Women on Bikes Series: Liz Sampey

I’m Liz Sampey, I’m 32 years old, and I live in the beautiful mountains of Crested Butte, Colorado. I am a professional endurance mountain bike racer, competing in ultraendurance and stage races around the US and the world. I am also a USAC and PMBIA certified cycling performance and mountain bike skills coach. I own a coaching business called Vital Motion, where I combine my expertise as a physical therapist (I have a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree) and my experience as an athlete to help other athletes, both recreational and competitive, reach their athletic goals as well as rehabilitate from any injuries they might be dealing with. I coach private athletes, small groups, and for awesome camps and clinics like VIDA! When I am at home in the Gunnison Valley, I also practice as a physical therapist with Heights Performance. My life is full, and I love every second!

Athlete website/blog: www.speedy-lizard.com
Coaching website: www.vitalmotioncoaching.com
Instagram/Twitter: @speedylizard

When did you first start riding a bike?
I was too young to remember, but my first memories of riding was on the farm in Minnesota where I grew up. There were trails running all through the woods behind our house, and my younger siblings and I rode our bikes and our horses all over the woods. I didn’t even know that “mountain biking” was a sport back then. I started riding seriously when I was about fifteen.

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
For my entire life, riding my bike has always symbolized freedom for me. Nowhere in life do I feel as completely free and in control of my own destiny than on my bicycle. It reminds me, each time I ride, that I am a strong and confident woman who can accomplish anything I put my mind to. Riding has been the one constant through many changes in my life, through great periods and really tough periods. It is the one thing that never fails to put a smile on my face. The year I turned professional, I was also going through a heartbreaking divorce and my life was turning upside down. I can honestly say that without riding, my place where I could focus all my energy on what I was doing at that moment, as well as tasting that freedom that was not present in any other area of my life at the time, I would not be the person I am now. Riding, and racing more specifically, saved me and created the woman I am today.

Besides mountain biking, are there other styles of cycling you enjoy? (road/paved, gravel, commute, etc.)
I love all styles of cycling! I was a road racer for four years before I started racing mountain bikes, and I still love the powerful fast feeling my road bike gives me. Since I’ve been living in the Gunnison Valley, which is snowbound for nearly eight months of the year, I have also picked up fat biking, which I never thought I would get into but makes perfect sense when you live in a place where snow covers the ground for well over half of the year. I did some fun local races, but mostly I used my fat bike to access the big mountains for my backcountry skiing adventures. I don’t own a snowmobile, and it was really fun to strap my skis to my fat bike and ride out the snow covered roads to places that usually only motorized travelers go, under the power of my own legs.

Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride?
Not my first ride- I was too young- but my first race, definitely! It was a race at Winter Park, CO, and I think I raced in the Sport category- but it might have been Beginner, I’m not sure. I went in pretty nervous, I had been riding mountain bikes for a long time but never even considered racing until I was 28 years old. I had mostly ridden and raced road bikes for the previous four years, so I was nervous getting back on technical terrain. But halfway through I knew that this was where I was meant to be. I was absolutely elated, and when I finished (I have no idea where in the results I finished) I knew that this sport was about to become a huge part of my life. I had no idea at the time how huge… that I would build my entire life and career around it. But I was hooked.

If you had nervousness at all, what did you do or think to overcome it?
I have worked a LOT on mental skills training to make my mind as “useful” as it can possibly be when it comes to riding and racing. I have read books, worked with sports psychologists, and also learned from my longtime cycling coach (we worked together for seven years) to hone my mental toughness and my mental clarity on the bike. I will say that it has helped me more immensely than any other type of training I have done. I am so solid mentally and because of that I know there is nothing I cannot overcome- on the bike, or in life.

I remember, a few years ago, when I would struggle with thinking negative thoughts during a race when I “screwed up:” crashed, blew a line, went out too hard, got passed, etc. I observed that with each negative thought, I got slower and slower. I knew I had to stop that in its tracks and find a way to make my mind work for me, not against me. I remember very clearly, in one race, yelling STOP! at myself to halt the negative feedback I was giving myself. And then I replaced the negative thoughts with just a mindless mantra that I repeated over and over again- and that is the only thing I let go through my head. It worked, and I still use that technique to this day, when I am faced with something difficult- a long climb, chasing down a competitor, seven hours into a race when everything in my body is hurting,  a scary descent, etc. Mantras are SO powerful, and I definitely recommend using them. It’s great to be able to turn off your brain and focus on what is important in each moment, when you’re struggling or faced with a big challenge.

Do you use clipless pedals? Why or why not and do you have tips/suggestions for people who are on the fence either way?
Yes, I do. As a physical therapist, I am huge on biomechanics. I know how to actively use my core, my hip muscles, and the muscles in my thighs and lower legs, all at different points in my pedal stroke, for maximum power and efficiency. I do this all the time, and I coach it all the time as well. If you are going to have all those powerful muscles in your legs, why not use all of them as effectively as possible?

I do also understand the benefit of using flat pedals to hone proper mountain biking skills techniques, and I do occasionally use them in the bike park when I am specifically going out to work on skills. Some downhill and enduro racers love them. But, since I race in clipless pedals, I primarily train in them also. Except when I’m on my fat bike and it’s -30 degrees outside- then I am definitely in flat pedals and heavy duty snow boots!

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
One big challenge for me was that I was only comfortable standing and descending with my right foot in front when my pedals were matched. If I tried to put my left foot in front, I felt like I was trying to speak Chinese or something (and I do NOT speak Chinese!). As a result, my legs were only being used in one way and they would get really tired on long descents. This took away a lot of my strength to get over technical sections, and for climbing. I would just wear out from being in the same position all the time. So, I taught myself to be comfortable descending with either foot in front. I learned that when cornering, if I am going to corner with matched feet, I need to lead with the inside foot forward. So, I practiced by riding slowly enough that every time I would come to a corner, I would force myself to switch feet appropriately, and then keep that foot in front until I reached another corner that necessitated switching. And so on, until I finally became comfortable riding with more speed and over more technical terrain with either foot in front. Now, I am pretty much ambidextrous. It takes a while, and it’s weird and scary at first, but it’s definitely worth it and it will save you energy, and improve your technique, if you can learn to do it!

Have you had any biffs (accidents) that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
I had a really violent crash two years ago at the USA Marathon National Championships. I botched my takeoff for a drop I had done many times before, because I was exhausted at the end of the fifty mile race and not focused. I smashed my pelvis and dislocated my shoulder. I got back on and finished the race, and only afterwards did I realize how damaged my shoulder was. Between the initial injury recovery and my surgery and rehab, I ended up missing nine months of training, with four months completely off the bike. It was really difficult- but I was resolved to learn as much as I could from the experience, and it ended up being one of the most valuable and empowering experiences of my life. Mentally, it was difficult because on the outside I had to portray confidence to my sponsors, my friends, and fellow racers, that I was going to return to racing stronger than ever.

Mostly I believed that, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have my times of darkness and doubt.
When I first got back on my bike and started riding technical terrain again, and especially in my first race back six months after surgery, I was really scared. Like REALLY scared. I rode terribly- I felt like a stiff robot who had never been on a bike before. But, I was expecting that, and I accepted it as part of the process. That day, my only goal was to win the “mental game.” And I did. Even though I was scared and slow, I kept going, stayed strong through the whole four hours, and I didn’t let my head defeat me. I didn’t beat myself up about it. I let myself have my moments of fear, and a bad race. And then, I slowly worked to overcome it. Part of that was understanding my accident as well, what I did wrong, and what I could have done differently to prevent it. I learned A LOT about that. (Read my blog posts about it at www.speedy-lizard.com if you want to know more about my thought processes around this).

I was really patient with myself, and I trusted that when I was ready, I would ride confidently again. And I did. Two months after I had that horrible first race, and almost exactly one year after my injury, I snagged my first professional win in a 100 mile race over very challenging terrain in the Breckenridge 100. I came back more confident than ever- because I was a much stronger AND much smarter athlete and person for what I had gone through. I will definitely say that all my time spent working with my coach and sports psychologists over the years helped immensely in my being able to do this- I can’t recommend it enough.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
My endurance racing bike (and everyday mountain bike) is currently a Niner Jet9 RDO. Even though I am barely over 5’2”, I am a 29er gal, and Niner is one of the only bike companies that makes an extra small frame that works seamlessly with the big wheels. I love that bike and I have ridden it through extremely technical terrain, tight corners, in all types of races, and on my backyard adventures which include every type of terrain you could imagine including road riding. And it’s great for all these things.

My road racing bike (now used only for training and coaching) is a Pinarello FP3. I chose it because it corners like it’s on rails, and when I was a road racer I loved criterium racing- fast, painful, technical, and filled with tight corners and powerful sprints. It also looks and feels like a Ferrari.
My fat bike is a Fatback Corvus, a full-carbon, 26 pound fat bike that is basically a machine and will go anywhere I want it to, but is light enough that it doesn’t weigh me down. I have 4” tires on it that float through soft snow and it’s great for loading down with ski mountaineering gear to get me to anything I want to climb up and ski down. It’s also light, fast, and responsive enough that it’s great for racing- super quick! Again, I never saw myself getting into fat biking, but I absolutely love it and am already dreaming up next winter’s adventures.

What clothing/bike accessories do you love? What would you recommend to your friends?
I love Pactimo chamois and cycling kits/clothing. They are a sponsor of mine, and I chose them because the chamois feels like I’m wearing nothing, while at the same time being supportive of my lady parts. I don’t like feeling like I’m wearing a diaper, and when I’m hanging out on my bike in my chamois all day long (and sometimes all night), having a cycling kit that feels like I’m wearing nothing is a big bonus.

I also love Shredly mountain bike shorts- they’re not a sponsor of mine, but I rave about them all the time. They make super cute flashy baggies that fit strong women well! My thighs and butt actually can move in those shorts, but they’re not insanely baggy in the waist- they make pull tabs so that you can adjust the waist. It’s really nice. 

What do you love about riding your bike?
Haha. What DON’T I love about riding my bike? :) Nothing.