Men on Bikes Series: Benji Nichols
When did you first start riding a bike?
I learned to ride an old blue kids junker somewhere around 1984, I think. My first Mountain Bike (a white and pink accented Trek) came from Decorah Bicycles around '90 - back when Deke & Karl had the shop underneath the current 'Sport Shop'. My brother got a mountain bike at the same time - and that's when we started riding trails.
What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
I was kind of a fat kid - no joke. And I really didn't enjoy team competitive sports. But biking sort of took me in a different direction - the social aspects were FUN, and the physical challenges were great. From there, I just wanted to ride - there is also something riding does for me that very few other activities can offer me. I find that my "busy" brain really relaxes when I ride - my immediate focus is not crashing, while the rest of my mind can kind of meditate, its an awesome feeling and break from the everyday hum of things.
What kind of riding is your favorite? (paved, gravel, mountain)
I love riding Decorah's Mountain Bike trails. We are crazy, insanely lucky to have the resources we have here -and its only getting better. But I ride the Trout Run Trail with my daughter in the trailer a lot too - its a perfect loop on a lot of days. There are a lot of us who enjoy Bluffton rides as well - either gravel or road, and many other good gravel loops as well. Gravel is a different animal, but really fun as well. My least favorite riding is probably on 2 lane hard surface roads. NE Iowa (like many places) has its challenges on that front.
Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride? (If not a mountain biker, how about first commuter ride, paved trail ride, gravel, etc.)
It was horrible. I had my first mountain bike; I was trying to get up into Van Peenen on what is now 'The Luge'. I was young, out of shape, and had no idea what I was doing. That all changed fairly quickly...
If you had nervousness at all, what do you do or think to overcome it?
Like many semi-dangerous sports, there is an art to riding a bike - a commitment to yourself to believe that you aren't going to crash. It’s like surfing a bit -you don't EVER go out surfing thinking "hmmmm, today I'm going to get bit by a shark", hell no, you believe that if you respect what you are doing, you'll be ok. Biking is the same way - you have to commit to whatever you are riding and believe you aren't going to crash. Sometimes you crash - it happens, and it will happen if you ride a bike, but if you hesitate while mountain biking (in particular) you're going to get yourself in trouble.
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. For 15 years+. There is no other way -trust me, do it. The pure mechanics are all you need to understand. Without being clipped into your pedals, you are automatically losing at least half your pedal strength. Once you are clipped in, you become part of the bike machine - hills are easier, straights are faster, and balance is improved. That said, getting used to them can take a few rides and a couple tumbles. Do some flat - non-pavement riding to get used to clip-ins, and make sure you have a local shop or bike-savvy person help you dial them in. Clip-ins = happy riding.
If you are a commuter what are some of the challenges you face and how do you overcome them?
I have commuted on bike in Decorah, Boston, Northern California, and San Francisco proper. Bike commuting is a beautiful thing. There are always challenges, but with the right equipment, it’s a fabulous way to get where you are going!
I'd love to know a little more about the differences you encountered commuting in larger cities. Where there pros/cons?
Commuting in big cities can be both invigorating and terrifying. It can also be the absolute fastest way to get around - hands down, especially in a city like Boston where parking is impossible. I commuted in Boston for about 2 years throughout all seasons. I didn't have the best gear, and suffered some soggy rides, but didn't ever have a serious accident. Other cities, like San Francisco are laid out quite well for cyclists - bike lanes, commuting paths, etc - and the consequences for drivers are stiff, so there is a bit more awareness on that front. That said, you have to have your 'feeling confident' hat on to commute in any city!
From those experiences, are there things you wish Decorah would do differently for the bicycle commuters?
I think more bike lanes would be amazing - and probably won't happen any time soon. I also think the Sharrows that were painted on certain street routes were a really good idea and should be repainted. I know they caused an uproar, but the amount of conversation that came from that alone is exactly the kind of discussions that we need to be having for the general public.
Do you commute even if the weather isn’t ideal? Why or why not? If yes, what do you do to make it more tolerable?
Depends. Winter can be rough - just in the aspect of having the right gear, and then making the switch at work/home. It can be a lot of stuff to lug around, and ice sucks. The right gear = winning commuting though.
Have you had a bike biff? If so, how did you recover on a physical/mental/emotional level?
Several/many. I really couldn't count how many. I took a really hard fall on my head/face 2 New Year's ago on iced over gravel. I had a lot of gear on including ski goggles and I'm not exaggerating that a full skull helmet and goggles literally saved me that day. That was a wake-up for me, realizing I'm not in my 20s anymore, I have a family, business, other priorities besides myself. Biking can be dangerous, but so can walking across the street to get a doughnut. Physical pain is one thing, I've severely sprained feet /ankles/ wrists/ etc - had the wind knocked out of me a few times - it can be scary. I ride mountain bike a lot more chill than I used to, simply because I want to be out having fun and getting exercise. I don't have to be out leading the pack or winning anything - those risks just aren't worth it at this point in my life - I'd much rather be having a good time and feeling good at the end of the day.
Would you say you are comfortable with your riding now vs. how it used to be when you were younger? I know that sometimes people can find frustrations with cutting back or others find peace.
I am quite comfortable riding these days - my only qualm is that I'd like to be out riding more! But spring is coming, and it will happen! I have great memories of riding bikes on the west side growing up - to the pool, to west side school, etc - but I love riding now both for fun and to get places. Bikes are rad!
What do you love about riding your bike?
There is a freedom in bicycling that isn't really found in any other mode of non-motorized transportation. Bikes are fun.
Did you introduce Aryn to riding or a riding discipline?
Aryn has been a champ at jumping on a bike - she wasn't very into riding previously, and really jumped right in. Having a kiddo slowed down her wanting to get a bit more into mountain biking, but we're playing with getting her a road bike this summer so we can maybe do some of RAGBRAI together this year, or at least a couple Bluffton rides.
I'm sure it doesn't happen as much now, but do you and Aryn still plan to ride together?
Actually, riding as a family is a great activity, and when a more dominant rider pulls a trailer, it often equals out everyone's pace for a good ride! That said, I do really love taking off on rides by myself- I find a huge amount of stress relief and personal mediation in riding solo.
Do you plan on teaching Roxie how to mountain bike when she's old enough? =)
Absolutely. Don't listen to anything that "parenting resources" tell you about how old your kids should be to ride a bike, etc. As soon as they can walk (or even earlier) they can mess around on 2 and 4 wheeled objects. I totally plan on getting Rox on a 'strider' type bike this summer - and hopefully not even ever expose her to training wheels -we'll see how that goes!
What is something fun that you would like everyone to know about you that they may or may not know? (Can be bike related or not)
I was on the very first Decorah Bicycles Mountain Bike racing team back in the mid-90s. We road several of the Cactus Cup midwest races and others. We had a lot of fun and I was super lucky as a kid to be surrounded by some really, really talented riders.