Advocate for Equity in Mountain Biking
Morris Vasser, a Seattle Academy alumnus from the Class of 2020, is doing several cool things in the adventure sports community. He works as the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Lead at Sweetlines, a mountain bike coaching organization. He is getting out onto trails and mentoring youth in mountain biking. He is advocating for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) to take up mountain biking. He is speaking publicly about his experiences as a Black man. And he is writing about the efforts to diversify cycling for a Zine called Craft Mtn, where he was featured in the Spring 2021 edition. As a very recent alum, Morris is already living the school mission in his life after SAAS. We connected with Morris to get more background on what led him into this line of work and what drove him to publicly advocate for greater equity in mountain biking. Check out his article, speech, and Q&A Interview below to dive into the ins and outs of what equity in mountain biking looks like.
Q: What moments stuck out for you during your time at SAAS?
A: It was off of a whim that my mom applied to the Epiphany School for elementary, and then to Seattle Academy for middle and high school. The idea and attitude within SAAS that whatever it is you think you like to do — you can do — just resonated for me. I would never have gotten into mountain biking if I didn’t go to SAAS.
I also remember taking American Studies with Steve Retz and Kevin Kimura, which is a joint history and honors-level English course. It was my junior year, it lasted all year long, and it was so hard. To give Steve credit, it was actually a really cool class. It was challenging and it was there that I got experience with public speaking.
Q: What got you interested in biking?
A: When my mom was younger her parents got her a motorcycle. So, as a kid I really wanted a dirt bike to ride motocross. When I was 10, I got into motocross — but within 6-7 months I realized there were many difficulties with the sport. The mechanical know-how to keep the bike running safely was a lot of work. The nearest tracks were in Kent, a far and inconvenient commute. In the kid’s category, the only riding hours were something like 6-7 PM. And loading the bike, which was around 260 lbs., to get it to the track was a process.
I signed up for a mountain biking camp that same year and found that it was similar to motocross, but different enough in that the care and maintenance were a lot easier. Mountain biking was a natural transition. I started racing at age 12, downhill only. At 15 years old I stopped racing because I got in a bad accident where I broke my collar bone, right wrist and right ankle. I took a little break and during that time, I turned 16 and was able to drive to Whistler Blackcomb (the mountain biking mecca) and Stevens Pass (where they have lift access bike parks.)
Q: What inspired you to work with Sweetlines?
A: I was stressing about where I was going to get my service hours to graduate from SAAS. I needed so many hours. So I started with their mentorship program in 2017, then rose to assistant coach, and then coach. I love Duthie Hill Mountain Bike Park because it is such a unique spot that you can ride everything (but expert trails) with a razor scooter. At Duthie I can send a “nube” there with no map and they will have a blast.
Q: What drove you to speak publicly about your experiences as a BIPOC mountain biker?
A: Last year, I gave a talk titled “As a Young Black Man'' at a protest ride with Sweetlines at my local trailhead. With the death of George Floyd I was getting a lot of questions like “what if that was you,” and just a lot of interest in my experiences as a Black man. I would respond, “Yea, that is everyday,” and such; it was a lot. Kat Sweet, creator of Sweetlines, is a pioneer at getting young women into the sport. Kat already had a little experience in charging through and making space for others that didn’t yet have representation there. She wanted to do a protest ride that included 7 minutes of silence to represent the duration of time that officer Chauvin was kneeling on George Floyd’s neck.
Speaking at this event was the best experience ever — I was not aware of how much it all bothered me. And to put it into words, so clear, I feel like... at least that is an inkling of the representation I want to give. From there we also did a fundraiser for BIPOC kids and raised 20 thousand dollars in one week. We got other coaches involved in our goal of bringing BIPOC kids to camp.
Q: Any suggestions for ways we can open up this sport to our students, and particularly our BIPOC students?
A: The biggest thing I should have done when I was attending SAAS was start a mountain bike club. There are several faculty and staff in the sport: David Johns mountain bikes, also Martin Brakke. Luckily some other kids took the torch and started a club. Mountain Biking club would be a good first step; Nicole Marvin is the lead and a great contact. I am sure a lot of kids have spare bikes to borrow.
Students that identify as BIPOC can also apply for an equity grant through Sweetlines. This past year we were able to get 18 kids into camp through this grant, and they received bikes and training.
Q: What are the main prohibitors in getting BIPOC students out onto the trails? Is it access? Is it opportunity? Awareness?
A: In the BIPOC community, outdoor sports are not the norm. It was really helpful that my best friend got into mountain biking at the same time as I did. Having that support can make a big difference.
Transportation is also a huge barrier. I suggest kids consider getting into the jumping side of things, which is more urban and more accessible. I-5 Colonnade was a great park that I could easily access; I don’t think it is currently accessible. Greenlake Jumps is an informal location that has dirt mounds that make great jumps.
Q: Are there any Instagram influencers, or famous mountain bikers, that you would recommend for kids interested in seeing the who/what/where of mountain biking?
A: Eliot Jackson, founder of the Grow Cycling Foundation, is certainly making an impact.
Q: What are some good introductory trails in the greater Seattle/Eastside area?
A: Duthie Hill (beginner to expert)
Galbraith Mountain in Bellingham (intermediate)
Q: Best resources for finding safe, accessible trails?
A: Trailforks mobile app is the best resource for finding legal mountain biking trails. Download Trailforks, and make sure that you have your region downloaded. Some trails may have limited cell service.
Q: Hands down the best item (clothing or gear) that every mountain biker needs?
A: A helmet that is solid, preferably with Mips® safety system (multi-directional impact protection system). You don’t have to get the lightest, fanciest helmet, but make sure you get the best helmet you can afford. And make sure your helmet is not more than 3 years old. Also maybe pads; wear all the pads.
Q: Best resources for getting your hands on a solid, slightly used, affordable mountain bike?
A: A great resource for used mountain bikes is pinkbike.com. I got my first mountain bike there for 400 bucks. I recommend getting your first bike used, and getting a hardtail which just has front suspension. The skills you will build by not having a rear suspension will allow you to be way faster later on than those who learn with rear suspension.