Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Women Involved Series: Jill Van Winkle

Sometimes you have to hike-a-bike. This was an epic one in Livigno, Italy
For the past ten years I’ve designed, constructed, taught, restored, planned, debated, maintained, and even closed recreational trails. As a Trail Specialist for the IMBA, I am a full time professional trail consultant. Working with federal agencies, state and local governments, environmental organizations and volunteer groups from all over I have critiqued thousands of miles of trails.

I have a BA in Biology and Environmental Studies and an MS in Environmental Science and Management and have a diverse work history in natural resources.

I’m passionate about mountain biking, plants (I love wildflower rides - climbs are the best for trail-side botanizing), and a desire to understand how recreation affects the landscape, and what we can do to minimize those impacts while encouraging responsible recreation to create the conservationists of the future. I hope that I can be a more effective advocate and trail planner with a deeper understanding of environmental science.

For IMBA you’ve worked as a Trail Care Crew leader and Trail Specialist Could you tell us a little about the jobs you and what inspired you to work so closely with the trail systems?
It's funny; when I tell people what I do there's confusion: people wonder how someone gets to work on mountain bike trails for a living. When I talk about it I kind of have to pinch myself too - really, this is a job? How cool! It's certainly not something I planned to do, it just sort of happened. I love mountain biking and working outdoors, I had a solid background in natural resources. To complement that, my husband had a background in land use planning and construction - we made a great pair for Trail Care Crew (TCC). From there, it was more organic: as we were finishing TCC, there were a few large projects that were coming on line for Trail Solutions (TS) for which I had the right skill set and being on a TCC is a good proving ground for TS (at that time, all TS staff were former TCC members). I have been extremely fortunate to be a part of an incredible group of trail professionals, to learn from the best, both IMBA staff and the many other builders we work with. 

What have you enjoyed most with having a hands-on interaction with various mountain bike trails?
My favorite projects are those where there's a restoration component: trail closure and reclamation (sometimes including full slope recontour), planting natives, woody debris placement, bank stabilization, invasive species removal, etc. I get to make more use of my natural resource skills and highlight the role of recreation in conservation - trail users care deeply about the lands through which they travel. We take the resource impacts of our work very seriously and all TS staff are conscientious about understanding the site specific conditions to improve their trail projects and minimize resource impacts.
Also, I love projects with youth crews and volunteers, it feels much more about community and building partnerships when we're all out there working on the trails. Youth crews are great- it provides jobs for kids who might not otherwise get out on public lands, they learn valuable skills in trail construction, they learn about plants, soils, and how water moves, and sometimes we can get them excited to try mountain biking too!

With working on trails and being involved with them, what are some things you would like to share that new mountain bike riders might not know?
- Most mountain bikers who comment about trails are experienced riders, they want trails for them. But the biggest gap in trails out there is in enjoyable trails for beginners. We all started somewhere and we need to grow the sport in order to keep getting more and better trails (wouldn't you rather have fun trails to start on rather than logging roads or carrying your bike up some slog that was way over your skills and fitness? some advanced riders forget this). Plus, most land managers have clear guidelines defining the range of experiences they need to provide. What's funny about it is that those easier "flawy" trails are by far the most popular with all levels of riders (even though the advanced riders will all say they want the gnar). We try really hard to make trails that can appeal multiple skill levels, with optional features and features that ride differently depending upon your speed and skill (e.g. rollers: a beginner will roll them, an intermediate will pump them, an advanced rider will manual thru or double them). So, it's important that new riders are getting involved in the planning and on volunteer build days - we really want to hear their voices and we need more trails for new riders!
- Recognizing all the planning, meetings, regulatory hoops, stakeholder involvement, etc. that goes on before trail construction begins, means it can take a long time to get a trail on the ground.. In most cases these steps are mandated by law. Knowing what steps are required, the time periods mandated for each step, and when and how the public can be involved is really important. 
- Volunteering to be involved in trail maintenance is critical these days in getting trails built. Period. If there isn't a volunteer group partner, the land manager cannot take on the added maintenance of new trails. It's a sad reality of funding for most public agencies, but it is also a huge opportunity for mountain bikers (see above about being problem solvers!). Good construction and routine maintenance with volunteer help is how we get access to existing trails and get new trails built.  

What is the most common environmental trail impact you’ve seen?
In urban areas- people off trail to go the bathroom. In the process they can trample plants, compact the soil, spread invasives, and leave toilet paper and human waste (we need to preach more Leave No Trace practices). In the more rural areas- for mountain bikers it's probably skidding, for other users, I'd say shortcutting trails. Both contribute to erosion, though through different means. 

Tell us why you enjoy working for IMBA?
I get to work with an incredible group of professionals with an awesome mission! We are at forefront of trail science, advocacy, and cooperative land management. The only drawback is that I don't get to see my coworkers more often, as I'm field-based (more of our staff are now in the field than at HQ, but that's better for mountain bikers!). 

In your own words, why should people be involved with IMBA?
If you care about mountain biking, trail access, and conservation you should be involved with IMBA and your local chapter. If you want to see the sport grow and be more inclusive, you should be involved with IMBA. If you want to see innovation in trail design and construction, you should be involved with IMBA. If you cherish backcountry trail experiences, you should be involved with IMBA. 

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
There's still a lot of machismo is cycling - just look at the ads. Videos and images are dominated by men. I think the popular image of the sport is of aggressive riding, going big. I get it, that sells. A video of someone riding slowly along a mellow trail isn't sexy, even if that's a much more typical experience. It can be intimidating. Fortunately, I think that's changing. You see mountain biking in ads for banks and granola bars now, where it's a family or a couple out riding. The industry has a lot more women-specific bikes, real designs for women - we've gotten beyond pink it and shrink it. It's promising, but we still have a long way to go. 

What do you feel could happen to make changes and/or encourage more women to ride?
We need to reduce barriers to entry. Getting a bike, driving a long distance to a trail, and being committed to a long, strenuous ride discourages a lot of people. Building fun beginner trails and getting more trails closer to where people live can do a lot to make it easier to try. Women's riding clinics are AWESOME - someone who is just trying for the first time can learn skills, demo a modern bike, and be with other women of similar abilities, and meet future riding partners. It's the perfect way to get introduced and get some confidence right away. 
My sister and me as the Wonder Twins for a super hero themed race
(and Curious George as their trusty sidekick Gleek). Costumes fully homemade.
What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
My own challenges when I first started riding. I took 3 years before I went to a women's riding camp - I loved it, but wish so much that I had discovered it sooner. I struggled doing the sausage-fest rides, me and bunch of dudes. It was still fun, but I was often riding alone and I didn't push myself technically because I could rationalize that I wasn't expected to do what the guys did, it was enough that I was out riding with them. I made huge strides technically and physically once I found other women to ride with. And it was more fun! 
I get so much from riding - not just mountain biking, but any time I'm on a bike - I want more women and girls to experience that. Get out of their cars more, be healthy, experience nature, challenge themselves, build confidence. 

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I have an identical twin, with whom I love to make costumes and do running events. 
Also, I have 4 patents in plant biotechnology. :) 

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