Monday, September 12, 2016

Women Involved Series: Cori Pepelnjak

Like so many, I just love riding bikes and am pretty darn happy on just about any bike, but I am a mountain biker. Give me rocks, roots, drops, and berms—please. Enduro is by far my race of choice, although I have only had the opportunity to compete in three, thus far. Whereas I have raced dozens of XC races, which includes winter fat bike racing. My first ever bike race still remains my favorite, the Dakota Five-O. For me, racing has been primarily about the camaraderie and pushing my fitness and speed. I’ve never been one to train for racing and although it does feed my competitive-self, racing XC has been my “training” to become a better, faster “free” rider, because just riding rad trails with playful, skilled riders is my absolute favorite.

“It’s a passion.” “I can have an impact.” “It’s compelling.” “Why not? It’s worth a try.” “It’s just a temporary deviation.” “I get to do what? With who?” “I am not afraid!”

These are some of the attitudes and considerations that have shaped my work-life trajectory. And by trajectory, don’t think of a nice arching vector, but more errant, seemingly out-of-control missile, where the missile is piloted by someone who loves a little joy riding before hitting the target. These are also, for the most part, some of the main motivations behind what and why I do, what I do, on bikes. So, it is no surprise that my work-life and bike-life eventually merged and became nearly indistinguishable from each other.

At 40 years old, with only one year in the industry as an Account Manager for QBP and no bike shop experience or mechanic skills, I somewhat shockingly found myself with a key to a rattlesnake clad van filled to the brim with Salsa bikes, and responsible for stoking the good folks of California and the Southwest with memorable and veritably rad ride experiences and events.

Previous to my foray in the bike industry, I was a Documentary Photographer (still am and always will be), a Clinical Educator for a medical laser company, a Medical Aesthetician and an Environmental Activist, who dabbled in architecture, enjoyed stints as ski patrol, bartender and server and will likely have her own breakfast joint one day. After residing seven years in Minneapolis, I am finally back West—living in Park City, UT.

“Never a dull day” / “Unsafe at any speed” / Pep. That’s me.

When did you first start riding a bike?
Honestly, I can’t remember how old I was when I first rode a bike. I do remember getting a yellow Huffy for my 9th Birthday, which was also the first day of school, for which I went all scratched up to. On my first ride, on that Birthday morning, I crashed into the blackberry brambles at the end of a dead end street. The Huffy had had coaster brakes and the bike I had before that had what I think is called a pedi brake, basically a step brake out in front of the pedals, so I couldn’t figure out how to stop. Little did I know that this would continue to be a pattern in my bike riding, for ALL of my life.

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

I didn’t actually ride that much or with regularity until about 2011 when I had some unexpected upheaval in my life. For all intents and purposes, my life was turned upside down and the bike helped orient me. It also was the conduit to meeting a community of incredible people, which in turn motivated me to ride more—singletrack cabin trips, group night riding, bike derbies behind One on One, Cyclocross racing, River Bottom rambles, fat bike winter pub crawls, races I didn’t even really want to do, but got talked into (like the Chequamegon 40), and the list goes on and on….

What would be your favorite competitive biking event and why do you enjoy competing?
Can I choose two? Dakota Five O and Copper Harbor Enduro.

The Dakota Five-O was my first ever bike race and it was 50 miles long. I doubt I had ridden over 30 miles in a day at that point. I had just moved to the Midwest and was working with Geno at One on One to build up a singlespeed commuter bike. The day before the race I went into the shop to check on the build progress. The guys at the shop told me Geno was at the Dakota Five-O and they must have done so in a very compelling way, because I went home, Googled “Dakota Five-O” and immediately loaded up my RV with my bike and started driving. I arrived to Spearfish, SD—a 9 hour drive—in the wee hours of the morning before the race. This was 2007, so the race wasn’t filling up online in sub 5 minutes. I registered at the start line and spent the first few climbs behind a dude riding in cowboy boots and daisy dukes on a singlespeed.

That whole day was an utter blur to full on blackout (blackout might have come after shotgunning the PBR with 10 miles to go), but it still remains one of my best rides/races to date and still one of the longest mountain bike races I have done. For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t race again until 2011.

My other favorite race is the Copper Harbor Trails Fest Enduro because: 1) It is Copper Harbor, a magical place; 2) In general, the Enduro race format fits my riding style and trail preferences; 3) Specifically, getting trails like Downtown, some combination of Flow and Overflow, and Red Trail, to yourself for a spell to rip as hard as you can is worth the “price of admission”; 4) Did I mention it is in Copper Harbor—so ice cold lake dips and beer with hot BBQ to follow!

I compete because of the camaraderie and it makes me ride harder than I would otherwise, which makes me a better “free rider”/recreational rider. I think this last reasoning might be the reverse of most.
Do you have any suggestions for those who are on the fence about participating in their first event?
Embrace your inner awkward teenage-self because it will be intimidating, you will likely feel insecure and out of place getting yourself to the start line. Don’t hesitate to introduce yourself to the woman (or guy depending on the race) next to you. Let them know it is your first or one of your first races—I bet they will be psyched for you and offer a little advice. Mountain biker racers are friendly freaks, most often.

Know that after it is done, anywhere from immediately to a few hours later, you will forget all the discomfort of the race and pre-race and be scheming about the next one or what you will do differently next time you race the course.

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

I don’t remember my first mountain bike ride. I grew up in a hilly town on the Puget Sound with a lot of what I would now call “bootleg” trails. We rode mountain bikes out of necessity—low gearing to ride the hills to and from school and wider tires for the dirt trails that took us down Japanese Gulch to the beach or Larry’s Pharmacy for candy runs!

Having been off my mountain bike since May because of an injury, I might have to amend this once I get Doc’s clearance to get back on the dirt in a couple-few more months, as I have a feeling that first ride back on my mountain bike will generate emotions and sensations, commensurate to first riding and falling in love with mountain biking.

If you had nervousness at all, what did you do or think to overcome it?

Nervousness and fear are different. Nervousness strikes me the most pre-race—getting all my sh*t together to getting to the start line. And then there is all the pre-race jitter sh*tt!ng! You don’t overcome it. It goes away as soon as the “gun” goes off.

Now, having raced on and off for five years, I have reduced, to some extent, the panic and franticness I often experience in getting ready for races. My gear needs and pre-race rituals are a bit more dialed, not perfected by any means though. This is something you can really only learn from experience, although it can be partially mitigated if you are lucky enough to have yourself a good race crew or “manager”.

One of my tips is eat a good brekkie, get as much in your system as it allows. I am an excellent eater and love breakfast, but the jitters make it hard for me to get much food down on race day, so I make sure to have a few hundred calories to consume while I get ready at the race site too. Essentially, I have to force feed myself a bit.

Clips, flats, or both? What have you learned?
Clips, but now that I am back living in the West I plan on riding more flat pedals, especially in place likes Moab, Hurricane, and Sedona. It really takes some skill and practice to learn how to ride flats well, but the skills required are vital skills that will help your riding all-around.

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 wasn’t given a middle name at birth, but my family and friends have bestowed “Danger” on me. So, I am Cori Danger “Pep” Pepelnjak. I am bit unbridled and I break easy. Don’t let this deter you—it hasn’t me, at least not yet.

As I mentioned earlier, I am recovering from an injury I sustained in May. It wasn’t caused by a crash, per se, just the right amount of force and momentum on a vulnerable joint, the shoulder. It resulted in a 4 in 1 reconstruction surgery and an estimated 6 months off my mountain bike. A pretty crushing injury on so many levels: the timing—right at the beginning of my first summer back West; it left me physically unable to do my job; and it was my 6th orthopedic surgery (only 2nd from biking incidents and the other was just my left thumb, I am right handed, so it hardly counts); and the oh the $$$, even with insurance.
This surgery was the hardest and most painful I have experienced and during the first few weeks post-surgery, there were some very dark days and self-pitying. But then, it all subsided as I was able to get myself out for hikes with borrowed dogs, on the trainer for short upright spins and begin my physical therapy, which even though was torturous at the start, it meant progress and I was in the talented hands of an awesome and inspiring female PT.

About two months post op I was approved to ride a “beach cruiser”. A friend lent me her turtle bell and plastic flower adorned purple Diamondback Della Cruz and I have been crushing the paved and gravel trails around Park City--fifteen to thirty miles a go on a very wide anatomically wrong saddle! Sporting a flat brim hat on my head, gangster rap bumping in my ears, a scar strutting tank top and my favorite camo patterned Dakine shorts…I made it my goal not to get passed by any lycra clad roadies. I even provide a draft on occasion.

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 never really thought about this before. When I first started riding, I just rode to ride. Everything technical was just something to overcome and to push my “fear” boundaries further out. I guess I only ever thought in terms of sessioning—try and try again. Skills—weren’t a consideration. A lifetime of alpine skiing, which aside from body position, is about picking lines and keeping your eyes up, focusing at least three turns ahead, translated into a solid foundation for riding mountain bikes. I became more conscious of “skilz” in the past couple years. Reasons being:

1) I have known (and been a bit envious) of girlfriends who have done multi-day skills classes with the likes of Lindsey Voreis and taken their riding to the next level. I have learned vicariously through them. Either getting a better understanding of things I do instinctively, like “boobs over bars” when climbing up technical features, or learning techniques that make me a safer, faster or more proficient rider, such as better body positioning for cornering.

2) In order to better support novice riders at my Salsa demo/ride events and to encourage new or more inexperienced female riders I have had to become more conscious and articulate about fundamental mountain biking skills.

3) Racing Enduros (speed + technical features) and having more opportunities to ride in high risk-reward trails means I have had to step up my game. I know I would benefit from participating in one of Lindsay’s clinics and hope to do so once healed.

Last Summer I was obsessed with the wheelie. I spent hours practicing and received lots of (conflicting) tips. I got to the point that I could ride a wheelie 60% of the time. I also broke my sacrum showing off my wheelie to my neighbor…. The lesson here is don’t get cocky, which is a bit inherent in the wheelie!

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
My wheelie is still a bit inconsistent and that infuriates me. The sacrum incident threw me off.

There are other skills I want to be better at for sure, like really laying it down on a corner, jumping doubles and tabletops and taking big drops. I can’t say I get dragged down. Frustrated at times, but I like being challenged.

Honestly, what frustrates me is being nearly 42 and thinking about my age, and unconsciously doing the math and it influencing whether I ride a high-stakes section of trail or not. The math being some estimation of how long I can realistically pursue the kind of more consequential riding I love against the potential “cost” of riding or “hitting” that high-stakes feature or gnarly stretch of trail. Essentially, I hate saying to myself, if I were 10 years younger….

What do you love about riding your bike?

Pretty much everything, but having had a forced hiatus, what I miss the most and have subsequently realized is what I love is that liberating, swervy, frolicsome sensation. You know what I mean? The flowing, tilting, dipping, hip checking…

You started out working as an account manager for QBP- what inspired you to get involved with the bike industry?
As I mentioned earlier, there was a pretty big disruption in my life, which made it hard for me to continue working as a grant and award funded documentary photographer. All of my photography projects were immersive and intensely emotional, which required more of me than I had during that period.

Biking had become such an essential part of my life during this period that I decided to move my career-life in that direction. Already having invested so much time and energy in the Minnesota biking community, it was a relatively seamless transition once I found a good entrĂ©e role in the industry with QBP, which was originally in sales. I was also given the “backyard territory”. I absolutely loved supporting the local shops with their business and being their reliable, go-to at Q.

Why do you feel women are a valuable asset to the bike industry?
Women ride bikes, and a greater percentage of women should be riding bikes, therefore women must be a force, voice, influence, contributor and participant in the industry be it product development, marketing and branding, sales representation, and event production or as (equally awarded) competitors.

The fact that the word “uncomfortable” is used so often by and with regards to women in connection with cycling is a big problem. There are many barriers to entry for women in relationship to bikes/biking, both perceived and irrefutable, be it working in the industry or pursuing new forms of cycling (mtb, commuting, racing) or just getting physically comfortable on a bike (bike fit, finding appropriate, comfortable, stylish clothing, where to ride, how to maintain a bike). The industry needs women to be involved to help resolve and mitigate these issues.
Women bring a different way of relating, educating and influencing. Our reach, approach, and tone, generally speaking, differs from that of men. There is the obvious fact that we have an intimate understanding and sensitivity to aspects of female anatomy, biology and even psychology that influences product design and messaging.

Although, always having been a tomboy and often considered, “one of the guys”, I absolutely showed up differently being a female Brand Ambassador than my male peers. My first-hand understanding of the “uncomfortable” influenced how I presented myself and related to not only women, but all the riders that I interacted with.

What do you enjoy most about being able to travel with a demo van of bikes?
That I have a van full of rad bikes at my disposal and get to provide fellow cyclists, shop employees and consumers, with truly memorable bike ride experiences that I conceived and executed in some ridiculously amazing places.

What would be the most challenging part about your job?

The only real challenge was maintenance/repair. Not my forte, in fact I have no mechanical bone in my body and I have never received training. Understanding the technical components of a bike and knowing how to repair them are different.

In all honesty, I like having “my” mechanics that take good care of my bikes and even me at times—it is entertaining and makes me feel part of the shop “family”.

What is the most rewarding part?
There were three very rewarding aspects to the job:

1) Supporting bike shops in ways that are specific to their personality, market and growth goals/potential.

2) Growing my incredible network of cycling friends through the events and rides I produced and hosted.

3) Being a respected and valued female brand representative

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?

1) Salsa Bucksaw. The bike is just silly fun. I plan to build 27.5+ wheels for XC riding in the summer and it works as my fat bike in the winter now that I don’t l have to worry about sub-zero temps!

2) Salsa Horsethief. It is my do most trails mountain bike with Dave Weagle designed suspension. I had an Ibis Ripley before that, which also had DW suspension, it was my first 29er and like the Horsey, it had great versatility. All that said, I am selling my Horsethief for a longer travel bike if anyone is interested….

3) Salsa Cutthroat. I was pairing down my fleet, sold my CX bike since I am not racing anymore. I don’t really ride road much and when I do it is for miles and convenience, so I don’t need a road-road bike. The Cutty will serve me well on the mountainous roads around Park City. I love riding the drops on non-techy singletrack. Then there is the fact that it is the ideal bikepacking rig.

4) Rodriguez steel frame road bike from ’99. I use it on the trainer now that I am injured.

5) Salsa Casseroll. I set it up with a flip flop hub, SS and fixie, with mustache bars. It is my urban bar bike, but think I will sell it for a cruiser style bike. I have had a blast riding my friends while injured and it is fun to run errands on.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?

I alluded to this in the question about women in the industry, but without a doubt mountain biking can be intimidating. The imagery used to market mountain bike products or just envisioning biking on “mountains” is daunting for many. Tight curvy trails, with trees, rocks, ledges and the like, not to mention mountain bikes with their technically overwhelming features—wheel and tire sizes, suspension, geometries. Even some of the names or naming conventions: Epic, Ripley, Mach 429, Fuel Ex #.#, etc….

I think many women like to have activity partners, especially for new activities, and if off the bat they find themselves on trails over their head or with an impatient or insensitive companion it can be a major deterrent. Finding reliable, sensitive riding companions that are encouraging without pushing them too far out of their ability is important.

I shared this interview with a friend and verifiably rad woman in the industry before it was published. She in turn shared a way she has been enticing new women to the mtb addiction by using the “push-her-woman” model with her access to Q’s fleet of bikes. Idea is, make a point of inviting new female riders to ride—get them a bike to use, set them up, show them some basics, the trail, ride easy and then enjoy a trail parking lot beer after. Treat it like the drug it is…the addicting qualities will take it from there. I would add, introduce them to a local bike shop—help them feel comfortable in that environment too.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?

Some of it is happening—the popularity of women-specific clinics, Little Bellas and HS MTB programs with special mentor programs for girls (kids who ride mtbs can influence and inspire their mother’s to ride), bike shops recognizing their weakness in appealing and connecting with women, and hiring women like myself as brand ambassadors to interact with both the shop and consumer-world.

The industry still has a long ways to go to be an inviting place for women to work and flourish in. Those women that are hired “in” often work in the periphery or find it easiest to conform to the status quo, versus being in positions where they can meaningfully inform and influence aspects of the industry to help it evolve—in product development, marketing and sales. It is still all so tech focused and driven. The fact is, I wasn’t raised working on bikes, paying attention to new technology or bikes now considered “iconic” or “legacy”, sure I remember the lefty fork coming to market, but all I thought was, damn, that is so ugly.

To be completely frank, I feel more disrespected and hindered when criticized or talked down to regarding my mechanic skills, lack of tech “legacy” knowledge or my solid, intermediate understanding of suspension design by a co-worker than blatant sexual harassment, which does exist.

What I would like to see is a flood of women applying to the industry—don’t think you aren’t qualified. I am a testament to that—I had no shop or mechanic skills, and relatively speaking was new to the community of cycling. Find a mentor or advocate in the industry and make yourself, your passion for bikes, and desire to be a part of it all known and available! Feel free to email me and I will help however I can or try to connect you with someone else who can, cori@pepelnjak.com

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?

It pains me to hear women wish they could do something physically challenging, even to the point of
agonizing over it, but not believing they can or are unable to get past those paralyzing feelings. I want girls and women to be more fearless or emboldened in general and have the confidence in their strength—emotional, physical and mental. It is very freeing, which is a tremendously empowering and believe it translates into other crucial aspects of our lives and relationships.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!

I used to be a medical esthetician with an expertise in laser and light-based treatments.

And if you want to check out my photography…Pepelnjak.com

2 comments:

  1. So rad!
    One thing- the link to her photography is wrong, an extra "a" was added!
    www.pepelnjak.com

    ReplyDelete