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Can Ayesha McGowan Become America's First Black Woman Pro Cyclist?

Ayesha McGowan is trying to help cycling become a more diverse sport by setting an example for younger riders.

Josh Cohen

Ayesha McGowan

The first time Ayesha McGowan realized she might be good at cycling was when she won the Category 4 race at the 2014 New York State Criterium Championships in White Plains.

Granted, Cat 4 is the beginner category for women, but it was only the third race McGowan had ever entered. She went on to win 2 more races that season, with some podiums and top 10 finishes thrown into the mix as well. By the end of the summer she'd upgraded to Cat 3 and set an audacious personal goal: To go pro. If she does, she will be the first African-American female professional cyclist in history.

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That likely comes as little surprise to anyone who pays attention to professional road racing in the U.S. Both the men's and women's pelotons are predominantly white. There are a few non-white men—mostly Central and South Americans racing on American teams—and on the women's side, Filipina-American Coryn Rivera is one of the only people of color in the pro ranks.

This is a problem in a country where 36 percent of the population is non-white and participation in cycling as transportation and recreation among African Americans, Asians and Hispanics is growing far faster than among whites. As with many problems with race in the United States, cycling's issues are rooted partly in unconscious institutional problems and will require structural change to solve.

McGowan wants her race career to be part of the solution.

McGowan is a 28-year-old preschool music teacher in New York City and an up-and-comer on the Ride Brooklyn team. Like many city-dwelling bikers, her path to competitive cycling began with bike commuting in college. McGowan went to Berklee College of Music in Boston and got fed up with her lengthy daily commute on the train. She dragged her mom's old bike out of the basement, fixed it up and started riding to class every day.

The bike cut her commute time down by 30 minutes and sparked a passion for riding and the culture around it.

When she moved to New York in August 2010, McGowan got her first taste of bike racing in unsanctioned races—called alley cats—such as Monster Track and Cranksgiving. The races loosely resemble the work bike messengers do, with racers dodging and weaving through traffic and pedestrians between a series of checkpoints throughout the city. After a few years of that McGowan was ready to try sanctioned racing.

"I really like riding as fast as I can, but there's the danger of getting hit by a car, or hurting someone else," she says. "Racing is like an agreement between riders to all go really fast in as safe of a manner as possible."

She finally gave road racing a try in the spring of 2014 on a borrowed road bike at a beginners' race in Central Park. "The bike was too small for me, I sprinted in the hoods. I didn't know what I was doing."

Photo via Ayesha McGowan

As McGowan got deeper into New York's amateur racing scene, she started to notice it was surprisingly monochromatic.

"For New York, it's a weird thing to not see a melting pot," McGowan says. "There's a lot more diversity among the men than the women, I think because there's just fewer women racing. But it's not super diverse here for the women."

McGowan is quick to clarify that her race has never been a barrier in cycling.

"I've never felt discriminated against in the racing community. I don't feel like it's a community of racism. But I do feel like it's just not something that's being considered. People just aren't thinking about it," she explains.

That there's been little thought given to race in cycling is well evidenced by the sport's national governing body, USA Cycling. They do not track racial demographic data, which makes it difficult to say exactly how white cycling is and demonstrates that race has not been a priority for them. When pressed, a USA Cycling spokesman said that any information they could provide on the sport's racial demographics would be "purely speculative" and declined further comment.

USAC's lack of data also makes it hard to confirm whether McGowan will, in fact, be the first African American female pro in cycling. Alison Powers, a recently retired professional cyclist, said that in her 10 year career she's, "never known or seen a African American pro female." She added, "I hope [McGowan] is successful!"

In my research for this article I found no evidence that there's ever been another African American woman in the pro ranks.

Cycling's lack of diversity is, of course, rooted in a complex combination of American racial history, socioeconomics, culture and more. McGowan says it continues to be a problem in part because there are so few African American pros showing young would-be cyclists that it's possible.

"Self-identify in public figures is rare for most African American females," she says. "Because there are no examples [of black women racing] people don't even consider that it's a possibility. It's just not a thing to do."

Ed Ewing is an African American man, longtime bike racer, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Cascade Bicycle Club, and founder of the Major Taylor Project, a program that brings cycling to underfunded schools in the Seattle area. He agrees that a big part of the problem stems from awareness as well as a lack of development and outreach efforts targeted towards communities of color.

"Football, basketball, soccer, track, that's what's pushed to these kids and is socially acceptable," Ewing explains. "They see these professional athletes thriving in the media and the public showering them with attention. People don't even know it's possible to make a living racing a bike ... it's a huge barrier for not only kids but adults."

Which is not to say there have never been African American pro cyclists. But they've been few and far between. Marshall "Major" Taylor—after whom Ewing's program is named—was a track cycling world champion in the early 1900s. He was the second African American man to win a world championship title (after boxer George Dixon). In his autobiography, Taylor wrote that he retired from cycling at 32 in part because he was tired of the racism from fellow cyclists and cycling fans in his home country.

Photo via Ayesha McGowan

In the '80s and early '90s Nelson Vails won multiple track cycling national championships, a world championship and a silver at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. More recently, Erik Saunders and Rahsaan Bahati made careers as professional road racers. Saunders has retired from racing. Bahati still races at the elite level occasionally these days, but he is mostly focused on his Bahati Foundation, which brings youth cycling outreach programs to inner-city Los Angeles communities.

That handful of role models is not enough, says Ewing. To really start addressing the problem, he says young would-be bike racers of color need more formal, "mentorship and guidance ... Unless you have a parent or access to someone to take you under their wing and show you those steps, [a career in cycling] just becomes a distant, distant reality."

Ewing thinks USAC could be a leader in an outreach effort with communities of color.

"I don't think it's solely up to [USAC], but they have a rather unique opportunity to lead the effort and ... they have a responsibility to represent all aspects of biking," he explains.

Ewing points to a handful of teams and nonprofit organizations around the country USAC could partner with such as the Bahati Foundation, Major Taylor Minneapolis, the National Brotherhood of Cyclists and his own employer Cascade Bicycle Club.

McGowan is less sure that it's USAC's job to lead the charge.

"It's one of those tricky balances where you've got the Dangerous Mind complex," she explains, referencing the 1995 movie in which Michelle Pfeiffer saves an inner-city classroom. "People have good intentions of trying to rescue minority populations, but somehow they end up being offensive. Just from seeing the slow development of attempts to recruit more women in general, I have a hard time seeing how they could effectively recruit more minorities."

Change, she thinks, needs to be more organic at this point and rather than USAC create a targeted outreach program, they could make small changes to be more inclusive.

"I recently saw this [USAC] ad for an ambassador program and everyone in the picture is a white lady," says McGowan. "Simple things like that can make a huge impact instead of trying to come up with a specific program to [target] minority women. You've represented yourself with a group of white women so that's pretty much what your organization represents."

She continues, "I'm not blaming USAC. I'm not blaming the white people for the black people not being in bike racing. But it's a problem that needs to be solved, however we solve it."

Part of the solution would simply be McGowan succeeding in her goal to go pro. She's still got a long way to go still from Cat 3, but she says she's on track to upgrade to a Cat 2 race license in the next month or two. Already this season she's notched a win and a second and fifth place, giving her 16 of the 30 points necessary to upgrade from Cat 3 to 2.

"I haven't decided how deep into the rabbit hole I'm going to go," says McGowan. "I'm just going to work as hard as I can and go as far as I can and see where that leads. If it's to the point where I'm good enough that I can support myself with racing, great. Even if it's just a matter of being able to be part of the pro peloton in some capacity, none of that has ever been done by an African American female."

McGowan says even if she doesn't make it to the pro ranks, she'll be happy with how racing's shaped her life.

"Bikes have done so much for me," she says. "I met my fiancé through bikes. My mom now rides bikes and it's improved my relationship with her. Racing has helped me grow as a person. I've learned to take much better care of myself, and balance my time more efficiently. I'm also way more confident than I was two years ago. I definitely have bikes and bike racing to thank for that."