On December 31, 2014, less than a year after discovering road cycling, Ayesha McGowan declared her goal to become the first female African-American pro cyclist. That night, the Atlanta-based music teacher, now 30, launched A Quick Brown Fox, a blog where she’s documenting her ongoing pursuit.
Watch a single pro-cycling race and you’ll quickly realize that the peloton is pretty homogeneous. Although USA Cycling and Union Cycliste Internationale don’t track demographics, there are no African-Americans on the roster of any women’s UCI WorldTour team (the sports’ highest level). No one I spoke to for this story even knows of a black female athlete competing in the pro continental realm. McGowan wants to change that, and she’s getting closer to doing so.
Going pro can mean a lot of things in the cycling world—especially for women, who are paid significantly less than men as professionals, if at all. For McGowan, going pro means making a living racing her bike, first and foremost. This generally goes hand-in-hand with her other goal of getting signed by a reputed team, whether that means continental, pro continental, or pro tour/WorldTour, though not all cyclists signed to teams are paid enough to live on. McGowan is currently a Category 2 racer, which means she can race against some of the best women in the world, but it’s still hard to say when she’ll achieve her goal. Still, McGowan is clearly a talented athlete, she’s charismatic as hell, and she’s already inspiring a legion of new and already established riders.
Raised in New Jersey, McGowan first got into cycling while coping with a tough bout of depression in her early twenties, when she was a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Her father had recently passed away, and McGowan lacked an anchor. “I was functional. I still played sports and did all the things I had to do, but I had a hard time with everything else—social things, taking care of myself,” she says. “Biking helped me figure out how to be a person.” McGowan would ride home after therapy on her mom’s old 1980s Schwinn, focusing on the wind on her cheeks, the blue sky, the sounds of the city. She upgraded bikes, got into alleycats and track racing, and then, finally, road cycling. “The first time I rode my Eddy Merckx bike, I was hooked,” she says. “It was so fast. I love going fast.” Even when McGowan started racing, it was all in the spirit of having fun and multiplying the joy. “I didn’t really have a set plan,” she says. “I was figuring it all out.”
After taking home a state championship during one of her first-ever road races, she started to think it could be something more than a hobby. McGowan spent months looking for a mentor—someone who looked like her or shared her story to guide the way—but with no success, she opted to do it herself. Right out of the gate, McGowan snagged a couple more first-place spots and signed up for every race she could, quickly climbing the ranks to her current standing of Category 2. (Levels range from Cat 4 for female amateurs to Cat 1. Cyclists move up based on points earned by competing in races within a 12-month period.)
Still, the pro journey continues to be a mystery. Amber Pierce, an elite racer signed with Team Colavita, runs a mentorship program called Network for Advancing Athletes. McGowan was the first athlete to request a mentor, and the women later got to know each other in real life when they worked as ambassadors for Cannondale. Pierce says the ambiguity in road cycling makes it particularly hard to break into. “There’s no clear and welcoming entry,” she says. “In other sports like swimming, for example, you have age group ranks, you have specific time standards, there’s a linear progression you follow to achieve a certain level. That just doesn’t exist in cycling.”
Cyclists can put in the hours and show up at all the right races, but there are no hard-and-fast rules for what exactly it takes to get signed to a pro continental or WorldTour team. Some (few) racers seem to be plucked from obscurity, while others have the right connections. Ultimately, team directors scout their players based on a winning recipe of race results, strengths, previous experience, and rate of development, among other factors. McGowan’s strategy is to race as much as possible in as many places as possible and always challenge herself. In the past four years, she competed on a couple amateur teams, got pretty close to signing a pro continental contract, rode overseas, and tackled some of the bigger races (North Star Grand Prix and Redlands Bicycle Classic) solo—a feat few dare. “The woman has grit in spades,” Pierce says. “Cycling is about who can endure the most, and Ayesha knows how to suffer.”
At this point, McGowan’s life is structured around bikes. “Because I am older getting into it and there is a time clock on this career, I have to be more efficient about how I approach everything,” she says. McGowan plans her schedule down to her free time and trains her body to be more like a machine. On her new YouTube channel, McGowan shares parts of her training regimen, bike know-how, and other nuances she’s figuring out along the way. Her hope is to create some transparency and start to pave the way for a more diverse range of future riders.
When she started racing in 2014, McGowan expected there wouldn’t be many other black women cycling. She didn’t expect to find an entire sport devoid of someone who looked like her competing at the pro level.
“I want to show that beyond taking a knee and fighting for equal rights, we live normal lives and do normal things just like you.”
A handful of African-American men have stood out in cycling. In the 1800s, Marshall “Major” Taylor broke records and became the first African-American world champion of any sport. Nelson Vails won silver at the Olympics in the 1980s. Currently, guys like Erik Saunders and siblings Justin and Cory Williams make a living racing bikes. But as Cycling in the South Bay blogger Seth Davidson wrote in a post criticizing the sport’s homogeneity, “the Rule of Black still applies: You better be twice as good as your white counterpart if you want their respect.”
McGowan wanted to become the role model for black girls that was missing in cycling. The issue, she finds, isn’t so much exclusion; it’s the lack of diversity. Cycling isn’t trying to keep people of color out, but they are still not present. There are many possible reasons for this, from cost to infrastructure. One of the biggest barriers is perception—you can’t be it if you don’t see it. That’s the part McGowan aims to address.
She makes it a point not to harp on the negative—the microaggressions, the internet trolls, the apathetic cyclists who claim there is no race issue. If a little girl sees McGowan in an Oakley ad, if a fellow cyclist invites a black friend for a ride, or if an Instagram post encourages one more black women to get on a bike, she considers it a win. Cycling may not be for everyone, but McGowan aims to create an open-door policy and spread the word so people can decide for themselves. “When you see someone you can relate to, then you can imagine yourself in that position,” says Chicago-based cyclocross racer Samantha Scipio, one of the women McGowan mentored into the competitive sphere. “Whether cycling changes lives or not, there’s no denying that being able to imagine yourself in a different position than where you are right now is incredibly powerful.”
McGowan doesn’t task official cycling organizations with diversifying the sport, saying a grassroots effort will be more effective. The blog, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube are all there as a resource for beginners who may not have anything else. “The information is all out there, but it’s not easy to find,” McGowan says. On the blog, she educates and encourages new riders and provides a rare insight into the mind and habits of an endurance athlete—complete with emotional hang-ups, mishaps, and doubts. “She’s become a benchmark I can reference when talking to other women,” Scipio says. “I can point to [McGowan] and say, ‘Hey, you can do this, too.’” McGowan’s social media outlets, where she constantly interacts with thousands of followers, have earned her partnerships with brands like Cannondale, SRAM, and ASSOS.
Pierce says the public scale of McGowan’s effort should also be a draw for teams. “There are two sides to being a professional cyclist: Yes, you need to have the physical capacity, but the second part is you have to manage yourself as a business,” she says. “What Ayesha has done is tap into nonendemic media and get her story and our sport out there in front of people who may not even know there is such a thing as a professional road cyclist, let alone a woman pro cyclist, let alone an African-American woman cyclist. It’s incredibly invaluable.”
On the surface, the mission is still to get more black women on bikes, but going pro has taken on a deeper meaning. “We’re at an interesting time in America where racial issues are coming back to a head,” McGowan says. The white and affluent nature of cycling reflects a sector of the population in which diversity and conversations around the subject are low.
Anytime her skin color is the exception, McGowan knows she is representing an entire race. By showing up and being herself—an upper-middle-class, educated black woman from the Northeast with solid leg speed and a knack for sprinting—McGowan is expanding the idea of what it means to be black in America within a group of people she notes may have limited exposure to people of color. “There are folks who are genuinely afraid of people who look like me because of what they have been programmed to believe,” she says. “When a police officer shoots a black person, we have to prove we are worthy of living. I hope maybe if more people have real interactions with a black person, they can see that we are not that different.”
McGowan is vocal about wanting to use cycling to change the narrative about what it means to be African-American. The feedback is mostly positive, but the most common objection is that color is not an issue; only speed matters in racing. She wholeheartedly agrees that this should be the case. “Recently, Justin Williams talked for the first time about how things may be different if he were white. He’s incredibly talented; it’s crazy that he hasn’t gotten picked up for a bigger team,” McGowan says. Major Taylor, before passing away with no money and little recognition, discussed getting left behind and how the constant oppression wore him down. “Same is possible for me,” McGowan says. “Sometimes I wonder if I will I get left behind.”
It may be decades before the industry looks how she envisions, so McGowan focuses on the task she can (somewhat) control: becoming a professional.
There are those who say she’s leveraging skin color to get special treatment. “People will say, ‘Whats big deal?’ And, ‘I don’t see color.’ And that’s why I do it,” McGowan says. “It’s a privilege to not see color. People have to be aware, because discrimination and microaggressions are a thing. I’m not making it up.”
The nature of what she’s doing means some teams will be dissuaded by the attention, cyclists may avoid her, some people will be annoyed. “I try not to think about it,” McGowan says. “It will distract me from the actual goal. I want to believe that we all just want to create a better cycling community for everyone.” The overarching goal—the one where a black girl at the starting line isn’t the exception—will take years. It may be decades before the industry looks how she envisions, so McGowan focuses on the task she can (somewhat) control: becoming a professional. As for dealing with the haters, she takes it in stride: “By now, as a 30-year-old black woman, I have coping strategies to deal with that. My mom reminds me ‘they talked bad about Jesus.’”