Women on Bikes Series: Kelsey Walsh

I was born and raised in Madison, WI, where I currently reside with two opinionated cats. I enjoy playing various stringed instruments, reading, and riding bikes – preferably in the woods. In between the times I spend in the woods I work as a nurse to support my hobbies.

My favorite type of riding is mountain biking and fat biking snow or beach, though I’ll try pretty much anything. I also play bike polo, I’ve tried some touring, I had an alleycat phase at some point, and will generally sign up for anything that sounds fun or encourages costumes. I founded the Brass Nipples about a year ago, a loosely organized bike gang of ladies of the pedal and motorcycle variety.

When did you first start riding a bike?
I’ve been covering up scabs and bruises on my legs as far back as I can remember. I got on a big wheels around age two or so and apparently even won the Badger State Games big wheels race one year.

I graduated up to two wheels around age three or four, and recall a lot of time spent in the woods or trolling the neighborhood on a bike; there was even a super awesome, secret, little dirt/jump track nearby that my older brother showed me. Sometime around five years ago, I decided to try out Cyclocross and I bought my first 700c bike with drop bars. I tried a race or two, quickly realized I have no competitive drive, and became disinterested. It did allow for an introduction into the organized sport of mountain biking, though, which I’m appreciative of. I’ve since been making up time for all the other dirt tracks I had been missing out on.

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
I like that there’s always a challenge, mentally or physically. You end up looking forward to the challenges because they’re fun. It’s like being a little kid all over again. Sometimes you’re so exhausted you can’t think straight or hold a line well anymore, but you still don’t want to be done - no matter how hungry or dirty or bloody you are.

Even though you aren’t the competitive sort- what is the appeal of joining competitive bike events?
I really like events that cultivate excitement about riding and get a group of people together to explore new and difficult terrain. Sometimes that ends up being races, but sometimes the race aspect can put a damper on an otherwise nice weekend in the woods. I think races that aren’t within a series are the most approachable in that regard, and I’ve even seen some of the best riders in such races. Last year at SSUSA there was some dude who probably came in top five and pulled across the finish line drinking a PBR and doing a wheelie on some terrible, broken-looking, 80’s bike. Seeing that gets me a lot more excited about riding than talking to someone about lap time in an endurance race. Having fun and enjoying the experience will always take priority for me, and some races are really great at facilitating this type of environment regardless of how long it takes you to ride. Events can also be a really great way to spend a weekend with old friends and a cool way to make new ones.

What would be one of your most favorite events?
Tough! For the ladies, I would say Ray’s Women’s Day for sure. There’s a lot of events I’d encourage people to do at least once, though… Gnomefest for sure. Also, in no particular order, SSUSA, Riverwest 24, Ore to Shore, Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival, Pugsley World Championships, Wausau 24 (24/9mile), Santa Rampage Milwaukee, Fat Tire Tour Milwaukee, and Homey Fall Fest.

What inspired you to start mountain biking?
I suppose a lack of self preservation… It looked like a pretty fun way to get hurt. There’s always something new or bigger to try once you’re already out there.

If you had nervousness at all, what did you do or think to overcome it?
One thing that helped me the most is riding with someone who was near my skill level – which is a great way to get other women interested if you’re just starting out. I see a lot of people try riding with a significant other when they first start out which I am somewhat discouraging of. It can be very challenging and frustrating – doing that with someone who’s comfortable with everything already and you don’t have much of a filter with isn’t always that helpful. Really though, everyone has nervousness at times. Mountain biking can be very intimidating mentally and physically. When you start out, you’re quite likely riding a bike you’re not very comfortable on, you don’t really know what you’re doing, you’re going to feel horribly out of shape, and eventually you will crash. You really have to learn to be patient with yourself and in tune with your mind and body. I’ll definitely have days where I’m not as fast or as capable as others for no apparent reason. Being forgiving and mindful of yourself – and also proud of what you’re able to accomplish is a process. I think all of that carries over in whatever it is you want to do, though.

What inspired you to start fat biking and why should people try it?
When I first got my fat bike, a friend said to me, “I just find them to be an unnecessary bike - their only selling point is that they have the monster truck appeal.” That monster truck appeal is exactly what I enjoy. They’re fun, they’re easy to ride, and they go over everything. They get you excited to be on a bike. There’s a reason people are into monster trucks…

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 do. They’re indisputably quite bumbly at first, but they do have advantages once you adjust. If you’re first starting out, or generally awkward on a bike, you shouldn’t worry about what some bike dork tells you about arbitrary percentages of power output or how it makes you and the bike one being or something. If you’re not comfortable riding on flats, riding clipless is likely going to slow you down and be more unsafe – always stick to whatever makes you comfortable and gives you confidence. Ignore advice that goes against that.

If you are thinking about making the transition, I’d recommend getting a pair that has a cage around the clip, so you have something to balance on. I recently had a pair of Crank Brothers break on me for no apparent reason while bombing down a hill. After narrowly avoiding a pretty catastrophic crash, I realized there was nothing there holding me in and I was awkwardly balancing on a tiny metal spindle. Apparently the clips on those pedals breaking was a pretty a common problem so I’d also recommend doing research on what brands are known for their quality. Regardless, a cage will really help alleviate that kind of scenario and having them is also nice if you want to ride in sneakers instead. I personally like SPDs a lot, though I’ve heard only positive things about times always. I would buy a pair secondhand to see if you like them, and go at least one solo ride before you head out with a group so you can practice unclipping a few times before you need to. Now that I’m used to riding clipless, there are times where I feel a lot safer clipped in than I do on flats.

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
A lot of my most painful crashes have actually been slow crashes. I was trying to jump a friend’s too-big-for-me fat bike over a big pile of rocks a few years ago while barefoot, and ended up slicing a decent-sized chunk out of my foot. This was painful, but later landed me pretty legitimately hurt when I was trying to unclip on a trail and couldn’t because I was catering to my injured foot. I ended up slow crashing on to my handlebars, spearing myself under my ribcage. I bruised a couple ribs and the sacs that hold your lungs and organs. It was pretty wretched, but I suppose it really could’ve been much worse. I’ve broken and sprained other various things, I think the biggest part is what you learn from crashing and how you can use that. It’s important to know what’s hurt so that you can make an educated decision on whether or not you’re willing to risk permanent damage or delay healing on your current injury. It’s also important to acknowledge that there’s definitely an emotional component to healing, and whether you’re rushed to get on a bike or skittish about it, you have to be realistic with what you’re ready for both emotionally and physically. You need to listen to your body and your mind and have realistic expectations. Sometimes you regress. That should provide you with motivation, not frustration. If you’re never getting hurt, you’re probably not taking chances.

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 thing that actually helped me the most was probably learning that things are scarier if you take them slowly… I don’t advocate pushing past your threshold, but it’s good to know when you’re uncomfortable vs. when you’re unsafe. There’s definitely a point at which things get scarier and even less safe taking something slowly. Otherwise, looking ahead 10-15 is the best advise anyone can give you. With tight turns starting from the outside and moving to the inside helped me a lot – as long as I’m looking ahead. Where your eyes go, your body will always follow. I also highly recommend everyone spend a day at Rays. That also was a huge help. It’s nice being able to build your way up to bigger jumps/ obstacles, etc., and be able to focus on one thing at a time. You don’t really get that riding trails.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
The biggest thing for me is realizing where I’m at when I’m riding. Sometimes I’m too tired/ out of shape/ clumsy for no good reason on any given ride, and that’s not the time to try new things or try things that I don’t feel good about, even if I’ve had no problem with it in the past. I’ve cleared really big jumps before that I’ve later had trouble even riding over. Realizing when to push yourself and when to call it, even if you’re really excited/disappointed, is important.

What do you love about riding your bike?
I love that I can wear myself out until I’m too tired to stand, and still be disappointed when it’s time to take a break to eat, sleep, drink beer, etc. Being an adult doesn’t always lend itself to fun. Bikes usually do. There’s something to be said for simplicity. 

Could you tell us a bit about bike polo and how it all works?
The game itself is similar to hockey. There are two teams, with three players each. They start at opposite ends of the court, then when the game starts they ride toward the center of the court where the ball sits. Each team delegates a person to try to hit the ball before the other team gets there - or “joust” for it. After that, it’s mostly just a back and forth for 12 minutes, trying to make it in the other team’s goal. You’re not supposed to grab the walls or goal for stability or put your foot on the ground. All that ends up being easier than it sounds, though, because you’re always kinda moving around.

For me it’s pretty reminiscent of playing roller hockey with neighborhood kids as a child.

Bike polo is most appealing, I think, because of its accessibility. In fact, I think the most fun I’ve ever had playing was at a new player day I organized. There was a solid mix of people who’d never played before and people who’d tried it only a couple times and I think everyone made at least a goal or two. It’s nice because you can play on just about any bike, it takes a much lower fitness level than mountain biking, the crashes are slower and less ghastly, and the equipment is cheap. I think for my bike/ gloves/ mallet/ balls my total came to around $150 – of which $30 was unnecessarily spent on obnoxious pink tires. It’s also pretty cool to be involved in something where everyone has such different interests and experience from one another, both with cycling and in general, but can all still coordinate getting together at least once a week.

Favorite riding destination?
Levis Mound near Black River Falls, WI. One day I hope to convince Steve, trail building wizard and adoptive Uncle, to let me live there permanently. I also think everyone should go to Copper Harbor at least once.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
Trek Stache 9 29+: aluminum 15.5” hard tail set up 1x11, 29+ wheels; matte black with lime and teal accents. I love this bike. It makes no sense. I was wholly convinced that I would never ride 29” again, then I tried someone’s 29+ for FTTM and at first it felt like riding a horse, after a mile or two, though, I realized it felt light for jumping, and twitchy enough that I could take it around turns a lot tighter than I thought I could. It rides exactly how I always wanted fat bikes to ride on trails, but didn’t. It’s definitely the bike I am most excited about at the moment. I love it.

Gary Fisher Rig: aluminum 15.5” hard tail 650+ single speed, set up 32x20; paint stripped off, two bells and a honker. I’d been wanting to make a single speed for a while, and my amazing boyfriend helped me cobble this together out of parts we both had. A friend of ours, Jenny, built the wheels, and I’m totally in love with it. 650b+ wheels are definitely my sweetspot.

Surly Crosscheck: steel 42cm cross bike/ commuter, set up 1x9 with sweep back handlebars; painted pink with pink fender, Crane Suzu bell, brass, tuned to A#. I love this bike because it’s the most beautiful bike in the whole world. It’s the only bike I have that is named currently. I call her The Death Star.


Marin Juniper WFG trail bike: aluminum 15” hard tail, 1x10 with 650b+; amethyst color, Mirrycle Incredibell bell, black, tuned to A. This was the first mountain bike I rode that felt like it really fit me well. It replaced a small Niner I had, and it was like entering a whole new sport. I love the way it handles, it had be wholly convinced no one my height should ever be on 29” wheels… before I rode the Stache, anyway…

Trek 613: lugged steel 49cm road bike circa 1982, set up fixed/single speed; burgundy color, Crane Suzu bell, brass, tuned to A#. This bike was a craigslist find turned fixed gear because I hadn’t gone through that phase yet. I ride it to bars, brunch, and occasionally the beach to read.

Surly Pugsley: steel 16” fat bike set up 1x9; glittery grape soda color with gold-rainbow-fade rimstrips, Planet Bike Courtesy bell, tuned to D. The bell makes the tires look bigger. I previously owned a smaller, more expensive aluminum fat bike that I could figure out how to get to fit correctly. This bike was cheaper, bigger and heavier, and somehow feels lighter and faster. The wheels have a mesmerizing disco ball effect when in motion that can bring out the misunderstood 80s teen in anyone.

Giant Attraction: steel 18” mountain bike circa 1990s. It’s a 26” old mountain bike that I took some parts off, put new tires on, and set up with a spinney gear ratio for polo. It’s a little big, honestly, but it keeps my other bikes from getting wrecked at polo, cost only $50 and has the best name of any bike I own. I actually threw up after buying this bike.

Schwinn Exerciser: heavy, steel, stationary bike circa 1978, gear ratio 80:15; gold color. Bell looks like a soccer ball, unpleasant sounding, unclearly tuned. I recently acquired a second one of these and keep them in the basement to ride while playing video games. They’re fucking awesome.

What clothing/bike accessories do you love? What would you recommend to your friends?

I’d recommend not worrying about finding cycling-specific stuff if there’s athletic clothing that you’re partial to. You can put anything over bike shorts – yoga pants work fine and alleviate spending a hundred dollars on leg warmers. The shorts piece, though, is important.

Other things I really love… Enzo’s chamois butter; Ergon grips; Wool leggings – they will be the best thing that’s ever happened to you – I like Icebreaker and would advise against SmartWool; a saddle with a ergonomic pressure cut out - also will be the best thing that’s ever happened to you, trust me - I like the Brooks Cambium or Selle Anatomica T Series; Volleyball shorts – for under your dress when you ride around town; a camelback - so you never have to worry about wearing a jersey or remembering to pack it correctly.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?

I think mountain biking can be intimidating for anyone. For women specifically, there just aren’t really a lot of us out there. There’s getting to be more, but it can be intimidating to jump into something challenging and potentially unsafe without any support. Men can certainly be supportive, but it can be awkward or embarrassing to make mistakes in front of a group of guys. Additionally, things like gear are not always transferable, and gear is definitely a tough obstacle to overcome. Starting out is challenging, but everyone was there at some point, and overall over you’re out there trying, it is a pretty welcoming crowd. I think that initial step and the insecurities associated with being the only lady is what deters most women. Being supportive of new lady riders is something that everyone can and should do.

What do you feel could happen to make changes and/or encourage more women to ride?

I think it’s important to lead by example and get involved (or stay involved.) First and foremost men and women should be encouraging of ladies to get out there and try riding – and take them! Taking out new people – especially women – is really fun. Taking out new riders is also a great way to allow them to try out different gear – which is awesome if, like me, you’re a small lady and nothing is ever your size. Additionally, it’s great to make women aware of the resources out there. In Madison, for example, Revolution Cycles does a weekly beginner-friendly mountain bike ride. They also host a free “We Are All Mechanics” class for women/ by women. Their level of sincerity and enthusiasm is really unmatched, and I like to believe other places have shops as forward thinking.

I think that seeing other women out riding, creating rides and events that are women specific, and encouraging them to push themselves are all very important. It is equally important for men to advocate and support these efforts, as it can be alienating being the lone female. On a commercial level companies can also support and sponsor those types of events, in addition to realizing how they depict women. One easy way they can reflect is by posting ladies with thicker legs in pictures, and discouraging events that award men differently than women.

Additionally, there are a ton of resources out there. In Madison, for example, Revolution Cycles does a weekly beginner-friendly mountain bike ride. They also host a free “We Are All Mechanics” class for women/ by women. Their attention to detail and enthusiasm for new riders is really unmatched, and I really like to believe other places have similar shops with as wonderful a group

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
Riding can be very empowering – especially for women. Our society still has a long road to reaching gender equality, and because of this arenas that are traditionally thought of as masculine still have very prominent gender gaps. Unfortunately, mountain biking is one of them, though it doesn’t have to be. When women get out riding and see other women on the trail, it can be very confidence inspiring. Riding fosters mental and physical growth, and provides the foundation for self confidence and a positive self image. It’s important for women to have the ability to test themselves, and going out with other women provides a safe and positive environment to do this while creating friendships between women. It truly is a much different experience than going out with men, I’d encourage all ladies to try out rides or events that are ladies only.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!

Once, on a family vacation when I was little, I got picked out of the audience to be on the TV show Double Dare. I was supposed to throw rubber chickens into someone’s oversized pants. I got really nervous when they started rolling the cameras, though, so instead of throwing chickens I just stood there looking scared and played with my belly button. They returned me to my parents and found a new kid.