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Portrait: Eliot Jackson

Turning a moment into a movement

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This article originally ran in the summer print issue of Beta. Become a Beta or Outside+ member to receive a print subscription as well as a growing packet of member-exclusive benefits, like discounts on products from brand partners, an ad-free online experience, premium subscription to Gaia GPS, and much more.

Eliot Jackson has always been one of the most dynamic pro athletes in mountain biking, it’s just that nobody outside of racing really knew it until last year.

Even when he was breaking into the World Cup top 20 as one of the fastest downhill racers in the world, he was multifaceted, writing code on the side as a computer programmer, poring over business books or playing music between a full training and race schedule. After he retired from full-time racing in 2017, Jackson further broadened his scope by presenting at World Cup races for Red Bull Bike’s YouTube channel, announcing for Crankworx, podcasting on his Reggy Radio channel and creating a data nerd’s dream of a website that charts World Cup race stats and analysis as far back as 1993.

But unless you were immersed in high-level competition, Jackson probably wasn’t a household name. That changed last June in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, when he posted a 10-minute monologue on Instagram TV; a raw, honest and emotional reflection on the biases he’s felt as a Black man and a mountain biker, the industry’s diversity void and the cycling population’s lack of action, understanding and empathy toward marginalized communities. His words deeply resonated—the post garnered nearly 100,000 views and 600 comments—and his profile skyrocketed. As one of the only Black pro riders in the sport, he suddenly had an unprecedented platform, the ear of the entire industry and the time and mental space to do something about it. In this “perfect moment,” he took the time to reconcile why he was usually the only Black racer on the World Cup circuit, and acknowledge the access and privilege he had.

Eliot Jackson changing a tire on his dirt jump bike
Eliot’s riding style is as versatile as his résumé. DH one day, trail or pumptrack the next.

“I literally had CEOs calling me asking me for advice, which doesn’t happen to most people, so it was like, ‘How can I make a difference?’” Jackson says. “I love strategic thinking and I love action. I got to combine a bunch of stuff I am passionate about in a way that could help move the needle. I don’t see myself as an educator, I see my role as an infrastructure provider—I want the younger version of Eliot who got to ride in his backyard, who got to practice, I want to give that opportunity to other kids to fall in love with bikes.”

A month later, Jackson, alongside his mother Joi, launched Grow Cycling Foundation, a nonprofit focused on increasing diversity and inclusion in cycling. But not just by donating bikes to low-income kids or hosting the occasional ride—Grow aims to bridge the gap, to provide a pathway for bikes to become a lifelong presence in someone’s life who may not have otherwise been exposed to riding. The idea is to guide kids from their first pedal stroke all the way through to a career in the industry, if they so choose.

As such, Grow’s first project was to launch a paid industry job board—which to date has shared more than 200 postings—to help get career opportunities in front of a non-insular audience. “The Jobs Board launch was special for me because not only did I get to work with my partner Hannah, but I got all these messages from people of different genders, ages and backgrounds saying they applied for cycling jobs for the first time in their lives,” Jackson says.

I don’t see myself as an educator, I see my role as an infrastructure provider—I want the younger version of Eliot who got to ride in his backyard, who got to practice, I want to give that opportunity to other kids to fall in love with bikes.

Next up, is the Velosolutions pumptrack Grow is building in Los Angeles, where they are partnering with Strider’s Rider Fund and Specialized’s Outride to provide education and equipment to kids from 11 nearby elementary and middle schools. An onsite hub will host mechanic clinics and events, and Jackson is aiming to break ground in August, the month of Grow’s one-year anniversary. In that time, Jackson and his team raised $400,000 for the pumptrack through creative partnerships—a brand comes to Grow to support the foundation, they brainstorm ideas that fit the brand’s core values, then take ownership over the fundraiser, using their audience and reach for promotion. It’s been a huge success, with athletes like Nate Hills and Casey Brown raffling one-off custom-painted frames through their respective sponsors, Yeti and Trek. The Syndicate-spec Hightower that Santa Cruz Bicycles raffled raised an astounding $103,000 on its own.

“It goes to show what it means to have access,” Jackson says. “If Grow Cycling was founded by someone who wasn’t embedded in the cycling industry, it wouldn’t be Grow Cycling. For example, when we launched the jobs board, I emailed the 10 biggest cycling companies in the world, and got them to give me quotes in support of it. A huge part of it is the amount of access, trust and respect I’ve built over the years. The other part is that I truly believe we have a great product. In the mountain bike space, we didn’t really have a lot of stuff to rally around.”

In fact, Jackson’s original plan with Grow was to help funnel dollars from the bike industry to existing organizations supporting BIPOC folks, but quickly discovered that companies didn’t want to just donate money and walk away; they actually wanted to help diversify the industry, which was a pleasant surprise.

Jackson has big plans for Grow, including a future initiative to connect underrepresented communities in Northwest Arkansas to the region’s vast network of trails. And though the launch of Grow has meant adding a leadership role and more face time with the media to his plate, it has not slowed down the other aspects of his career.

In July, he starts one of the most high-profile announcing gigs in the business, commentating World Cup races for Red Bull TV alongside Rob Warner. He also signed a new sponsorship deal with Rapha MTB and became an ambassador for Backcountry and Fat Tire, in addition to signing with Santa Cruz Bicycles following the end of his longtime contract with Giant Bicycles. He’s also still lightly competing (“participating” as he likes to joke), and planned to race DH at Crankworx Innsbruck earlier this month, as well as enter the Whip-Off Championship.

Eliot Jackson mountain biking in San Clemente, CA

“He does so much,” says Scott Turner, a marketing manager at Santa Cruz, who works closely with Jackson. “He’s definitely the hardest working man in bicycling right now.”

And though interest in him has spiked in the past year, it’s been easy to find the right partners—he gravitates toward brands that have been there since the early days of his career, that understand the whole picture of Eliot Jackson, and know how to capitalize on his value, not those who wanted to pick and choose the parts of his personality that benefit their mission.
After he started Grow, for example, brands came to the table with contracts tied directly to Grow events. “It made me super uncomfortable. It was like, ‘I want this Get Out of Jail Free card by associating myself with Eliot and putting it in my contract that you have to have this association with Grow Cycling. It really puts you in a small box, like, ‘Eliot is valuable for doing this thing with his nonprofit but all this other stuff doesn’t matter to us.’”

When a partnership is right, everything naturally lines up. He pointed to a recent day he spent with Outdoor Outreach in San Diego, taking a group of kids on a ride when a film crew from Hydroflask, for which he’s an ambassador, just happened to be there; or an experience taking the deejay Diplo on an e-bike ride in Joshua Tree simply because Fat Tire thought it’d be a fun pairing. He can feel it when a brand wants to build a relationship with him, not just use him to check a box as part of a DEI initiative.

For Santa Cruz, which has always been a huge supporter of Jackson’s, even when he rode for competing brands, his versatility is a major asset, Turner says. They relish his connection to Red Bull because it ties into Santa Cruz’s racing roots, and appreciate that he might ride a Stigmata drop-bar bike in one video segment, then send it on a V10 in another. Grow Cycling—which wasn’t even a flicker in Jackson’s mind when Santa Cruz approached him—has been an added bonus in that it organically complements Paydirt, Santa Cruz’s nonprofit that funds community trail projects around the world.

And, Jackson just happens to be the perfect person to make everyone feel included, Turner says. He doesn’t take too seriously, and his magnetic personality instantly makes everyone feel welcome, a tricky balance in today’s highly politicized world.

“It’s never divisive, it’s never militant,” Turner says. It’s like, ‘I’m just gonna do what I can do. If you’re not part of it, it doesn’t matter.’ I think that’s what sets him apart and why he’s been so successful. He’s going to do real things.”

Photos: Heather Young