Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

April 19, 2007

Biking to health on the Underground Railroad Trail

The road to improving minority health may be a long one, but Pitt’s Center for Minority Health (CMH) has come up with one 2,058-mile-long path that aims to be a route to both better fitness and a deeper appreciation for American history.

After three years of planning with the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) to develop the route, the new Underground Railroad cycling trail got its official rollout as riders from around the world departed Saturday on an inaugural ride from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Huron.

UPMC St. Margaret graduate nurse Norman Peterson is among the riders who embarked on the route that embraces history on two wheels. Stephen Thomas, director of the Graduate School of Public Health’s CMH, and Mario Browne, a CMH program manager and president of the Pittsburgh Major Taylor Cycling Club, also will ride segments of the route.

“There were people who believed it would never happen,” Thomas said, adding that the partnership required a huge leap of faith as two groups with divergent interests joined forces to bring the concept to completion. The Missoula, Montana-based ACA is focused on bicycle touring, while CMH’s aim is promoting health and eliminating health disparities. Melding the two cultures may have seemed unlikely, but neither could have done the project without the other, Thomas said.

The trip begins at Mobile Bay in the Gulf of Mexico — where slave ships arrived — and winds through Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and into Canada, terminating at Owen Sound, Ontario, on Lake Huron — the destination for many escapees who settled nearby. While there was no single route on the way northward to freedom, the ride route was mapped as a representation of the journey, with emphasis on areas of historic significance along the way. Portions of the route trace river valleys used by slaves as they headed north. Numerous historic sites offer information on the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement.

CMH director Thomas said the project is only a portion of a larger effort to eliminate racial health disparities through “cultural tailoring.” He noted that it’s not news to anyone that getting active is conducive to good health.

But many people fail to act on that message, and for the black community, the message may be delivered in ways that are not culturally relevant, in spite of data that show African Americans are disproportionately affected by heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke and obesity.

In addition, minority children may live in neighborhoods where it’s not safe to play outside, or adults may not feel welcome in gyms where the coaches and fellow members don’t look like them.

“Because of the history of racism and discrimination, even though people (today) can go wherever they want, that doesn’t mean they feel comfortable,” Thomas said, adding that creative ways to reach out and “invite people in,” need to be developed.

Noting that cycling is “99.9 percent white,” Thomas said the formation of the Major Taylor Cycling Club — named for an African-American cycling world-record holder from the 1890s — brings attention to the fact that the black community has historic connections to the sport. Thomas noted another cycling connection with the black community: The Buffalo Soldiers known as the “Iron Riders” in the late 1800s undertook the first long-distance bike ride — 1,900 miles from Missoula, Mont., to St. Louis, Mo. — as part of an army experiment in whether bikes could be used to deploy military forces.

“When we talk to people, we tell them it’s part of our history that we have lost,” he said. Creating the bike route is another way to bring black people into cycling by using an aspect that is culturally relevant.

Combining history and health promotion is what makes the project compelling, Thomas said. Thomas, who will join the ride mid-tour, admitted that his bicycle spends more time in the garage than on the road, but notes that his involvement with the project has encouraged him. He’s been riding with the bike club and training on a treadmill and on a stationary bike in his basement. “I’m going to do my best to make it as far as I can on the road,” he said.

While the tour presents a physical challenge for participants, “It is more than just a road,” Thomas said. “It is something sacred for many African Americans. And it is something sacred for white Americans as well,” he said, noting that many white people risked their businesses, careers and credibility to help slaves make it to freedom.

While the route touches on a painful part of American history, the trail is an element that can bring diverse groups together rather than pull them apart, he said.

“We want to raise awareness of other black people and white people that this heritage belongs to us all,” he said.

Riders from across the United States and as far away as Japan signed up for the 56-day inaugural ride, said Virginia Sullivan, ACA’s new routes coordinator.

Work is continuing to enhance the route, Sullivan said. Route research is starting this spring to add a spur between Pittsburgh and Erie that should be mapped by early fall. In addition, day trip maps for various communities along the route are being planned.

ACA, which sells detailed maps of the bike route on its web site, already has divided the route into five segments for those who desire a shorter tour. The maps contain photos, elevations, historic notes and information on climate, lodging and amenities for riders. Although some communities are marking the bike route, most of the corridor has no signage designating the route.

While riders can explore the route individually, ACA is offering a second supported tour on the 273-mile Buffalo, N.Y.—Owen Sound, Ont. segment of the route July 30-Aug. 5. The trip will culminate in a visit to Owen Sound’s 145th annual community Emancipation Festival.

Information on the bike route project is available online at or

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Leave a Reply