By Hannah Duffey
Seven years ago, Ayesha McGowan turned what was her means of transportation into a career path which she instantly fell in love with, leading her to seek becoming the first female African American professional cyclist.
From the moment McGowan put two wheels on the tread, she has not looked back and is a ground breaker and an inspiration to many, especially people of color in the cycling community.
“When I got into actual racing I happened to be pretty good at it early, so it was something that I decided to forge ahead with,” McGowan said.
Cycling is not like many other sports. Many times it’s just you, your bike, the noise of cars passing, your Garmin beeping every few minutes to warn you that the next interval is coming, the constant clicking of gears changing and a silence that lets you hear the sound of yourself gulping water.
“I think that’s the hardest part about being a professional athlete. You get knocked down a lot for various reasons and with me I feel like every year I am starting over from something,” McGowan said.
She found some new best friends, time, dedication, patience and the mental toughness to achieve the skill needed to be able to perform at a high level.
“The deeper you go into the professional rabbit hole, it kinda’ chips away at everything else that you have going because it takes so much time and dedication,” she said.
For many, with that comes much defeat, confusion and wondering if it’s even worth continuing. It’s not for the weak and, as it is a male-dominated sport, it can be especially tough for women who want to make their mark.
McGowan did not let any of those obstacles take root in her path. She set her eye on the prize and chased domination.
“I handle failure well and I just really like pushing myself. Some people are really good and they just stay good, but I feel like for me there have been a lot of roadblocks, COVID and then health-related. Just a lot of stuff,” McGowan said.
After years of hard work, determination and defeat, 2021 was the year that McGowan unleashed the beast and her breakthrough was in full force.
Being such a dominant force in the field, she was picked up by Liv Racing Xstra Women’s WorldTeam, a women’s professional cycling team based in the Netherlands.
Although this was an exciting time in her life and something she had trained so hard for, the pressure to perform on such a well-known stage was stressful for McGowan, like many other athletes performing at her level.
At Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l’Ardèche, a European 7-day stage race that has some of the toughest courses and steepest climbs, McGowan placed 7th during stage 6.
“I think placing well at a stage in Ardeche and finishing Ardeche in France was a big deal, because European racing is so much tougher than American racing and so to do that well in my first go of it was awesome,” she said. “I could not ask for more.”
This race was a monumental part of McGowan’s career, but she hopes to keep making strides and showing herself and others what she is capable of.
“I think part of it is that I really enjoy it and part of it is that I always feel like I am so close to what I know I can do. I’ve seen glimpses of it and I had a big health thing this year. Now I am on the other side of it and things are going much better training wise.”
McGowan is not done making strides and is ready to see what else cycling has in store for her.
“I am really looking forward to having a full season of bike racing, and really go for it and see what I am actually capable of because I feel like I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg yet.”
After a big win like that, it is often hard to keep your eye on the next big prize and have that push to continue.
It can be made even tougher by the fact that cycling is a male-dominated sport and lacks diversity on a much larger scale.
“One of my big things is media representation,” she said. “You see a lot more of that and how brands are utilizing different kinds of riders to market their products and such. Every aspect of the industry felt almost untouched, so it’s really great to see that there has been some movement forward. I think there is a long way to go of course, but I think there has definitely been change since I’ve been here.”
Cycling is not the only thing that McGowan is passionate about. Equality for people of color in the world of cycling is something that she wants to help improve.
“I think people are far more aware about the lack of diversity and trying to figure out ways to eliminate it. Obviously, now you have a few more familiar faces in Peloton on the professional level, which is awesome and there is a lot of initiative popping up.”
She started the program, A Quick Fox Brown, as a way to advocate for people of color and get them involved in the sport of cycling and the outdoors.
“Aside from the lack of diversity, that is an easy way to standout, but I think I don’t necessarily see myself as an athlete first. I feel like I am an advocate first and then I’m an athlete, or maybe both equal parts at this stage,” McGowan said.
Her message to all young boys and girls wanting to get involved in the sport is to do it for yourself, regardless of all the background noise.
“If it’s something that you want, really figure out how to go for it, especially young girls of color, it’s a little harder to convince our parents sometimes of non-traditional sports and pathways. So, I think figuring out a way displaying that interest enough to a point where your parent will invest in that. If you can show the spark and enthusiasm for it, then you’ve got more of a chance to make it happen.”