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
Blog: athletefightscancer.blogspot.com
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.

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