Cycling courier and music teacher Ayesha McGowan took up racing in 2014, and promptly won a state championship in her third ever race. Fuelled by her passion for the sport, McGowan has embarked upon a mission to become the first female African-American pro racer.
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We have become used to hearing about top level American bike racers in recent years: Olympic Time Trial Champion Kristin Armstrong, the female World Hour record holder Evelyn Stevens, and the winner of the recent Ride London Classique, Coryn Rivera.
Now meet Ayesha McGowan. She is bidding to become the first African-American professional female road racer.
Having won state titles in New York on the road and on the track, McGowan now wants to bid for national titles and broaden her remit.
In the words of the former music teacher: “I want to inspire little girls to be unapologetically themselves just like my hero, Serena Williams.”
BikeRadar Women caught up with McGowan when she spent more than a month on this side of the pond, visiting London, Paris, and racing a series of Kermesse races in the Netherlands and Belgium.
BikeRadar Women: How did you get into cycle racing?
McGowan: "I had been doing cycle couriering and I thought I would have a go at racing and signed up for the Red Hook crits in Brooklyn in 2014 — not the easiest first race! I really enjoyed it, so much that I did the one in Milan that same year, and then I decided to get into more crit racing.
"It didn’t feel like it was a 'I’m becoming and athlete' moment. It was just a natural transition from someone who rode a bike all the time to someone riding competitively. Even now I think of myself as just a cyclist rather than athlete, as I do many things in cycling, and racing bikes is one of them. It doesn’t define me.
"While racing I was invited by another woman who races to join the Jakroo Chrome Industries Racing Team. So I now race as part of that team."
Why did you choose to do cycle racing?
"We’ve got big name road racers like Amber Neben, Megan Guarnier, Coryn Rivera on road and there’s cyclo crosser Ellen Noble, who also now has a road contract, and of course The Katie Compton. I looked to see which black girls there are who race professionally on the road and I couldn’t find any so I thought I would just do it myself and become the first one!"
How do you juggle cycle racing and your day job?
"As a music teacher, I would have to plan my races carefully so that I could do that and also still work for a non-profit organisation that hires bikes for people with disabilities.
"When the school closes for the summer holidays that is when I go travelling and racing. In the last two years since I could race at elite level I have tended to just be on the road for two and a half to three months going to races, rather than travelling from home and back to each race."
What has been the reaction of your family, particularly as they are not into cycling?
"My mum and the rest of my family are really supportive, though my husband gets lonely and that’s hard. He rides but he doesn’t race. We live in a quiet area so when someone is not there he really notices it!
"I come from a family where no one has done any sport beyond high school, so what I do is quite a novelty!
"In many non-white cultures women wouldn’t ride a bicycle. In some cultures it is even frowned upon for a woman to ride a bike. People say 'Women don’t ride bikes' and that stays with you and then you feel that you can’t do it. You feel like there’s something wrong with doing it, and you end up passing that down to your kids and your friends. And when people see a woman riding a bike they think you are doing it because it’s not a choice, i.e. you can’t afford a car.
"But for me, it is totally a choice. People were saying to me 'Why are you doing this? You can take a train or drive a car to get to places', and I would reply, 'Well, I don’t want to!' Although nowadays I do have a car as it is useful for getting to bike races.
"People are gonna think what they wanna think when they see me riding a bike, but if you keep on doing it eventually it becomes normal in their eyes too. Then you become known as 'The one that rides a bike all the time' and they expect you to show up on a bike. So you go somewhere without the bike they say, 'Whoa, what’s happened?!'"
What has been your most memorable race?
"The Red Hook Crit in Brooklyn was my first race, so that makes it one of the most memorable. My most memorable race was a couple of weeks ago when I got lost in a road race in the middle of Minnesota. I wasn’t feeling great that day and I got dropped off the back. Well there was a police officer and he flagged me through a junction to go straight when in fact the peloton had made a turn.
"After a while I didn’t see them anymore, and I began to wonder what happened. Eventually I asked someone and I realised I’d gone wrong. I was completely lost and didn’t have a phone. A farmer cutting his grass let me use his phone so I could look on the internet and find my way back. It wasn’t my best race, but it was definitely memorable!
"Other memorable races were when I won a Cat 4 Criterium Championships in New York in 2014. I hadn’t been racing long that year, but I had very specific goals for it and it worked out for me that year. Then the following year when I wanted to do the whole pro thing I set out to win a State Championship race. I was very, very focused on that day. I had a plan, I stuck to it, and it worked out again. I also won the Cat 3 Road Championships in New York."
Cycle racing can be quite a ruthless sport where you train hard and get nothing out of a race or you have to deal with different disappointments through the season. How do you cope with the setbacks?
"I do so many races that I learn to put the disappointment from a race behind me, learn from it and then move on to the next one. But sometimes things can still be challenging.
"I was quite sick during the Fall last year and at the start of the season, so training was really challenging. Just when I finally felt like I was feeling better, I crashed in February and banged my head. I didn’t have concussion but I had to take a break, as I had taken a pretty big hit.
"At the start of this season I was ready to have a great season but I kept having setbacks. I had a plan, but I wasn’t able to do that. It’s tough when you have ideas about where you are going, but life says, 'Not this time, you’re actually gonna do this instead!'
"I have learned to keep going. My non-cycling life has always been such a whirlwind of ridiculousness that I am pretty patient about things, and I am pretty good at maintaining a positive spirit and trudging on even if things get insane!
"I had a particularly tough time in Senior High School when my dad died and I kind of shut down as a human. Then my early twenties were really challenging. I struggled a lot with depression and anxiety and I also have ADHD. Being faced with so many things at the same time and not really knowing how to cope was hard for me, but I eventually reached a breaking point and found a therapist to talk to.
"I had medication but it made me feel like a zombie. I am not against medicine. I think it works for some people, but I didn’t want it for myself. It was talking to the therapist who helped me to cope with all of that stress.
"So in light of that, and with the support of family and friends, I have learned to get out of the challenges [by] being an athlete. It’s a case of taking a deep breath, assessing the situation and dealing with it."
Do you get any strange reactions from other racers when they see you turn up at races?
"There’s only a handful of other black women racers that I know of, and they race in the lower categories, but seeing black female racers is alarmingly rare.
"I’ve had someone call me a unicorn to my face. He was just so surprised to see me that he called me a unicorn. It was like, well unicorns aren’t real — or if they are they are very rare. I just nodded and smiled and was very polite, but I wasn’t too pleased! I’m sure his intentions were good, but the impact on me wasn’t great.
"This doesn’t put me off racing, and I kind of understand why people would say things like that, but it doesn’t make it right. That’s why I need to keep on doing what I’m doing so it’s not such an occasion when folks see people like me at a bike race."
We have had the Williams sisters in tennis, Simone Biles in gymnastics and Simone Manuel in swimming. How important is it that there are black women getting involved in sports that have not been traditionally practised by black people at a high level?
"It’s very important, and it is something that can inspire other young athletes of colour. I have been inspired by people like Dominique Dawes [a former gymnast] who was at the Atlanta Olympics, someone who looked like me doing something so well. Then there was the whole Joyner-Kersee clan [family of track and field athletes].
"Of course, the Williams sisters have inspired a lot of African-American women to take up tennis, and I have found Serena really inspiring. There is more and more representation of African-American women taking up elite level sports outside of track and field, but it is just at a smaller level, and it is far from being equal to white people. It is moving in the right direction though."
What support have you had so far?
"Also, when I was in Europe I had a lot of support from Wendy and Robin Groot who organised the race camp that I was on, and they arranged my entry to nine kermesse races in the Netherlands and one in Belgium over two and a half weeks. I am very thankful to have had this opportunity."
How do you feel about racing in Europe? How does the racing scene compare with the US?
"I had been apprehensive, particularly as I had heard that racing can be quite aggressive compared with back home. I knew it would be a very intense experience, and probably a bit shocking. But I was looking forward to a challenge and hoping that it would push me to become a better bike racer. It is important to give myself a hard time so that I could learn to cope in hard races.
"Racing in Europe was incredible. I was able to line up next to world class talent, follow their wheels and learn from there. The race courses were unlike anything I had ever experienced in the States. The terrain was more diverse, with the inclusion of bricks and cobbles, and the roads are generally narrower than in the States. It was quite an experience taking stock of all the road furniture, whereas in the States those things are often removed during race prep by the organisers.
"I loved the racing. It made it more challenging, more fun, and made me feel like even more of a badass every time I crossed the finish line. It was also a really nice boost of confidence to get some solid top 10 and top 20 places in UCI races abroad. I am definitely stoked on my experience there."
Where are your favourite places to cycle?
"Where I live now [El Sobrante, near Berkeley, California], North California is great for riding. There are a lot of beautiful quiet roads, with lots of climbing and lots of diversity of terrain.
"I really like the Three Bears loop, which is a popular circuit. It’s a succession of hills that are right by my house. There is also the Skyline loop which is beautiful, in the Berkeley Hills and super close. There’s also the Redwood loop at Moraga, near the Castro Valley in little California and that extends a long way down to other routes.
"I will be moving soon and will really miss this area, as Northern California has some of the best riding in the world.
"Other places to go riding are Colorado, which has the Olympic training centre so there are some great roads to ride there. I also enjoy the South-East — Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina.
"My favourite place to ride has to be New York City. I think it’s a great passionate community, even there can be a lot of animosity politically. It isn’t just angry biking all the time! You can do some nice bike rides around the city, and there is a bikeshare scheme, the Citi Bike, if you don’t have a bicycle."
And your goal for the rest of the season?
"Become a better racer and in the future get a pro contract!"