The Level Up
Ayesha McGowan Is Creating Space For More WOC In Pro Cycling
“If people looked at everybody as just humans that can race bikes, we’d go so much further in equalizing opportunities for everyone.”
In “The Level Up,” changemakers in the fitness and wellness industries tell us how they’re making an impact in their communities, from pushing for inclusivity to promoting body acceptance and so much more. Here, cyclist Ayesha McGowan discusses how her sport can make space for more women and people of color.
Ayesha McGowan never intended to become a professional cyclist, but all that changed one cold day while she was a student at the Berklee College of Music. “I started school in January [during] a miserable Boston winter, and I hated waiting for the train in the cold,” says McGowan, now 35. “I asked my mom for her bike that I knew was just sitting in our basement, and the rest is literally history — I started riding that bike and did not want to stop.”
After honing her cycling skills during seven years of commuting by bike, McGowan began her racing career in 2014. Since then, she’s become the first Black American woman professional cyclist, competing in prestigious races around the world like the Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l'Ardèche and the Valley of the Sun Stage Race. She also won the Most Inspiration Rider title at the 2019 Colorado Classic and is a member of the UCI Women’s World Team Liv Racing–Xstra.
Beyond her biking chops, McGowan is also paving the way for other women in the sport — particularly women of color — as an advocate for diversity and inclusivity in the historically white- and male-dominated cycling world. She’s also teamed up with the fitness tracking platform Strava to promote women’s equity in pro sports through the brand’s Strive for More pledge, which calls on the fitness industry, sports fans, and organizations to support female athletes.
“I love bike racing, but the more fulfilling thing is being able to create opportunities for the people coming behind me and make sure that the space gets better for everybody, especially for Black women, so they don’t have to go through the things that I have gone through to get to where I am,” she says.
Here, McGowan tells Bustle about how she’s making space for women in cycling and how the rest of the industry can make the sport more accessible to all.
When you first started racing, what did representation look like in cycling?
[When] I started road racing in 2014 in New York, the representation for women of color was quite small. There were two other Black women that I would race with, and in New York City, that didn’t really make sense to me because it’s such a diverse place. It was very evident early on that road racing was not diverse.
Even the access to equipment is different. During my career, it has changed drastically, but when I started, companies were still very much in the “pink-it-and-shrink-it” age, meaning they would take men’s equipment and make it smaller. That was as much attention as they would spend on making things for women.
What obstacles have you encountered as a Black woman in cycling?
Being taken seriously and accumulating the resources that I need and want have been huge challenges, because a lot of people have counted me out before I’ve been given an opportunity. There are a lot of stereotypes that I have to break through to even get to the starting point of something. Oftentimes I’ll show up for group rides, and people will think I’m lost or point me to the easier ride. I don’t see that happening with everybody, and it’s pretty frustrating.
“If they see someone they can identify with going through — and oftentimes overcoming — those struggles, they can see that in themselves, and it might inspire them to keep going.”
These are microaggressions that are not as evident to people who have not experienced them. Having to express that in ways that don’t make me seem like an angry Black woman — even though I can be very angry at times and also happen to be a Black woman — is difficult.
Also, as a woman, there’s such a big gap in equity and parity. There’s so much that needs to be fixed, like equal racing distances and equal opportunities for racing. You’ll go to a race, and there’ll be six or seven fields for men. If you’re lucky, there’ll be one or two for women in the amateur rank.
What’s your advice for other women and women of color in the sport?
In the beginning, bike racing can be really challenging. There are mental, physical, financial, and other kinds of barriers that can get in the way. But if it’s something you want to do, be creative and figure out how to do it. Say yes to opportunities, even if they’re scary.
What can the rest of the cycling community do to make the sport more inclusive?
Sign the Strive for More pledge from Strava. They’re working with existing organizations like The Cyclists’ Alliance to make sure more women get to the starting line of cycling or whatever sport they’re a part of. Supporting initiatives like that and being an active part of your community can go a long way.
Right now, there are traditional ways of looking at things — men can race harder, longer, and are better qualified, and white women can do more and thus have better opportunities in bike racing. This keeps the sport exclusive. If people looked at everybody as just humans that can race bikes, we’d go so much further in equalizing opportunities for everyone.
Why is representation so important in sports?
It’s super important to make sure people understand who I am, what I am, and how I identify, because there are other folks out there like me who probably have a lot of the same struggles and barriers. If they see someone they can identify with going through — and oftentimes overcoming — those struggles, they can see that in themselves, and it might inspire them to keep going. That’s why I want to create a truly diverse space for everybody to thrive and understand that we are all more alike than we think.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.