Interview by Helen Bridgman
Ayesha McGowan hit the headlines earlier this year when Liv Racing announced that she’d be joining their WorldTeam as a trainee on 1 August. The buzz around McGowan, although somewhat unusual for a stagiaire signing, is easy to get swept up in. Her positivity and enthusiasm about joining the team are infectious, and her unconventional pathway to the pro peloton make McGowan an exciting addition to the Women’s WorldTour.
“I’ve worked really hard for this and I’ve worked really long for this. A lot of emotions and ups and downs have gone into this journey and so I think anybody could understand being completely excited and nervous and anxious all at once” she says about gaining her place on the team.
“It’s going to be a steep learning curve. I’m really throwing myself in at the deep end here. And I’m happy that I’m being given the opportunity to do so. I know that it’s a very non-traditional pathway, but everything about this whole thing has been untraditional, so why not?!” And she’s absolutely right. I’m not sure there are many women in the pro peloton that have raced an alleycat, or even know what one is for that matter [check out ‘Send it’ on GCN+ if you’re curious]!
Similar to Spaniard Mavi García, McGowan, who recently turned 34, came to bike racing a bit later in life than the majority of her fellow WorldTour pros. However bikes have featured in her life in some way since she was young. Growing up in Piscataway, New Jersey, she remembers getting her first bike for Christmas when she was 5 years old. She taught herself how to ride and has fond memories of hanging out with her friends on their bikes. “It was never a competitive thing, it was just a form of transportation. But I was always a very active person so I’d sign up for everything. I did music, athletics, theatre club and whatever I could get into.”
For McGowan, bikes turned from a form of transportation into a passion for bike racing back in 2014. It was the first year that Red Hook Crit had created a separate category for women. At the time, she was really into women’s empowerment and advocacy for cycling through her work for WE Bike NYC, an organisation geared towards getting more women on bikes. McGowan says it was the attraction of racing fast on a closed circuit in a women’s only field that first inspired her to try racing.
Standing on the start line of her first race, on a bike she had built up herself, she recounts, “I was miserable that day. It was freezing cold and it was raining. I’d started my cycle literally right before the race. It was not my day, just not a good day. And even though the race ended terribly after a big crash [which McGowan was caught up in but thankfully wasn’t hurt], somehow that still got me hooked.”
There’s a deep-rooted stubborn streak in McGowan that was always going to bring her back for more. She didn’t want her story to end there that day. Instead she made it her mission to learn as much as she could about her craft, signing up for every skills clinic she could find in the area, racing regularly, and it paid off. She took her maiden victory in the Category 4 race at the New York State Criterium Championships that same year and she hasn’t looked back since.
The road from there to her contract with Liv Racing didn’t happen overnight. The seeds were planted back in 2019 when she joined the then CCC Liv team for a few days at their training camp in Europe. The team management clearly saw something in her. When the call came offering her a place on the team for 2021 understandably she jumped at it. “It’s an amazing opportunity,” acknowledges McGowan. “And even if it doesn’t pan out the way that I want it to pan out, I feel like I’d be a fool for not trying.”
One thing that’s clear from our conversation is that if anyone is going to put in the work and give it their all, it’s going to be Ayesha McGowan. She’s been training hard, working with her coach to get her as prepared as possible for what lies ahead. She’s happy with where her fitness levels are right now, but recognises that the race smarts are a little rusty after more than a year without racing. She’s looking forward to throwing herself back into the thick of it with a full programme of domestic races over the next few months.
“It feels a lot like starting again to be honest,” McGowan admits. “Just remembering the mechanics of racing because I’ve been training by myself. It’s mentally tough because you want to be able to jump right back in there and that’s not really the case for me at this moment. I feel like my brain has taken so many journeys between now and the last time I raced bikes, and so just getting that focus back is key.”
The ‘journeys’ McGowan refers to relate in part to her activism off the bike. An outspoken advocate for representation, especially in cycling, she regularly writes about the challenges in her blog, A Quick Brown Fox. “Last year was really tough for everybody,” she explains. “And I think it was particularly tough for people of colour. The murder of George Floyd was a huge boiling point for the world. And it just came with a lot of distress and sadness and grief.” McGowan was regularly asked to write and comment on events and in the end she found herself mentally and physically worn out to the point where cycling training just wasn’t a priority.
In the end she decided to take action. “I got tired of being asked to speak on my pain and sorrow,” says McGowan, who instead chose to channel her energy into creating Thee Abundance Summit. “I wanted to create a space where joy could be celebrated,” she explains. “We’re riding bikes because it’s fun. Just like you ride bikes because it’s fun. It’s actually a really cool thing to do and I wanted to show that. It’s not always just about disproving the negatives. It’s about celebrating the positives.”
The two day summit in March brought together an international community for a celebration of cycling and the outdoors. It also helped to bring attention to and raise funds for Thee Abundance Mini Grant that McGowan set up to support aspiring women of colour to pursue racing. When she began campaigning for more representation in cycling, McGowan was often met with scepticism, leading her to wonder if she was alone in thinking that people of colour actually wanted to race bikes. Deep down though she knew that wasn’t true. So she trusted her instincts. I’m sure the 160 plus applicants for the grant are glad that she did.
“What’s most interesting to me,” says McGowan, “is that the majority of those applicants have never raced bikes before.” I have a sneaky suspicion that McGowan herself is a huge part of what has inspired many of those applicants to want to give it a try.
Back in 2015, McGowan stated that she wanted to become the first African American woman to race bikes professionally. Part of that goal for her has always been to create a pathway for others to do the same and the Mini Grant is her way of creating something tangible that will hopefully have a lasting impact. As well as inspiring women of colour to race bikes, she’s also hoping it will inspire others in the cycling industry to create new opportunities and initiatives like McGowan’s Mini Grant. “The hardest part for me is accepting that I can’t help everybody the way I would want to, but I just hope that folks understand that I tried my best and I’m just me,” she says modestly.
As an inspiration to so many herself, when I ask McGowan who inspires her she lights up when she talks about her grandmother. “She’s not climbing mountains or starting companies, but I’ve always found her to be very genuine and innovative and brilliant in her own way. I found that both humbling and inspiring in so many ways.” It was also her grandmother that gave her the self-belief that she could do anything she wanted with her life. The hard part for McGowan, who openly refers to having ADHD, was always going to be choosing a profession…and then sticking with it.
There’s clearly something about bike racing that has grabbed McGowan’s attention and kept it for so long. Perhaps it’s the constant learning and growth that happens every time you pin on a race number. Or the rush you get from winning a race or performing well. Taking the next step to WorldTour level will definitely require laser focus with a whole lot of steely determination and mental strength, both of which McGowan has in spades.
So what does she think about racing in Europe? It comes as no surprise to me when McGowan tells me she’s thrived in the kermesse racing in Belgium and the Netherlands that she’s done so far. She went so far as to say that she “found it to be wildly exciting” so she’s really looking forward to more European racing. “I found that I do better in that kind of race environment and so I’m really excited about that. And even if I go out there and I get shelled, I’m the type of person that, just like that first Red Hook I will come back, I will learn from that and do better the next time because that’s just how it works. I’m not to be defeated.”
Liv Racing will be McGowan’s first professional road team, before now she has raced mostly as an individual. She tells me, “It’s super distracting trying to do everything. Being your own mechanic, soigneur, chauffeur and chef is so much and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t an incredibly hard thing to do and to be. And so I’m really looking forward to having more support and being able to support others. It’s going to be fun. Being on a team is fun and as much as I enjoy bike racing by myself, I really enjoy racing with others.”
The Tuscany training camp gave McGowan a good opportunity to test her legs and also get to know her new teammates. “I feel like everybody on the team respected everybody on the team. I think they’ve got something really special going and I’m really happy to be a part of it.”
Her race calendar with Liv Racing hasn’t yet been set so it’s a bit early to talk about goals for the rest of the season. McGowan is also keen to not to restrict or pigeonhole herself right now. “When you get too specific then you eliminate possibilities. And honestly I feel like, even though I’ve been racing for six years, I don’t really fully know myself as a racer yet. I might be good at things I didn’t think I’d be good at. And European racing is completely different to American domestic racing and so I don’t want to limit myself before I even start. For so long the goal was just getting here. Being a part of it. I don’t want to bog myself down with anything beyond that.”
For McGowan, for now it’s all about keeping moving forward and staying true to herself. Surrounding herself with her supporters to help lift her up in the moments where she needs it, and blocking out distractions to make the most of her opportunity with Liv Racing. What advice would she give herself? “I think the honest approach is the best advice I could give myself. Accept the journey however it comes to you. Follow your instinct, trust your gut. Do what you’ve got to do but don’t stop moving, whatever you do.”