Monday, March 23, 2015

Women on Bikes Series: Maaike Everts

I am a Dutch native who was transplanted to the U.S. in 2002 to be a post-doc at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, with the intent to return to Europe after a year or two.
Little did I know that Birmingham is a great place to live and UAB a great place to work, so here I still am, more than 12 years later!

I am currently the Associate Director for the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance—a collaboration between UAB and Southern Research
(a not-for-profit research institute, also in Birmingham), in which we try to develop new therapies for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Parkinson’s Disease.

When not working, I can usually be found on my bike; I have raced on the road in the past but am mostly doing MTB endurance races these days, and although I have taken this particular season off, I have done many cyclocross races in the past and plan to do so in the future. I am also heavily involved with Magic City Cycle Chix (MC3)—a Birmingham-based women’s cycling organization founded by my good friend Kim Cross. MC3’s motto is “Building courage, confidence, and community…two wheels at a time.

When did you first start riding a bike?
As a Dutch native, as my friend Kim likes to say, I was put on a bike pretty much immediately coming out of the womb—there are more bikes than people in the Netherlands, and everyone uses their bike for transportation, so you learn at a pretty early age. I do not remember learning how to ride a bike, so I’m guessing I was really young—maybe three or four? I started cycling as a sport in graduate school, in my early 20s.

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
Before college I never thought of myself as athletic. When I was a kid, my parents put me in gymnastics (I am as flexible as a piece of rebar). Then I dabbled in volleyball and basketball, but only because those were the sports we practiced during PE class (I have the hand-eye-ball-coordination of a drunken elephant). I was resigned to just being a brainiac, and maybe going to the gym to work out to stay healthy.

Then, in college, I discovered judo, and was astonished at how it feels to have an innate talent for something. After obtaining my black belt, I figured that in addition to judo, I would enjoy a sport that would take me outside, so started cycling as a hobby, not just as a way to commute.

During my first few rides on a crappy loaner bike (I think it was a 5-speed, with shifters on the down tube, probably several decades old), I loved how strong it made me feel. I would go out on a ride during a lunch break in graduate school, even if it was sleeting and miserable; coming back from the ride exhilarated and happy—I just loved it so much! Later when I started riding in groups and competing, I still really enjoyed the physical pleasure of it, but also the camaraderie of the biking community.

Lately, now that I have the skills to teach other people how to be comfortable on a bike, I have really enjoyed “spreading the love,” as a coach and ride leader. I love seeing people getting enthused about riding because the intimidation factor is taken out of the equation.

What would be your favorite competitive biking event, and why do you enjoy competing?
I have done many types of competitive events; when I first moved to the U.S. I mainly raced on the road, and loved the exhilaration of criteriums, and the strategic planning of road races.

A few years ago I shifted to racing my MTB, first in “regular” cross country events, and later longer endurance events. I feel like I’m supposed to say that I like to compete because it pushes me, and to a certain extent that’s true, but as a practical matter, I actually really enjoy riding on new trails that I otherwise would not have ridden! The race courses are always well marked, so you can purely focus on riding pleasure, and not have to stop and get out the map to figure out where to go next.

I also enjoy the shared sense of biking love at races. Everyone you meet is there because they enjoy riding their bikes, whether they are a pro racer twice as fast as someone like me, or a beginner who is super-stoked to finish their first race.

Finally, although I’m a bit embarrassed about it, I love winning, or at least being on the podium. I’m sure there are fancy psychological reasons for that, ha! Maybe some sense of validation?  I don’t know, I’ll leave it up the professionals to sort that one out!

A specific event I want to point out is the Breck Epic Stage race; I did it this year for the first time, and it is a 6-day mountain bike race in Breckenridge, CO, with also 3-day options if you do not want to commit to the full 6-day event. It was tough, but oh so cool! It helped that I trained really hard for it, so I had as much fun as possible during the race itself. I raced in the singlespeed category, and there was only one other woman, but we were really well matched and finished every day within minutes of each other, during a 5- or 6-hour ride. I was better on the uphills, and she was better on the downhills, so we kept leapfrogging each other. So much fun! I wish I had unlimited vacation days and money so I could do it every year!

Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride?
Pretty nervous! I started mountain biking in the Netherlands, and was one of the very few women amongst a group of experienced men, so was always worried about what crazy routes they would take and if I would be able to keep up.

Where I lived there were not many single track trails, so a lot of rides included a bit of forest and single or double track, but then also obstacles in an urban environment, for example steep long sets of stairs. I really did not have the skills to deal with them, but with butt cheeks clenched and bravado I would (try to) keep up—I was very scared on many occasions, but too stubborn to give up.

After moving to Birmingham, I think during my first loop at Oak Mountain State Park (an outstanding mountain bike destination by the way!), my heart rate never got out of the “panic zone.” For some reason I kept at it though—I just thought mountain biking was so cool, and I slowly built confidence. I was pretty fit from road racing, so for a long time it really was fear that held me back from going faster.

Then, when I got certified as an IMBA-ICP Level II instructor a few years ago, my riding absolutely transformed! My confidence level increased exponentially and I am now having so much more unadulterated fun on the rides! I do not constantly have to overcome mental barriers anymore, admonishing myself to just “tough it out,”—now I’m just having a great time!

If you had nervousness at all, what did you do or think to overcome it?
As I alluded earlier, getting certified and learning all the skills in a methodical way was absolutely instrumental to overcoming my nervousness. I highly encourage everyone at all levels to take a skills clinic. During our certification class, we had some pretty accomplished riders participate, both in terms of fitness and bike-handling skills, and even they were amazed in how much they learned, and the finesse they could add to their riding.

Of course, like anyone, I still have some crappy days where I’m not feeling it and accidentally ride off trails for no good reason. On those days I just remind myself to enjoy being outside and on my bike, and that it’s totally OK to get off my bike and walk a section.

Also, I think everyone should differentiate between being scared because something is intimidating and you’ve never tried it before (though you have the skill), and being scared because something is truly above your current ability level. The latter can get you hurt. It’s wise to heed that kind of fear.

Finally, what really helps is going on a “technical group ride,” during which you just ride a particular trail with a group of like-minded people. It’s not about going “balls to the wall” and racing each other, but going slow, really looking at the learning opportunities on the trail, and having “sessions” in which you can spot each other as you navigate a tricky part, over and over again.

Those are some of the most fun rides, and seeing somebody else overcoming fear, doubt and an obstacle is the best motivator to try it yourself. For me, it helps when I see another woman do it. Despite my fierce intellectual stance of “I can do anything in life that a man can do,” there is something primal about seeing a man navigate something tricky that causes me to subconsciously doubt that I can do the same thing. I dislike that about myself, but fortunately that doubt is taken out of the equation when I see another woman accomplish something hard on the bike.

Do you use clipless pedals? If yes, what are some tips/suggestions for beginners that you would share? If no, are you thinking of trying it out at all? 
I use both clipless and flats; when we got certified as an instructor we had to do everything on flat pedals, and that was actually really intimidating when you’re used to clipless! Shin guards saved the day… It teaches you appropriate pedal and ankle position though, so well worth it.

I now use flats when I teach clinics or try something technically challenging for the first time. I use clipless when I race or go for longer, fitness-oriented rides.

For flats, it is absolutely crucial to get the right gear! I use Crankbrothers pedals and Five Ten shoes; a much-needed upgrade after I started on cheap plastic pedals with running shoes. That combination was uncomfortable and unsafe. So if you do not want to ride clipless, please invest in yourself, go to your local bike shop, and get the appropriate gear.

When you are ready to go clipless, start by clipping and unclipping, with either foot, over and over again, while leaning on a wall or something. Then start riding slowly in a grassy field, and practice the same thing, while not looking at your pedals. Finally, once you start riding clipless on a trail or on the road, you’ll have the invariable embarrassing moment where you forget to clip out, and you fall over at a stoplight, with dozens of motorists and other cyclists looking at you with a bemused expression. Own it, take a bow, and you’ll never forget again! After a few rides, it gets so ingrained in your subconscious, you’ll never have to think about it.

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 am a very careful rider (maybe too much so), and I’ve never had a bad crash that caused broken bones, so am lucky in that regard (or I just have really strong bones!). I did fall in a cross-country race last year and took out my competition by going down right in front of them (oopsie!), and had a concussion, but refused to acknowledge that and stupidly finished the race.

The crash happened less than 10 minutes in, and it was a 24-mile race, so that was pretty miserable. Turns out I cracked my helmet, I was acting very “flighty” according to some of my friends, and I had a headache for a few weeks, so it would probably have been safer to stop and get myself checked out! Now, when somebody on a group ride or in a clinic falls on their head, I am pretty adamant they get checked out, and replace their helmet ASAP.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Pretty much everything was challenging! Roots, rocks, corners, skinny bridges, you name it. For all of those, it really helps to have the correct body position on the bike (so even pressure on both pedals, balanced between front and rear wheel, heavy feet/light hands, elbows out, knees out, and eyes up).

Looking where you want to go is probably the most helpful technical tip that you can use. It sounds so easy, but when you’re scared, you are going to look at the obstacle, instead of looking beyond it to where the trail will lead you! Your body and bike will follow your eyes, so I do a lot of “look where you want to go” mantra chanting when I’m doing something difficult.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I’ve slowly build up a nice collection over the years!

Road bike: 2010 Pinarello F3:13. My first carbon road bike. It rides like a dream; it’s forgiving but stiff, and accelerates like a rocket. Also, it’s absolutely beautiful…a work of art.

Cross bike: 2011 Jamis Supernova. Looks and feels fast and has pretty light wheels; also looks sexy as hell. If I were in the market for a new one I’d probably get a CX bike with disc brakes though, because stopping power of the rim brakes is not the greatest.

Track bike/fixie: 2008 Bianchi Pista. At some point I got certified on the Dick Lane Velodrome in Atlanta for track racing but never did a race (bit too far from Birmingham for easy access), but I love riding this bike around town; it is so much fun to ride a fixie! I do have a front brake on it though; I don’t know how those folks do it that can do the slipping braking action. Scary looking! It gets decorated every Christmas when we do the annual holiday-pub-crawl. Battery-operated lights for the decorating-win!

Full suspension 650B mountain bike: 2011 Jamis Dakar 650B2. I got this bike after graduating from a hard tail 26-inch mountain bike, and boy, I love that machine! Going to the slightly bigger wheel size, wider bars with a shorter stem, and a dropper seat post, made me soooo much more confident! I got this a few months before my instructor certification, and the two combined truly transformed the amount of fun I have on a bike. It’s also awesome looking. I did change out the wheel set to Stan’s NoTubes Flow rims with Hope hubs. Smooth rolling!

Hard tail single speed: 2014 Salsa El Mariachi. This is my first titanium bike. What a treat to ride on! I love single speeding; I started in 2013 with a carbon Trek SS Superfly, and felt super speedy on it, especially compared to the 10-pounds-heavier Jamis, so I started racing the single speed category. However, it fell off my car this summer on the interstate and was destroyed. Cue the sad trombone… This was 4 weeks before the Breck Epic. To say that I was a bit upset is the understatement of the year! After grieving for my bike, the next challenge was to find a bike that I would love, would fit me, and would be available in time before we would head out to Colorado. After lots of stress and last minute bike building, the Salsa went with me to Breckenridge without having ridden it at all, but the maiden voyage up in the Rocky Mountains was absolutely amazing, and the bike carried me to the win in the women’s SS category. I love it.

What clothing/bike accessories do you love? What would you recommend to your friends?
I love the Club Ride clothing for on the mountain bike; it’s stylish yet functional, a good combination! I also have some stuff from Loeka, and their happy colors make my day. The shorts have a lot of room for protective gear, so I wear that if I’m trying something challenging.

I love my Five Ten shoes (Impact Lows) and Crankbrothers flat pedals (50:50s), and I use Eggbeaters when I ride or race clipped in. Their mud clearance is great and you can get in them from four different sides, so there is no adjusting of the pedal position before putting your shoe on top. I have really wide feet with big bunions (ugh!) and love Specialized mountain bike and road shoes—they were the first shoes that never gave me foot pain.  I have also more recently purchased the Pearl Izumi X Project shoes, for when I did the Breck Epic, and I must say, they are perfect for hike-a-biking (which is what one of their design features is—a carbon sole that can move in a way that helps you with walking.)

Osprey sponsored the MC3 mountain bike instructors with Rev-16 guide/hydration packs, and I really, really like them; the reservoir connects and disconnects easily from the hose at the top of the pack, and I love that you can access the side pockets without having to take the pack off your back. This really helps to ensure you stay on target with nutrition during endurance races. I stuff it to the gills with extra food, first aid kits, fix-it-kits, etc, especially when guiding or leading a group ride, but it’s always comfortable on my back.

I also want to give a shout-out to Swiftwick socks. They have a little bit of compression, come in different lengths (I prefer the 4- or 7-inch ones), materials, and colors, and just feel good on your feet and (lower) legs!

Then, no specific brand recommendation here, but I would highly recommend people to get a base layer with a windstopper in it. I have two of them from different brands (Pearl Izumi and Exteondo), and love wearing them in colder weather, with either a short sleeve or long sleeve jersey over them. They last a long time, so invest in one and you’ll be set for years to come.

Finally, I want to point out that it’s worth it to use a laundry detergent specifically for technical clothing; here in Birmingham we have access to Go Soap, made in Georgia, but there are a few other brands out there you can use. It really helps to get the sweat-funk out of your athletic clothing. When I wash cycling tops with regular detergent, they smell fine when they come out of the washer, but as soon as you start sweating in them again, the pungent smell rears its ugly head within minutes. With a specialized detergent such as Go Soap, it is notably reduced. Typically, you’ve invested a lot of money in biking clothes because they don’t come cheap. Do your clothes a favor and continue investing in them by spending a little bit more on detergent, to keep your clothes functioning and smelling well for a long time to come.

What do you love about riding your bike?
It makes me feel strong. I love riding in the woods because it takes you out in nature. I love the friendships I have formed with other people that ride their bikes a lot.

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