Photos by Jesse Lash
When I spoke to Ayesha McGowan, she was in the car making the 2-hour commute to her part time job as a preschool music teacher. “I like to take calls while I’m driving,” she’d told me when I called her to set up the interview. “It helps keep me awake.”
This spunky lady is an expert at multi-tasking and planning, making use of every minute in her day. She’s a tireless planner. “I even plan my downtime,” she laughs. But apparently something she is doing is working, because Ayesha is on track to become the first ever professional female African-American road cyclist after racing for only 3 years, while also acting as an advocate for minority groups in cycling and putting effort towards a number of different projects and volunteer work.
Ayesha moved to California last year for better outdoor year-round training opportunities, but she’s originally from the East Coast. She grew up in New Jersey, moved to Boston to study music at Berklee, and starting riding bikes because the public transportation system in the city wasn’t great. “I’m the type of person who wants to find the most efficient way to do everything,” Ayesha says. So she grabbed an old bike from her parents house that still had a baby carrier attached, got it fixed up, and started commuting to class on it.
Soon after, she got involved in her local bike shop, learned about bike mechanics and advocacy, and became a bike messenger for a short period of time. After school, she moved to New York City, where she found it hard to make friends, until she got involved with a number of different cycling groups, including We Bike NYC, an organization dedicated to empowerment of women through bicycles, and InTandem, a program that helps get people with disabilities on bikes.
The community of people she found through these groups encouraged her to stick with riding, and helped with her fear of trying new things, such as racing. “The hardest part of trying something new is being vulnerable,” she says. “I like having someone to try it with.”
Ayesha took a track racing clinic while living in New York, and thus began her journey as a competitive cyclist. She started out with alleycats, but soon realized she wasn’t as aggressive in traffic and city riding as those races demanded. She then enrolled in criterium races, took a few more classes and learned the ropes, and had a great first season in 2014.
As she continued to upgrade in rank and class, she realized something. There weren’t any other African-American women in professional cycling. “Representation is important,” says Ayesha. “If I’d seen another black person in cycling when I was a kid, maybe I would have been inspired to get into it sooner.”
That’s when she made it her goal to be the first. And not because she just wants to be first, but because she wants to inspire other people to overcome obstacles and odds stacked against them. Her mission is so much bigger than cycling. It’s about inclusivity, chasing dreams, and realizing potential. It’s about getting black people, or any other underrepresented group, to realize that they too can reach their goals.
This year, Ayesha is racing at Cat 2 level. She has the opportunity to compete in pro races, and she’s at a level where she could be recruited at any minute. This is her time. “I’ve made a big noise about what I’m trying to do,” she says. “It’s up to them to decide whether or not I’m worth it.”
Currently, she rides 16-20 hours per week, goes to the gym at least twice a week, and practices yoga. In addition to riding and training, she also juggles her part-time job as a teacher, producing a podcast called Fix It Black Jesus, work for non-profits like InTandem, writing for her blog, and getting other people feeling empowered and stoked on cycling through projects such as her virtual ride series, called “Do Better Together.”
I asked Ayesha what some of her favorite and most rewarding moments have been in her journey as a cyclist. “I love planting the seed in people,” she says. Like last spring, when she convinced her 80-year-old grandmother to ride a tandem with her around Atlanta. Or, when she gets messages from other black cyclists and people of color going after their dreams.
“Don’t just talk about it,” Ayesha urges. “Write it down, make a plan, and do it. You’re totally capable.”