African-American pro cyclist Erik Saunders takes his ground-breaking literally

They were elbow to elbow and wheel to wheel as they barreled around the last corner and made an all-out sprint for the finish line.

Almost 100 Tour de Georgia cyclists made that turn onto Lumpkin Boulevard within a few seconds of each other Wednesday afternoon, forming a blurry collage as they bore down on the Columbus Civic Center.

It was an art gallery on wheels, a Jackson Pollack painting moving at nearly 40 miles per hour.

But if you looked closely at the peloton as it pedaled by in a breeze of yellow, blue, green, orange and red jerseys, you saw color on every surface but the faces and limbs of the riders.

The exception was Erik Saunders, the only black cyclist in the Tour de Georgia field and one of only a handful worldwide who make their living in the sport. While Saunders stood out superficially from a field that seems as homogenous as the inside of a salt shaker, he doesn't attach any special significance to what he does.

He's just a guy who gets paid to ride a bicycle. The faster, the better.

"I kind of feel uncomfortable making a whole big deal out of that," said Saunders, the 28-year-old captain of the Ofoto Lombardi Sports team. "There are a lot of black people worldwide who race their bikes. But I'm proud when other people want to talk about sport cycling. They may see it (race) as a way to relate to me, and I think that's cool."

Saunders finished third in a timed sprint and led a 37-mile breakaway during Thursday's second stage of the five-day Tour de Georgia.

While Saunders doesn't consider himself a pioneer, he realizes his visibility in the sport might ultimately help broaden its reach. Black professional cyclists aren't so rare in Europe and the Caribbean, and Saunders sees evidence that African-American children are starting to see their bicycles as more than transportation devices.

He pointed to youth riding clubs in Los Angeles and the Pacific Northwest as examples of how the complexion of the sport may change.

"It is special because there are a lot of black folks who don't know a lot about the sport," said Saunders, a Richmond, Va., native who now resides in Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif. "They get excited about it because they see me and think it's cool.

"I try to be an ambassador for the sport with whomever."

So far, so good.

But don't tell Saunders he's a ground-breaker. Unless, of course, you're talking about his hobbies, home improvement and landscaping.

If the genial Saunders ever retires from cycling, he could probably become the host of "Trading Spaces." In addition to conversing freely in Southern California surfspeak phrases like "gnarly" and "no worries," Saunders could also tell you what sort of pressure-treated lumber to buy for your new deck.

"I like working on my house," said Saunders, who decided to turn pro while a student at Virginia Commonwealth University. "I put a veranda on my house and poured a concrete slab for that.

"If there's anything that gets me motivated, it's that."

Whether Saunders wants to admit it or not, his presence in professional cycling may help build a more inclusive future for the sport.

One stage at a time.

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