Women on Bikes Series: Jill Van Winkle

Standing in an erosion gully while doing a
 trail assessment at Tai Lam Country Park, Hong Kong
For the past ten years I’ve designed, constructed, taught, restored, planned, debated, maintained, and even closed recreational trails. As a Trail Specialist for the IMBA, I am a full time professional trail consultant. Working with federal agencies, state and local governments, environmental organizations and volunteer groups from all over I have critiqued thousands of miles of trails.

I have a BA in Biology and Environmental Studies and an MS in Environmental Science and Management and have a diverse work history in natural resources.

I’m passionate about mountain biking, plants (I love wildflower rides - climbs are the best for trail-side botanizing), and a desire to understand how recreation affects the landscape, and what we can do to minimize those impacts while encouraging responsible recreation to create the conservationists of the future. I hope that I can be a more effective advocate and trail planner with a deeper understanding of environmental science.

When did you first start riding a bike?
First riding a bike? 7, I know a bit late, but we had one small bike that all 4 of us kids used to learn, no training wheels and you had to be tall enough to pedal it. My next birthday, my sister and I received matching huffy star princess bikes from our grandmother. We loved those bikes and rode them everywhere. Sadly, once I outgrew that bike, I stopped biking until the summer before college, when I rediscovered the joy and efficiency of riding. Mountain biking: while I have owned a mountain bike since I was 18, I didn't go mountain biking until I was ~26. 

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
Joy, exercise, nature, friends, and finding the best riding partner (my husband). I started out mountain biking with a few friends; it was a good fit with my love of trail running. Then I realized that I loved being on a bike anywhere and I became an avid commuter too. More bikes and riding styles followed. 

What would be your favorite competitive biking event and why do you enjoy competing?
I don't do competitive biking events. I love mountain biking and feel that competitive events take away from my experience. That doesn't mean I don't like competition, I just want to be in the moment - sometimes I love to race my friends down the trail, sometimes I want to chill. I do like to watch some competitive events: jump jams, bmx, road criterium, and, even cyclocross (but only if it's crappy weather - if it's nice, I want to be out mountain biking somewhere!). Running events, now that's something I love! Especially if I can be in costume. 

Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride?
Anxious, elated. And so, so glad that I was with other newbies! Despite having a heavy, crappy bike that was too big for me and riding mostly steep, muddy roads, I was hooked. 

If you had nervousness at all, what do you do or think to overcome it?
I get nervous all the time. If I'm riding with my peers, reminding myself that I can ride anything they can. Asking someone to let me follow them through a section or off an obstacle - this helps me a lot, if that other rider (often my husband or a good female riding buddy) knows my riding skills and style. They know I can do it, so I just let go and trust that they are right. Most women are better than they think they are (a huge generalization, but most men ride above their ability and most women ride below it, just my observations…). I cheer myself on, out loud - it may sound funny, but it totally works for me. The best thing for my skills has been riding with women who are just slightly better than me. Usually it's a rider that is comparable to me, but we each have things we are a little better than the other on. It's the perfect balance in a riding buddy - you can push each other but it always seems doable. And you aren't always the one following. 
Sometimes I just can't get out of my head and it sucks, but I'm getting better at letting go and not letting it ruin my ride. It's okay to have an off day, walk a section you know you can ride, but still be thankful for getting out to ride, enjoy everything else- being outside in a beautiful place, getting exercise, sharing with friends. 

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?
I use clipless pedals for most of my riding, unless it's super techy or I'm riding a bike park. When I first got them, I went to a park with nice soft grass and practiced clipping in and out. Of course, clipping out on the fly is totally different. My first mountain bike ride with them was a disaster - a night ride in the mud, but I just ended up with a few bruises and lots of laughs. I made a mistake in using old, cheap SPDs, though. I'd make sure to have cleats that are worn in and don't clog with mud! Even after clipping in and out became an automatic motion, it doesn't do any good if your cleats are cemented to the pedals. After a few nasty crashes, I switched to Time pedals (thanks to my hubby!) and haven't had any trouble since.  

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
So many. I think most of my big crashes hurt my ego and confidence as much as my body. For my body: being committed to the prescribed physical therapy; yoga has helped immensely too - for balance of mind and body. For my mind: much harder to recover, but with age I've gotten better. Accepting that once I'm hurt, I have to heal and being angry won't help that happen. Finding other outlets for exercise is one of the best ways to help with the emotional challenge. Feeling fit and strong, even if my wrist/shoulder/ankle/whatever still needs to heal and rebuild, helps so much with my confidence. I'm thankful that I'm a runner - it's saved me emotionally through several injuries. As has the gym: as much as I hate it when I'm well, using stationary equipment was a lifesaver for my sanity (and fitness) with several injuries. I'm pretty lucky to have a supportive partner - we've been there to help each other through lots of breaks and bruises. 

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Hmm, lots of things, and so many still do! I had a really difficult time with elevated wooden structures. Even a simple, short, flat, relatively low to the ground ladder bridge would freak me out. I knew it was all psychological, but it took me a really long time to get past. This was particularly bad because as I was really getting into mountain biking, we lived in a place where the trails were littered with them. Like so many riding challenges the key is not to look at the obstacle, but where you want to go. For these shorter bridges, that made a huge difference for me - looking through to the other side and not at the bridge at all. Also, following someone and committing myself ahead of time to follow their line. And, riding flats! Seriously, for technical challenges that really freak me out, not having to worry about getting away from the bike is a big help. These 3 things are, honestly, the most useful tools for most technical challenges for me. I just have to remember to use them! These basically free my mind to allow me to focus on the skills, rather than getting bogged down in anxiety. 

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
Yes! I really need to work my jumping, for instance. And power moves, like technical climbing. But I know it's just like anything else: if you don't do it regularly, you get rusty. I have to remind myself constantly to use those same few tricks to allow my riding skills to show through. I still have a lot to learn and am not as strong as I was a few years ago, but I think I know my limits better and am more comfortable knowing when I'm in a good mental place to challenge myself and when I'm not. 

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
My most used bike is my beat up commuter: an old rigid mountain bike converted to utility with fenders, slick tires, lights, a rack for panniers- it is the perfect commuting machine. It's comfortable, practical, efficient, and so beat up that I don't worry about it getting stolen (I still lock it, of course). I ride it almost every day, often several times a day. 
Next in line is my (current) favorite bike, my Santa Cruz Blur LTC (26", for real!). It climbs and descends remarkably well, despite its pilot. I've always loved the feel and fit of Santa Cruz bikes, so even when I eventually upgrade and try a different wheel size, it's likely to be the Bronson. :)
I have another all-mountain style bike, a slighter beefier ride for riding a little burlier trails: a Giant Reign X (also 26"), I love it for our local bike-optimized trail system (Sandy Ridge Trails). It's not as great for long climbs, but it sure feels good descending, in the air, over rocks...a fun bike!
I have a park bike too, a super heavy old Kona Stab set up for riding at our indoor bike park, the Lumberyard, but I don't get it out as much as I should (though winter is coming, so…). Really, I've been telling myself that if I got a sexy new park bike I'd ride it more. There's nothing wrong with that, right?
I have an old, heavy DH bike that doesn't get out very often, occasional trips to Whistler, but that's it. It's fun, but again, I have bike envy when I see all the new bikes with more travel and 10 lbs lighter. But it's not something I'm willing to invest in right now, since we do it so rarely. 
Finally, I have a Surly Cross Check that I use as a road bike, mostly for winter riding to keep the legs ready for mountain biking, but we do occasional touring too. It's been a great bike - comfortable steel, inexpensive, can accommodate big tires and fenders, it gets the job done. I hope to get a "real" road bike soon, something a little lighter and that fits me better. A good road frame can last a long time, so I'm waiting for the right bike (and $ to pay for it).  
I really like purple - here's me in my favorite Maloja shorts getting ready for a second shuttle ride at Mt Hood
 (7 bikes and people in our minivan!)
What clothing/bike accessories do you love? What would you recommend to your friends?
My sasquatch socks - tall woolies, perfect for riding in the woods out here. 
My bright purple Maloja bike shorts. They fit so well, they're colorful, and they are just an overshort (the chamois that come with baggies are always crappy, why bother?) I can just wear a good chamois underneath. 

Fox Incline women's bike gloves. The best bike glove ever, for my hands at least. I have narrow palms and long fingers, so I've had trouble finding gloves that work (sometimes it seems like the women's large gloves are just men's medium in a different color scheme, not good). 

What do you love about riding your bike?
Gosh, everything - the freedom, that you can really go places, the ability to be immersed in the backcountry, the exercise, the shared experience of riding with good friends, the mental and physical challenge, the simplicity.