Women Involved Series: Michelle Emmons

Meet Michelle Emmons, Co-founder and Program Director of the Dirt Dojo!

For further information about Dirt Dojo you can go to Dirt Dojo on Facebook, send an Email, or visit the Blog

Tell us about Dirt Dojo and how it got started-
My partner, Matt McPharlin, completed his mountain bike coaching certification in 2011. His experience and vision coming out of the class got us both really stoked to start our own outdoor program venture.

I followed up with my certification the following year, and we launched a small business concept offering individualized instruction, guiding services, and special events for mountain bike enthusiasts of all ages and levels with the goal to help people build confidence in their riding abilities and experience the joy of mountain biking in Northern California and Oregon.

While The Dirt Dojo was originally founded as a “mountain bike school”, we have since expanded its concept to encompass a variety of outdoor experiences connecting people with the outdoors through environmental education and stewardship opportunities, including trail building/maintenance, public lands restoration and river cleanup. The word “dojo” literally translated in Japanese means “the way”. We believe connection to the outdoors is key (or, the way) to establishing future stewards of our playgrounds, and integral to well being; both physically and mentally. Through coaching, outdoor play, and active participation in caring for our environment, we hope to help others find their way to a healthier, happier and more meaningful life.

When did you learn to ride a bike?
I actually learned how to ride a bike pretty late in life, though it wasn’t for lack of enthusiasm. I’d been instigating neighborhood “bike races” since I was three years old, on a big wheel. We lived in a middle class neighborhood on a circular street with a slight decline and I remember being able to capitalize on the downhill momentum so I would pretty much win every race… until my friends all got real bicycles. I was about six when my big wheel was finally retired, and I refused to ride a bicycle with training wheels – but I didn’t have my own bike, and that’s what my friends were riding. So I went with roller skates until we moved to Oregon when I was seven, and my parents finally outfitted me, and my three brothers, with “real” bicycles. It took about three tries to “get it” – but once I did, my pink banana seat Schwinn was my ticket to freedom. I rode my bike everywhere… and at the risk of dating myself, my parents had no issue with me riding my bike to school, which was three miles from home along a busy avenue connecting eastside and westside Eugene, Oregon. I guess they figured I’d have to get mugged in full daylight, and since I was a pretty spry, stubborn kid, maybe they just believed I could hold my own. Nonethless, that freedom launched a lifelong relationship for me and the two-wheeled wonders of bicycling.

How did you get started mountain biking and what motivates you to keep riding?
I’ve always used a bicycle for getting out to explore the world. Since most of my early riding was urban, I had no problem learning how to ride stairs downhill (it was fun) or balance on curbs. Riding long distances to get from one city to the next didn’t bother me at all. On some days, I would ride between 30-40 miles a day just to commute between jobs and school. I was also a young single mom at age 18, and since I didn’t have a car, baby would be often be tucked into a vicarious bike seat attached to a rack behind my seat. (Though I thought nothing about questioning the safety of that rig, one would have considered me a member of the “helmet police” back then.) Nothing seemed to stand in the way of what I could accomplish, because I had a bike, and it got me everywhere I thought I wanted to be.

I didn’t start riding mountain bikes until the late 80s, and eventually fell in love with the quiet sounds of nature – a rushing river, birdsong, the wind in the trees… it was all very ethereal. And I wanted more. My husband at the time bought us a set of matching Giant hardtails (from Costco) with our tax returns, and our first ride was the McKenzie River Trail. From top to bottom, we rode that same route over and over again, learning every rock, tree, fern, and mushroom  hiding spot…  there just wasn’t much else to ride that was close to home at the time. We eventually broke up (as most high school sweetheart romances do) and I still didn’t have a car, so I finagled a way to teach mountain biking through a local gym so I would still have access to ride trail, and share my passion with others. I finally bought my first car when I was 22. Life changed. My bicycles spent more time in the garage than they did in daylight; until I went back to college. Then I began commuting again, this time, using a rideshare from a rural town where I was living in a co-op housing situation on an organic farm, now with two children. I would generally drive to a parking area outside campus and ride to school and work. Once again, the bicycle entered my life as my ticket to freedom, and fitness.
My choices in studying sports marketing, internships and opportunities to coordinate trips with the college outdoor program continued to fuel my motivation to stay on the bike. I met a professional photographer in the cycling industry who continued to feed my enthusiasm by introducing me to new places to ride dirt, providing me more than a few opportunities to up my game, and helping to furnish me with new technology once I had beaten the life out of my previous steed. I’ve rode all over the West Coast, but mostly in the Pacific Northwest. Some of my favorite spots include the Columbia Gorge, Wenatchee Wilderness Area, Mt. Saint Helens, and Northern California. Idaho also boasts some incredible riding opportunities, and the scenery is amazing – just make sure you get outside of the resorts and go with the locals!

When did you start racing? What drives to you to participate in mountain bike events?
Though most of my riding is centered around my personal freedom, connection to the trail and the special places my bicycle has brought me to appreciate, I do enjoy competing now and again. I have been a fan of “enduro” racing since its inception as “Super D”. My first mountain bike race, however, was downhill style at the Oakridge Fat Tire Festival at Willamette Pass (a small ski resort in central Oregon) in 1999. Being new to racing, I didn’t think much about safety gear – so I rallied my first lap with a tank top, shorts and a helmet. When I got to the bottom, I was met by a group of guys that chastised me up and down for not being properly attired, so they pieced together a pile of too large extras, insisting that I wear it all on my next run. It freaked me out. I felt like Robo Cop with ill-fitting parts. Needless to say, I wish I would have just stuck with my ignorance. I knocked myself cold halfway way down my next run – it was spectacular! I stayed in my pedals (I wasn’t clipped in) for three head to wheel endos before I lost consciousness. I’ll never forget the feeling of falling down a black rabbit hole, like Alice in Wonderland, with my friend Tim’s voice in my head “the most important thing is to finish the race, Michelle”… and when I awoke to the medics, I popped up and said, “I’m fine! I just have to finish this f***ing race!” And off I went. (This is all recorded on video too…  hopefully it stays in the archives…)

As far as current races, The Oregon Enduro Series has done a phenomenal job of recruiting more women to the scene, and when I raced its first full season as the Oregon Super D, I was totally caught up in the camaraderie and positive energy of other female riders, which inspired my passion to become a certified coach and guide, so I could help encourage more women and kids to participate in mountain biking. And although I love the speed and unpredictability of downhill racing, I am slowing down after several knee injuries to embrace the pursuit of endurance as part of a new women’s mountain bike team, No Apologies! which supports  representation across a wide variety of bike industry events and participation, both as riders, and volunteers. I am also promoting my own mountain bike endurance race, the Cascade Cream Puff, and working in partnership with local IMBA chapters, colleges and municipal outdoor programs, I will be leading mountain bike camps, clinics, and tours throughout the summer.

I love the recent surge in women’s specific events! Though I have participated in several clinics, my biggest hero on the women’s scene is Kat Sweet – not so much because she’s a great athlete, but for what she has accomplished not only for women, but for kids, on the mountain bike circuit. I remember almost passing out the first time I met Kat. I don’t do “hero worship” and honestly, I could care less how many races a person has won or lost, but Kat isn’t about the race, she’s about the journey to get people where they want to go with their riding experiences. Her work to elevate women’s confidence and passion in mountain biking, as well as create more accessibility for minors has taken the sport of mountain biking to a whole new level. That being said, subsequent programs and leaders in women’s mountain biking such as Lindsey Vories of Ladies Allride, and Lindsey Beth Currier, of Shineriders Co. also continue to inspire me in my own passion to guide, coach, promote, and just enjoy the ride.

And who can forget the days when women in the cycling industry were dismissed, simply for sex appeal? (Can you say, ‘Interbike’?) Not that it still doesn’t drive the industry, but we’ve definitely carved a new (and more serious) niche for ourselves. Women are now recognized as a major factor in maintaining and growing the cycling industry. We are athletes, engineers, sales and marketing gurus, and very legitimate consumers.

How do you deal with potential nervousness?
I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie, so confronting fear comes naturally. In fact, I earned the nickname, Gunner, chasing pro rider, Lizzy English, down Syncline – a well-known single track area near Hood River, OR. (I also found myself fixing four flats in less than twenty minutes!) Speed is my friend, and I love trying new lines. What I get embarrassed about is not being able to complete a drop with proper form, or not being able to keep up with my friends if I haven’t rode in a while and feeling a bit slow. To help combat my self-consciousness, I am always working on embracing my limits. There’s definitely a time to push it, but if I haven’t been on the bike in a while, I find that backing off is much more constructive than going “balls to the wall” because my ego is getting the best of me. I’d much rather “go big” on a day when I wasn’t really planning to, because my expectations are set so much lower – so if I’m successful, it’s a major celebration, and if I’m not, I can still celebrate because I tried something new. Staying humble and listening to your body is the best advice I can give to anyone who feels scared, intimidated, nervous or self-conscious – even if you’re rolling up to the starting line. The worst time to conquering something you’re uncomfortable with riding, is on race day. Take a deep breath, and focus on your strengths. Confidence will get you to the finish line, but ego will land you in a hospital sooner or later.

Have you had a substantial accident (biff) that kept you off the saddle? Any advice for the healing process?
Aside from shin damage, most of my major injuries have been joint related; specifically thumbs, fingers, elbows, ankles and knees. Particularly challenging, I’ve had five knee surgeries over the past 15 years, four of which have been on my right knee, including two ACL grafts and two revisions to repair the meniscus. I am currently riding with no ACL and both my MCL and LCL have been compromised due to my stubborn insistence to keep riding beyond my limits – which is easy to do when you live between some of the best riding opportunities in the Pacific Northwest! I am currently training myself for endurance, rather than riding big obstacles (though I still love a good flow trail with whoops, drops and small gaps). Since I am the promoter/organizer for Cascade Cream Puff – one of the oldest and toughest mountain bike endurance races in America, I have set my sites on completing the 50-mile course lap this year, and I’ll likely race the Fat 55, another event that happens on the opposite drainage of the Puff in Oakridge, OR. The plan is to get fit before going into surgery this fall, in order to have a stronger recovery. I want to get back out there again the following spring, without missing out on the 2016 season. Ultimately, I’d like ride the BC Bike Race in the next three year. Injuries heal. The trick is putting the time and effort into the healing process so you can be at your best again. If you rush it, or don’t go into recovery as strong as you can, chances of re-injuring yourself are much higher. I believe it is equally important to be strong going into surgery, as well as remaining committed to post-therapy. Make yourself a priority, and you will be a stronger rider after recovery – at least, it’s always been that way for me.

Do you ride clipless or flats? Preference?
I rode clipless for years… in fact, I’ve spent more time with my feet locked in, than out, of my pedals. I didn’t start riding flats until about three years (and two more knee surgeries) ago. It was like learning to ride a bike all over again! The very best incentive for me getting better at riding in flats was my ICP training. Thanks to pro rider/coach Shaums March, (an amazingly patient instructor), I learned to be “heavy on the feet, light on the hands”. Flats revitalized my passion for free riding and downhill racing, and inspired my first downhill bike purchase, a 2012 custom-built Canfield Jedi. Now that I understand the mechanics of riding in flats, vs. clipless, the only reason I’d go back would be for XC racing, as I still believe (despite some opinions) that pedal stroke efficiency is enhanced by having your feet locked in while climbing. 

Advice for those who haven’t tried clipless yet? Learn in flats first, because you will learn to engage your feet and body in bike/body separation and through the entire pedal stroke way more effectively than coming to depend on your feet being locked into your pedals. Then try clipless – once you master the basic body mechanics of mountain biking and getting your feet in and out on demand, confidence plus efficiency can certainly enhance your experience. Personally, my knees are completely trashed, and I am done with injuries due to not being able to get my feet out of my pedals – so I’m sticking to flats – a half second can make all the difference between falling and recovering at a full tilt boogie.

What is one of the most technical skills you’ve learned?
Learning new bike skills is a constant process for me. Just when I think I’ve got it, I learn something new that takes me to the next level. One of the most difficult skills I learned was cornering. I have no idea why my body just wanted to do the exact opposite movement of what it was supposed to be doing to make a turn - it was so incredibly frustrating! But over time, practicing simple bike/body separation drills and riding skinnies helped me to overcome my bad habit of turning my knees into my bike. Seriously, I feel like my mentors deserve a medal for helping me finally “get” this concept! Occasionally, I can feel myself reverting, particularly riding at high speeds downhill, but it’s easy to catch myself now. I keep my eyes ahead, and think “soft knees” while pointing my inside knee to the lean - and it works! I also still struggle with bunny hops – I know, so basic, right? But the rhythm between getting the front and rear wheel off the ground in one smooth motion, pretty much stumps me. Funny enough, I can employ a level lift at high speeds before I can bunny hop a curb at a casual pace. I guess everyone has their challenges. When in doubt, I walk it, but most stuff I’d bunny hop I can manual over, even if the rear tire cases it.