A bike can take you a long way quickly. As well taking you to new places and spaces.
It’s a journey cyclist Ayesha McGowan is experiencing both professionally – and emotionally.
When McGowan chats to CNN Sport she’s on a high from finishing the first leg of an intense training season in Tuscany for the Liv Racing WorldTeam, with her membership as a satellite rider for the 11-person roster announced in February 2021.
“It didn’t feel real until I was on my way to training camp,” says the 34-year-old athlete, who will prepare for the next few months with the goal of racing and becoming a pro road cyclist after August 1.
“I feel very accomplished, but I feel a lot of pressure from myself to push even harder,” she tells CNN.
Finding her feet
McGowan says it’s her stubbornness that has pushed her to become the first Black American woman in pro cycling.
She comes from a long line of matriarchs, inheriting tenacity and grit from her grandmother, mother and older sister.
“I set my sights on something and wasn’t willing to stop until I got it,” she says as she remembers cycling on her grandparents’ expansive land in Oglethorpe County, Georgia, following her grandmother as she rode on a Red Cruiser.
But it wasn’t until her mid-twenties that she started seeing cycling as a competitive sport.
In 2010 McGowan graduated from Berklee College of Music, where her principal instrument was the violin. She became a music teacher, working at a daycare center in Brooklyn for five years and then teaching private music lessons.
McGowan had been commuting for about seven years before racing in 2014, making her debut at the Red Hook Crit Women’s Field in Brooklyn.
That year she had her first win in the Category 4 race at the New York State Criterium Championships in White Plains.
“It was just a form of transportation, freedom and fun until that point. It still is, but now there’s also that competitive aspect,” she says.
Pushing for gender advocacy
The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) — the sport’s governing body — told CNN Sport it does not have a breakdown of the ethnicities of cyclists currently competing.
However, the UCI said in 2019 it allocated a global amount of six million Swiss francs ($6.5 million) to push for diversity in cycling worldwide.
The UCI also highlighted that Teniel Campbell will ride for the UCI Women’s outfit Team BikeExchange from Australia, as she follows in the footsteps of Daniel Teklehaimanot, Stefany Hernandez and Guo Shuang among others.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that McGowan is riding for the Liv team. Bonnie Tu, who is the founder of the women’s cycling brand at Liv Cycling and Giant Group chairperson, has spoken of her dream “to encourage more women in the cycling industry and to encourage more women to cycle.”
Despite industry-led efforts to encourage greater global participation in the sport, McGowan quickly became aware of bike racing’s gender disparities when she started cycling. She explains that her interest and push for gender advocacy is because it aligns with her values.
In 2015, McGowan started A Quick Brown Fox, an online blog where she encourages more women and ethnic minority people to engage with the sport. Three years later she made the decision to fully commit to supporting herself via advocacy work and training.
Since then she has garnered nearly 40,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram combined, facilitating conversations about race, racism and sexism in the world of cycling and beyond.
As she recently wrote in an essay for the US-based cycling firm SRAM, “You can’t fight for women and not fight for Black women, trans women, disabled women, or any of the other intersections where any one who identifies as a woman resides.”
McGowan has used her platform to create a space where people from marginalized backgrounds can exist in their fullest capacity, without minimizing parts of their identity.
“Growing up people of color are taught to diminish ourselves to make other people feel comfortable, and that feels very unnecessary to me,” she tells CNN.
“I don’t think I was ever in a place where I didn’t see myself as a Black person. It was ingrained in my family, we have very strong roots and a lot of pride in who we are,” she adds.
The limits of representation
In McGowan’s home state of Georgia, Stacey Abrams’ efforts to combat voter suppression and empower Black voters materialized in the 2020 US election and January senate runoffs, when president Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in 28 years and Rev. Raphael Warnock made history as its first Black senator.
“We see the power of collective community, and so there’s usually a push to organize not just Black women, but everybody to work together to make things better for everyone,” says McGowan.
“Maybe it’s because we’re constantly being left out of things,” she adds.
Living under three starkly different presidencies in the last decade means that she is equally committed to holding the people in power to account.
“I think people are so relieved to not have to deal with the constant insanity that came with our previous president, that we’re not as engaged as we need to be,” she says.
“There needs to be a little bit more urgency around Joe Biden to stay true to his platform and the things that he campaigned for.”
McGowan voted for the first Black president of the US – Barack Obama – and has seen Kamala Harris become the first Black and South Asian women vice president, but she cautions over the limits of representation.
“It’s important to see people through a full lens and not through rose-colored glasses,” she tells CNN.
She’s not wrong. After Biden entered the second month of his presidency, Republican state lawmakers passed a new Georgia law that advocates say could especially suppress the votes of Democratic and Black citizens.
She extends the same heed to athletes in the public eye, saying, “As athletes you usually have a platform whether you want to or not. I don’t think that they need to go on the campaign trail, but I do believe that there’s power in platform.”
When fighting becomes exhausting
At times pushing against social injustice is tiring, especially when McGowan sees such a slow rate of quantifiable change.
“For me, the toughest part is seeing the willful ignorance. I think a lot of the things that folks like me are working toward are things people in power know, but they don’t care enough to do anything,” she says.
“The whole idea of a movement to declare that Black Lives Matter shouldn’t need to exist, but it needs to because we have been shown that actually Black lives do not matter,” she adds.
Nonetheless, McGowan feels invigorated and inspired when she sees fellow Black women athletes take up space and succeed in their chosen fields.
She remembers watching three-time Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes compete at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
“I’m a very easily inspired person so that summer I definitely wanted to become a gymnast,” she says, citing the Williams sisters, Gail Devers and Jackie Joyner-Kersee as some of her all-time favorites.
The future of cycling
She recognizes people like Jools Walker, Rachel Olzer and all the members of The Black Foxes – a collective of Black cyclists and outdoors people – as her role models in cycling.
Some are taking place at McGowan’s inaugural Thee Abundance Summit, a virtual meeting of Black and Brown people in cycling and outdoor communities.
“There’s so many amazing people that are doing amazing things in cycling and the outdoors that I wish had more light, which is another reason that the summit exists,” she says.
On the cusp of her 34th birthday, McGowan’s ambitions are just as great as they were when she first began racing in 2014.
“I don’t think being in this position as a Black woman is enough, I would like to represent well,” she says.
“None of this is worth it if it isn’t in the name of finding joy, happiness and peace in the things we love. I want there to be more representation and equity in cycling because I want people to be comfortable, safe and happy here.
“The thing that we’re working for isn’t just existing in a space, it’s thriving in a space,” she adds.