What Ayesha McGowan learned at the Colorado Classic
Of course the document does not tell the full story of McGowan’s overall experience in her first attempt at a UCI 2.1-level professional race.
“The lesson I learned was to trust myself more, and trust all of the hard work I’ve put in to be prepared,” McGowan told VeloNews before the start of the final stage in Denver. “For whatever reasons there were a few moments when I psyched myself out. I’m disappointed in myself about that, but I don’t think the race is over my head.”
McGowan had fleeting moments of both glory and intense suffering throughout the four-day race. Her best moment came during the hilly circuit race around Golden on the third stage, when she attacked off the front alongside her teammate, Andrea Buttine, as the group rolled eastbound on 32nd avenue.
The effort earned her the Most Inspirational jersey for the stage.
And her hardest moment?
“Probably the same day toward the end of the race,” McGowan said. “In those last few laps I wasn’t sure if I was going to get over the hill. I felt like my legs were giving up on me, but somehow I made it over and stayed in the group. It was tough.”
Over the past year Ayesha McGowan has become one of the most visible cyclists in the United States, due to her quest to become the first African American rider in the professional women’s peloton. She was featured the cover of Outside magazine, and was the subject of major stories in ESPN, Bicycling, and even the BBC.
McGowan has used the attention to push the cycling industry and racing culture to be more inclusive of minorities and women. She hosts a podcast, called ‘Quick Brown Foxes,’ and also produces videos and blogs on the topics of cycling and inclusivity.
“Quick Brown Foxes is my multimedia research project that seeks to answer the question, ‘how to get women of color into bikes?’ by asking women of color how they got into bikes,” McGowan said.
During the past year, McGowan has interviewed nine women of color on the podcast because, she says, “my story isn’t the only story.” The platform has actually helped some of her interviewees advance their own cycling causes.
After she appeared on Quick Brown Foxes, Yewande Adesida, a rider for the SES_Racing team and a Biomechanics phD student from London, entered into a relationship with SRAM. McGowan’s good friend and fellow Liv Cycling athlete Sam Scipio credits McGowan with getting her into the sport. At the Sea Otter Classic, Scipio was one of the panelists on the Liv Cycling/SRAM “A Seat at the Table” diversity panel discussion that McGowan moderated.
The cycling and outdoor industry have gotten behind McGowan and her mission. Major brands Nike, REI, and Oakley have produced campaigns around McGowan and her story. Her lineup of personal endorsements includes some of the biggest brands in cycling: Liv, SRAM, and ClifBar, among others.
In July, McGowan and Scipio went on a 13-day bikepacking trip that was sponsored by REI, Liv, and SRAM. The media, bikepacking, podcasts, and advocacy duties have meant that McGowan must find time to balance training and racing with her other obligations.
“Something always suffers,” she said. “I’m constantly trying to find better ways to manage my time and energy to get the most out of all of it.”
McGowan has yet to ink a professional contract. She has participated in pro races, such as the Joe Martin Stage Race and Sea Otter Classic, among others. The contraction of the U.S. pro racing scene in recent years has not helped McGowan’s quest, since the shuttering of teams has increased the competition for the few roster spots that remain.
Last year it was the United Healthcare team that folded, and for 2020 the Hagens Berman-Supermint squad will end.
“Her quest to find a team is getting even harder with Hagens Berman folding,” said retired pro Alison Powers, who operates her own squad called Alp Cycles. “There aren’t that many teams out there anymore. I think it’s just hard. To be on a team right now, you need proper results.”
Powers said that riders who do the work and put in the time can still make their professional ambitions come true. “You’re here to race bikes? Let’s do it,” she said.
Powers was a key factor in McGowan’s participation in the Colorado Classic. She welcomed McGowan onto her squad after race management told her of McGowan’s desire to participate. ALP Cycles had just five riders on its roster, and McGowan became the sixth.
McGowan said she felt physically prepared for the race, however her self-confidence was shaky during the opening stages.
“I think a lot of the challenges I faced are in my own head,” McGowan said. “Just a touch of imposter syndrome here and there, and then not feeling confident at altitude.”
McGowan said such a moment occurred during the race’s second stage, which included the long climb up Daybreak Ridge. She rode near the front of the peloton as sped up the bottom slopes of the long climb, and then faded to the back of the bunch, fearing she might blow up on the long climb.
“I felt like I had a lot more to give, and I was super reserved on the climb,” McGowan said. “I know that I’m capable and I have to remember that in those moments that actually matter, not after the fact.”
McGowan’s teammates, however, said she played a vital role throughout the week. McGowan is a self-described domestique, who said her preferred role within a team is to ‘take care of other people’ during the race. Kristina Vrouwenvelder, one of her teammates on ALP Cycles, said McGowan performed this role admirably.
“She’ll come by and say, ‘Kristina, it’s time to move up,'” Vrouwenvelder said. “She’s been helping us because she’s very experienced.”
With each professional racing experience, McGowan gains confidence and experience, be it from a steep climb in the Colorado Rockies, or from an attack off the front.
During McGowan’s move during the third stage, she said she went so hard on the bike that she nearly threw up. That sensation—pushing hard, attacking, and making the race—felt the best.
“It felt nice to be active and do stuff because normally I just sit in the pack and wait for the end,” McGowan said. “It was fun to do it.”