Ayesha McGowan is the first Black American woman professional cyclist, and she's paving the way for BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Colour) women to follow in her footsteps. Racing in her first full season on the Women's WorldTour, McGowan feels that she's in a position to pay it forward through her annual initiative - Thee Abundance Project (opens in new tab) - that creates representation, opportunity and access in the outdoor and cycling spaces.
McGowan is a longtime advocate for better representation for BIPOC in the bike industry. In an interview with Cyclingnews, she said Thee Abundance initiative and corresponding grant programmes specifically aim to get more Black and Brown women into cycling, first at an entry-level, to build a pool of interest and talent. Next, through structured guidance and support, the focus is helping those who want to continue reaching competitive and professional racing.
"For me, I've always seen it as a numbers game. If you look at the men's side of things, there aren't many Black men in the pro peloton, but there are a few. I feel like we have to keep getting people into the sport first. Try it to see if they like it and want to continue, and eventually, I think we'll get more Black women in the peloton," McGowan said.
"It's happening now already; there's me and Teniel [Campbell] and Ceylin [del Carmen Alvarado, former cyclo-cross world champion] and the Canyon-SRAM Generation team. So, I feel like eventually, it's going to stick and maybe one day, we'll have our own Biniam Girmay where we will have a Black woman winning a Spring Classic."
Asked about the initiative's name, Thee Abundance, McGowan explained that it's a reflection of one's ability and willingness to share one's abundance with others to help them develop and succeed.
"It's not a secret that the outdoor industry and cycling specifically are not very accessible. When I had first gotten into the idea of becoming a road racer, I was just trying to accumulate the things that I needed to do that," McGowan said.
"I've always been a very generous person, always trying to help others. One of my good friends explained to me the idea of abundance; if I have more than I need, then I can share, and then everybody else is not struggling over small crumbs, but that everybody, then, actually has what they need to do the thing they're trying to do. I can help other people also have the things that they need."
Out of this concept grew Thee Abundance Project in 2021. Its sophomore year has expanded to include a second annual summit (opens in new tab) held as 'a virtual celebration of Black and Brown joy in cycling and the outdoors' and a new virtual training series on Zwift, held in April. The mini-grant programme returned, and a micro-grant was added to the initiative to support more riders. The newly-launched Team Abundance will also be racing at major events in the US.
McGowan attributes much of the success of the two-day virtual summit to the help she received from colleague and friend Devin Cowens. McGowan herself was also organising the event while racing in Europe this spring with Liv Racing Xstra.
"The goal of the whole experience is always joy, as the driving motivation behind everything; joy, opportunity, and abundance. And so I think everybody who's working on these projects understands that so well and feels that so deeply, and that makes all of this as successful as it can be."
Outside of the summit, the initiative has gained Zwift and Carmichael Training System (CTS) support. Its two-week virtual training programme culminated in a 90-minute race designed to allow participants to experience structured training. McGowan has been working with CTS since 2018 and says that having access to coaching and a training plan has been a big part of her success.
"I feel like most of the things that the project offers are things that I wished were offered for me when I was starting. I didn't know what it meant to train, and I was just riding my bike a lot, which is useful, but people do structured training because it helps and having that guidance and structure from people who know what they're doing is valuable," McGowan said.
"I wanted to give people that opportunity to experience that in some way. Offering that [knowledge], this is what this workout looks like, or this is what a recovery ride could be, just seeing all of the different ways people train versus just riding hard all the time.
"Coaching can be very inaccessible because it can be very expensive. But I think it's an absolute necessity for athletes trying to reach a higher level. I'm really happy to have access to that guidance and structure. I went from where I was to where I am now, which is a testament to its value."
Paying it forward
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This year's Thee Abundance Mini Grant p/b Zwift will support nine athletes at four summer events. The racing begins at Tulsa Tough (June 10-12) in Oklahoma and continues with Tour of America's Dairyland (June 16-26) in Wisconsin, Intelligentsia Cup (July 22-31) in and around Chicago, Illinois, and Gateway Cup (September 2-5) in St Louis, Missouri.
"These are all races that I have done, and we could only accommodate so many people. And I feel like a couple of things that we're trying to accomplish with the mini-grant this year are giving more opportunities and focusing on the local themes in those places," McGowan said.
"We want to give people who already live their opportunities. And so, by working directly with the race organisers, I think it's going to be a fun year, and a lot of people are going to get to try bike racing, and maybe a couple of them will stick around and keep going."
The Mini Grant Program p/b Zwift recipients will receive expenses paid for entry, travel, housing, and food and benefit from guidance and support from experienced cyclists. In addition, the initiative awarded recipients of the new Micro Grant Program p/b SRAM with an entry fee and a day license for one local race to accommodate 400 total race days for the year.
"I know from experience how valuable it is to race in more competitive fields as a category 3 and 4 woman. There's nothing quite like the speed and intensity of summertime midwestern crits. The participants from last year want to keep going, and I'm happy to create this pipeline to getting more Black and Brown women to the Pro field!" McGowan said on her website, A Quick Brown Fox.
To provide a pathway for last year's mini-grant recipients who wished to continue competing in the sport, McGowan launched Team Abundance p/b Liv, who will be racing on the American cycling circuit while also providing support to the new grant awardees.
"The team is made up of previous grant recipients, and so it's kind of a rolling roster based on interest in availability. The space was created for the folks who did it last year and want to do it again. They're there to help the new incoming recipients and sort of mentorship; we've done this before and kind of helping to show the ropes a bit. A pay-it-forward type of program."
McGowan was named in Cyclingnews' The Power List: The 50 most influential people in cycling in 2020. She has been advocating for better BIPOC representation in the bike industry for years, using her voice to support and speak up for increased diversity inside the sport's brands, organisations, events, teams and media.
She is well-known for her work in building and maintaining the A Quick Brown Fox (opens in new tab) website that includes her blog along with The Quick Brown Foxes Podcast (opens in new tab). She's also part of The Black Foxes (opens in new tab), an international collective of Black cyclists. She has made outstanding progress in inspiring, influencing and leading the next generation of Black American women in cycling.
McGowan has been racing for the previous five seasons. She first competed domestically in the US before moving up to the Women's WorldTeam Liv Racing to compete as a trainee last August. On her successful debut overseas, she was involved in a decisive breakaway and secured a seventh place on the final stage at the Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l'Ardèche in France.
This season, McGowan has raced with Liv Racing Xstra in a full range of Spring Classics, beginning at Strade Bianche in March and through the team's classics campaign into April.
Despite her hard-earned success and her work in creating opportunities for BIPOC representation and opportunities in cycling, McGowan said she doesn't necessarily see herself as a mentor, even if many others do. And that she is, in many ways, still growing in her career as a pro cyclist.
"I am here for the folks who need me, and I reach out as I see fit. I don't specifically see myself as a mentor for anybody. Somebody else might disagree with that statement. I learned so many things along the way, and I'm happy to share it with anybody who wants to know," McGowan said.
"I try and keep a loose profile about it because I'm still learning myself. I navigated the US peloton for however long, but now I'm being thrown into the deep end in Europe again, and it's all new. And so it feels like an experience but also kind of like research - use that information and pass it along to the folks I'm trying to get here."
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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in cycling from the community and grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all men's and women's races including Spring Classics, Grand Tours, World Championships and Olympic Games, and writes and edits news and features. As the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten also coordinates and oversees the global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.