Monday, April 18, 2016

Women on Bikes Series: Syd Schulz

Syd Schulz grew up riding mountain bikes for fun in rural Ohio. She started racing cross country at the collegiate level in 2011, with a special focus on the post-race keg party.

In 2014, she started racing enduro and signed up for the pro category because she didn't fancy the long wait times that the AM categories often had to endure.
This turned out to be a dubious decision and she limped through her first "pro" season, finishing it off with a lot of DFLs, bruises, seven new stitches in her face and an intense desire to get good at this enduro thing. 2015 went much better -- she finished 3rd in the Enduro Cup overall and signed with the Jamis Factory Race Team for the 2016 season.

She writes about the adventures, struggles and lessons of being a "newbie" pro on her blog, www.sydschulz.com.

When did you first start riding a bike?
Oh boy. Both my parents rode bikes so my dad put me on a bike as soon as I exited the womb. I rode on a little seat on his top tube when I was really small and then when I was six or seven years old I started riding on the back of his road tandem. This was awesome (for me, at least) because I got the experience of riding all day and actually going fast while my dad did all of the work (sorry, Dad).

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?

When I was in college, riding was definitely a de-stressor, and something I did with my friends, since most of my best friends were mountain bike people. I raced a bit of collegiate mountain biking, but mainly because it was an excuse to travel and party. Once we snuck our seven-person team and a keg into a hotel room that was supposed to only be for two. We somehow all slept in two king-size beds. Good times.

Post college, I’ve had the opportunity to really dedicate myself to riding and explore my motivations a bit. I’m drawn to racing and training because, deep down, I’m an extremely competitive person and I want to push my limits. But my riding motivation has never really changed – it’s just fun and I love it.

Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride?

Yes, although somewhat vaguely, as I was 13 or 14 at the time. I remember I crashed like a banshee and had an amazing time. I was rubbish at getting out of my clipless pedals so I basically fell over every time I stopped. I remember at one point I tried to grab onto a tree when I stopped, but unfortunately I chose a bendy sapling so I went tumbling down an embankment. But I was 13, so I bounced.

If you had nervousness at all, what did you do or think to overcome it?
I don’t remember being nervous, but at that age I think I was more prone to frustration than nervousness. I definitely remember some serious frustration on those early rides, especially when I couldn’t make it up steep little hills or get in the right gear or get out of my pedals or keep up or whatever. But then when the ride was over, I would block out the frustration and only remember the fun bits, so I’d go back and give it another go.

When did you decide to participate in competitive events? What pushed you to give them a shot instead of worrying about if you were "good enough" or not?
I think the better questions is “what pushed you to race DESPITE worrying if you were good enough,” because I still worry about that, pretty much every day. It doesn’t go away, you just learn to compartmentalize it better, or use it to your advantage. I started racing because it was an excuse to explore new trails and ride with my friends and I felt awesome afterwards --- ultimately, those reasons overrode the self-doubt.

What kept you inspired to keep participating, even when you weren't placing?

That’s a good question. I guess all the reasons listed above plus the fact that I’m extremely stubborn. When I started racing pro in 2014, my results were atrocious and I was really struggling to have fun racing, but I think a part of me knew I could do better and I didn’t want to quit before I found out what I was capable of. So I stuck with it, and I’m glad I have!

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?

Yes, although I basically started riding clipless when I started mountain biking at age 14, so I might not be the best person to ask. In fact, I’m open to any suggestions on how to ride with flat pedals because whenever I do, I just massacre my shins! That said, I’ve taught some beginners to ride clipless and I think practicing getting in and out (on both sides!) in a grassy field about a bajillion times before you go onto a trail is key.

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’ve been lucky enough to avoid any serious injuries (KNOCK ON ALL THE WOOD), but I’ve had quite a few crashes that shook me up. I tore my hamstring during the Whistler EWS last year and that was probably my most painful injury, partially because I didn’t realize how much damage I had done so I kept going and finished the race (and then raced again the next weekend, oops). It took forever to heal and I re-injured it pretty much every time I came off the bike for the next three months. So, that was really frustrating and made me petrified of even minor crashes. As for healing on the mental/emotional side, sometimes you have to just back it down and ride within your limits until your confidence gets back up. I’m not very good at this, but I think it’s an important skill – it’s good to push your limits, but you have to be smart about it, too.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
When I first started riding enduro and downhill style trails, everything was hard. Drops and jumps were probably the biggest challenge for me. It took me a really long time to figure out that movement of getting your front wheel up so you can send a little drop. This is a massively important skill for riding safely (for obvious reasons) so I really recommend practicing mini manuals jumping off curbs or playing around in a parking lot or field. If you can manual for even half a second on flat ground, you’ll be able to get your wheel up and out of the way when gravity is already working in your favor. Learning that little skill really changed my riding.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
Yes, of course, 100% yes! Just a few days ago I got a QOM on a trail even when I thought I was riding like a hack and I joked that “oh, I thought when I went fast it would all feel smooth and amazing and there wouldn’t be any bumps.” While, I was joking, I think that’s a really important thing for beginners to remember – there’s never a point in mountain biking when, BAM, it’s suddenly easy. Or, at least, there shouldn’t be. There’s always more to learn and once you master one skill, there’s another one, or the same one but it’s harder because you’re going faster. But that’s what keeps it fun.

I still struggle immensely with riding in the wet, especially on steep, rooty trails. To be completely honest, wet trails have dragged me down on many a ride and really threw me off in a few races last year. Luckily I had the opportunity to spend six weeks riding in England and Scotland this past fall, which forced me to ride wet gnarly trails pretty much every day. I’m still not a fan of wet riding, but I’m way less scared of it, which is a start!

Before you started racing as Pro, what was it like to be the non-Pro partner to a fellow Pro-rider? Do you feel there were additional challenges or higher expectations placed on you as a rider?
I don’t think others’ expectations of me were that much higher, but I know my expectations of myself were very over-inflated. I was often the slowest one in the group, and that was challenging and frustrating. Now that I’m fitter that’s gotten better but it’s still easy to have a warped perspective of what’s actually hard when your boyfriend makes even the trickiest lines look easy. I still struggle with this to a certain extent – just last year, on a ride in Queenstown, we decided to meet at the bottom of a trail I had never ridden. Macky told me it was “no big deal” and it turned out being the steepest, most insane thing I had ever ridden. I berated myself the entire way down thinking that I was just that much worse than him at riding bikes. Turns out I had taken a wrong turn and ridden a completely different trail – a trail that was, by pretty much anyone’s standards, epic. But that didn’t even occur to me, I just went straight to beating myself up. So yeah, perspective is a challenge when you’re dating a pro.

What is the best part about being able to ride with your partner?
We get to spend a lot of time together, doing what we love, traveling the world and seeing beautiful places. We’re able to support each other in our training and racing and we both understand that pretty much all the money we make is going to get spent on bikes. So what’s not to like? Of course, sometimes we get frustrated and crabby with each other, but usually only when we’re hungry (and we’ve gotten pretty good at reminding each other to eat on rides).

Do you have any suggestions for partners who are just starting to ride together?
Bring snacks.

What do you love about riding your bike?
All of it. Specifically the going down bits, and when you get that really meditative flow feeling on a descent and you just feel completely in control and kind of invincible. I love that.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
My main bike at the moment is a Jamis Defcon. It’s a great enduro rig – 160mm of travel front and rear, super sturdy and stable at speed and through the rough stuff. I love it! As a sponsored athlete, a lot more goes into a choosing a bike than people think. First, of course, you need to make sure the bike is race-worthy, which the Defcon definitely is. But you also need to make sure you’re working with a company that supports you and gets what you’re trying to do. And you want to work with people that are fun to work with, because you’ll be seeing a lot of them. Working with Jamis has been an absolute dream come true, in all these aspects.

While I’ll mainly be riding the Defcon this year, I’m also getting a Jamis Dakar XCT, which is a carbon, 130mm trail bike. I haven’t had a small(er) travel bike since 2013, so I’m stoked to have a trail whip!

What inspired you to start blogging about your off-road adventures?

I’ve always loved writing, so it just sort of made sense. I started writing about travel but then it not-so-surprisingly morphed into a bike blog as I started taking my racing more seriously.

What has been the greatest thing you've discovered since you started blogging about your experiences?
I’ve been absolutely blown away by the response to some of my posts about racing and developing as a pro rider. I honestly didn’t think people would be that interested, but they are, and that’s cool and awesome, but also kind of intimidating at times. I want to say the right things to inspire people to get out there and follow their dreams, but I also want to be honest and authentic, because there are a lot of challenges to this life, and I want people to see that side as well.

Do you have any advice/food for thought for those curious about mountain biking?

Go for it. Have fun. Make mistakes. Always bring food. Learn to fix a flat. Spend some money on a decent bike. And kneepads are awesome.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
Unfortunately, I think a big part of the problem is the insidious societal conditioning that women start absorbing at a really young age – look cute, be polite, don’t offend anyone, be cautious, follow the rules, don’t fail. Blah blah blah. This programming is hard to reverse.

But there are other, more blatant factors at work – a lack of coverage of female athletes in major mountain biking news sites, the absolutely horrific comments about female athletes and their bodies on sites like Pinkbike, and the general lack of respect that many men have toward women’s racing and female athletes in general. I’m lucky to have an extremely strong network of male mountain bikers who support me in what I do (my dad, my boyfriend, my friends, my sponsors), but I’ve walked into bike shops alone enough to understand why it’s intimidating for women to get involved. The level of patronization can be unreal.

What do you feel could industry-wise and/or locally to encourage more women to be involved with mountain biking?
Ultimately, women just want to be taken seriously. The bike industry acts like this is rocket science, but it really isn’t. I don’t think women’s specific products are that necessary (except for the obvious -- clothing, saddles, etc.), but I think the industry can do a lot just by using more women in ads, supporting more female athletes, etc. Just in the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of companies really step it up and commit to promoting and supporting women in mountain biking and this is awesome. I really believe the industry is moving in the right direction, albeit slowly.

At a more grassroots level, I think programs like NICA offer a massive opportunity to get more young girls on bikes. Having a group, “fun-ride” infrastructure is key to getting beginners, male or female, more involved. I’ve had the opportunity to do some work with Team F.I.Taos and the Taos NICA team in the past few years and hope to work with them some more in 2016 as well.

A lot of people seem to think that “women’s only” rides or clinics are the answer, but I’m not so sure. I think there’s definitely a place for these, and I’ve enjoyed quite a few of them, but I also think it’s crucially important to foster positive, co-ed mountain biking experiences as well. A lot of women find mountain biking with men to be too intimidating and competitive (or assume it would be), but that doesn’t have to be the case. I think there’s a massive opportunity for men (and faster female riders) to be more accommodating of beginners, male or female. The idea that women can only ride with women is limiting, especially when you live in an area where not that many women ride. Realistically, a lot of women don’t have the opportunity or the cash to make it to a women’s only clinic, so they’re either going to ride with dudes, or not ride. So, hey dudes – support your local women!

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?

Mountain biking has made me a stronger, better person in almost every way. I want to share that with everyone, but I think women especially can gain a lot from the sport. I know far too many women, of all ages, who suffer from low self-esteem, poor body image, lack of confidence, etc. Mountain biking teaches you to take smart risks and be strong and get back up after you’ve crashed – it’s incredibly empowering and so many women need that.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I’ve read all the Harry Potter books at least seven times. In English and Spanish.

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