Interview & Illustration by Faith Briggs
It seemed fitting to call Ayesha McGowan on a Wednesday during Women’s History Month. Here at The Athletic Community, March is a month focused on celebrating strong, courageous and thoroughly dope women. I’d just posted one of our #wcw profiles of the amazing women in The Athletic Community that we’ve been spotlighting on Instagram, so my woman power vibes were already through the roof. Since Ayesha is one of my personal #WCW’s I was stoked for this interview.
As a biracial African America woman who had my first experience on a road bike last year, thanks to our friend Kelli from LA Sweat, I was immediately captivated when I saw an image of Ayesha. When I learned of her mission, to be the first African American pro-cyclist, I knew we had to connect. And as a Brooklynite who has witnessed the debaucherous excitement that is the Red Hook Crit, I skipped all the basic questions and skipped to what had been shocking to me.
Faith: So, the Red Hook Crit was your first race?! Why!? How?
Ayesha: Haha, it seemed really cool, they had opened up a women’s field and I wanted to support it and I was getting into the idea of racing so that was a good target to aim for while training during the winter. And my friends were doing it so that was that.
Ayesha’s answer was relaxed and level-headed, setting the tone for the consistent vibe throughout our interview. Of course, it takes a lot of focus to be on this journey.
Faith: Where did it change, you went from commuting back and forth around Boston to racing and now you’re on the road to be the first African American Woman to become a professional cyclist. How did that transition happen?
Ayesha: It wasn’t really a linear thing, more so I had gotten really into racing that first season, Red Hook was really bad, and I was seeking to get better and learn more. I learned quickly and had a lot of early success and that was part of it. As I got into it, I wanted to see if there were women that looked like me and I was pretty shocked to see that something I cared about so deeply was this new frontier. I couldn’t find any and so impulsively I decided to go for it [going pro] and see what happens.
Faith: So where are you on the journey towards your goal?
Ayesha: I’m currently a Cat II and I’m allowed to race with the pros, but I don’t have a contract and so I’m not a pro yet, I’m an “elite women’s cyclist.” And that’s pretty cool.
Faith: So cool!! You talk a lot about representation. What does that mean to you?
Ayesha: For me, I feel like just being present is important for people of color, there are a lot of places where you don’t see Black people and POC included or present at all. Beyond that positive representation is important too. It’s important that it’s not just token. Like when people do want to include folks but they keep showing outdated ideas and their implicit biases are present. People think they know something to be true about people because they saw it in a movie.
Faith: It’s a lot. Does it get tiring being the only one? Even with a greater goal?
Ayesha: I feel like that’s sort of my existence. It’s not even a matter of being tired or not being tired it's just how things are and how they’ve always been. I feel comforted that I’m trying to do something about it and taking action. I feel comforted that I’m maybe trying to improve something for someone in the future. It’s something I always notice and its something I think can be remedied. It’s not really a fatigue type thing, its more like ‘Well, more of the same. Maybe we can do something about that.’
Faith: And what about pushback, people saying something like, why do you have to make it about race, why can’t it just be about cycling?
Ayesha: There are always going to be people that don’t understand the point but I’m not doing it for them. And if people are annoyed with whatever they want to label it, that usually comes in the form of people criticizing an article about me or something being posted about me. It is what it is, there’s always going to be those people. My point is not to convince non-people of color that people of color should be in the sport. It’s to make people of color aware that they can do this and that they are welcome if they want to be a part of this. I’m not seeking acceptance, that is not the thing I’m doing.
Faith: You have a virtual ride series called Do Better Together, tell me about that.
Ayesha: Yes, Do Better Together has been going really well. People are excited about setting their own goals and accomplishing things both big and small. I think people are constantly telling you what’s important and what success looks like. This is about determining what success is for you, striving towards that, having a community that is working with you towards that. Not feeling like yours is too trivial. I think when we can determine what success looks like to us, our goals are way more achievable.
Faith: This year, looking forward, what are you excited about?
Ayesha: Well, I’ve been convinced to do Dirty Kanza, which has nothing to do with road racing. I’ve never done a full on gravel race, never done 200 miles in one day, combining them will be quite a challenge, but I’m looking forward to it. I’m also taking a stab at Nationals and preparing for that and seeing how I can match up against that kind of competition. Even the process is part of it, just getting over my anxiety and showing up.
Faith: What have you learned? Anything new, unexpected?
Ayesha: I think my most recent discovery is that I am more equipped than I thought I was. In cycling, it's really easy to feel like you don’t know anything or have anything and folks are always telling you what you need and what you need to do. I’m learning to listen to myself, trust my own judgment, take risks, it’s an interesting journey.
Faith: Anything else? Something you aren’t asked much and wish you were?
Ayesha: The thing that’s important to me that I don’t talk about often I think is the fact that the goal is really cool but the journey to get there is too. I think you always hear about people after they’ve reached success, but you don’t really see the humanizing disappointments that lead up to it. I’m really inspired by seeing people overcome, even if its little things, like little self-inflicted things in sport etc. Seeing people go beyond themselves and keep going despite not immediately achieving success. That’s how I learn best from others and I think that’s really important to see.