Women on Bikes Series: Rachel Levy

My name is Rachel Levy. My friends call me Ray. I grew up in North Carolina. I’m a mathematics professor at Harvey Mudd College, spouse of a librarian and mom of two grown girls.

In the past year, I have become a shop ambassador for Coates Cyclery (http://coatescyclery.com), a shop that has been amazingly supportive of women's rides and also has a Liv Ambassador. I have also led almost a dozen beginner's rides for Girlz Gone Riding - Inland Empire Chapter (a women's mountain biking group).

Find us here!
One of the rides was featured by a cycling blogger on the CLR Effect

I am having super fun helping other women gain strength and confidence on their bikes.

When did you first start riding a bike?
I remember learning to ride a bike as a small kid and then riding my bike to school, probably starting in first grade. My first memories of biking were in a bike baby seat on my mom’s bike. She was so tiny she was always saying, “don’t lean!” because I could easily tip us over.

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
I haven’t actually ridden that much over the years. Until about a year ago, bicycling was mainly for transportation, not recreation.

When I have lived close enough to work and summoned the energy, I have commuted on my bike, but that was often due to a lack of car parking rather than a serious dedication to bike commuting.

What inspired you to start mountain biking?
My husband has loved mountain bikes and mountain biking as long as I have known him (which is since high school). We have been married for more than 20 years. For most of that time I didn’t think I could mountain bike because I fell down the first time I tried. It took me two decades to try again, and I feel a bit silly about all the lost time.

Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride?
My first off-road mountain bike ride was in the woods. I tried to go over a log and fell down and never wanted to try again. It just seemed impossible and I thought of those skills as being for someone who had biked since they were 8-12 years old. Now I know better, but then, at age 20, I thought I was over the biking hill. Hah!

My more recent first mountain bike ride was on a long fire road with no obstacles or dips and a slow long incline. It got me used to having my tires on sandy ground and how to stop, turn and balance. The way back was all a gentle downhill, so I got used to a little speed. It was perfect. I went on slightly harder and harder trails until my commuter hybrid couldn’t take it and my husband built me a hard tail – even built the wheels from the spokes. He collected the parts for a month or two. I think of it as the biggest valentine I ever got.

If you had nervousness at all, what do you do or think to overcome it?
I think taking it at my pace and really holding my ground to only try what I thought I could do happily. That included occasionally doing something a tiny bit beyond what I knew I could do, so that I could improve.

What do currently do to help yourself out when you feel nervous?
I breathe and relax. I think if my muscles are relaxed they can respond better. The breathing helps clear the adrenaline and keep up my energy. I also make sure I stop periodically to eat and drink so I don’t feel weak or shaky.

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 use flats. I have pedals on my commuter that go both ways (one on each side) but on the mountain bike I like my movements to be less restricted. I’m not racing, so I’m not worried about speed.

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 already mentioned the little fall above. I also fell on a really tricky turn with a lot of exposure (possibility of falling off the mountain) which didn’t cost so much physical or mental energy, but I find it frustrating that I didn’t go back and session (retry) it right away because I don’t know why I fell. Was I in the wrong gear? Did I need more speed? Was my weight in the wrong place? Something else? I have been through that spot since then, and it was fine, but I am still bothered that I can remember falling but not why. The thought in my head wasn’t “Dag, my weight is in the wrong place” it was “Huh? Why am I falling over?” My best guess is wrong gear and not enough speed on the uphill exit to the turn.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
After riding for a year I took a couple of super beginner’s clinics. I am lucky that nothing I was doing was a bad habit to unlearn, but I would recommend a beginner clinic very early. One of my biggest challenges was just building up lungs and legs. Still working on that. I’m also working on switchbacks (hairpin turns) to one side. Turning was tricky to learn and the clinic helped because I got ideas about where to put my weight and what to practice between rides.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
I am still learning to be brave about going up and over things. Down is fine. Practicing with various height curbs in a parking lot has been really helpful and confidence-building.

As I mentioned above, I’m working on turns.

What do you love about riding your bike?
I love rock gardens the most. I feel like the bike and I are just flowing and solving interesting problems one by one. I love the scenery and the companionship of other riders. I really love having a hobby/sport in common with my husband so that we can plan trips and weekend outings to do something we both love. I also like that I am making new friends in the MTB community.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
My chromoly frame is from England from a company called ON ONE. They had an amazing deal with free shipping so my husband bought one and loved it. He got me mine the next year at the same sale. Many other parts were from online when racers or other riders were trading up or just selling.

What clothing/bike accessories do you love? What would you recommend to your friends?
I am still figuring this out. My main concern is the sun, because there is skin cancer in my family. So I try to stay covered up without looking too ridiculous or getting too hot.

With what you have currently experienced with mountain biking, why should other women give it a go?
I think it is very empowering, fun and super exercise. A great community activity and a fun way to see new places.

What has helped you, overall, with your confidence with biking off-road?
Gentle enthusiastic encouragement from other riders and taking it in little steps to build skills. Riding within my competence and just pushing the skill boundary a bit at a time.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
Fear of falling. Lack of knowledge about how to build skills safely. Not knowing people willing to help them learn slowly.

What do you feel could happen to make changes and/or encourage more women to ride?
I think a lot is happening to encourage women. Free or paid clinics, rides at various levels, and a clear identification of a set of skills to acquire are all happening. I think having women’s and coed rides as options is great. I also think helping experienced riders who want to encourage women learn how to do it constructively would be great. And get women more mechanical skills so that they can take care of themselves when things (invariably) break.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
I am interested in building community, having more women buddies to ride with, and sharing a healthy recreational habit that I love.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
Before mountain biking I practiced circus arts such as silks, trapeze and lyra. So a sport that requires daring and strength wasn’t so much of a stretch! I also adore boating/kayaking and being out on the water. I have a blog called Grandma got STEM: ggstem.wordpress.com.The project shares stories from (and about the contributions of) senior women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. You can follow me on Twitter at @mathcirque.


  1. Go Ray! wonderful interview and inspirational story.

  2. You should be intimidating with all the stuff you are good at, but you are one of the most approachable, friendly, genuine people I know. Great interview too!


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