Women on Bikes Series: Michelle Johnson

I am a 48 year old mother of three grown boys and my husband Doug and I celebrated our 30th anniversary in August.
I have had a number of jobs over the years ranging from retail to insurance claims adjuster, but at the age of 45, I decided that a complete life overhaul was in order, and decided to go to college.
If all goes well, I will graduate in August, 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in Human Resources Management.

When did you first start riding a bike?
We've been riding bikes as a family for years, but we were limited to the Rails to Trails type of trails because of the kids and the kind of bikes that we all had.

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
I just love getting out on my bike and losing myself. Riding with my family is fun, but I also enjoy getting out on the trails with my "podcast buddies." I love podcasts!

What inspired you to start mountain biking?
My brother Mike Spencer lives very close to the Cuyuna Lakes mountain bike trails near Brainerd, Minnesota, and he talked my husband in to purchasing a Salsa Mukluk fat tire bike. He started entering races and taking weekend trips to ride with my brother at Cuyuna. But because I didn't have a mountain bike, I wasn't able to join them. We stumbled on a Fatback fat tire bike for me, and my training began.

Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride?
I was scared to death! I didn't know how to ride a bike "like a guy" and didn't know whether I'd be able to handle it.

If you had nervousness at all, what did you do or think to overcome it?
When I was a little girl, I would have never tried anything like mountain biking. I was always afraid of failure and what others would think, so I just never tried new things. I missed out on a lot of fun because of it. When I turned 45 a light seemed to turn on, and I asked myself.... What if I do fail? So what? When you get to be my age, you don't care what other people think. Now I ask myself "What's the worst thing that can happen if I try it, and is it as bad as the feeling I would have if I never even tried?" That usually seals the deal for me.

What do you currently do to help yourself out when you feel nervous?
I usually take a deep breath, and try to clear my mind. "What if I can't fit between those trees?" "What if I lean too far forward going down the hill?" "What if I hit that stump?" I've learned that when I micro-manage the trail, it's a lot harder and my chance of failure increases.

Do you use clipless pedals? If yes, what do you like about them? If no, do you plan to try them out in the future? If not-why do you like flats?
I don't use clipless pedals. At this point in my riding career, I need to get my feet down to the ground as fast as I can.

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
I haven't really had any major falls yet. But I have gone down, and I've earned some large black and blue badges of courage. I was told that if I don't have bruises on my shins, then I'm not doing it right.  LOL! Whenever I do fall, there's usually a short time that I feel a little shock. But I quickly realize that it's a long 5 or more miles back to the car, so I need to "suck it up" and get up off the ground. I took a nasty fall this weekend on a group ride with the Brainerd Lakes Fat Bikes group. We were out celebrating Global Fat Bike Day. My front and rear tire got caught in an icy rut, and I went down fast. Luckily my face broke my fall. Thank goodness for snow! The only injury I walked away with was a severely sprained thumb, and luckily only one person saw me do it, so my pride suffered only a slight sprain.

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 had the hardest time accepting that I needed to stand up going down the hills. I felt like if I'm sitting on the seat, I have more control. My husband Doug told me over and over that it's a lot easier if I stand up, but I fought it all the way. I finally started experimenting with standing when he wasn't looking. After all, if he saw me doing it, that means he was right! I soon realized that I had way more control standing up, and it was a lot more fun too.  I'll give him this one.

The other challenge for me was speed. It's instinct to want to go slow and maneuver around rocks and stumps, concentration and control was the name of the game. But I soon learned that speed is my friend, and losing control actually gave me more control. I still struggle with that one sometimes. I need to stop over thinking it, and just enjoy the ride.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
I still struggle with speed and control. As I advance in trail difficulty, I find that it's easy to revert back to the old way of thinking. My favorite trails are the CAMBA trails (Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association) in Hayward, Wisconsin. When you're out there, you're pretty far from any civilization. It sounds weird, but what gets me through the technical aspects is realizing that I don't have any choice. It's a long, hard ride back to the car, and there's only one way I'm going to get back there. The feeling I get when I've accomplished a new trail or a new skill is addictive, and knowing that every time I finish a ride I feel like I'm on top of the world. That's what keeps me going.

What do you love about riding your bike?
Spending good quality time with my husband and the wilderness. The forest is my church.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I have a medium Santa red Fatback with 65mm rims and Huskerdu tires. I want to switch over to wider rims, but haven't found the right ones yet, and I really have no problems with what I have other than I'd like to have a little fatter tire, and maybe spice up my bike with some color. I have a Thudbuster seat post that I think is a lifesaver or a buttsaver, for sure! I have X9 derailer components and some other goodies that, to be perfectly honest, I know nothing about. I haven't run into any other Fatbacks on the trails, so it's kind of fun having a bike that's different from everyone else’s.

What clothing/bike accessories do you love? What would you recommend to your friends?
If had to recommend a fun accessory, I would tell people to get yourself a Garmin fitness watch. They are far more accurate than the typical phone apps available, and a lot easier to strap to your wrist than trying to find a pocket for your phone. Garmin has a lot of options out there, for runners and bikers. Just make sure the one you purchase has bike capabilities. Garmin Connect (their data center) gives you statistics that you usually have to pay extra for on smart phone apps.

With what you have currently experienced with mountain biking, why should other women give it a go?
I've tried a lot of different activities over the last few years trying to make up for never trying anything when I was a kid. Nothing has done more for my self-esteem and sense of accomplishment than learning how to mountain bike.

What has helped you, overall, with your confidence with biking off-road?
Feeding off of the support that I get from my family and other riders that I can do it. They've all been there, and they know when I'm a little freaked out. Mountain bikers are some of the nicest people I've ever met and they always give support and encouragement.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
I have some pretty strong opinions on why more women/girls don't get involved with mountain biking or any other risk related activities. I even gave a speech about it recently in a public speaking class. I think young girls are raised to be caretakers. At least my generation was. Bake cookies, don't get your clothes dirty, have your brother or some man change your flat tire for you, etc. While we are inside having tea parties, our brothers are outside learning how to build ramps to jump their bikes. When they conquer the small jump, they build the ramp higher. They take risks and build confidence from the risks that they take. Girls don't take risks. Some of them do, and those are the ones who live their lives with confidence.

What do you feel could happen to make changes and/or encourage more women to ride?
We need to teach young girls and women to step out of their comfort zones. Try it! What's the worst thing that could happen? What if you do fail? Seriously. What happens if you fail? Probably nothing.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
The excitement I feel at the end of each ride. My brother once told me I was "glowing" after doing the Bobsled Trail at Cuyuna Lakes. I was. I was so tickled with myself, that I couldn't even contain it. I think everyone should feel that way, and I think the only way you can get that is by facing your fears and taking the risk.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I'm not really sure there are any interesting facts about me. I'm just a middle aged, middle income, slightly overweight woman who missed out on a lot of fun by letting the fear of failure dictate how I would live my life.