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.”
Words and photos by Beth Puliti
Fun is a relative concept. What someone finds enjoyable—say spending two weeks on a cruise ship—can cause someone else to run, bike over shoulder, for the hills. Likewise, a long-term bike tour will have loads of people researching ports of call faster than you can say Royal Caribbean.
Two summers ago I was laboring my overloaded touring bike up a steep ascent in Croatia on a brutally hot day when a guy called out to me from his car, “This is fun?” Nope, I thought. “Why do you do this?” he insisted. I opened my mouth to answer, but couldn’t find the words to articulate a response— especially to a person who so clearly couldn’t comprehend why someone would choose to “suffer” if they didn’t have to. I continued up the climb in silence.
More recently, I shared a photo of Myanmar, one of the most culturally rich countries we visited in nearly two years on the road, with my mom. The image was of a Burmese man wearing a traditional ankle-length longyi gazing at a pink sky as the sun rose above the city of Bagan. “It looks beautiful,” my mom wrote to me. “Are you having fun?” At the time, I was suffering from a fever, full-body muscle cramping, joint pain, a massive tropical bug bite, severe stomach discomfort and, um… what you might call the opposite of constipation. By the time the fiery sun had bathed thousands of ancient brick temples in a warm orange glow that morning, I had ingested four different kinds of medicine.
It wouldn’t be fair to suggest that traveling through undeveloped foreign lands is all rainbows and unicorns, or in this case pastel sunrises and bacteria-free food. But I also knew I couldn’t tell her exactly how I felt in that moment because, like the baffled driver who called out to me, she wouldn’t understand why I was choosing to put myself through a bit of pain. I knew before entering Myanmar that there was a strong possibility of getting ill and I went anyway. I also knew that I’d hate every minute of that steep road in Croatia and pedaled up it anyway.
Why did I do it?
For the same reason many of us partake in things that are unthinkable to a sizable portion of our friends, family, coworkers and strangers. Because we’d rather experience a little discomfort than miss interacting with a culture that has been unseen for 50 years.
We’d rather endure a climb in stupid hot weather than sit out the spectacular view and sweet descent waiting for us at the top.
We know the pain won’t last forever. We also know it makes the pleasurable moments that much more enjoyable. In our temporary moments of agony, we feel our hearts beating and our lungs working. And that suffering, it makes us feel alive.
When it comes down to it, I’ll choose the 360 degree view after a hard ride to get there over relaxing in a chaise on a cruise ship any day. I know I’m not the only one. Sure, it might not be fun in the moment, but damn if it isn’t the most satisfying to look back on.
Beth Puliti is a writer and photographer whose two-year bike tour through Europe and Asia prompted hi-fives from some and looks of pure bewilderment from others. Follow her travels at @bethpuliti.
This article originally appeared in Bicycle Times #43.