When she was younger, 30-year-old Ayesha McGowan looked up to African-American sports heroes like Venus and Serena Williams, Florence Griffith Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. But she never saw female African-American cyclists.
"To me, pro cycling was the Tour de France," McGowan says. "White males, a very limiting image that keeps those who would be interested in the sport to a very small pool of humans."
So McGowan never even considered riding a bike as a form of competition.
"For me, it was about access and representation," she says. "I didn't know it was a thing."
Today, however, McGowan is on a mission to change all that. Her goal: to become the first female African-American pro cyclist.
McGowan, a music teacher in Atlanta, says she has never been one to sit still for long. Her original sport of choice was running, but after knee issues slowed her down, she sought out other ways to stay fit. She began biking on her commute to classes while attending Berklee College of Music in Boston, digging out an old, heavy bike from her parent's basement, complete with a baby seat on the back. She loved the feeling of going fast.
"It was fun, not hard, and a cheap way to commute, too," she says. "I moved on from there to a used single-speed bike and had a great time going back-and-forth."
After a postgraduation move to New York in 2010, it wasn't long before McGowan got her first taste of bike racing, on a fixed-gear bike, doing alleycats (unsanctioned races that take place in cities) and goldsprints (a social bicycle race on rollers or stationery bikes). This exposure to racing piqued her interest even more, and in 2014 she moved on to road racing.
"My husband worked at a bike shop at the time, and we found an old road bike that fit me," she says. "It was probably the most fun I'd ever had on a bike. With very little effort, I could fly."
Her first road race on the bike was three years ago, at a criterium in Brooklyn. "It was horrifying," she laughs. "It was cold and raining and there was a big crash. I'm not really sure why I went back for more."
She wanted to learn more about her new sport, so McGowan signed up for every clinic she could find.
"I wanted to understand how things worked," she says. "I started training with others and riding with friends whenever possible."
As she became further immersed in the world of competitive cycling, she noticed the lack of African-American representation.
"I set out to find a female African-American pro, and there weren't any," she says. "I wanted to know why there weren't any, and also, whether I might become the first."
Competitive road cycling for women involves four levels, or categories, starting at Category 4 and moving up to "Cat 1." Competitors earn points at races of minimum distances within a 12-month period in order to move up. McGowan is currently sitting at a Cat 2, meaning that she is nearing that pro designation.
In her career so far, McGowan has racked up some nice results, even in the very competitive European circuit. Finishes in 2017 include a 10th place at the Kermisronde van Duizel in the Netherlands, ninth at the Roborode Herleen in the same country, and ninth in the women's P1/2 Criterium at the Sea Otter Classic in California.
Michael Hernandez, team manager of the Jakroo racing team, of which McGowan was a part, says that she brings important characteristics to the table.
"She not only has the physical talent, but the mental game as well," he says. "She is proactive and positions herself in a positive light. All those things drew us to her."
To date, McGowan has been part of three different teams, which are important to moving up in levels because road racing depends on teamwork. She's currently racing independently, but looking for the right team to join.
"It's not essential that it's a local team, but it is important that it's the right fit," she says.
Complicating matters is the fact that female cycling teams tend to have little sponsorship and funding support.
"There aren't many women finding new contracts right now," she says. "I got close this year, but it didn't work out in the end. It will take time, but I'm OK with earning my spot. I just have to go for it and tell myself I can do it."
Hernandez says that McGowan hasn't chosen the easy road.
"Cycling is a grueling sport," he says. "Ayesha has the ability to work hard, suffer and face the fear of riding wheel-to-wheel at 30 miles per hour."
Even more than doing this for herself, however, McGowan is committed to doing this for African-American women.
"My biggest mission is representation," she says. "I want to see an expansion of how we see ourselves."
To McGowan, accomplishing one thing brings the other along.
"If I can present the image of an African-American pro bike racer," she says, "then I can open the doors for others to do it, too."