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Making Space: Devin Cowens explores the barriers that still keep people of color out of cycling

Devin Cowens shares her perspective on gravel's attempts to attract BIPOC cyclists, and the barriers that still keep people of color away from cycling.

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“NEW BIKE FRIENDS!”

That was the subject line of the email connecting me with Devin Cowens.

I had heard about Cowens in a fairly innocuous modern-day way; it was both a tip from another journalist, and some Internet sleuthing. Through that, I learned that Cowens and I had more than a few things in common: a taste for drinking coffee outside, bikes, a shared friend named Kate, and our bikepacking trips in Cuba. It turns out, Cowens didn’t know anything about me when I called her, nor did she know why I wanted to talk.

Cowens considers herself an advocate for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in the cycling world. She has worked in bike advocacy in the past, and she currently leads a community group in Atlanta for women/trans/femme/non-binary riders interested in bikepacking. She is also a member of the Radical Adventure Riders gravel team, a team based on racial and gender inclusivity.

Cowens has also signed up for a handful of gravel races this summer, and I was curious to know what she thought about gravel’s attempts to make events more inclusive, equitable, and fun for all types of riders. It’s no secret that the entire cycling world has spent the past months wrestling with the topic of inclusivity, with events, bike brands, and even WorldTour teams trying to make the sport more accessible to people of color. In gravel, these efforts have included free race entries for BIPOC riders, the use of Black cyclists in marketing materials, and the changing of event names that were insensitive or downright racist.

And so I wanted to know: Are these actions an insult or an olive branch?

But before we began to get to know each other, there was something else I had to ask.

In my scroll of Cowens’ Instagram page, I noticed a post with a caption that read: “it’s essential that we tell our own stories and control our own narratives.” Was it OK that I wanted to share her story, too?

Jumping into gravel

Cowens issues a good reminder when I ask her how she got into bikes.

“I biked as a kid, but I think the cycling story is always ‘how’d you get back,’” she says.

Cowens is a long-time bike commuter; when she moved from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta in 2015, she thought that cycling might be a way to find community. She felt scrutinized when she showed up for group rides, and decided to look elsewhere.

“Starting out on a singlespeed just looking for rides, there’s not a lot of ‘hey, let’s get to know you,’ it’s ‘hey, you should go try that ride,’” she says.

She met Nedra Deadwyler, a tireless advocate for cycling in Atlanta and the founder of Civil Bikes, a company that offers walking and biking tours that focus on the forgotten people and places that were foundational to the city’s history and culture. She befriended professional road cyclist Ayesha McGowan, who she regards as a model for advocacy in cycling.

Cowens points to both Deadwyler and McGowan as advocates who have pushed for greater inclusivity in cycling for years, long before the events of 2020 sparked a national conversation.

“Only this year have people been like, ‘oh I want to support you,’” she says. “People are taking videos of Black people being killed in the streets and they want to talk about it. I have a number of friends who were organizing in Atlanta, who no one was listening to five years ago. And so I want to honor that. I’m not the first person to do this, and I won’t be the last.”

Devin Cowens on a dirt road
Devin Cowens bikepacking in Cuba.
Photo: Courtesy Devin Cowens

Aside from the influential and inspirational Black female cyclists she met during her first years in Atlanta, Cowens also got into cycling in a very personal way. In 2018, reeling from a break-up, she went bikepacking with two friends and experienced the exhaustion and elation that any long-haul cyclist knows all too well.

“I had biked 150 miles in two days, I hadn’t been in shape, I wanted to give up at so many points, and I was so overwhelmed with emotion,” she says. “You know how athletes finish a race and cry at the finish line? I hadn’t done that, but this was my version of that. It was reaching these depths of myself that I hadn’t before on the bike, and then I wanted to do it again.”

And she did, traveling to both Montana and Cuba to strap bags on bikes and ride for days on end. She also stumbled onto an idea for the very thing that had eluded her when she was looking for community during her early days in Atlanta: a welcoming and representative cycling group — this one for women, trans, and femme cyclists curious about bikepacking.

“I came to cycling for community, so I always say, ‘it’s important to see yourself reflected in the things you want to do,’” Cowens says.

Devin Cowens on her bike, smiling
Devin Cowens during the Ruta del Jefe race.
Photo: Courtesy Devin Cowens

Offensive race names

Cowens’ first gravel race was last year’s Ruta del Jefe in Arizona, which had representation baked into its ethos. The event was started by Sarah Swallow, who also co-founded the Radical Adventure Riders, formerly known as WTF Bikexplorers.

The race didn’t go particularly well for Cowens. The weather was terrible, and she ended up spending the night in Patagonia, a town halfway along the route. Still, the adventure inspired her to sign up for more. The RAR had just launched a gravel team, and Cowens joined.

The team’s plan was to participate at four gravel events in 2021, but that number was whittled down to three after the riders decided not to compete in Unbound Gravel, the race formerly known as Dirty Kanza.

I ask Cowens about the race’s decision to change its name — in 2020 organizers dropped “Dirty Kanza” due to its offensive nature toward the local indigenous people. After all, the team was also planning to attend The Mid South, which in 2020 abandoned its old name Land Run 100 due to that name’s connection to historical genocide.

“I do think there is redemption for folks in this space,” she says. “I think that people can change. But, I think that there are also things that can be prevented. When you think about putting these races on and going into communities that are often smaller, I think one thing that’s often missing is a scan of the landscape. Not asking questions. So going in with some forethought — who lived here, what’s happening here? Are there other voices, communities I need to get in touch with? Or am I just doing this because I want to do this?”

If there is anything to be learned from the Unbound Gravel naming dilemma, perhaps it’s how to avoid future missteps. Yes, acknowledging wrongdoing is part of the process, but avoiding it in the first place is a better solution. Cowens says that promoters can start simply.

“It’s two things — getting folks in your corner who you can talk to so you can have the conversations prior to messing up and also being educated about what it means to be anti-racist.”

With the cancelation of the Mid South, SBT GRVL and Grinduro are Cowens’ remaining big races of the season. Both events rolled into 2021 with bold commitments to increase access for underrepresented groups.

Cowens says she was surprised upon hearing the news that SBT GRVL was offering 25 free entries to BIPOC racers through a partnership with Ride for Racial Justice.

“Only 25?”

But as she learned, Ride for Racial Justice was also covering the cost of lodging, transportation, coaching, and gear.

“Sometimes what happens is, the barrier to entry isn’t just the bike because the people that do these races, they’re training,” she says. “Training is expensive, and it’s not just the coaching. All of the components that go into that, it becomes a huge barrier to access.”

Working to increase access to the sport of cycling is obviously a huge goal of Cowens, but it’s also important to see where the vision takes her.

“I think of this metaphor of opening a gate and letting all your friends in and everyone is comfortable and having a good time,” she says. “I’m here doing this thing and I’m comfortable and no one is questioning me being here or asking me weird inappropriate things about my culture and my hair. You’re just here and you’re existing. And that’s going to take time.”

Making space

Which brings us back to my calling Devin in the first place. As a culture, we seem to be straddling this strange place between “talking about it” and Cowens’ dream of previously under-represented people “just existing” in the bike space. It’s awkward, and I wonder if she likes the position she now occupies in the conversation.

“Yes, and no,” she says.

“It feels like it’s important for me to do this because it’s essential to growing and changing and pushing and creating space for more people,” she says. “But, why does every Black person in this space have to be an advocate while X white racer can just be a racer? I’m obviously a self-identified advocate, but oftentimes there’s not a choice.”

Cowens is clear that she has been afforded the opportunity to be an advocate by privileges in her life. She wants to use that position to provide avenues for other people who haven’t had access before, “to support other people who are interested by providing them resources and hype other people up who can also be doing the same thing.”

So back to my initial hesitation — is writing about her a form of usurping the narrative?

“We live in a society with predominantly white reporters,” she says. “I think a way to move the needle is telling the stories and elevating folks who are telling them in a way that’s authentic. Being true to the conversations that you had.”

Wouldn’t it be great, we agree, if we could continue this conversation on a ride?