By Sana Noor Haq, CNN
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.
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