'Is cycling the whitest sport on Earth?' — Ayesha McGowan, the first African-American women's rider

Tom Cary
The Telegraph
Ayesha McGowan - JEFF CLARK
Ayesha McGowan - JEFF CLARK

Ayesha McGowan has watched the wave of Black Lives Matter protests from her home in Atlanta’s suburbs with a mixture of pride, weariness, fury – and hope.

“I know a lot of it is performative and I know most of the people probably don’t actually care,” she says, referring to “Insta” protesters who “look like they care”.

“But there definitely are people who do, and who are taking action. This is momentum which in my lifetime we have never had. And things are happening, things that are long overdue. So, I am cautiously optimistic.”

Unfortunately, that optimism does not extend to her own sport.

McGowan, the first professional African-American in women’s pro cycling, has been left distinctly unimpressed by her sport’s collective response to the protests. Unimpressed but not surprised. “I don’t know whether cycling is the whitest sport on Earth,” she says. “Maybe, like, Lacrosse or something? There are some pretty white sports out there. But it’s real white.”

That is no understatement. There are at present just five black riders in the WorldTour and five in the Pro Continental ranks, the second tier of professional racing. It is a lack of representation which is reflected right through the sport, top to bottom, from team staff to media to governing bodies.

There is not a single black person on the boards of either British Cycling or USA Cycling, nor on the management committee of the UCI. Cycling’s world governing body took two weeks to say anything, and when it did it was generic stuff about cycling’s rainbow needing “all its colours”.

“I’m afraid that a lot of the statements that we’re seeing in the cycling industry are real empty and vague,” McGowan says. “And that’s dangerous because … how can we hold them accountable if they don’t actually say what they’re going to do? They say ‘We’re committed to change. We’re going to make ourselves better.’ Well, that’s great. But how?”

Is she disappointed cycling’s biggest stars have not spoken out more? “I guess I should be,” she replies. “But because I’m not surprised I don’t have the disappointment to give. I think it’s telling though.”

Does she call them out on it? “I think there’s a difference between [calling out] individuals versus companies and organisations. Companies and organisations need our money. So I feel in that sense we get a say. But with a person, if you don’t think black lives matter, that’s you. I don’t want to walk into a fox den because I thought that you thought that I mattered, and you didn’t. I prefer the devil I know.”

It is clear McGowan has been both energised and exhausted by events of the last few weeks. Atlanta has been at the epicentre of the demonstrations since the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old black man, in the drive-through of a Wendy’s, on June 12. And while she has not attended the protests themselves due to a combination of the pandemic and her fear of large crowds, she has fed off these. “I’m pretty much an empath so feeling that collective energy from everyone … it’s been a lot. We’d already kind of fizzled a bit from the Covid-19 stuff. That was already trying. And then to add more police brutality to it …”

She says this is the only interview she has given during this period, partly because she is tired of her words being misconstrued, which in itself leads back to her central gripe. The lack of representation.

“Most newsrooms are not being diverse enough to have the range to successfully deal with these types of things,” she says. “You can only interpret things through the lens that you have. So if your lens is not one that can decipher my frustration and my pain and my guilt and my joy, then that’s going to come back however you saw it. And that’s just what it is.

“So that’s why I’m always ‘Diversify your staff, diversify your staff.’ It’s not your fault that you can’t see something through my lens. And that’s why you should hire someone who can.”

McGowan wants more people of colour throughout cycling. She notes the educational work being done here in the UK by people such as Dr Marlon Moncrieffe, the former rider and academic, and Mani Arthur, founder of the Black Cyclists Network. She says it is “really cool” to see the Women of Colour cycling group which has formed, thanks partly to her input and that of fellow advocate Jools Walker.

But ultimately, she says, for real institutional change to take place, it has to come from within. Cycling needs a cultural revolution. “Legacy and tradition are the hugest barriers in my opinion to overcoming racism and making actual change,” she says. “Cycling is a sport built on legacy and tradition. Just trying to get rid of podium girls … we can’t even do that. So, you can see why my optimism is cautious.”

McGowan fears she will not be around to see that change, if it ever happens. This season she achieved her dream of becoming the first female African-American pro road rider. But at 33, and with the season now effectively a write-off, she is not sure how much longer she will stay competing.

“I don’t think it’s going to be something I’m going to see in my lifetime, an abundance of black women in the pro peloton. And definitely not African-American women.

“But I find hope in folks like [Trinidad and Tobago rider] Teniel Campbell.

“I want there to be more folks given opportunities like Teniel. I don’t necessarily need that to be me. I’m almost at the point where I don’t want them any more. But that’s the whole point – it was never about me. I wanted to create more representation and raise awareness and I feel I’ve done a pretty good job of doing that.”

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