Women on Bikes Series: Robyn Embrey

Been riding mountain bikes for probably ⅔ of my life so far. I raced downhill for about 5 years until May 2013 when a string of injuries interrupted my dreams of a pro career. 

Now refocusing and rebuilding to become an enduro athlete and coach, I was invited to join Vanderkitten’s race team earlier this year among some amazingly talented ladies. 

Vanderkitten, an ardent supporter of women and gender equality in cycling, 
started out as a clothing company and now supports a race team and a huge network of ambassadors dedicated to inspiring more ordinary women to get out and do extraordinary things.

Aside from bikes I enjoy the outdoors in many other ways. My blog: therobynator.blogspot.com is a place to find out about these adventures, though I’ve been really lazy about writing lately. Also catch up with Vanderkitten Racing on Facebook.

When did you first start riding a bike?
My first memories of being on a bike include many miles in a kid seat on the back of my mom’s touring bicycle until I outgrew it. The first time I was put in control of a bike was on a hand-me-down Huffy; my dad refused to let me use training wheels so he ran along behind me holding the seat and then would let go. Eventually I was rolling into the neighbor’s yard without falling over and feeling the first thrill of balancing on two wheels.

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
Early on I was really horse crazy, although riding bikes was always a regular activity; my parents bicycle toured in Europe before I was born so logically it was a part of family life. Some weekends we would pedal the several miles into town for doughnuts on the weekends, and every summer cruise around the dirt roads near our cabin in Montana in search of huckleberries. When my dad bought a mountain bike and tried a few races in the 1990’s I started thinking that it might be cool to try. It took a few years for me to grow into a real mountain bike so I entered my first cross country race in 1999. I won the beginner class in my age group and got hooked, racing more the next summer and then started racing cyclocross that fall. My dad was my main training partner and we would hammer out long road rides together, trying to outclimb and outsprint each other, arriving back at the house completely worn out. I still love to ride bikes because mountain biking combines the skill of riding a horse (minus daily poop scoop duty), the fitness aspect of running, plus the fun of going downhill fast and effortlessly and being able to catch air.  Even riding the same trails all the time never gets old or boring; there is always some part to ride faster or smoother, and beyond the backyard there is an endless variety of trails out there to explore.

What would be your favorite competitive biking event and why do you enjoy competing?
Riding DH is absolutely a blast but I have always felt like the races are just a little too short. I would rather be out exploring many new trails than walking and memorizing lines on a single course. Though I have yet to try an enduro race I like the idea of racing blind sometimes, or with very little practice, relying less on memorization and perfection than just going for it and seeing what happens. I’ve kind of always had trouble getting myself to ride a gazillion practice runs at races because of this, although sometimes it can be lots of fun to do course laps with friends. One race I’ve always wanted to try is the Megavalanche, it looks like a gnarly race and an amazing experience. Not this year but maybe next...

Competing is fun because I like to push myself to find the next level. It’s hard to see just what can be possible without the extra motivation of the clock ticking away, or in endurance events, a competitor just ahead of me to try and reel in. I think that has stuck with me since my cross country running days when I would try to hang with another runner until ready to puke and then somehow find that extra reserve to out-kick them at the finish. Racing is also a chance to connect with so many people who also love riding bikes and an opportunity to travel to new places. There is great camaraderie among women that race, especially on the gravity side where there are not too many of us. It’s like a big happy bike family!

Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride?
I honestly don’t actually recall my very first mountain bike ride, but it was most likely on the trails near my parents’ house in the Puget Sound area of Washington. There was a maze of fire roads with a handful of connecting trails winding through the dark mossy forest covered in slippery roots and mud puddles. I trail rode on my horse there frequently, so being on a bike was a completely different experience having to deal with these obstacles up close and under my own power.

If you had nervousness at all, what did you do or think to overcome it?
My memory is quite fuzzy on that now but I still get nervous sometimes about certain sections on a trail. When this happens, I try visualizing a successful pass through the part in question, maybe I’ll stop and look at it to see the line I’m going to take before trying it. As far as racing, being properly warmed up and moving around before race runs has helped a lot. It’s funny that it never transferred over from competing in running events, but I wasn’t doing the same for DH because of the waiting at the top of the race course; sometimes it’s hard to find a place to pedal around on a big bike and also hard to tell how long you will wait. Jogging in place or around in circles is good--anything but sitting down. On my race run at the Bootleg Canyon Pro GRT in 2013 I lost a lot of time crashing in random places I never had trouble with in practice, so I asked Jackie Harmony (an experienced World Cup racer) if she had any advice, and she asked if I was getting my heart rate up at all just before race runs. Because I wasn’t, the sudden rush of adrenaline would make me forget my lines, carry too much speed into corners and wipe out, make all kinds of dumb mistakes. I made a point of being warmed up before my next 2 races and it made all the difference, though neither course was quite as nasty as the Bootleg DH.

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 go back and forth a lot depending on the type of riding or race course. I rode only clipped in for almost 10 years racing cross country but immediately went to flat pedals when I started riding downhill. For beginners to DH and even to mountain biking in general, flats are nice for the ability to bail easily, or put a foot down on a climb without tipping over to the wrong side. To start riding clipped in I would either find some older worn out pedals and cleats or adjust new pedals a bit looser at first. Practice getting in and out on both sides, preferably over some grass or other soft surface. It’s really not as bad as one might think and eventually it becomes instinctive. I’ve had some bails off the DH bike where I have no idea how my feet unclipped but they did!

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’ve been in a frustrating cycle of injuries for a couple of years now that have kept me from racing and though the most recent one (right before Sea Otter) is clearing up more quickly than I expected it has still been emotionally challenging. One is bad enough on its own, but the ups and downs of this roller coaster have been kind of ridiculous and it’s getting discouraging. At times I’ve considered making fishing and beer drinking my main hobbies and giving up on bikes entirely. People are starting to wonder if I’m constantly injured on purpose, an unconscious action trying to communicate something to my conscious mind…my first thought is BS, but it was a psychotherapist friend who suggested it.

It started with a concussion in the spring of 2013; an arduous 5 months later I’m back on the bike after bumbling my way through recovery. Within a month or so I get too far ahead of myself and land on my head again, subsequently backing my truck into a tree and getting whiplash. Adding a neck injury into the mix made it downright horrendous--neck pain that would not go away no matter what I did, constant muscle spasms creating a nauseating pain that caused constant headaches, and dizziness in certain positions. I was utterly defeated and disappointed in my poor decision making, wallowing in a puddle of misery. I had to keep reminding myself that no matter how awful it seemed, it COULD always be worse and I was lucky that it was not. The whole time I was convinced that all my symptoms were entirely related to my brain being upset again, as the doctor said, so I spent the better part of 3 months hiding away in bed with the curtains down (lack of movement likely not helping my neck at all). However, she was working with another doctor who was analyzing brain waves to create a concussion detecting device using this data, and his first data set a month after my injury correlated with his averages 4 months after brain injury. The second data set about 3 or 4 months later fit in with his baseline numbers, though I still had a nearly constant headache, hardly any appetite, and was afraid to do much physical exercise in fear of angering my brain. I had been in physical therapy for several months and had slight improvements, but it was not until my therapist did a functional dry needle training and offered to turn me into a human pincushion did I feel vastly improved. The procedure felt downright awful, especially when needles were pushed into muscles which had been knotted for months, and one trigger point caused a familiar wave of nausea--it had to be mainly my neck causing so much misery all along. Once I started feeling better it made my attitude so much more positive (funny how that works) and I quickly worked up from walks with the dog to road rides, rock climbing, and eventually mountain biking again.

On your Dirty Jane profile you talked about learning lessons with healing a head injury- what did you learn and what would you do differently (if anything)?
Patience and more patience is definitely the biggest lesson and I am still working on that. Also, going to a clinic specializing in brain injuries seems to help many people recover faster, with so much new research being done on treatment and recovery of brains and many successful outcomes.
Oddly enough I was completely unfamiliar with the protocol for concussions, never having rung my bell badly enough to feel anything the next day. Despite still going to work I was feeling much better only 4 days after wrecking, but not being familiar with the nature of head injuries I thought I could go on an “easy” ride right when I started feeling better. I exacerbated the swelling again with too much exercise instead of starting out very very slowly; had I given it at least a couple more weeks I might have only missed out on a month of riding.

I lost an entire summer of having fun to that bad decision and most likely the second injury would not have happened at all. Regarding the second crash, I was not mentally or physically ready to be challenging myself on the bike with sketchy obstacles. I just put myself in a position to get caught up in the moment and then my skills were not quite up to speed for making quick decisions. I think I may have pulled through it all right without the following whiplash in my truck, but we’ll never know for sure. My neck has not been quite the same since then, and I was quite traumatized by the whole incident, but I have to be thankful that nothing worse happened and I can still function normally and work back into my favorite sports.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
The trails I rode then were frequently filled with slippery roots, short hard climbs, and tight corners, making it a challenge to stay upright. I learned by trial and error chasing my dad around the forest and also picking up random tips from reading the bike magazines he left lying around the house. There were plenty of spills but I never had major injuries, I kind of just went for it and seemed to figure everything out all right. My suggestion would be to take advantage of getting instruction so you have a good foundation; there’s no point in learning the hard way when there are so many excellent learning opportunities out there especially geared for women.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
Bike handling is one of my strengths, even though I know there is definitely room for improvement. I feel more held back by mental fortitude and it’s only getting worse the more I wreck myself and spend months off the bike. Overall I’m more cautious, not wanting to go back to the bike-less torment of the last 2 years, so some days I just look at an obstacle thinking “wow, I used to just huck that!” and then ride around the other way. I have to remind myself that it’s going to take a while to get it all back and not to be too hard on myself, just set smaller goals and keep trying things as they feel comfortable until I’m really ready to push it again. The part of me that still wants to have a downhill bike and take bike park laps seems to be shrinking, even though I vividly remember how much fun it is...I dunno, maybe I’m just getting old?

What do you love about riding your bike?
The fun, friends, challenge, variety, exercise, adventures, sometimes solitude… Everything really. Through all the injuries I’ve felt kind of lost without being able to ride because of everything that goes along with it. Even simple things like a pedal to the river, grocery store or local bar are things that I would otherwise take for granted, but it drives me crazy to not have that option. I think that the bicycle is the ideal mode of transportation for many purposes--just ask my friends from college when I didn’t have a car. I used to ride everywhere I possibly could, though I never got brave enough to ride the road in the winter like some of my good friends. Lake Tahoe is not nearly as bike-friendly as western Washington where I grew up, hence road riding is a bit terrifying at times and I prefer to be on the trails away from cars.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
Aside from our pile of random cruisers and dumpster rescues... at the moment I have 3 bikes worth mentioning and all have somewhat interesting stories:
An aluminum Rocky Mountain hardtail with a Fox F80 fork, my second mountain bike which I’ve had since 2002 or so and pieced together with all kinds of upgrades. The majority of my cross country races were ridden on this bike and I’m rather attached to it. I love how simple, light, and snappy it is, especially now as a single speed with wide bars. It makes trails which seem easy on a full suspension bike much more exciting and forces me to carefully pick my lines.

My second bike is a hand built steel Curtlo cyclocross bike which I bought using the insurance payout from the one time I got hit by a car about 10 years ago. The impact bent my old Bianchi cyclocross frame but I was fortunately unhurt so I could put all of the money into a new bike minus a few hundred for a 5-minute ambulance ride and ER visit. I was still really into racing ‘cross at the time, and my dad had just recently won a bike built by Curtlo in a raffle so I thought it would be neat to have a custom frame like his, but I have only raced it a couple of times. I mainly use it as a road bike in the summer and have been riding it in the dirt on mellow trails just for entertainment. If I ever go on a long tour it will be my bike of choice with such a smooth ride, and it will be around for a very long time built from such a durable material. Steel is real! On that note I have to throw in a plug for my good friend’s hand built Lichen Bike which I passed on to my boyfriend after joining Vanderkitten’s race team. With a completely original suspension linkage and 6” of travel it is surprisingly light and climbs ridiculously well for the amount of travel, also goes great back down the hill--check it out if you like unique and handmade bikes.

Lastly but certainly not least, the Ibis Ripley has joined the stable this year with Ibis as Team Vanderkitten’s official bike sponsor. It’s my first time riding anything other than 26” wheels and though it took some getting used to it has really exceeded all expectations. The Ripley has been described as the BMX bike of 29ers; I found it quite nimble and playful despite the bigger wheels, lightweight and a heck of a climber but still inspires confidence while flying through rocks and rough terrain. Also very fun to jump for a cross country bike. It is probably the nicest bike I’ve ridden in my entire life with the Ibis carbon wheelset and all, a real wonder bike! The only weakness is navigating switchbacks, which is common among all 29ers, and in most riding I rarely encounter those.

What clothing/bike accessories do you love? What would you recommend to your friends?
The VPD knee pads by POC are the best I’ve ever worn; they’ve lasted 2 ½ seasons and still look like new, don’t slide down, aren’t too bulky and protect the sides of the knees really well. For riding flat pedals the only shoes to wear are 5.10 with super sticky rubber and good foot/ankle protection (depending on the style). I like the Karvers for DH riding with a stiff sole and padding over the inner ankle, and the softer Freeriders for everything else. I also can’t go for a pedal without chamois shorts, having been a believer since my early racing days.

You coach mountain biking- what inspired that decision?
I started teaching skiing when I moved to Lake Tahoe for college in 2005 just to get a season pass, and have either coached kids development teams or taught ski school almost every year since. I really enjoyed teaching women in my adult lessons because I felt like I was able to make a good connection and guide them to success in developing skiing skills. In the last couple of years I’ve felt more like getting seriously into snowsports isn’t my ideal direction. It’s a little too rigid in some ways, not to mention the snow just hasn’t been falling in Tahoe in the right quantity. I have gained a lot of experience in teaching methods and managing groups and it just makes sense to transfer that knowledge into coaching bike riding skills. I’m still into coaching kids on skis because I remember the great role models that I’ve had growing up, and they really made a big impression. Herding kids around a ski resort has unique challenges but it’s definitely the best job on the mountain!

You work with Shine Riders Co., tell us about Shine Riders and why you love devoting your time to helping with coaching/leading rides with them!
Shine Riders Co. was founded by Lindsay Beth Currier with a mission to “illuminate and inspire” female gravity mountain bikers. Goals include: create global awareness and connections, cultivate a universal women’s mountain biking community, encourage more women to safely participate, advocate for equal sponsorship & prize money for female racers, and provide high quality role models and support for juniors.

I met Lindsay riding at Northstar in 2011 when she was just getting Shine off the ground, selling T-shirts and and promoting the first Queen of the Mountain women’s freeride contest. She is so focused and driven and has grown Shine so much in all directions in just a short time. Now it includes a junior race team, skills school, a community of women who ride, and even bike travel adventures to places like Peru. Being a part of Shine connects me to a giant network of other women who love bikes and gives me more opportunities to be a mentor to others.  I’ve also been involved with SheJumps for several years, a nonprofit focused on getting more women and girls outdoors in all different sports, and I’m very excited to contribute my knowledge and enthusiasm to this great organization as well.

What do you enjoy most about helping women learn how to mountain bike?
It’s incredibly rewarding to see progression and confidence developing, and witness the empowering effects of mastering something new; to turn a student from feeling indifferent or afraid to one who can’t wait for the next ride, eager to show her friends/significant other what she learned. Fun to make connections with the women I teach and I really enjoy getting to know them all. Giving women a friendly, supportive learning environment helps them connect with others in the group as well, making new friends and building confidence to try new things. The confidence gained from learning new skills on a bike carries over into the rest of life, making it overall more successful and enjoyable.
When it comes to a skills clinic, why should women (who have been riding or who are just starting) consider going to one?
There is always something for one to learn or improve, for riders of all ability levels. Learning the right way the first time is also a lot easier than un-learning things and breaking bad habits. Sure, it seems a little repetitive to be doing lots of drills, but your body will absorb and integrate them to make things a whole lot more efficient.

What advice would you give to someone looking at signing up for their first skills clinic?
Evaluate your skill level and choose the right clinic for your ability and goals. Some offer beginner specific instruction, or cover a range from beginner to intermediate, and others focus on more technical aspects like descending or jumping.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
My best guess is that cycling in general, for American women, is a sport outside the expectations of society, partly from a lack of high-profile role models. Most young girls are pushed into sports like soccer, skiing and gymnastics where there are many Olympians and other highly visible athletes for them to look up to. Cycling competition only receives mainstream coverage occasionally: in the Tour de France and the Olympics, and the focus is mainly on men. Recreationally, riding on the road is not very safe, and in many places bike paths are not common enough or don’t connect to the right places. The bikes themselves are intimidating too. Women I’ve spoken with frequently worry about getting a flat tire and having to change it by themselves. Mountain biking in particular has an image of being a gnarly sport for men who jump off cliffs, even though it has in reality become an easier sport for everyone to learn with advances in bike technology and a wider variety of trails that cater to all levels of riders.

What do you feel could happen to make changes and/or encourage more women to ride?
Many good things are already happening thanks to many incredible women all around the country and organizations like Shine and SheJumps, but more of us can step up and work to increase participation in our local areas. Offering basic skills clinics, especially free or low-cost events to encourage those who can’t really afford it or can’t be convinced to spend much money on instruction. Everybody loves free stuff and it may help them find a lifetime love for the sport. I think that would help to send the message that mountain biking is for everyone who can get their hands on any bike and have a good time.

Frequent group rides provide opportunities to network and meet riding partners, especially helpful for those who don’t feel confident about riding alone or are intimidated by riding with men. Also more available instruction on basic maintenance and repair skills would teach women how to be more self-reliant with fixing their bikes, and boost their confidence so they want to get out and ride more. Getting kids involved while they are young with after-school programs, school race teams, and summer bike camps. Promotion of mountain biking as a fun, family-friendly activity is especially important for getting kids and their parents outside in the fresh air.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I started ski mountaineering in high school up in Washington state thanks to my best friend who was getting really into climbing mountains. In California I’ve skied fourteeners Mt. Shasta twice and Mt. Whitney; and up in Washington Mt. Adams and Mt. Baker, the second and third highest peaks in the state. One of my favorite memories is making a 2,000 ft ski descent in August on Mt. Rainier’s Russell Glacier on lovely corn snow. I have yet to summit Rainier but it is on my list along with some of Oregon’s spectacular volcanoes.
If I ever get tired of wrecking myself on mountain bikes, I will likely be found plodding up some mountain at 4AM with skis on my back in search of midsummer turns--some people have streaks lasting multiple years of skiing every month in a year!