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Life

Heroes

Ayesha McGowan

Ayesha McGowan is a professional road cyclist for Liv Racing and an advocate for better representation of POC in cycling. Upon entering competitive cycling in 2014, she quickly discovered that there had not been a single African-American female pro road cyclist. She recently became the first.

Through launching various initiatives that focus on diversity and representation in the sport of cycling, including her ‘Do Better Together’ virtual ride series, and The Black Foxes collective, Ayesha has inspired countless people, particularly people of color, to ride their bikes more often—both competitively and recreationally. Her work also encourages people of all backgrounds to challenge themselves and who they picture when they define the word “cyclist.”

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My heroes are the people I know: My Grandma, my peers, or, if I must pick a well known figure, Serena Williams. In cycling, Kittie Knox.

Heroes are complicated. They get put on a pedestal, often to a degree where any sign of humanity is erased. History doesn't like to document their controversial views and values, their robust identities, and their less savory actions. Heroes are immortalized as flawless martyrs for a cause, or in the case of sport, superhuman athletes, when in reality, they are people who have been neatly packaged in historical shrink wrap so we can applaud them for their accolades and keep it moving.

In women’s cycling, most of its designated heroes are still very much alive, mostly because of a massive lack of documentation for women in cycling until very recently. From what we do know about our living women’s cycling heroes, some of them are actively causing harm to the bike community and its people.

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For the purposes of this essay, I am referring to any and everyone who rides a bike as a member of “the bike community” with a focus on the American bike community.

In recent years, there has been a movement to show the bike community that women are just as capable, athletic, and interested in bikes as men. Unfortunately, this movement has been lacking in and struggling with intersectionality. People are more than one thing. I am Black, I am African American, I am a non-binary woman, I am an advocate, I am an athlete, and I have mental health struggles. Since I’m not a one dimensional figure, I must constantly consider all of my intersections.

Thanks to colonialism, patriarchy, and racism, women’s movements have historically focused on the wishes and priorities of cis-gendered, able bodied, white women and are structured around an unfair power structure that disenfranchises anyone who does not fit into that description. In my opinion, the disregard of true intersectionality within these movements, makes them ineffective for ever achieving women’s equality. You can’t fight for women and not fight for Black women, trans women, disabled women, or any of the other intersections where any one who identifies as a woman resides.

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In the US, women have been fighting for basic rights for almost two centuries. Unfortunately, Black women have been consistently pushed aside and told to put women first and ignore their racial struggles for now. For example, even though women earned the right to vote in 1920, Black women couldn’t vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

A lot of what the vague mission of “fighting for women’s rights” accomplishes is discrimination disguised as progress

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We are never going to actually achieve women’s equality if we are not prepared to destroy the system as it exists and build a completely new one that includes all of us.

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Susan B. Anthony is a complicated historical figure known for fighting towards women’s equality and the abolition of slavery. When asked if she would be willing to support the 15th amendment that would grant voting rights to Black men, she is quoted as saying “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ask for the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman.” I understand having a visceral reaction to being told to wait, but Anthony showed herself to be an example of a performative ally. A performative ally is often a white person, who presents an image of understanding and compassion for disenfranchised people, but when challenged, will quickly throw thinly veiled solidarity out of the window and prioritize their race. Fellow suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton is also painted as a hero despite being a known racist. Upon the passing of the 15th amendment, she went as far as to say “Their (Black Men) emancipation is but another form of slavery. It is better to be a slave of an educated white man than a degraded, ignorant, black one.”

These are women who historians have labeled as pro-women’s rights and anti-slavery activists; when in reality they were pro white women’s rights, and anti-slavery activists so long as Black people knew their place. Despite all that we know about their anti-blackness, they have been memorialized in statues, sometimes even sculpted in unity with prominent Black freedom fighters who crossed their paths like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. This props them up not just as heroes for white women, but falsely portrays them as friends and saviors to Black people as well.

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So what about our women’s cycling heroes Is it enough to win races, or champion bike lanes, or design women’s specific gear? Does that negate any racism, transphobia, and general discrimination that happens off the bike? No. It does not. People who punch down are not heroes. A position of power and influence gives folks the ability to cause irreversible harm.

If someone is discriminatory with no power or influence, that’s mostly a problem for them. If someone with power and influence is discriminatory, that is a problem for everyone.

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The bike community looks to its heroes to set the bar of what success should look like. When we lift up women only for their talent and erase all their flaws we are setting up admirers to follow in their path and mimic the bad with the good.

It’s on the bike community as a whole to raise the standard on what it takes to be called a hero by viewing our idols as whole humans with complex lives and experiences. We should show their blemishes, views, and values. We should document their triumphs and failures as athletes, and as people. We should acknowledge their ability to exist as members of a larger bike community that includes women that cross at so many beautiful intersections. This way, when they speak out into the world, it fosters an atmosphere that will encourage more women to try bikes instead of making underrepresented women feel unwelcome.

Let’s agree to take a deeper look and make sure we hold our women’s cycling heroes accountable to being deserving of the title of hero, or better yet stop giving out that title at all.

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SRAM is proud to donate $5000 USD to Thee Abundance Mini-Grant on behalf of Ayesha, in honor of her piece for International Women’s Day. 

“I'm partnering with Tour of America's Dairyland to provide free entries and mentorship for 5-7 Black/Brown women to race half or all of the series. I've committed to supporting 5 women to race and will be using Thee Abundance Summit as a fundraising opportunity to also provide money for accommodations (since host housing isn't really the jam right now), transportation, and personnel support. Any additional funding will help support more grantees, which have been capped at 10 total for the first year of the program.  

I'm happy I've made it to where I wanted to go, but the goal has always been to create a pathway for others to do the same. ToAD (and hopefully next year, Intelligentsia Cup) are two multi-day race series with ample opportunity for folks to gain a lot of racing experience in a small amount of time. 

If for whatever reason the race is canceled, the program will roll over to 2022, and part of the grant money will be allocated towards helping the grantees prepare for the 2022 season."

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You can follow Ayesha @ayesuppose. Photos by William Loyd.