boomed out.
“Stand firm,” the voice shouted, “You have to stand firm inna Babylon.”
So we fought for every inch of road, hustling and jockeying for space in a city trying to squeeze us out.
By the summer of 2022, a sense of normality had returned. Most Covid restrictions had been lifted and there hadn’t been a national lockdown in over a year. The period stretching from March 2020 to July 2022 felt like one long, unbroken year. The scale of what happened will take a few years, even decades, to grasp, but as we emerged from the worst of it, there was some hope. Seeds that were planted two years earlier, when millions flooded the streets in anti-racism protests, continued to flower.
The third Black Unity Bike Ride was set for Saturday 6 August, aligning again with Black Pound Day. Both, along with a host of other initiatives, had become new fixtures in the lives of Black people across the country. Waiting at the end of the ride, in Brockwell Park, south London, would be a dozen or so Black-owned food vendors curated by Black Eats LDN, a restaurant directory for Black-owned food businesses. Like the bike ride and Black Pound Day, the organisation was founded post-George Floyd. Rage had hardened into something more durable, Black organisations building islands in hostile waters after the shared national energy inevitably subsided into apathy.
The day of the ride was also the 60th anniversary of Jamaican independence. Many of the cyclists came with the country’s green, black and gold national flag tied to their waists or hanging from their shoulders. Elsewhere, the dress code was the same as before: the seasoned in cycling gear, the casuals dressed down in summer T-shirts and shorts.
The sun was out. As we cycled, the familiar landmarks came into view, High Holborn down into The Strand, and then into the roads around Parliament Square, where today, the scene was filled with tourists taking pictures by red telephone boxes, with families picnicking on the lawns, with people going about their ordinary business.
London was not as busy as the year before. The overcorrection was over. A new rhythm had settled in. The bike ride, too, seemed mellower than in previous years. As we crossed the river at Westminster Bridge, easing our way into south London, the road seemed to open up even further. By the time we were reaching Brixton we had whole stretches of road to ourselves. The flock thinned, and for the last sweep of the ride I cycled largely alone. I watched the Independence Day parties buzz in beer gardens and saw the barbecues smoking on communal greens of concrete council estates. I floated past churches still carrying Black Lives Matter placards in their windows, and saw an elderly Black man, standing on his steps, smiling with a deep joy as we swept by.
On the road, there were no fists held in the air, no feeling of tension or rebellion or despair, just a casualness as we made our way through. An initiative that had its roots in the tense months of 2020 had evolved into an easy, communal gathering ground.
Maybe that’s how things would be from here on out. The fourth ride, in August 2023, shared the same mood. People smiled at us on the road, two Black women waved from the windows of a three-storey building, teenagers popped wheelies, bouncing their bikes to the amapiano and reggae playing out of backpack speakers. When a traffic light flicked from red to green, there was a big cheer and we continued on our path. There was an ease to the afternoon. The heat of the pandemic had passed, leaving something in the afterglow.
On those more relaxed rides, people spoke casually about the Notting Hill carnival returning at the end of the month, about the turnover of prime ministers at No 10, and about Lewis Hamilton being screwed out of the 2021 Formula One Championship. It felt routine. There was a permanence about what we were doing, a feeling that this was something as regular as birthdays or Christmas.
I noticed that the crowds gathering at the rides had changed, too. People had started to bring along more young children and babies. I met a young boy with his dad, who had travelled together from Scotland to be there. At one point, I slipped past a fellow rider, his young children fastened to seats at his rear. I wondered about what Britain will look like for them. About the country they would inherit and the rituals our generations would leave behind. About whether they would remember this time, when people gathered together on bikes, riding for safe passage and shelter, finding community out on the open roads of London.
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