Monday, March 20, 2017

Women Involved Series: Sonya Looney

It’s perseverance and attitude that have propelled Sonya across the Sahara Desert, Himalayas, jungles of Sri Lanka, and rural mountains of Haiti.

She is a professional mountain biker focusing on ultra-endurance and stage racing events around the world.

She has raced in over 20 countries and has more than 25 professional career wins. Sonya is also the 2015 World 24-hour Champion and a plant-based athlete.

Sonya is also an accomplished writer and motivational speaker including her TED Talk.
She brings stories of determination, defining success, overcoming fear and doubt, and pure adventure into her bright and powerful keynote speeches across multiple industries.

When she’s not racing, Sonya enjoys long backcountry adventures, running her own media business, yoga, cooking plant-based food, photography, and playing guitar. She loves connecting with people and communities around the world- say hi to her on social media!

Tell us what introduced you to your #bikelife and how it has influenced you over the years-
Running is what introduced me to cycling. I got into running when I was 17 and ran my first marathon. I was going to spin class at the gym for cross training, but never really rode bikes outside. A friend of mine at work invited me to go mountain biking and I was instantly hooked! I signed up for my first race 3 weeks after that mountain bike ride and the rest is history! 

If you can recall, tell us about your first off-road ride. How did it make you feel and what did you learn from the experience?
I honestly can't remember the details first mountain bike ride but I do remember details from some of my first rides. I remember seeing something technical and feeling brave (and rode it!). I remember feeling free and fast, and that feeling was addicting. I could get the same feeling of running, but cover more distance and go even faster! I never could imagine that I'd be where I am today from riding a bike. It's completely changed my life and taken me on a trajectory I never saw coming! I've traveled the world, met my soulmate, and am living my dreams because I started mountain biking! 

What would be your suggestions for new riders to help them with nervous feelings on riding off-road?
Number one - it's okay to crash. I've been riding for 13 years and I still crash! Number two - always look at where you want to go, not at the rock you could hit. Number three- BREATHE! If you hold your breath, your body tenses up. I slowly exhale out my mouth if I get nervous on my bike and it helps a lot! 
What would you say has been your most challenging injury to heal from? Was there anything you learned from the experience?
Concussions are the hardest injuries to deal with. You have to be very patient and take them seriously. They are the most challenging because you seem fine, but you're not. I have pushed when I shouldn't and was lucky. I also learned that I'll never do that again. So much so that I had a head injury in 2016...just days before I was supposed to line up and defend my World Champion title. I decided not to race. It wasn't an easy decision, but it was the smart one and I was glad I did. 

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Having the rear tire slip when you are trying to ride something steep was a pretty common occurrence. You have to get your chest closer to the handlebar and center yourself down and over the bike. Think of putting pressure on the rear tire with the lower half of your body but holding strong and low with the upper part of your body. It's also important to learn how to balance going slow. If you're in a rock garden, need to unclip, or have a tight corner, being able to stay upright going slow and move the bike around is a great skill to work on. You can do it by practicing riding really slow and balancing with running shoes (if you're afraid of getting stuck clipped in) over grass. 

You have a number of races under your belt, which would you say has been the one you've been most proud of?
I'm most proud of the ones in third world countries- not necessarily because I was fast and won them (always a plus), but because it was the biggest stretch outside my comfort zone to go there and be brave enough to show up and give it a go! I have done the only international mountain bike race in Haiti (hasn't happened since) and that was an amazing and eye-opening experience.

Any suggestions/tips for those who are looking to participate at their first event?
Focus on the fun and don't worry about results or time. Do your best, enjoy the experience, and the rest will fall into place!

What is the greatest challenge you face as a mountain bike ambassador and athlete?
I run my own show (team of 1!) and it's a huge amount of work. I love every second of it, but balancing training, travel, and managing about 20 sponsorship relationships alongside speaking, writing, and continuing to build my personal brand is definitely a challenge! Sometimes I admittedly do not spend as much time training as a "pro" should because I'm focused on the business side of things, but I'm passionate about both. I also find it challenging as a professional athlete because you have to be so focused on cycling that it's hard to integrate other sports. The reason is that if you're tired from another sport during the season, it can take away from your ability to push yourself most efficiently. I really miss running and tennis! 
What would you say is the biggest motivation behind you blogging about your mountain bike races/adventures with the public?
I love connecting with people and sharing my experiences because I want to break down the barriers with mountain bike adventure travel. I am fortunate to see so many places and cultures. I want people to know that they can go do that too someday and it's not crazy to actually go to Nepal or Switzerland or Chile to go mountain biking! Traveling with your bike (it could just be somewhere 2 hour drive away!) and sharing the experience is what helps you remember it and gives substance to your life.

Why do you feel writing is a great way to connect individuals with what you do as an athlete?
I think it's important to share the challenges as well as the good things that happen. As someone who teaches personal development and a strong believer in growth, I love learning not only from my own experiences, but from other peoples' experiences as well. Deep down, we all want to feel like there's hope and a chance to do whatever it is we want to do. When you see that other people have the same emotions or similar challenges (or victories), it makes you feel more empowered to continue on your journey and a stronger feeling of connectedness in your community. The response to my writing over the years has been incredibly emotional - you really can make a huge difference in someone's life just by telling a personal story. You never know who is listening, who is searching, and something as simple as a photo or even a smile can make all the difference in the world. I think we underestimate the impact we can have on people around us.

You have done TED talks and have an On Dirt Series, tell us about what inspired you to be open with your journey as an athlete and why these talks are helpful in shedding light on women in athletics doing things that they might not have imagined-
​My writing is what inspired me to start talking about my adventures. My speaking series started as a basic mentoring session to anyone who wanted to come so I could answer questions and break down barriers in cycling (nutrition, training, equipment, skills, etc). People always wanted to hear about my adventures and it morphed into a career as a speaker. I love speaking because I not only get to talk to cyclists, but people across all industries. Cycling was my vehicle to teach me about the person I want to be, but it may not be the vehicle for everyone. I just want people to find that thing they are passionate about and go after it. As a female in athletics, I wanted to share the power of self-belief and perseverance because with that combination (as well as patience), you can accomplish a lot! Again, it boils down to story-telling and being about to connect with people on an emotional level. My favorite thing about speaking, writing, seeing people is feeling that mutual spark of connection. It's a big part of what makes us human- feeling connected; and I think it's important to treat relationships, even as a mentor/mentee or teacher/student situation as two equal people.

What do you love about riding your bike?
It makes me feel alive and free, and it is a great community to be a part of. The cycling community worldwide is an easy place to belong and make friends!

Tell us about your bikes and why you enjoy them-
I ride SCOTT bikes. I have a 29er 100mm XC bike (Spark 900RC), a 27.5 120mm XC bike (Spark 700), and a 27.5 150mm enduro bike (Genius). I love them all for different reasons. In BC, I spend most of my time on the enduro bike because I love ripping down technical descents, riding steep rock slabs, and huge drops! I also almost always use a dropper seatpost! I also love carbon wheels (Stans NoTubes Valor and/or Bravo) and I'm spoiled with Shimano DI2!

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
I think people (not just women) are afraid to fall down. As adults, we aren't used to falling down and it can be really intimidating. Once you realize it's okay to fall down, I think it breaks down a barrier. I think people are also afraid of getting lost, but you can get GPS routes and download them to a computer (I like my Wahoo Fitness ELEMNT). You can't get lost when you have a GPS to follow! Also, I think people are afraid they'll be too slow or not good enough, but all you have to do go out and do what you love! It doesn't matter what speed you're going.
What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
For one, women's products need to improve. Women don't want to ride second tier bikes and we like to have more of a variety when it comes to apparel. Some people love to wear pastels and hearts or crazy designs. Others love to wear simple designs. The argument is that a company doesn't want to invest so much money to make women's products because they're afraid that they won't have the market for it. However, if you never make the product and market it properly, and correct- you won't have buyers. I think there's a lot of interest in how to build out women's cycling. I think to grow mountain biking in general, there needs to be better high-end rental programs (Park City Bike Demos is a great example of a company with a cool business model). It's expensive to buy a bike, so you want to make sure you like it first...and maybe you want to ride 10 times before you commit to buying a bike! 

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
Cycling has given me confidence and has taught me that we are incredibly capable, even if it seems impossible. It also has introduced me to people that have changed my life. It also connects you to nature in a huge way! I want to share that with everyone because it's an amazing way to live your life!

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I can play 4 musical instruments, but not at the same time :)

Monday, March 13, 2017

Women on Bikes Series: Laura Madeline Wiseman

I am the author of 25 books and chapbooks. My latest book is Velocipede from Stephen F. Austin State University Press, which includes the poem “Road Side Kiddie Pool” that won the 2015 Beecher’s Contest in Poetry.

My essay on cycling in Nebraska "Seven Cities of Good" was a Creative Nonfiction Award honorable mention in Pacifica Literary Review's 2015 contest.

My essays and poems on bicycling have appeared or are forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, Sport Literate, Boneshaker Magazine, Adventure Cycling blog, Blue Planet Journal, Postcard Poems & Prose Magazine, and the anthology Still Life with Poem (Literary House Press).
I teach writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Tell us about how your #bikelife originally started-
A big wheel or maybe a tricycle? Definitely a bicycle with a banana seat, training wheels, and a flowered basket. My aunt’s stationary bike as my mom did laundry? Friend’s bikes, or cousin’s bikes? A bike given to me by my dad. Yep, my #bikelife started there.

How would you say cycling has influenced your way of life?
I ride my bike to ride my bike. Repeat.

You commute year-round, when did you first decide to use a bicycles as your transportation and what have you learned from it?
Olympia, a 10-speed Huffy, was my first commuter bicycle. When I got my first part-time job at fifteen, my dad repaired his sister’s old bicycle for me. When pedals snapped, the chain slipped off, the handlebar tape unraveled, or flats refused to fill, my dad was the one to make the repairs she needed. I walked to school (less than a mile), I biked to work (not quite three miles), and though there were city buses, rides with friends, or my dad who might give me a lift in the worst of the ice or snow, I loved commuting by bicycle best. When I went away to college, Olympia went with me. When I went to graduate school, I bought a new commuter. When I graduated, bicycle commuting had long stopped being a decision. It was a habit.

My essay “Speaking to Bike Heroes” recounts the process of refurbishing Olympia. Last summer I took her down from the hook in my garage, brushed off the cobwebs, and with the help of friends, local bike shops, and a bicycle workshop, sought to make her my commuter again—this time to the gym (a little over a mile). She lacked brakes, the stem nut was rusted, and she weighed 38 pounds. Unpredictable in speed or duration, I test rode her after each repair. Riding her gave me a glimpse of the lessons she taught me as a girl—strength, joy, freedom.

Do you have suggestions on commuting for folks who are looking to commute by bike?
Take the chance to experience nature in the city. On the local commuter trails here, creatures come and go—Canadian geese, fox, possum. Each of them surprises, especially the baby turkey, ducks, and fawns.

On what should have been my normal commute home in the rain, I witnessed such a baby’s fright. A fawn, startled onto the trail from a grassy shoulder by rush-hour traffic and trail users, ran, then leapt into a ten-foot fence. His face and torso smashed into it, but the wire shoved him back, like the fence was a paddle in a game of birdie. He shook off the impact, ran, then leapt again. The moments of his running leaps must’ve been seconds, but prompted a series of questions for me. Why did he dash with such a long-eared lunge? Did he think bicycles were predators? Habituated to deer in the Midwest and raised with Disney’s cartoons where young women can lift a hand to such a spotted pelt, why was I surprised by his terror? Was there even a gap in the fence through which he, or any of us, might escape? My essay “Finding the Gap on Dead Man's Run” explores this moment.

Tell us why you enjoy long-distance riding and touring-
Touring by bicycle lets me see the world in unexpected ways, like biking through fog in Nebraska in August.

On the second morning of a two-day organized ride, as soon as I got out of camp, I couldn’t see. Fog obscured the road, the dawn, lights from cyclists ahead of me and lights from oncoming traffic. The road was devoid of sound—no birds, insects, cars. The wind roared in the silence as I pedaled steadily, not knowing what was coming or what might be lingering nearby. Everything became wet—my bicycle, clips, and knickers. My pullover was hoary with beads, as if I were draped in spider webs shimmering in dew. When I hit a bump, my helmet showered me. When I gripped the drops, my handlebar tape slid under my fingers. When I wiped the sniffles from my nose, my nose became wetter—everything damp, humid, swimming in strange moisture. I rode, preoccupied by what I couldn’t see and haunted by the vision of three girls who’d appeared in the small town park the evening before, one of whom had told me before vanishing, “I’ll be back. Wait right here.” My essay “Seven Cities of Good” describes my experience on this two-day tour.

If you could go anywhere to tour by bicycle, where would you go?
I would bicycle across America.

Do you have suggestions for folks who are looking to do more long-distance/tour-style rides?

I was invited to be Inquisitive Eater’s poet of the month in April—the journal featured three food related poems collected in Velocipede, as well as my essay “Fragile Giants” on food needs while riding.

Back to back, one weekend I participated in two long-distance tours. In one food was plentiful. The SAG was hosted in a church that felt like an island oasis on windswept roads, the solid thing among crops rolling with waves. I gathered there with other cyclists to laugh, story tell, and eat our first or second lunch. Some of us simply grazed on fresh fruit and roasted meat, queued up for the buffet of Italian chicken, cheesy potatoes, and bakery sweets, or made one last stop before cycling again at a table that offered multiple bowls of a DIY trail-mix, complete with mini sacks pre-labeled, This trail-mix belongs to_________. I couldn’t help it. I had to write my name in the blank, filling one, then two sacks of banana chips. Yet on the second organized ride, the SAGs contents were spread thinly on folding tables on the edges of roads—browning fruit chunks on a paper plate, coolers of tap water, lone pretzel rods inside plastic tubs. How does a hungry cyclist survive or thrive on such rides? If on one ride the food was the bolster against the wind, on the other its lack seemed to intensify the gales.
Velocipede is a collection of poems based on your first RAGBRAI experience. Tell us what your experience was like on RAGBRAI-
On the first day I participated in RAGBRAI, I pedaled through my hometown neighborhoods, then spotting a kiddie pool near the curb in someone’s yard. Everywhere for miles, people had greeted riders with signs, hellos, or cheers. Some sat in folding chairs. Others watched from porches. A few set out folding tables or coolers with wares—water, sports drinks, snacks. But one group sold chilled drinks from a kiddie pool that glittered with ice in the humid morning. It surprised me. I had never seen a kiddie pool used in that way. That moment became the inspiration for “Roadside Kiddie Pool” in Velocipede.

When I had decided to train for RAGBRAI the year earlier, the only bike tour I knew about was RAGBRAI. I knew many people commuted by bicycle—I had been riding among them for years, but I didn’t know there was anything else but RAGBRAI. The entire ride was a surprise. I was a newbie, virgin, green, but that first ride, and writing about it later in Velocipede, revealed to me what those hours in the saddle taught me about loving bicycles.

For folks who have not attended RAGBRAI before, what did you find to be helpful for your experience?
Expect wonder.

My first experience was all wonder. My second experience was to meet my personal challenge to ride a century. My essay “Mad for a Century” recounts that experience on the Karras Loop Day, named after John Karras, the co-founder of the ride in 1973.

Uphill from the baggage truck, I broke camp early that day, then pushed, chanting in my head, hundred, hundred, hundred. I stopped to refuel. I drafted with riders, some in military jerseys. I shook John Karras’ hand, then told him, “Thank you,” even as I worried—could I actually bike a century? I sweated. I bonked. I inhaled cartons of fresh fruit, alternated with fistfuls of anything salty—popcorn, jerky, seeds. But nearly one hundred miles from the ride start, my watch that recorded my mileage refused to sync beside the showers in camp. The app swirled only a stubborn Looking. I biked to the grocery store to try the Wi-Fi there. Then off the main drag, I rolled everywhere trying to connect—the library, another grocery, near shops, random corners—squinting against the glare or dodging cyclists or their friends. Some streets jarred with potholes, others seemed to be made of only cracks. Everywhere bikes careened or vehicles rolled. Where there weren’t bikes or vehicles mid-motion, people sat, stood, or laughed. But the internet was nowhere on that century day. It simply doesn’t exist in the overnight town. Sagging with my failure to prove I’d biked a century, I rolled back to my tent hoping some proof would materialize from the sky. The proof did materialize, but in a surprising way.

Tell us why you chose to use writing as your art to talk about your #bikelife-
I started writing Velocipede when I was a fellow at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico. As I packed up my car with my belongings for the fall semester fellowship, I included in one create of research I planned to complete, the book Anybody’s Bike Book, a paperback how-to manual published in 1971. I’d purchased it at a library’s book sale for less than a dollar. If I had filled a tire, fixed a chain slip, and oiled a chain, I had never changed a tire. Then with my bicycle on my hitch, I drove to Taos. I thought maybe that book could teach me about bicycles, but what it did was give me permission to write about them.

What has been the most difficult for you in terms of getting your writing out to the public? What kept you inspired?
Writing, like bicycling, is work, but the work is the reward.

Do you have any suggestions for folks who are looking to get into writing and publishing their works?
Write. Revise. Repeat.

What do you love about riding your bike?
Every moment.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
Olympia Huffy Ten-Speed – My former girlhood commuter bicycle refurbish for me by my dad.

1973 Schwinn Suburb – Also given to me by my dad. My project bicycle.

Walmart bike – My commuter bike in grad school. Donated.

Kona Mountain bike – Given to me as a gift from a friend, but too small. She waits in storage for some future use.

Trek hybrid – My commuter bicycle. The first bike I rode on RAGBRAI. The bicycle I take cross-country for work, in town to haul groceries, or in the winter’s snow and ice. Stolen.

Huffy Canyon – When I told my dad my hybrid was stolen last October, he gave me Canyon on Christmas Eve. After finding him on the curb years ago, he’d saved him in his shed. I stopped at the first gas station with free air. Both tires filled. Christmas morning, I rode him to family to celebrate the holidays. Then, when I returned home, a local bike workshop and friends helped make him a commuter—gear cables, chain, basket, lights, massive chain link lock. Fully loaded (school books excluded), he weighs 42 pounds, which makes him the perfect winter commuter.

Trek Lexa – My road bike. She’s a darling.

What have you enjoyed most about refurbishing your older bicycles?
I like projects. Bicycles have personalities. Each feels different on the road. Each has a history they want to tell.

From the depths of his shed that contained all manner of things—dresser drawers without a dresser, a Radio Flyer wagon, a shovel that he called “the largest shovel in the world”—my dad unearthed a vintage bicycle he’d found on the curb, but had wedged safely behind crates, planks of wood, and a rocking chair for years—a 1973 Schwinn Suburban, all green and chrome, fenders, cruiser bars, and stem shifters. After fixing up Olympia, I only wanted the chance to try again with another bicycle, but he said, “You can have that Schwinn.” I took him home with the hopes to make him an errand bike to haul fresh veggies or kibble for my chow-mix, Echo. Despite my fantasies, for weeks one part or another on the Suburban hiccupped, groaned, or screamed.

My essay “Fixing Time” explores my attempt to refurbish him. The best part of refurbishing old bicycles is riding them. The next best part is the adventures one follows to make that possible.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling?
Many things, including fears like getting hit by a car or the idea of dying while riding a bicycle.

Last fall, I participated in a memorial ride for a fallen cyclist. The night prior to the ride, I received a message from the organizers that noted ride details—check-in time, silent start, posted memorials, volunteers—but warned, “you are on your own in terms of traffic. Only you can decide when it is safe to GO.” The ride didn’t have a map, but offered an account of the fallen cyclist’s story—that he’d been cycling with his wife and children and had been struck and killed by a car driven by an elderly driver. In the morning chill, the ride began in silence—slow, respectful, packed together for the half-mile—but something about the start, the lack of route map, and the volunteers called up my own bicycle accident when I was hit by a SUV. On that commute to work, I had leapt up from the highway entrance ramp and rolled my bike to the shoulder, gasping for air, eyes wild on the vehicles around me, some idling in silent witness or accelerating onto the interstate to merge with lines of speeding vehicles. Standing there shaking, not yet feeling the deep ache of bruises that were to come, my only thought had been, I’m alive.

My essay “Road in Silence” explores fear, but also the strong cycling community who support one another, work to make the roads safe, or guide the routes we ride together.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
More blogs like #BikeLife that show all the cool ways women ride bicycles.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
Two years ago, my personal goal was to bike a century. I biked one on the Karras Loop day of RAGBRAI. Last year, I had two personal goals: 1) to beat my annual total miles and 2) to bike two centuries. I biked the second century of the year on the Karras Loop day, the first century on GOBA, and beat my annual record by several hundred miles.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

It Takes All Kinds.

As a woman who is heavily invested in being involved in the women's off-road riding community, let me say- There is a place for you.

I was recently asked if I would re-apply or apply to a women's program like I had done last year. Good question! In 2016 I went in with high hopes and was dealt a dose of reality and humility.

Nothing puts a damper on a fun, women's mtb weekend than seeing the "I'm sorry, but" letter that appeared in my inbox. It made me rue the day I ever decided to get a smartphone. Had I still owned my adorable flip phone, I would've been saved from the hurt in my heart until I had arrived home.

I have typically avoided exposing myself to opportunities that could result in "rejection." I'm the kind of person who likes a fairly solid guarantee that what I'm applying for is something within my realm of capabilities.

I had ideas as to why I wasn't accepted into the program, and it made me feel (temporarily) that what I'm doing isn't enough as a women's advocate for mountain biking. I also realized that I may never get into a program, regardless of my passion.

So, would I open myself up to the possibility of potential rejection in 2017? 

I think the biggest reason for applying is because I want to support companies that are promoting growth, opportunity, and change in the women's market in cycling. (Yes, women's market is another topic altogether, and I firmly believe there is a place for it.) I want those companies to know that I see their efforts and I think it's amazing. Even if I end up being one of 500, 200, or 1,000 that applied- I was one out of a lot of other women thinking the same thing: "This is a great opportunity!"

Will I ever be what they are looking for?
I'm not sure. All I can do is be me, do what I do, and do what I can to make changes in my community and beyond. I'll keep taking chances because I took a chance on mountain biking, and apparently that was a good thing!

Why is being involved so damn important to me?
Because biking has changed my life- it helped me overcome obstacles, depression, and helped me grow as a person. Gravel riding and Mountain biking helped me discover my capabilities of believing in myself and persevering. There is so much good that can come from a challenging sport- you just have to open yourself up to it. I want to help women by providing support, encouragement, and a place where they can feel like they belong.

If I continue to try and be involved with a program such as the Specialized Women's Ambassador Program or the Trek Women's Advocate Program, why have FWD - Fearless Women of Dirt?

Why not?
Rejection was the push I needed to re-evaluate myself, my passions, and my goals with FWD. I felt more motivated than ever to do my part by creating a meaningful and expansive grassroots group.

Decorah and the surrounding areas NEEDS a women's off-road riding group. An opportunity for folks to get together and ride, make new friends, and support one another- I created the foundation of something that I feel will be great, meaningful, and purposeful. It might be great in 50 years, but that's 50 more years of me busting my ass to create that greatness and purpose. I'll do so with determination in my heart and a smile on my face. I usually always gravitate towards the path less traveled- and my joy comes from growing something I believe in.

I opened FWD - Fearless Women of Dirt up to others after finding out that there was a FWD group in Canada. It's been a pleasure to chat with Lora about her growth with the group and being able to find similarities and share our struggles of both being busy, bike shop women trying to help everyone and appeal to the needs of more advanced riders. 

I crowned FWD Ambassadors, women from all over who are excited to share the joys of off-road riding with their friends and community. I wanted those who didn't have a group to call their own, to have a network and support that they could use as a resource to help them grow the sport in their community and peer group. Those who are already involved with women's ride groups will have further connectivity with other like-minded women.

FWD Ambassadors should be an advocate of the sport and do their part in spreading the word about how awesome riding off-road can be. It is ideal, that women use FWD as a way of starting up group rides in their local area- because FWD is all about moving forward with riding and community!

If you're seeking to dip your foot into creating your own riding group, I encourage you to give it a chance! Yes, it is intimidating and frankly, can be a little scary- because you have no idea if anyone will participate. Honestly? I still struggle with that, along with dealing with the feeling that what you're doing doesn't seem as important as you thought.  
It is.

Consistency, time, and dedication are all part of creating a successful riding group. There might already be one in your area, but don't be afraid to cultivate one of your own! If you're not part of that group, it likely means that you haven't found that group to be a good fit for you, which means other folks may feel the same way. Your personality and experience level may be more relatable to some folks who are too nervous to ride with that other group. Many communities have more than one group, and it makes sense because there are a lot of different personalities and riding styles. You'd be hard pressed to find one group that works for every person perfectly!

Don't let the fear of rejection or initial lack of participation stop you from going after what you're most passionate about. It takes all kinds- and you are truly capable of making a difference, you just have to take the chance and do it!

Keep applying for programs that inspire you, but don't be afraid to start your own group! Let whatever you do be a reflection of yourself and your passion for the sport.

For women involved in the industry, keep applying for women's mechanic scholarships! Even if you were not accepted last year, there is always the possibility of being accepted this year. You never know unless you try. The only way to guarantee you'll never get in is to never apply.

Curious about becoming a FWD Ambassador? You can contact me here

Whatever you choose to do and however you choose to do it- be it promoted by a company or a grassroots effort, there will be women from all over supporting you and your endeavors. 
Share your journey, spread the stoke, and live the #bikelife.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Women Involved Series: Amber Krueger

My name is Amber Krueger and I currently work at Revolution Cycles in Madison, WI and am (currently) one of 12 Bell Joy Ride Ambassadors in the U.S.!

I have worked on and off in the bike industry for 6 years. I started while in college restocking and doing general "grunt" work, slowly working my way into service. I definitely set out from the beginning to work in service and was eager and willing to do what it took to prove myself.

For me cycling has brought a great sense of self-sufficiency. It is a powerful feeling to be able to assemble, maintain, and ride my sole means of transportation by myself.

I currently work at Revolution Cycles in Madison, WI as their buyer and bookkeeper. It wasn't until I moved to Madison that riding dirt became a part of my life (now it's a HUGE part thanks to Bell!). I was primarily a commuter, and occasional tour-er. Cycling was just how I got around my city, it was more of a tool. It tool patient and kind friends to get me excited, and more importantly comfortable, with riding off road. For the last 4 years I have been riding more and more dirt, still commuting, but now even my commuter bikes look more like mountain bikes! Ha!

Last year was the first year for the Bell Joy Ride, and I have been thrilled to be a part of it. Our mission is to grow women's cycling by holding monthly group rides and events. for ALL women and ALL riding levels, in our own communities. Since starting I have met the most amazing and fearless women! Being able to encourage another woman to ride a rocky decent or over a log she thinks is to scary is awesome, helping someone to realize they can do way more than they think they can is AWESOME! Bikes are SO EMPOWERING! It's so amazing to be apart of another woman's off-road discovery!

I am really excited for another year of Joy Ride! I have such a great group of women who are helping to grow the movement and just spread the stoke for riding dirt, the program would not be possible without them! There are also a bunch of brands stepping up to help us, I have no doubt this year will be even better than the last!

I think the scariest part, but also the most essential, for someone wanting to learn to ride is to SHOW UP! Showing up is the first step, after that you realize you can do anything and you have a whole community willing to support you!

Your #bikelife is an important part of who you are, what would you say cycling has brought to you over the years?
Cycling has made my life what it is. The whole reason I started riding, and eventually working on, my bike is because of the self-sufficiency, and the feeling of being empowered, that is gave me. Being able to maintain or build a new bike, which is my sole means of transportation, was a really big deal, and step for me. I came to cycling when I was 19, in college in Milwaukee, and dating a guy that worked in a shop. I traded in my fixed gear (which was all the rage), that I only rode a handful of times (fixie riding was NOT for me! ha!), for a Surly Cross Check that he built up. Since getting my Cross Check it all snowballed from there. I got hired on at a shop, doing whatever they would let me do. I showed an interest in learning service and that turned into working as a mechanic and now I’m a buyer and bookkeeper and inventory manager and occasional mechanic for Revolution Cycles. I never planned on working in the industry, but after graduating college working in a job that was hands-on and kept me active and surrounded me with good people and adventure sounded pretty good to me. It definitely hasn’t been an easy path, but it’s been so fulfilling! My new mission is to make the industry a more desirable vocation for women. (more about that another time)

If you can recall, tell us about your first off-road ride. How did it make you feel and what did you learn from the experience?
My first off road ride was on some really rocky trails, at night, in the middle of winter. I cried. I swore off mountain biking after that night. It wasn’t until moving to Madison that I tried again. This time I was with some encouraging and PATIENT friends. I rode a lot by myself, learning I needed to be patient with myself because it can be hard and scary. It takes time for the terrified feelings to turn into excitement!

If you had issues with nervousness, what do you feel helped you to overcome? What would you to suggest to new riders?
I still get super nervous, especially on new trails. I would walk a lot; it is perfectly fine for you to hop off and walk sections. Now I walk a lot less! I make sure to take a breath and keep my mind focused on the moment and not wander off into the what-if’s.

Clips or flats? What do you like and why-
Off-road flats all the way. I am starting to experiment with clipless but flats are the most comfortable for me. I like to move my feet around when I’m riding so clipless never feels quite right to me.

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
I tend to think of my biffs as battle scars and wear them with pride, but I tend to be a cautious rider. On one section of challenging trail I went OTB (over the bars,) it wasn’t bad but it was enough to shake me. I avoided that section for a year, not riding it again until this year. Now I think I was silly for not riding it! It’s a fun section that I can ride successfully and the only thing holding me back was my head. Mountain biking is so mental.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Big drops and wooden features. Learning the importance of where your weight is when taking a drop is huge and takes practice. I still take a huge breath before a drop and just don’t think and just go for it. Wooden features are still scary to me. But pointing your shoulders where you want to go and not looking over the edge makes a big difference.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
Wooden features. I still get super nervous on them. I try to not think about the fact that there is an edge, rather focus on riding the feature, IDK if that makes sense ha! It’s all mental. I also think going off the edge and realizing you are fine if you do helps, but don’t just go falling off of things!

You were selected to be a Bell Joy Ride Ambassador, tell us why you applied for the program and what your thoughts are on the program:
I applied on whim. I didn’t really think much of it, I didn’t really think I would be selected. I was just starting to get more involved in MTB-ing and our local IMBA chapter so it sounded like a way to make what I was trying to get started happen. More so I thought, and still think, Madison deserves this, it is a great place for riding, but not a lot of people realize it. Madison, WI does not scream epic mountain biking..!
I am so excited to be a part of the program, It’s been an incredible year and I can’t wait to do it all again in 2017! Joy Ride is all about spreading the love of riding dirt. It’s that simple. And it’s a pretty simple role to fill because I LOVE riding, and mountain biking holds a super special place in my heart. I love to see women hit a drop or ride a pump track for the first time. It’s surreal to be able to share the feeling of invincibility and power that I get after finishing a ride with someone. I think every woman should have something in her life that makes her feel unbeatable. That’s what Joy Ride has given me. It’s given me a purpose.

Before you were selected as a Bell Joy Ride Ambassador, how was participation with your women's rides? Has it changed since being part of the program?
Before Bell’s support women’s rides were small, it was a lot of women that I already rode with and new from riding, not many new faces. Now, we get ladies from all over Madison. We have anywhere from 30-70 women show for an event. It’s so exciting to meet so many awesome women. There are so many strong, and driven, and inspiring ladies right here!
Why do you feel women's rides are an important asset for riders and communities?
I don’t necessarily think an all women’s group is crucial, but you need a group that is welcoming and positive, and encouraging, made up of kind people. Mountain biking (or any riding) is scary. New riders need to feel comfortable, and have fun, or they aren’t going to stick with it or with your group. All women definitely puts other women at ease, but I have ridden with some really wonderful men. It’s just about being good people.

Mountain biking has become a passion of yours, what would you say is the biggest reason why you want to encourage more women to try riding off-road?
Pushing limits is why I want women to try riding off-road. The mental strength it takes to drop in for the first time or keep going after punching a tree. There is a huge difference between riding to work on a paved path and riding a loop made up of rocks and logs. I know it’s not for everyone, but if you give it a fair shot you are bound to learn something new about yourself.

What do you love about riding your bike?
Riding means time away from everything. It fills a space between work and home or one errand and another obligation. It’s time where it’s about you and pedaling and moving forward. I can’t imagine going from home to a car to work every single day. I need that time where it’s just me and my thoughts and pedaling.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
(all my bikes are built up the same-ish steel frames, knobby tires, riser bars, flat grippy pedals, ha!)

Surly Cross Check -
This was my first “real” bike and my favorite to this day! It’s beef gravy brown with a sparkly purple straggler fork, added for the disc brake (one is better than none). It’s gone through every iteration--from drop bars to single and racks and slicks to the monster cross bike it is now-- riser bars, 1x8 and the widest and knobbiest tires I could fit. I love this bike!

Salsa El Mariachi-
My first “real” mountain bike--suspension fork, 29er. This bike makes me feel powerful yet graceful on the trails. It fits me and my riding style well and it makes me want to ride more!

Trek 950-
This is my single speed basket bike, puppy hauler, and grocery getter. 26” mountain bike that can handle anything. I ride this bike the most since I tend to commute to work on it. It’s my no fuss, throw it around, leave it in the rain, lube the chain once a month kind of bike.

Surly Krampus-
Newest addition! I sold my Pugsley for a more playful trail but still plus bike. I’m still getting the feel of it but so far I’ve learned it is super fun to ride through all the mud!

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
I think women are held back by themselves when it comes to anything new-- they don’t want to embarrass themselves or not be good enough or they think they will hold someone else back or no one will take to them or like them. In all reality I am just so excited you are trying, It does not matter if you are “good” or have the right bike or clothes. I will have so much respect if you just show up!

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
This is the hardest question. I have no idea. I am hoping that programming like Bell Joy Ride will help by providing an opportunity for women. But it only goes so far if ladies don’t show up. My theory is if I provided an opportunity and I have fun and share my stoke it will spread!
You have worked on and off in the industry for several years- why do you feel it is important for women to be involved with the cycling industry/bike shops?
It’s simple--because women ride. Men are dominant in the industry for many reasons but a shift is important because women ride too!

What would you suggest to a woman who is interested in working at a bike shop? What are some things that you've learned over the years that could be helpful-

Be persistent.
Have a thick skin.
It takes time.
There is a lot to learn.
There is always something new to learn.

What do you feel has been the most challenging aspect of working in the cycling industry?
I think one of the reasons more women aren’t in the industry because it’s not always a stable occupation. It’s hard to encourage a young woman to pursue this when pay is low, there are no benefits, and a lot of time it’s seasonal. The instability makes it hard get anywhere. I had to push for someone to teach me service. I made minimum wage, was always the first to get hours cut, but I kept at it and made it work. One of my goals is to make sure employees are treated and paid well at the shop I’m at.

What has been your most favorite aspect of working in the cycling industry?
Everyday I am surrounded by what I love. Rev is a family, it can’t get much better than playing bikes with family day in and day out!

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
Knowing that I would not be where I am today, AT ALL, if it wasn’t for someone getting me on a bike. You never know what will change someone’s life.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I haven’t driven a car in 5 years.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Get Accessorized- A Guide for New Off-Road Riders

Congratulations! If you're reading this, chances are you made a goal this year to start riding off-road. That is super awesome!

You might already identify as a bike rider, but then again, you might be completely new to #bikelife. This guide is based on personal opinion due to my own experiences as a new mountain biker. You might already have some of the accessories/items listed or you might not.
During my first years as a mountain biker, I quickly learned about accessories that could help me have the best experience possible out on the trails.

This is especially important if you are a new rider taking the exciting plunge of purchasing your first mountain bike. When you have a budget in mind, it is typically only the bike- not accessories that go along with the experience.

Sure, you can go riding in yoga tights and a tank top, but have you thought about how you will hydrate yourself? Does the bike come with pedals and if so- are they truly off-road appropriate? Have you thought about how you'll protect your hands or head if you crash? (Which will happen!)

With this guide, you'll get a run-down of items that will help you have the best, safest, and most enjoyable experience on two wheels. You might not purchase all of these items right off the bat, but investing in a few key things will definitely aid you in your cycling journey!

Remember, this is a guide based on opinion and personal experience- use it how it best works for you!

1. A helmet.
If you are going to venture into the world of off-road riding (mtb/gravel) I highly recommend that you invest in a good helmet. If it's been years since you've worn a helmet, note that they have changed a lot! Some manufacturers have made it so you do not have to worry about adjusting the straps by your ears. Some helmets are at a price point where you can find a size that better fits your head vs. a general "one size fits most" (size ranges typically start when you're in the $70 price range on up.)

If you are joining group rides put on by a local bike shop and are renting a bike, you will likely have a helmet included if you do not provide your own. My opinion is- if you plan on getting into off-road riding seriously, take the time to invest in your own helmet.

You will notice many folks wearing a wide array of helmets. You might find folks wearing road-style helmets with cycling caps, especially if they participate in long-distance riding or also ride roads. You might see folks wearing more Enduro-style helmets, too. Regardless of what you see other folks wear, take time to work with a LBS and find what helmet will make you feel safe and comfortable.

It's good to note- even if you can wear a road-style helmet while mountain biking, note it will not have as much back-of-the-skull protection like a true MTB or Enduro-style helmet would provide. When mountain biking, there is a higher chance of you falling backwards off your bike, which is why those helmets come down further on the base of your skull.

2. Hydration.
You will need water at some point while riding and there are a couple ways to ensure you have hydration with you. One way is a water bottle cage- but depending on the trail system and your confidence in riding, you may find yourself stopping to drink vs. just riding along and drinking.

Some bikes might not have availability of having a water bottle cage installed (for example, my Trek Cali Carbon SLX is a women's specific frame with a low-sloped top tube which doesn't allow for a cage install.) You then have two common options, one being you put a water bottle in a jersey pocket (which means you wear a jersey, which might not be what you want to do) or you go the hydration pack route. Camelbak is a popular brand as well as Osprey- both make unisex and women's specific packs and packs in various sizes.

Using a hydration pack is extremely handy because you drink from a hose that is close to you and you won't have to stop riding while drinking. The hoses are a bite-valve style, which is nice because you won't slobber water all over yourself. The other benefit with a hydration pack is the ability to easily bring items with you in case of emergency, snacks, or other items like a lightweight rain coat.

Hydration is important and necessary- especially on hot days. Finding the method that will guarantee your water intake is important. If you are a newer rider or simply dislike reaching down or back for a water bottle- get a hydration pack. It's worth the investment.

2. Hydration pack/gear pack.
This is an accessory that I feel is a good thing to invest in, especially if you end up wanting to travel to out-of-town trails, etc. Depending on the size of pack you may only have room for a snack, some money, water, and possibly a packable wind jacket/rain coat.
It wouldn't be a poor decision to invest in a hydration pack that allows you to carry either a hand pump or a couple CO2 cartridge, tire levers, a spare tube, patch kit, missing link for your chain, a multi-tool, snacks, packable jacket of some kind, money/insurance card, possibly a first-aid kit or at least bandages, and your cell phone.
Think of it this way. If you go camping you bring essentials with you to ensure you are going to have a safe and enjoyable experience. If you live within minutes of the trails, you know that you can probably squeak by without a lot of "gear" along. If you are traveling hours away, the last thing you want to do is blow up your riding vacation by getting a flat tire you can't fix. You might waste your whole trip because of one mechanical- having the tools and items with you and not knowing how to use them is better than not having them at all.

If you're in a bind and another rider is around who knows how to fix something- you'll have cash to pay them for their work on helping you get back up and rolling again. You also save them money because you have your own tube. Being prepared is a good thing and can save a lot of heartache.

The downside of packs is you can easily treat it like you're taking the kitchen sink with you and that will add more weight on your back. Work on taking only the necessities you'll need for the ride you're going on.

3. Gloves.
For mountain biking we usually recommend folks to invest in lightweight, full-finger gloves. In Decorah our trails are tight (trees close together) and it isn't uncommon to clip one with a knuckle.
Had I not been wearing gloves, I would've been scraped up a LOT worse!
Full finger gloves will help keep your digits protected by the inevitable. If you're gravel riding, you can get by with fingerless gloves if you choose- but I prefer full finger for sun protection and in case I were to wipe out on a road. I'd have more protection against being rashed up with full finger vs. fingerless.

Often, this is one accessory new mountain bikers put off until they find out "dang, I needed those." I recommend to you that if you want to ride off-road...get them the day you get your bike. Nothing is more frustrated like an injury that could've been minimized if one had been more prepared.

Gloves also help you keep a better grip on the bike when it's hot- your hands get sweaty. Sweaty hands mean you can loose your grip easily, but gloved hands keep a grip much better. Do yourself a solid- get some gloves. Even if you're wearing fingerless gloves while mountain biking you'll at least be safer (with keeping a grip on hot days or if you get caught in rain) than if you didn't have them.

4. Get quality pedals.
You have two scenarios. The price point of your bike allows you to take it home with inexpensive metal or plastic pedals.
The other scenario is that your bike is at a price point where you have to purchase pedals.
Either situation, especially if you are a new rider getting into the sport, you'll want to purchase good quality pedals that have a nice base and pedal pins to keep your foot attached.

Your friends may all be riding clipped in, but we feel that you're better off riding a season or two on flats to get familiar with the trails and handling skills. If you venture into clipping in too soon, you'll psych yourself out more than if you were on flats. Clips also don't teach you handling skills- get the basics down first and then make your move if you wish.

Flat pedals with great traction pins will keep your foot attached, especially if you use a skate-style shoe like Five Ten Freeriders or Five Ten Freerider Contact shoes. Yes, if you flip a pedal up into your shin, you will probably bleed. In time that will happen less, you'll get over it, and you'll appreciate not having your foot pop off willynilly.

Not all pedals are the same, your LBS may have options and they can explain them to you. There is a stark difference between the $25 flat, grippy pedal vs. the $55+ flat, grippy pedal.
Pedals are equipment and nice equipment is worth the investment for the experience.

5. Padded shorts/Baggy shorts.
Mountain bike saddles are not going to be super plush, and depending on your area or how you are using the bike, you might find sitting for long periods of time makes for an uncomfortable ride.
Like with folks getting into road biking or recreational riding- it's recommended to get a pair of padded shorts/padded liner shorts. It will provide you with a barrier between you and the seat, which will aid in your comfort.

Baggy shorts are a great investment as well, some come with a built-in liner, some come with a removable liner, and others are liner-free. If it's a liner free or removable liner short, you'll be able to wear them multiple times over padded shorts before you need to wash them. If it's a short with a built-in liner, you'll need to wash it after every ride. Remember, NO underwear should be worn with padded shorts!
When starting out with mountain biking, you will fall- it's common knowledge. Baggy shorts are typically longer and provide you with more upper leg coverage. They are durable and will protect your undershorts and skin much better than if you were to simply wear leggings or lycra shorts out on the trails.
You might see folks riding in lycra- and they have typically had multiple seasons under their belt and have more than one or two pairs of shorts. They are fully aware that there is the possibility they could ruin a pair of shorts with a bad fall- but with experience, falls happen far less.

Folks choosing to ride in lycra aren't looking for style points- it's more about keeping things tidy. Some shorts can be very baggy which end up catching on your seat- lycra is not going to be baggy thus will not hang up if you're moving around on the bike.

6. Repair Items.
Tube, tire levers, CO2/mini pump, patch kit, multi-tool w/ chain tool, missing link for your chain, chain lube.

Be prepared. Simple as that. Have items you may need but hope to never need. It's so simple to keep things on hand, and the time that you don't have them will be the time you need them. Nothing is worse than being on a ride or in a race and having a mechanical you can't fix. Especially if you're hours away from home or the nearest LBS.

You never know when you might be someone's trail side savior because of your own preparedness!

7. Storage.
There are a great many ways to take essentials like snacks, a multi-tool, and other items with you. Some riders use jersey pockets while others might use a hydration pack, but what if you're out for a shorter ride or you get tired of taking things out of your pockets?
Get a pack of some sort, be seat pack, small frame bag, or a top-tube bag. This will help keep items off of you, eliminate the "taking everything out/putting back in" and keep those essentials in place at all times. Having something on your bike with your spare tube/tire levers/CO2 will ensure you never leave home without them!

8. Other items.
If you want to ride 3 out of 4 seasons, you will need to invest in some cooler weather apparel items. You might already have things that will work in your closet if you already are involved with another outdoor activity- like running.

Wicking tops are going to be ideal for rides and you may already have some that will work for you if you are a runner or take a spin class/work out at a gym. Keep in mind, if you are wearing a wicking tank top for rides, be sure to apply sunscreen!

Wind jackets are handy as well as a softshell jacket that has ventilation and invest in a pair of knee warmers or buy one pair of knicker tights without padding (so you can get multiple wears out of them between washing.)

Getting a wool base layer or two is a smart idea, especially for spring and fall rides- you can layer any other long-sleeved athletic top. If layering, it's ideal to have a pack that can fit at least one layer in if you need to shed a jersey/jacket.

Skull cap or a headband that covers your ears will definitely help during cooler months. Lightweight sun sleeves are a good investment for hotter months- especially if you're doing longer gravel rides.

Get a good pair of shoes, especially if you are riding flat pedals. A skate-style shoe works fine, but I would recommend checking out Five Ten or other comparable products. You don't want to destroy your $120 pair of nice running shoes on super grippy traction pins. Get a shoe designed to work with your pedal of choice.
Lastly, sometimes it's fun to have a way to keep track of your mileage and averages. If you would rather not invest in a GPS unit or use an app on your phone, consider a Specialized Speedzone Wireless computer. I've used one on about all of my bikes- it keeps me from obsessing over calories and other number-oriented things. I like to keep technology out of my rides as much as possible, however, it's entirely personal preference.

9. Lights.
Maybe you don't plan to ride at night, but if you are caught on your bike during evening hours or early daytime hours without a headlight- you could get a ticket (at least in Decorah!) Invest in some sort of headlight and taillight- you can get ones that are combo daytime/nighttime to add visibility and safety during daytime hours, especially if riding gravels or roads. A great, multi-purpose investment!
Also, if you have friends that partake in night riding, you might find yourself wishing to join them. Having a higher lumen rechargeable light will allow you the possibility of doing so (think 750-850). You might want to invest in a helmet-mounted light to use with a handlebar light if you don't want to break open the wallet for a high-powered rechargeable $200-$400 headlight.

10. Sunglasses
Everyone likely has a pair of sunglasses, but one thing is for certain- you don't always need the
darkest of lenses for riding in the woods.
Invest in a pair of glasses that have lighter lenses, like brown or rose, which will help cut light but keep things more visible for you and your mountain bike rides. I like the option of having a pair of sunglasses with interchangeable lenses so you can swap them as needed. I bought two pairs and have one set up with light lenses and the other with dark. Dark ones are for my gravel rides while the light ones are for off-road/commuting.

Getting a pair of glasses with clear lenses have their purpose, too! I found them to be especially handy commuting during the winter months. Especially on nights when it was snowing and thus, blowing snow into my eyes. Using them during rainy days is also helpful!

That would be my list of 10 essential accessories/gear items for new riders to consider. Granted, you may not purchase all of these items at once- and that is completely understandable!

I would take a look at what you might already have that would work and then pick 2-4 additional items from this starter list that you feel would enhance your experience. Think of your goals, the riding you plan to do right away, and the riding you hope to do. Pick something that will benefit you now and something that will benefit you in the future and go from there!

Congratulations on your #bikelife journey, smile and ride!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Women on Bikes Series: Jen Hanks

I have been riding mountain bikes since the mid 90s and started training and racing more seriously when I graduated from Occupational Therapy school in 2004. I upgraded to Pro in 2006 with an emphasis on Cross Country racing. In 2007, my racing career changed with the participation in my first MTB stage race, the TransAlp. While I continue to race in a variety of disciplines including cross country, marathon, ultra-endurance, and even some cyclocross, my passion lies in traveling to new cultures and competing in multi-day stage races.

In 2011 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I underwent multiple surgeries and chemotherapy. I feared that my racing career and especially my ability to participate in MTB stage races would come to an end. I did return to racing in 2012 only to be diagnosed with an axillary breast cancer recurrence in 2013.

Treatment this time included more surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and an oophorectomy (google it:). Today I am in remission. I attribute a clean diet, excellent medical/alternative care, and most importantly my bike for helping me heal and stay healthy. I continue to race at the Pro level and have even returned to MTB stage racing!

I ride my bike because I can. My bike has taken me to the most amazing places whether it is a secret spot in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah or a remote beach in Cuba. Nothing makes me feel more alive or frees me from my worries like riding my bike.

Social media:
Facebook athlete page: @JenHanksMTBracer
Facebook cancer page: @athletefightscancer
Insta: @HanksJen
twitter: @HanksJen

What was the main cause of you discovering your #bikelife in the 90’s?

I grew up riding horses and competing pretty seriously. When I went to college I needed a less expensive and more accessible “replacement” sport. Mountain biking was a new “cool” sport that I was intrigued by. My first mountain bike was a fully rigid Univega that I used for commuting and riding the local trails. It didn't take long for me to upgrade to a “plush” hardtail. I was hooked and have been riding ever since.

What would you say was the biggest motivator for you becoming a pro athlete?
To be honest it just kind of happened. After I finished grad school I started to train with more structure and intention. I’m a naturally disciplined person so ‘training’ is never too hard for me. As my results improved so did my motivation. I kept training hard and upgrading through the categories until I found myself racing as a Pro.

What would be your favorite competitive biking event and why do you enjoy competing?
My dream race is Cape Epic, an 8-day mountain bike stage race in South Africa. It is intriguing to me not only because it is probably the most famous stage race, it is also brutally challenging. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment, especially if it’s in South Africa. While being a glutton for punishment may make me sound like I race for masochistic reasons, the truth is racing makes me stronger, not just physically but mentally as well. After completing an especially challenging race, I am better equipped to face the challenges of life.

Do you have tips or suggestions for folks nervous on participating in their first competitive event?
The best way to overcome nerves is to put a smile on your face and have fun! And remember, everyone is nervous. I’ve been racing forEVER and I still get nervous. I try to turn my nerves into excitement. It (usually) works.

You really enjoy multi-stage race events. Tell us about the draw these events have for you and what one can expect-
I have been racing for a long time. I have done a lot of different formats of racing from XC, National Championships, Marathon, Ultra-endurance, 24-hour racing, Short Track, Cyclocross, and Stage Racing. I think Stage Racing is so special to me because it is as much about the community as it is about the racing. For many of these races you sleep, eat, race, and hang-out with your fellow racers 24/7 for a week. Add to that the cultural experience of being in a new country and it is a recipe for an adventure of a lifetime.
Can you take us back to your first few mountain bike rides? What was the experience like and what did you learn? 
I started mountain biking in Iowa of all places. There is a trail system, Sugar Bottom, near Iowa City and that is where I did my very first mountain bike ride. Since there aren’t a lot of trails in Iowa Sugar Bottom is where I spent most of my time riding for those first few years. I had zero skills and zero friends who were mountain bikers, so I kind of taught myself to ride. I figured these ‘mountain bikes’ were made for trails so I would ride down and plow into most of the features. It wasn’t pretty, but it was fun. I would ride the Sugar Bottom lap over and over again always trying to get faster and master new technical features.

What would you say was your inspiration for learning to mountain bike?
Like I mentioned before, I needed a sport-something to give my mind and body a rest from studying during college-and mountain biking was a “cool” new sport. Little did I know just how therapeutic for the soul this “cool” new sport would be!

Clips or flats- what do you enjoy and why?
100% clips although I am open to the new trend of riding flats to practice pedal efficiency and skills. For racing, though, 100% clips! Xpedo are my clips of choice!

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
Fortunately I have never had a catastrophic crash. The crashes that are the hardest for me to overcome are the ones that happen for no good reason. For example, a few years ago I was cruising down a fast downhill between two rocks. When you’ve been riding your bike for awhile you learn exactly how much clearance you have between your pedals and rocks. Unexpectedly, my pedal hit one of the rocks and my bike came to a screaming halt and I catapulted over the bars and hit the ground hard. Later I figured out that my rear shock was low on air causing my bike to be a bit lower to the ground. I admit that I still hesitate when squeezing through rocks at high speed , but I guess the take home message is to be aware of correct shock pressure!

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
I don’t think I will EVER be satisfied with my handling skills. I’m always striving to improve. I do recommend taking a solid skills clinic and then practice, practice, practice. Sometimes practicing foundational skills in a parking lot will exponentially increase skill on the trail.

What do you love about riding your bike?
I love that my bike is 100% powered by me and it takes me to some of the most amazing places I have ever been. Amazing destinations aside, I love that no matter how I feel or what is going on in my life I always, always, always feel better after a bike ride!

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why you chose them-

I have been sponsored by Pivot Cycles since 2013. My first Pivot was the Pivot Les 29 hardtail. The geometry of this bike redefined cross country race bikes. It had a slack head tube angle and short chain stays that made it climb like a billy goat yet ride stable on the descents, especially for a hardtail. I still have my Les! Recently, the bike I have been racing the most is the Pivot Mach 429SL. With my increased focus on marathon, ultra-endurance, and stage racing having a full squish bike is a real benefit. True to Pivot’s progressive geometry, this bike climbs like a race bike and descends like a trail bike.

You had some major health challenges that had to have been trying on an emotional and physical level. How do you feel cycling helped you thru your recovery?

Cycling had a profound impact on how I tolerated cancer treatment and recovery. There is a common misconceptions that people undergoing cancer treatment need to rest, rest, rest. Research (and my personal experience of undergoing chemo twice) actually shows the opposite. Moderate exercise during cancer treatment helps patients tolerate treatment better and reduces side effects. I rode my bike to every single chemo infusion and exercised throughout treatment. The hardest part was actually getting out the door. Chemo has a way of sapping all motivation making you feel exhausted, but once I got out the door and started cycling I always felt better! I truly believe that exercise and especially cycling helps flush the chemo toxins out of the body resulting in improved tolerance of treatment and reduced side effects.
In addition to the physical benefits, cycling gave me a sense of normalcy that helped me emotionally push through treatment.

Since cancer and recovery, how would you say your cycling has changed now from when you first started riding/racing?
It sounds a bit cliche’ but I have more appreciation for being able to ride and race my bike. Being healthy and strong is a gift and I try not to take it for granted…ever. I work my ass off training, and while I love good results, I can still be pleased after a mediocre result if I put forth my best effort. Also, during an especially difficult ride, like when its sub-20 degrees and I’m outside doing base miles, I remind myself that it is still better than sitting in the chemo chair. That perspective goes a long way in changing my mindset.

Since you started riding and competing, what would you say was the best thing you've learned about yourself?
On one level competing in ultra endurance events has taught me that I am a strong and stubborn woman who doesn’t give up easily. However on the more fundamental level I have learned that the simple act of riding a bike can make most things better. I have been handed my fair share of adversity these past few years and hopping on my bike always makes me feel better and more capable of attacking life’s difficulties.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
I think women new to mountain biking are often afraid of getting hurt. Mountain biking just sounds dangerous. In reality, once a few basic skills are mastered, it is a relatively safe sport. Taking a basic skills course from a reputable coach can easily increase safety on the bike as well as the fun factor! Also, women new to the sport seem less likely to shell out the money to purchase a high quality bike. I think they feel that they need to be an elite racer to deserve the best bike. Having a rad bike exponentially increases the fun factor! Women, you are worth it, get yourself that nice bike!

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
I think products should be marketed toward individuals instead of genders. Honestly, the shrink it and pink it trend is frustrating. While pink is fine, too often products targeted toward women are low(er)-end and not up to my personal high standards. Just like men, some women want a bike to go on social rides and some women want a bike to tear the most technical trails up. A full range of products that fit women should be offered to meet these individual needs. I can’t tell you how often the “high-end” product I wanted to meet my demands wasn’t offered in my size. Companies investing in developing awesome products that “fit” women will help show women that they are valued on the trail.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
Women are rad and fun and I want more to ride with! Seriously, though, riding a bike is life changing; I think ALL people should experience this, especially women. It is such a simple activity, is so good for your health, and can be done most anywhere. You can ride by yourself or with a group. You can ride pavement, gravel, or dirt. You can ride long or short, hard or easy. You can push your limits by competing. No matter how your ride a bike, it will increase your quality of life.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I have eleven toes. Haha. Just kidding. If I weren’t riding my bike I would probably be riding a horse.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Yes I Can- Embrace a New Challenge.

I walked into Grand Bluff Running, feeling timid and completely out of my element. I'll blame Spring Fever and this unpredictable winter we've been experiencing here in Northeast Iowa. I had been longing for some time outdoors yet the mountain bike trails have been either ice-covered or too soft for riding.
Gravel riding wouldn't be much better, and I am not able to do much for a gravel ride prior to heading off to work.
The paved trail still had ice (and then flooding from the thaw), so riding that wasn't an option, either.

I look at the concept of running the same way as I looked at riding my bike in my younger years- my greatest enemy. Granted, as a kid I did learn to ride a bike- I could ride it around the yard and not feel like my lungs were going to burst. Running? I avoided that even more. I hated how it made me feel both physically and mentally. The mile run in school was the most dreaded time of year for me. One year I know the P.E. teacher cut a lap for me out of sympathy. Why make everyone wait for someone who was so slow?

Running, like biking, gave me a sense of shame because of my lack of ability.

Later on, probably in the 2008/2009 era of my life, I gave running another go. However, where I had been living wasn't the most scenic of towns and I struggled to feel incognito in my attempts at fitness. I didn't have a route that I felt comfortable on and I felt vulnerable to the gazes of folks either on foot or in their vehicles.

When I moved to Decorah I thought that I would give it another shot and managed to make my way to the Dug Road portion of the Trout Run Trail to try out my jogging legs. Full disclosure that I was a light smoker at the time, but I found that I could barely jog for any distance. I had a hard time breathing, I was around so many other pedestrians, and I felt frustrated with my lack of stamina. I gave it a couple attempts and it didn't take long for me to deem it "impossible."

Why after all these years, did I decide that I wanted to conquer a physical activity that gave me so much insecurity? Honestly? I'm not sure. I figured that with what I've done to improve my health that I would have to have a better shot at it. I wanted to do it right- go to a store, get properly fitted for shoes, and give myself time to adapt. I felt it had to go better than before, and I wouldn't allow myself to give up easily.

Walking into Grand Bluff Running for me is probably similar to how folks feel when they walk into Decorah Bicycles. Granted, our inventory outmatches theirs in terms of what we have on the floor- it was enough to make me go "Woah..."
A wall of shoes that would be a mystery to me, clothing options to look over, and various other accessories that I might find myself wanting. I knew I'd come out with a pair of shoes, 2 pairs of shorts, and one pair of lightweight tights. I anticipated running 1-2 days a week at most during my biking season, so no need for "all the things."

I talked with the sales associate who was more than happy to help me figure out the ins and outs of what I needed to start my journey. I was given a pair of shoes to try on and made my way to the treadmill to have my gait analyzed. I was pleased to learn there wasn't anything too much about my stride to worry about in terms of pronation. Hooray! No inserts for me. Now the hard part was to figure out what type of shoe would work best for my foot- something with minimal cushion or something with some cushion. I absolutely did not want full cushion, because I felt it would be too much. My goal was to take on trail running and like with riding, I want to feel a little something under me- I dislike being "desensitized."
I walked out with 2 pairs of Asics in colors that I actually liked, one with Goretex for wet/cold days and the other would be my "summer" shoe. They were in the middle of the spectrum for cushion, which with test-jogs I found more comfortable and supportive for my finicky feet. Then I had to figure out what type of shorts to go with- baggy or snug? I opted to go for a light, baggy style short as when it's hot, I absolutely hate being hot. I went with tights that were black with a little bit of pattern on them, because I have tendency to wear black cycling shorts a lot. Live it up a little!

So I came home with two pairs colorful shoes that the Josie of years prior would have buyer's remorse over due to price- and a commitment to myself that I would use these shoes enough to warrant the money spent. Now the challenge was finding time to go for my first jog, which was something that intimidated me.

My first jog happened on a Friday evening, under the cloak of darkness. I made my way from my house to the dike that runs parallel with the Trout Run Trail. I thoroughly questioned my sanity for going out in the dark without a light, hoping that I wouldn't somehow find a gopher hole. I managed to jog from the house, to the end of my route, and back without stopping for more than a photo for proof and a little bit of stretching.

My legs the next day felt like they were on fire. The thought of running anytime soon was not thrilling to me- but I went out again a few days later to find that it actually seemed to help. Then another jog found me feeling more confident with myself being able to handle this whole "running thing."

As of writing this, I've gone on a total of 4 jogs- minimal, but enough for me to feel like that this is a very real probability of my being able to get better at another thing that intimidated the crap out of me. I'm taking the reigns again, choosing to not allow a physical activity to get the better of me.

Using another activity to hopefully improve myself on the bike, plus, it will allow me some necessary time off the bike to keep chronic pain flair-ups at bay. Hopefully I can keep burnout at bay, too!

For folks looking to get involved with a new activity, I feel you. This isn't my first rodeo- I have been thru the same, painful process of inadequacy and uncertainty when I bought my first bike. Going into the experience as a "new to me" person, I would say was helpful for me to remember what it's like to be on the other side of the equation. In the bike shop, I'm perceived as an "expert" when I truly feel I'm a far cry from that. I'm a woman who loves biking who just so happens to want other people to love biking, too.

I started from the ground in terms of bikes and worked my way up, in a short time I learned the stark differences between budget bikes vs. spending a little more to get a bike you can grow with.
I knew based on my experience that I wouldn't skimp on shoes. Sure, you can go anywhere and buy a pair of shoes to run in, but does that mean they are actually right for you?

I was on the receiving line of respect for getting into a sport that intimidated me. Time and care was taken to ensure I had the best experience possible with learning the ins and outs of fitting. No question was perceived as "dumb." I got to experience a fellow woman who loved her sport, being able to help another woman get started. It was inspiring on many levels. I also loved the feeling that I was supporting another local, brick and mortar store.

Maybe this is the year you decide that you want to get into another form of cycling. Maybe this is the year you decide to find your #bikelife for the very first time. Possibly, you're like me looking to find something else to immerse yourself with so you can keep improving and enjoying a sport you already love. Either way- go into it with an open mind. Allow yourself to be vulnerable- ask the questions on your mind and communicate what you hope to do. If you are with someone who truly knows their stuff, they will listen to you. They will give you honest feedback. Interact with someone who cares about your experience- be willing to explore options.

I can't stress the importance of not shortchanging yourself. Allow yourself to spend the money and
time to get properly set up with whatever it is you want to do. If you cut corners, sometimes you end up setting yourself up for an experience that will not be beneficial to you or your growth in the sport. Seek knowledge, gain information, and make the best investment on your behalf that you can. No one likes the thought of putting money down on a bike they will outgrow in a season- it's the same as putting money into a pair of shoes that really aren't made for running.

As nervous as it made me, I learned that it's fun to embrace a new challenge! What will your next adventure be?

#ThisGirlCan #neverthelessshepersisted