Women on Bikes Series: Leah Gifford
Meet Leah who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Leah races in three disciplines: mountain, cyclocross, and a little bit of road/crit. She races locally for Team Soundpony and is also a member of Team LUNA Chix Tulsa Mountain Bike.
I particularly love how her husband was a pivotal point with her and getting more into the bike riding scene. This is something I can say I'm lucky to be able to relate to. Travis may not have bought me my first bike, but he sold it to me-and that's pretty darn close!
When did you first start riding a bike?
I grew up riding a bike and continued to ride for fun throughout my high school and college days. But when I met my husband, he was already deep into cycling and he bought me a road bike. I have never looked back. (Now my bike hobby might be more of an obsession.)
What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
Beyond being a super competitive person, I ride for fun and to stay in shape. I am a firm believer of "bike therapy."
What kind of riding is your favorite? (paved, gravel, mountain)
My favorite racing discipline in cycling is definitely cyclocross, although when it comes to sheer fun, mountain biking takes the cake.
-----Could you tell us more about cyclocross and why you enjoy it?
I really enjoy all of the challenges in cross- the barriers, the sand and mud pits, the stairs, you name it. The harder and messier, the better! I have always enjoyed shorter races and cyclocross offers me that. That's not to say that it is easy by any means. It is a brutally intense 40 minutes that leaves you with no gas in the tank.
-----What was your first experience with cyclocross?
I think my husband introduced me to it and there's no denying that it was love at first sight. I was a hurdler and sprinter in high school, so when I learned about cyclocross, I was stoked. I made the podium at my first race and have been itching for more ever since.
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.)
Absolutely. It was liberating. I had hiked the trails many times prior to owning a mountain bike and I remember looking at the trails and thinking "there is no way people can ride bikes on this stuff." The first time I tried to ride it; I couldn't believe what my mountain bike was capable of. These days you will catch me riding or attempting to ride just about anything out there.
If you had nervousness at all, what do you do or think to overcome it?
It is never good to be nervous on a mountain bike. I always try to be relaxed going into my ride. There are a lot of sayings in mountain biking, like "when in doubt, walk it out." Or encouraging new riders by letting them know that it's always okay to "hike a bike" when something looks intimidating or unrideable. We try to decrease nervousness when taking beginner women on the trails by telling them some of the funny things that we have done or by encouraging them to only do what they feel comfortable doing. Once a rider is more comfortable on her bike and with the trails, the nervousness will decrease and the fun factor will infinitely increase.
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. Actually, since my husband bought me my first road bike, I have never had anything else. That includes riding clipped in on my very first mountain bike ride. I honestly wouldn't have it any other way.
A great tip for getting used to the feeling of clipping in and out is to use a trainer (if you have one) and if not, have someone hold your bike while you sit on it and repetitively clip in and out. It's good to practice doing one foot at a time, both feet, and trying to clip out quickly in case you come to a sudden stop. Don't panic if you can't get clipped back in right away. It happens to everyone. Just get used to the feeling of finding the pedal underneath your foot and where your clip meets it. You'll get better with practice!
If you are a commuter what are some of the challenges you face and how do you overcome them?
I hope to do more commuting in the near future and give huge kudos to those who commute regularly.
Have you had a bike biff? If so, how did you recover on a physical/mental/emotional level?
Of course! There are certain things you should just expect when venturing into cycling, like eating dirt occasionally, being covered in bruises, and embarrassing yourself.
One of my most memorable mishaps was a mechanical issue during a cyclocross race where I was in the lead. My chain came off, and instantly I jumped off the bike to pop it back on. Usually this is no problem, just a bit of an annoyance. This time, however, it was not going back on easily and something was obviously wrong. I watched every racer pass me one by one in a state of sheer panic. I couldn't believe what was happening. It was just the chain after all. But it was STUCK! Finally I came out of my panic as my husband's voice bellowed across the course telling me to get to the pit. Duh!!! I had another bike in the pit. But in my mania it was like I had lost my brain. So, with his direction, I ran with my bike on the course (you cannot cut the course or go backwards to get to the pit) to my husband who was waiting eagerly with my pit bike. We exchanged bikes, which was incredibly ugly, by the way, and I started pedaling again. Then it all sunk in- I just went from first place to last and my position in the series of this three day race was probably lost. Talk about a mental breakdown. As I rode, I just kept telling myself to try to catch at least one girl and keep pedaling hard.
There was a very nice man on the side of the course who started giving me split times from the first girl to me. The first time he shouted was "about 60 seconds." That's a big gap. But, I had overcome my disappointment and was going to keep trucking. The next time I came around he said 45 seconds. And the next lap it was down to 18! At this point I had already made my goal of catching at least one girl but I was now after the lead pack. Knowing that I could probably catch the leaders I never let up and within half of a lap I was right there with them. I was so shocked that I was able to catch them because it seemed so far off but I decided that I wasn't content just hanging with the pack. I made a move on a tight, technical section of the course and I never looked back. When I crossed the finish line for the win, I was sporting a grin from ear to ear. So, let this be an example of turning the tables within yourself to keep working hard and pushing toward the main goal regardless of what curves are thrown at you.
What do you love about riding your bike?
Riding my bike gives me a sense of freedom and pure enjoyment that I can't get anywhere else.
Would you be willing to share more about your bike riding experiences with your husband? What is it like having a husband so vested in something you both can share together?
Well, let me just say that I wouldn't be on a bike if it weren't for my husband. I mean, he bought me my first bike and has been my riding buddy and support crew ever since. We ride together at least 2-3 times a week.
We both race mountain and road, so we spend a lot of time on those bikes together. It is nice to get to share that time, because now that I am fully interested in racing, I understand the commitment that is required to race bicycles at a competitive level.
Lastly, why did you choose to become involved with LUNA Chix?
I met some girls locally who were mountain biking together calling themselves the "B.O.M.B.'s" (babes on mountain bikes.) One of them had a plan to start a LUNA team in Tulsa and gained approval. In their second year I was invited to join the team and gladly accepted. I really enjoy the work we are doing to get more women on bikes and outdoors and raising money for the Breast Cancer Fund. It is one of the best things going around here for women and cycling.