Cyclist Josh BK

Cycling’s comeback kid

There are days when Josh Hartman envisions his life without cycling.

He would likely still live in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood, far beyond the borough’s creeping wave of gentrification. Perhaps he would string electrical wire, like his father, or attend a junior college like his high school classmates. Or perhaps his life would have followed a different path altogether. He might sell drugs, like some of his childhood friends, or sit in a jail cell.

“I would be a typical dummy from East New York,” Hartman says. “Most of my friends have been to jail, two are still locked up. That could be me.”

Hartman isn’t in jail on this chilly December afternoon; he’s in Colorado Springs in a rented house on the east side of town. Cycling brought him here. Hartman is the newest member of USA Cycling’s Olympic development squad for velodrome racing, and if he maintains his current trajectory, he will compete in the 2020 summer games in Tokyo and perhaps multiple Olympics beyond.

The house sits just three blocks from the U.S. Olympic training center and velodrome. Every weekday Hartman rides down to the training center to lift weights and perform plyometric exercises; he spends another one to two hours in the velodrome, spinning laps around its 333.3-meter oval. In his off-time Hartman takes classes at the local community college and sleeps. It’s hardly the preferred lifestyle for the average 19-year-old male, yet Hartman says it’s the perfect situation for him at this point in his life.

“Real people have a 9-5, they work a double shift and struggle to live. I get to live in play-land,” Hartman says.

Should Hartman qualify for the 2020 U.S. Olympic team, he will pen another chapter to an already improbable story. Cycling is Hartman’s passion, and he has pursued it on his own, often without the blessing of his parents. It’s a passion that nearly killed him; in 2013 he crashed hard on his face and spent two weeks in a coma.

And then there are the invisible hurdles that have stood in Hartman’s way since he first turned a pedal stroke. It’s no secret that cycling in America has become a sport for the affluent, those with six-figure incomes who can afford expensive gear and racing fees. It is a sport where the pro and amateur peloton is overwhelmingly white and born with privilege.

Hartman is the first-generation American scion of immigrants from Guyana. He is black. He grew up in a working class neighborhood famous for producing mobsters and boxers; gangster Henry Hill and Mike Tyson both came from the neighboring Brownsville neighborhood. In East New York, 34 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Throughout his short cycling career, Hartman repeatedly crossed cycling’s socioeconomic barriers with the help of his friends from New York City’s cycling community. These amateur riders, coaches, and teammates helped finance Hartman’s progression through the sport; they also imparted wisdom and motivation to help Hartman overcome his toughest moments.

Now, Hartman straddles two disparate worlds: the cycling world, and the world of East New York. Along his life’s journey, he’s learned to embrace his individuality.

“When I go back home, I don’t fit in. When I’m with my riding buddies, I’m the only black guy,” Hartman says. “I guess you could say I’m a standout.”

Josh Hartman
Photo: Brad Kaminski |

NEW YORK CITY’S AMATEUR racing scene is a melting pot of ethnic groups and nationalities, and no borough better reflects this than Brooklyn, where weekly series take place at Prospect Park and Floyd Bennett airfield.

In eastern Brooklyn, riders from Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Suriname, and Guyana fill out the local teams. One of the scene’s local heroes is Randolph Toussaint, 62, who raced for Guyana at the 1984 Olympics. One day in 2010, Toussaint sat down to have a talk with Hartman at the behest of his grandmother.

The boy was in need of activities outside of school, she said. Touissant put 12-year-old Joshua Hartman on an old mountain bike and took him for a ride in Prospect Park. Toussaint says young Joshua was a natural on the bike.

“I saw something. The way he spins, it was natural, so I continued with him,” Touissant said. “Then I put him on a road bike and would take him out with the guys. In a short amount of time he impressed everyone.”

Touissant and his friends assembled a road bicycle for Hartman from spare parts. Hartman loved the freedom and challenge of cycling, and was immediately hooked. While other kids from his neighborhood played video games or hung out after school, Hartman rode around Prospect Park’s three-mile loop for hours.

Hartman needed riding mentorship, so Touissant introduced him to riders from the Major Taylor/Iron Riders cycling club. The New York City club is named for the early 1900s African American world track cycling champion and the predominantly black Army infantry division that traversed the American west on bicycles. It is open to riders of all backgrounds and abilities, yet it is predominantly comprised of African American professionals who ride for fun.

The club welcomed Hartman onto its racing development team, and paid his entry fees and travel costs for local events in Brooklyn. After just a few months on the bike, Hartman began to win junior events at Floyd Bennett and Prospect Park. The victories gave him confidence, and bolstered his self-identity in the sport. At some point, he earned a nickname amongst riders on the development team.


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