Photo by SKN Photography
Let’s picture a strong, fit cyclist expertly navigating a tricky descent, blonde ponytail flowing behind her. Let’s picture our favorite professional podiums, three women standing strong and proud. These images are empowering to many of us. Even though some of these accomplishments are far from what we might do in our daily rides, they represent potential, inspiration, freedom and possibility.
In another light, these images can be incredibly limiting. Where are the girls with the braids? With ponytails positively bursting from their helmets?
Ayesha McGowan started out last year as a Cat 4, racing for Ride Brooklyn. In that one season, she upgraded to Cat 3 on the road and took home a State Championship title. Needless to say, she is a beast and a monster and I have a love/hate relationship with racing her.
Photo by Robert Lai
It was Ayesha who brought a major problem to my attention. Many female cyclists will wax poetic for hours about the lack of women in cycling, lack of resources, of equal prize money, equal opportunities to race, and until recently, access to and visibility of top athletes for us to look up to. But how many of us consider the diversity of the women that do get on the bike? It’s common knowledge that bike racing is a damn expensive hobby, which often limits the pool of those who become involved. It’s also notoriously an intimidating sport to become involved in. But if it feels intimidating for those with ample opportunity, imagine the intimidation for those who don’t see anyone like themselves.
I remember when I first started paying attention to some of the female pros, and it was incredible. I went from blogging about #mosstheboss to #vostheboss. It was a game changer. I don’t think I can qualify how important is was for me to be able to identify with and follow the progress of certain women. Unable to find an African American female professional cyclist to look up to, Ayesha decided to become that woman. She is embarking on her second racing season, and has officially declared her goal to be the first African American female professional road cyclist in the US. Obviously, she is also a total badass who isn’t afraid to make difficult goals and make them public.
We caught up with Ayesha on how she went about making such incredible goals.
MFF: You set a goal for yourself of becoming the first African American female US pro and you instagrammed it and you started a blog to track your journey. Any advice on setting realistic, yet ambitious goals?
AM: I'm lucky, this particular goal came with a built in community of cheerleaders. I knew that once I said this goal out loud, my friends and family would support me 100%. With less fan friendly goals, I think it's just as important to put yourself out there. Say you're going to do it, make a plan, and follow through. Goals aren't always about succeeding. Most of the time they are about really putting in a real effort to possibly succeed.
MFF: You searched for an African American woman in the professional peloton to look up to, and when you couldn’t find her, you decided to become her. This is not only brave, but necessary, as you will be that woman for countless other girls in the future. But what about you? Who do you find yourself looking up to?
AM: I've been researching different pro women and learn about how they made their journey into the pro peloton. Since I’m 27 and just now getting started, I've been really inspired by the late incomers like Evelyn Stevens who was around my age when she started. She had already built a respectable career outside of cycling, and decided she wanted to be a pro racer anyway! It's nice to see what other people have done, but I'm also making sure not to get so hung up on their paths that I feel inadequate about my own.
MFF: What do you think are the main boundaries that make it less likely for women of color to participate in road riding and racing?
AM: From my perspective, the lack of women in color in competitive cycling is due to accessibility and numbers. . It's just not something culturally that women of color do. It's partially due to priorities, socially accepted roles for women within their
cultures, lack of programming in schools, a bunch of things. It's just not a thing that a lot of black women do, like golf, or field hockey. A few of us have stumbled into it, and love it, but I don't think most have even considered it as a possibility. There's a whole title IX debate that insists that the gender equality laws for collegiate sports did nothing for racial equality, but cycling is such a quiet sport in this country that most people don't even know their schools have cycling programs. I know I didn't.
MFF: Does fear play a role in your life? In your training? In the way you set goals?
AM: I'm one of the most anxious people I know, but this particular goal has me so fired up that I'm not even a little bit afraid of it. I've come to the conclusion that there is no point in setting an ambitious goal like this if I'm going to be terrified of what might happen along the way. I've accepted that it's likely to be a long road with a lot of miserable moments, but that doesn't mean that I won't reach my goal at the end. I feel like this is all a matter of when I'll succeed, not a matter of if I'll succeed.
MFF: What are your specific goals for 2015?
AM: Upgrade. Guest Ride. Make Friends. Absorb as much information and experience as I can.
MFF: It’s hard when talking about women’s road racing to not get super political (not only lack of diversity, but the struggle for equality in terms of athletes’ rights, treatment, and of course, payouts). Do you find it a struggle to balance between your political goals and issues with the sport and your time spent just having fun on your bike?
AM: I've always been a huge fan of being an advocate by example. It might be naive of me, but I feel like I'm making progress happen simply by giving this a shot. I know I'm not yet in a position to make any policy changes, but by participating I am doing my part to spread awareness to the community of humans who aren't clued in to all the obstacles and injustices in women's cycling.
MFF: What would you say to any women of color who might have tried road riding and racing before and given up, or who are new to the sport altogether?
AM: Ask as many questions as you need to, but know that you'll learn the most by trying it out.
MFF: Any tips on dealing with situations in rides or races which might feel exclusionary, or even catty? Have you experienced this?
AM: Just ride your ride. Haters gonna hate. Sometimes it helps if you take the time to introduce yourself. If you really feel the need to throw shade, a better approach might be to contact the ride leader after the fact and politely share your thoughts. I have definitely experienced this having come from a commuter background, I didn’t always have the right shoes, or the right equipment. My first real group ride was in Central Park. I wasn’t really informed on the ways of the road bike group ride, so I was on a single speed beater bike with a basket on the rear rack and mustache bars. To top it off I was wearing cutoff shorts a tank top and sneakers. Everyone else was on their fancy road bikes wearing cycling kits and clip in shoes.I just did my thing. I didn’t necessarily feel unwelcome, but I did feel excluded in the sense that the combination of clique-ness and me clearly being a newcomer made me into an even more awkward turtle than normal. Luckily some of the ladies were super nice, very curious, and invited me into their conversations.
MFF: For me and all of our readers, is there anything we can do personally to increase diversity in the sport?
AM: If a brown girl wanders into your cycling life. Embrace her, include her, and encourage her. With your words of course. Don't touch her hair or anything!
Favorite mid-ride snack?
Song on every ride playlist?
Anything from Missy Eliot (Even before her recent gracing of the super bowl).
Favorite pro woman to follow on IG?
Amy Cutler! So many useful tips!
A Quick Brown Fox?
I picked it because it wasn't exclusive to just African Americans. While I identify as a black woman, I also identify as a brown woman, and I would love to see more women of every color take part. As far as those lazy dogs are concerned? I'll say it
again, haters gonna hate.
Ayesha McGowan rides for Ride Brooklyn, is a pre-school music teacher by day, and volunteers with InTandem, a NYC organization dedicated to helping visually impaired cyclists to ride. She is truly a bike advocate, and dedicates much of her
time to getting as many people on a bike as she possibly can. Ayesha’s blog, A Quick Brown Fox, chronicles her journey to becoming the first African American female pro on the road and is also a great resource for new racers. Ayesha breaks down all of the intimidating jargon associated with racing, and explains step by step how to enter your first race and what to do once you get there. She is happy to be a resource, so if you have questions, ask!