A conversation with Devin Cowens about her VeloNews gravel issue cover

Senior editor Betsy Welch and advocate Devin Cowens talk about getting to know each other, and what it's like to be on the cover.

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An Atlanta-based rider and an advocate for BIPOC participation in cycling, Devin Cowens is the subject of a feature story, as well as our cover model, for our 2021 gravel and adventure issue of VeloNews magazine. In the feature Cowens shares her perspective on a wide range of topics, from gravel cycling’s efforts to attract more people of color, to the decision of some events to abandon offensive names.

As is often the case nowadays, Cowens and I had never met in person prior to our interview for the story. Since then, we have struck up a friendship over the phone.

Before I called her up for the first time, I had read about Cowens in another cycling magazine, and then noticed that we had a friend in common on Instagram. I asked our mutual friend to connect us, figuring that was better than a cold call. I was nervous, though, that Cowens would see the @ in my email address and know exactly why I wanted to talk.

Since that first conversation, there have been countless others, in which we talk about things as personal as relationships and jobs, as well as the more topical subjects, like inclusivity in cycling, and what being a disrupter actually means in our sport in 2021.

I wanted to know how it felt to see herself on the cover of the magazine, so I asked Cowens if we could go on the record for this interview. Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

VeloNews: What has it been like, hearing people’s reactions [to being on the cover]? What have they been?

Devin Cowens: First of all, this has never happened. I’ve talked to people, I’ve had a conversation and been in a magazine, but this is a first.

When this [being on the cover of VeloNews] came up, I was like, ‘this would be really cool,’ and then I saw the cover and I was like ‘oh shit, this is happening, how do I share this without hyping myself up while also being like, this is a big deal.’

Of course there are a lot of people who get on covers and hype themselves up, but I’m not as interested in self-promotion as I am in giving other people opportunities. I can’t be the only one, that doesn’t help everyone. 

And yea, I’m racing gravel, but I wouldn’t consider myself a racer. So that feels different, too. I’m just a regular person. So, I want to celebrate that because it’s a big deal, and I also want to see a bunch of other people have these opportunities for conversations, too. 

I don’t like the term ‘role model’ because it can make people seem like they’re free of error. But I do think that as a child, it’s important to see people who look like you doing things, that’s a big deal.

I want to celebrate and share it to say, ‘this is possible.’

VN: Yea, I had noticed that you hadn’t shared it on social media yet, but I was waiting with curiosity more than anything. I’m not sure how I would have handled it either, I’ve never been on the cover of a magazine!

DC: I’ve been having that conversation internally. It’s crazy because I’ve been having this process in real time where I’ve been noticing that people are looking at my [Instagram] stories. And, I’ve been saying to myself, ‘post about this magazine cover that you had, that was really cool!’ But then it’s like what do you say? 

VN: You told me in a text that white people have been calling you up regularly and more frequently. What are they asking you for?

DC: I guess it started last summer. It was very much couched in terms of like, ‘oh we want your insight on X.’ Or, ‘we wanna brainstorm about X, or, just talk about your experiences.’ It was a combination of ‘what are your thoughts on DEI in cycling’ and ‘oh, you’re someone that’s doing this, someone who’s black and bikepacks.’ Basically, it was ‘what are your stories of racism?’ No one said that, but of course that’s what it is.

One person messaged me on Instagram, was like, ‘hi, I’m helping with a women’s history month thing, and I’m helping with the women’s cycling content. I’m looking for blurbs about minorities, do you have any creative ideas on how we can share this?’ 

It’s that stuff times a million. 

Also I think it was a lot of people navigating what they were reading, and then having emotions in real time. Like, just checking in on me. Like, ‘I don’t know what to say but I know I should say something because the Internet says it’s important.’

VN: I’ve told you this, but that’s why I was nervous to call you initially. So, when I called did you feel like I was someone asking for the same old shit? 

DC: One, you came from someone I trusted. That was 75 percent of it, to be honest. If you’d come to me on Instagram, I’d be like, ‘who’s this Betsy Welch person?’ The second piece is that I think that you sort of led with this, ‘hey, here’s what’s going on and this is what I’m trying to do.’ Your language wasn’t off-base. It felt honest and authentic. 

And then I was like, VeloNews, there was some curiosity there. Because even in our initial conversation some of your questions felt a bit more real and you weren’t using buzzwords like DEI, you were interested in me as a person. I didn’t feel like I was having to educate you. 

My ignorance probably helped a little, too. ‘Oh she wants to bikepack,’ not ‘oh, she works for VeloNews.’ Honestly, I’d never even read VeloNews.

VN: I really enjoyed our first two conversations and also the process of writing the piece in the magazine. But then with the cover, I was like, uh oh, what if she’s not into it?

DC: Well, I was thinking about it, and you said that gravel was the conversation focus. Since I am on a gravel team, I’m always thinking about what I’m involved in and how it can extend to other people. 

So now that I’m able to be part of a team, I’m thinking through how things like that can be extended to other people. So, if this magazine is centered in the gravel space, I saw it as an opportunity for people to see this. If someone sees me and hears I’m interested in gravel, maybe that person is BIPOC and reaches out to me. I want people who are interested in this to know that I’m an approachable person who will talk about whatever. I always say that I’m a great connector.

So because it was gravel-focused and that’s a space I’m comfortable in, that made sense. 

VN: OK, so back to how it’s been for you.

DC: It’s cool! My mom cried. She doesn’t know what VeloNews is, but her baby’s on the cover of  a magazine. It’s interesting, but surreal is the best thing I could say. I have friends who’ve been on magazine covers, and it’s cool, but this one is on my coffee table. 

I think with people hitting me up and these conversations that are happening, there’s a balance of how these conversations need to happen. The Black folks that are advocates have been saying a lot of the same things for a long time. But now there’s more of an opportunity for change to happen because there’s more white folks with platforms and positions of power with ears that are open. 

As a Black person I have to look at both, that’s my existence. 

For my sanity, I can’t carry rage in my heart all the time, but there is rage in my heart, and that’s real. So I need to balance that. So, does it bring me joy to say I’m existing in these spaces to provide opportunities to people who look like me? Absolutely. And, am I still mad? Absolutely. 

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.