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Connecting with a Culture through Cycling

Words by: Amy Morfas

What would you say if a friend told you they were doing an endurance bike race in Iceland that’s off the charts in difficulty? Now, what if this friend has been riding less than a year?

That’s what Alyssa Gonzalez is not only taking on, but she’s embracing the opportunity with gusto while also working to share the experience with other athletes of color.

The Westfjords Way Challenge is an intense, unique event, launching June 29 in the remote northwest corner of Iceland.

This inaugural race consists of four stages in five days with a total distance of 595 miles. Each stage has a minimum of 7,000 feet of climbing with the final stage featuring a staggering 14,734 feet.

And did we mention that as of March 2022, Alyssa had not yet done a single ride longer than 50 miles?

The course is half gravel and half paved and made all the more challenging by water crossings, no official aid stations, and camping when riders can grab a few hours of rest. Just to top things off, one extra challenging stretch of unpaved road can only be traversed at low tide! Wayfinding skills are mandatory as the course is unmarked. Participants will truly be in the elements on this barren, unforgiving, yet beautiful landscape. 

Another unique twist to the event is that riders are required to stop and enjoy ‘cultural connection’ points along the way. These include museums, family-run farms, and geothermal pools where riders can connect and build enduring friendships with other participants.

But the race also stands out in another way. The founders have limited the number of male entries to increase ridership amongst those who are typically underrepresented. The race is offering scholarships to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) riders and also reserving BIPOC-only registration slots.

An athlete of Southest Asian and Hispanic descent, Alyssa is a vocal advocate for bringing more women of color to the sport. She is working to redefine what people envision when they think of an outdoorsy person or cyclist.

Her advocacy work is focused on eliminating barriers for other women of color to enter the sport of cycling. Representation is important as cycling has traditionally been dominated by white males.

“One of my goals is to change what starting lines look like by having greater representation,” said Alyssa.

Alyssa moved from the east coast to Boulder, Colorado in 2016, and it was the first time she was exposed to mountains and all the recreational opportunities they provide. She quickly became an avid skier and hiker, and embraced rock climbing and camping.

She got into the outdoor space more seriously in 2019/2020 with the pandemic, taking breaks from lockdown with runs and hikes. At the same time, BLM (Black Lives Matter) protests were coming to the forefront in society. Seeing and hearing Black and Brown voices and bodies elevated to that status was impactful and resonated with her as a person of mixed race. It drove her to get involved with advocacy work and use her own voice for change. 

Alyssa started mountain biking and gravel riding just last year.

Her newness to the sport shows in her unbridled enthusiasm to get others involved.

While many companies in the cycling industry are building internal programs to embrace diversity and inclusion in the workplace, the Westfjords scholarships provide actual financial support to BIPOC riders, recognizing the lack of equity in the sport and helping to broaden representation at the event in a very direct way.

Alyssa was introduced to the race by endurance athlete Lael Wilcox, who helped facilitate her being selected as a sponsored rider at the event. Alyssa is also honored with helping to select two candidates who will receive BIPOC scholarships to the race. Nearly 30 applications were submitted and it’s been challenging selecting just two. “It’s hard to say no to any of these athletes as they’re all so deserving of this opportunity to be at the starting line,” said Alyssa.

With snowy conditions in Boulder, getting out to train has had its challenges,

but she’s working hard to prepare with the time she has available to her, including many hours spent riding inside. She’s also been experimenting with nutrition and hydration to get that dialed in before the race. In addition to training and Alyssa’s advocacy work, she’s also a full-time product designer with Outside Inc.

But she’s not one to back down from a challenge.

A Division I hurdler in college, Alyssa has surprised herself by embracing an endurance event. While she admits to the occasional thoughts of imposter syndrome, it’s been rewarding to be recognized by the event for the work she’s doing in the bike advocacy space. She mainly faces doubts from others, but Alyssa believes that the level of experience isn’t as important as one’s passion and commitment.

Alyssa became a Pivot brand ambassador in 2022 and she’ll be riding a Vault gravel bike for the Westfjords adventure.

She’s going into the event with no expectations in terms of competing. Her goal is to finish in the allotted time with no injuries and still be happy and smiling at the end.

Iceland is special to Alyssa as it was the first country she set foot in outside of the U.S., en route to a backpacking trip to Europe and Asia after getting her master’s degree. Having her first international race there is meaningful and makes her reflect on how far she’s come since that first trip. And while Iceland does not have the same history of systemic racism as the U.S., it’s still been rewarding for Alyssa to build a diverse field of riders to represent at the race.

But Westfjords is just the beginning.

Alyssa had a bikepacking trip to South America planned right when Covid hit, and that’s still on her list. She also wants to bikepack through Thailand, where her mom is from. Her goal for these trips is to build a deeper connection with her culture and meet additional family members along the way.

Alyssa’s work to welcome new riders to the sport has just begun, and expanding the breadth of faces we see in today’s field of cyclists will inspire tomorrow’s. And that’s a win for everyone. After all, the bigger the cycling movement, the better it is for everyone on two wheels.

Amy Morfas has worked for years in bike advocacy to make cycling more accessible, safe, and fun for everyone. She currently lives and rides in Bend, Oregon.  
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