Women Involved Series: Katherine Fuller

Meet Katherine Fuller, Texas native and IMBA's communications manager. She works in Boulder, CO and is the primary caretaker of Dig In-a woman's mtb blog.

After reading her profile, I contacted Katherine and asked if I could interview her. It also opened up the door for me to contribute to the Dig In blog as well!

I was honored for the opportunity and grateful that women who have similar goals can collaborate and work together to bring forth a richer female mountain biking community!

When did you first start riding a bike and what motivated you to ride over the years?
I actually didn't learn to ride a bike until I was 10 years old. Shortly thereafter, I placed third in my elementary school's bike rodeo and was hooked. I started doing triathlons, but the only part I actually enjoyed was the riding, so that's what stuck. For my 13th birthday, I received a 1999, entry-level Cannondale R300 road bike and started going for long, causal rides. I think I could have gotten pretty serious about cycling in high school, but I took flying lessons and got a pilot's license, instead. From age 16 through the end of college, my bike collected a lot of dust while I busted ass to do well in school.

Then, right before I graduated college in 2008, I got the bright idea to do a cross-county bike trip. My dad had participated in Bike Centennial, the 1976 coast-to-coast rides, so I always had the idea of a similar adventure in the back of my mind. When I discovered The Fuller Center for Housing and its 3,300-mile, California to Georgia fundraising ride, I signed up. I and the old Cannondale joined seven other people and spent two months on the road averaging 80-mile days. As difficult as it was, the trip romanticized cycling for me, and going for a long ride has had a calming, focusing effect on me ever since.

You are IMBA’s communications manager; what inspired you to take on that job with little mountain bike background?
I was actually hired in 2010 to be the field programs coordinator. The timing was serendipitous as my husband and I were in the process of moving from Texas to Colorado when I found out about the opening at IMBA's Boulder headquarters. At the time, I had a non-profit job I liked where I could work remotely, but even though the IMBA job wasn't in line with my education, I certainly wasn't going to pass up an opportunity to get into the bicycle industry. I had been dabbling around the edges of mountain biking but, honestly, was still primarily a roadie.

My husband was really into mountain biking in college, and since I happened to have a cheap mountain bike that had served as my college commuter, he encouraged me to ride the trails around our house in Texas. I hoped that since I loved bikes, was attuned to cycling culture and am willing to try almost anything, that might be enough, and apparently it was. I switched over to the communications department about two years ago, which is much more in line with my journalism background.  

If you did not work for IMBA, do you feel you would’ve gotten on the mountain bike trails eventually?
It’s very possible that I would have not. My husband and I moved to Colorado mostly for hiking and winter sports. At the time, I loved road cycling so much that my bicycle riding (and gear expenditures) would likely have stayed focused on the pavement.

What do you love about working for IMBA?
I love that what we’re doing is so much more than just talking about mountain bikes. Protecting and advocating for mountain bike access to trails, training and supporting grassroots mountain bike groups and building sustainable mountain bike trails supports individuals' wellness, strengthens community health, provides economic benefits, and goes hand-in-hand with land protection and environmental conservation. IMBA also has a really fun atmosphere, and I appreciate that we can have honest arguments about the issues that affect our work. No one takes a non-profit job for the pay; everyone I work with is passionate about IMBA's mission and everyone loves to ride.

In your intro post for the Dig In blog, you mentioned a few dark moments during some of the staff rides—what helped you get over those?
I had no choice! That and no one ever gave me grief about being a slow, terrible mountain biker. In retrospect, I realize that I was the only one making a big deal of it and probably should have just kept my mouth shut. Being surrounded by skilled, fast riders who were supportive of a newcomer was really a gift. I got past those moments simply by making an effort: riding when I could, taking skills clinics, taking the time to find a bike and gear that I like, subscribing to mountain bike magazines, and generally learning as much as possible. But I also got over those early, dark moments by simply falling in love with mountain biking.

You’re gaining most of your mountain bike experience in your late 20’s (same as me). Do you feel it may be more challenging at your age vs. having learned at a younger age? What do you feel are some benefits for learning a new style of riding (that is challenging) when you’re older (and “wiser”)?
At first, I was a little bitter that I hadn't learned to ride a bike at a younger age and hadn't discovered mountain biking when I was still made of rubber. But the benefit of learning at an older age is that you have the wisdom to understand that one bad experience is not worth quitting over, because it's not necessarily indicative of the whole. As an adult, you know that practice will make you better if you just stick with it, rather than feeling like you'll never get something. You can also drive yourself to really nice trails. Wherever you want to ride, you can go ride!

But I also want to say this, because it's contrary to an asinine assertion maintained by a lot of dudes: You actually don't have to crash a lot to learn mountain biking. Buy a bike that fits you well, then take a high-quality skills clinic and dial in your bike position and handling abilities, and take as much time as you need to ride and improve your skillset.

What have been some challenges with mountain biking? What have been some successes?
Mountain biking is hard. But you know how the saying goes, “A lot of things in life that are worth it are hard.” And hard doesn’t mean bad or dangerous, and it should not be a turnoff, in my mind. For me, most of the challenges have been psychological. 

Working in the bicycle industry and not being an awesomely rad old school mountain biker can be a little intimidating. I hate that I can’t keep up on staff rides. But the challenge of mountain biking means that the successes and breakthroughs are that much sweeter. The most exhilarating thing is that the better I get, the more varied trails I get to ride. Every year, my horizon for exploration expands.

What inspired the idea behind Dig In and what are the goals behind the blog?
There are 20+ women on IMBA's staff, making up about one-third of the organization, and that number is growing. Some of us realized, after noticing a lack of resources and discussions geared toward women mountain bikers, that those of us who have dedicated our play and work lives to the experience of mountain biking just might have something to offer. Dig In's vision is to serve as an educational and entertaining resource where female mountain bikers can share valuable experiences, engage in meaningful discussions, and encourage and entice other riders in a way that ultimately promotes the growth of the sport. It fits in with IMBA's mission to create, enhance and preserve great mountain biking experiences. 

Why do you feel it’s important to share the experiences of other women who mountain bike?
Through the stories of women who ride, perhaps we can break down the oft-perceived barriers to trying mountain biking, and focus on enjoying the trail experience. We hope that women who say they "don't see themselves as a mountain biker" based on current cycling media or personal abilities can brush that off and feel confident in joining us in the simple, universal love of the ride.

Mountain biking as a woman is not a singular experience, and Dig In seeks to be a resource connecting female riders to IMBA, a community connecting riders to each other, and a springboard for big ideas. We want to help build an environment where women feel accepted and welcomed. IMBA's female staffers, hundreds of women mountain bikers, influential industry women and IMBA chapter leaders hold both a personal and professional network that will have a hand in shaping Dig In by sharing their stories, offering their perspectives and responding to others' questions and thoughts.

A popular question that has been asked at times: Why aren’t more women mountain biking? What’s stopping them? What do you feel are some reasons why women either avoid or simply choose to not mountain bike?
I honestly don't know; and I don't think anyone really knows with absolute certainty. The last thing I want to do is lump all women into one category and lay a bunch of stereotypes over the top, because we all have our own reasons for doing and not doing things. But I'm willing to wager that exposure is one issue.
We often hear women say, "I don't/can't see myself doing that," and I don't doubt that it has something to do with the general portrayal of mountain biking as a male-dominated, male-driven activity. I think it just doesn't even occur to many women to try mountain biking, so more have to be exposed through a close friend or family member, or have a step-outside-the-box, adventurous inclination to discover it on their own. I also think it doesn’t help that women generally have lower incomes than men, and mountain biking can rapidly get expensive.

The running scene is a curious comparison, since participation is split evenly between the genders. A lot of industry people think it’s because of the tremendously low barrier to entry. Almost anyone can just go out and start running with whatever shoes they have, and start getting fit fairly quick.  

With mountain biking, have you learned skills primarily from women? Have men instructed you? Have you noticed any difference with instruction that is helpful or was not helpful?
I have learned primarily from women. My husband is a good mountain biker, but us riding together means I let him go ahead and he waits for me once in a while. My best experiences have been riding in front of other, highly skilled female riders where they can check out what I'm doing, or by following them down a technical trail where I can observe their line choices. A few of my coworkers in particular have been great at giving me pointers, and they do it by observing me, then offering just one thing to think about.

Honestly, a single new skill is about all I can retain on a ride, but those rides have been extremely helpful and each of those tips has stuck. Having someone riding with me who remembers the learning process and the struggles that I'm experiencing, who knows exactly how to explain a technique (because they've had to think through it themselves), and who can critique and encourage me in a genuine manner, is hugely valuable.

What do you feel other women can do to encourage more women to become active in the mountain biking community (or bike riding in general?)
Be visible, be friendly and be welcoming. Advocacy has acquired a wonky connotation that's not wholly correct; advocacy is not just being a club president, designing master trail system plans or cutting singletrack every single weekend (although those things are critical). Mountain bike advocacy is also about taking friends for rides, introducing your kids to mountain biking, becoming a member of the local mountain bike group, attending a community meeting, writing a letter once in a while, sharing mountain bike stories via social media, volunteering at events in whatever way you're comfortable, and simply using proper trail etiquette.

Whether you like it or not, you become an ambassador if you're a female mountain biker. Others will look to you for anecdotal evidence and to see what "real" women mountain bikers look like.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about giving mountain biking a try?
Patience is a virtue and, like most technical skills in life, you need to practice to get the hang of it. From what I've observed, mountain biking tends to be more mental for women than men, since we're often not strong enough to just power over every trail obstacle. We often have to rely more on technical ability and finesse, which take time to develop.

For whatever reason, some people seem to think that you're not a real mountain biker if you can't ride gnarly, black-diamond trails right out of the gate, but that's ridiculous. Mountain biking is not easy, and even good riders have bad days, but a little bit of skill and confidence will make all the difference in your experience.

Think of it like learning how to ski. Taking a lesson is an accepted practice for snow-sports beginners, and I think mountain biking should be no different. Consider taking a skills lesson or clinic, then just make sure to enjoy your rides! Check out MTBProject.com to find trails in your area. (The green ones are best for beginners.) Once you grasp the flow of mountain biking, there's nothing quite like it. It can be a truly magical experience.