Women on Bikes Series: Allison Oliver

I ride on a team that started two years ago in Alberta, Canada as the first women's mountain bike team in Alberta focused on gravity mountain biking. We are called Prairie Girls Racing. 

I race as a Pro, but the team is made up all levels of girls, including many who are just getting into mountain biking and want a community of women to shred with, drink beers, and support each other.

When did you first start riding a bike?
I started to be a “real” bike rider in college, ca. 2000. I bought my first bike, a mountain bike, when I was a sophomore.

It was a hard tail with toe cages and I used to put on spandex and pedal it around on jeep roads.
I did an XC race, and although I had no idea what I was doing, I loved it so much! Then I bought a road bike to “train for mountain biking in the winter”. I know… that makes no sense now… but I remember justifying it that way at the time. Actually, I spent a great deal of my 20s on that road bike.

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
I really like to explore. A bike allows you to cover more ground then your feet and get to places with a different perspective then a car. You can get lost, in a good way, on a bike. I have a bad habit of not living in the present moment, and focusing on what’s happening tomorrow, next week, etc…Mountain biking forces me to focus on the present. It can be kind of like meditation, actually… On the flip side, I’ve also done some of my most critical and creative thinking while logging hours on my road or cross-country bike.

What would be your favorite competitive biking event and why do you enjoy competing?
Dual slalom is my favorite, they are so much fun! I really like the head-to-head racing, and the tracks require application of many basic and fundamental bike-handling skills. Although I am a very competitive person, I’ve never taken bike competitions extremely seriously. Competing is a good way for me to focus on a goal; it motivates me and gives me something to work towards. I use races to create a goal and challenge myself… I don’t usually worry too much about the placing. It’s nice to be on the podium but that’s not my main objective. I really enjoy the training and mental preparation, I actually find that quite fun. Putting energy into those things translates well to my non-racing life, both personal and professional.

You enjoy several different ride styles; tell us about why you enjoy them-
I enjoy anything that gets me outdoors, but different types of riding are fun and challenging in their own way. Mountain biking gives you a sense of accomplishment and boosts your self esteem in a way that other types of riding can’t match, for example, riding a challenging line, cleaning a technical climb, hitting a new jump, hitting a new jump with style, etc. Plus being in nature.. this is going to sound super crunchy… but some days I find myself spending just as much time off my bike wandering around looking at bugs, plants, and rocks, as I do riding. Road biking is awesome in its own way; you can really get into a zone, and challenge yourself physically and mentally in a completely different arena. Road bike racing is some of the most fun racing I have ever done, I love the strategic aspects and working with a team, in a way it’s like the game of chess. Plus there’s nothing like spandex.

Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride?
I remember thinking that my saddle was WAAAAAAY too uncomfortable. And I also remember thinking I looked really, really cool (I did not).

If you had nervousness at all, what did you do or think to overcome it?
My body has a strange learning curve… I usually don’t get nervous about things until I have a bad experience, and then my self-preservation kicks in and with it the nerves… I didn’t actually start riding technical stuff or getting air on my bike for quite a few years, until I bought my first non-cross country bike… after a few good crashes I can get pretty nervous now. To overcome those nerves, I try to focus on a word that I think makes sense in the situation… like “smooth” or “lite” or “elbows”. I also refuse to do anything where I don’t have full confidence in my ability. I like to challenge myself, but I also don’t have anything to prove; I have no shame in choosing to pass on a trail feature that makes me really nervous.

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 use both flats and clipless. I started with clipless but I wish I had started with flats. I think flats give you a better foundation when you are learning… especially with things like jumping. I usually use clips for long XC-type rides and just recently started using them for some races. I definitely prefer to wear flats for the technical wet, rooty, rocky stuff around where I live in British Columbia. I find it useful for bailing out when things go awry, but also for getting started at the top or in the middle of difficult trail sections. I would say to start with flats and progress to clips. Practice skills like pedal wheelies, manuals, bunny hops, and jumps with flat shoes, and if you are just dying to ride clips then maybe switch back and forth between the two when it’s appropriate. Ultimately, I’d suggest you try both but just use whatever you like. It’s your ride.

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
Oh jeez…. Well, I’ll spare you the “War and Peace” version of my injury history and just describe one pretty major incident… about 4 years ago, in my FIRST EVER downhill race, I broke my leg and ankle in six places. The recovery was extremely long and painful, but the emotional and mental part was equally as challenging. It took me a long time to recover enough confidence to ride, I cried the first few times I tried to ride dirt. Not because I was in pain, but because I was scared. It was quite humbling, and I didn’t think I would ever be able to ride like I had before… but I knew I had to do another race. I wasn’t going to go out like that! Eventually, little by little, I started to progress and that fear eventually dissolved. The biggest thing was giving myself time, keeping at it, and being patient, which I wouldn’t say is one of my virtues. One of the hardest parts of a big injury is figuring out where to direct your energy, especially when if all of your friends are doing bike stuff and you can’t participate. I tried to find other activities to focus on, and not focus too much on what my massive FOMO because I couldn’t ride.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Getting up and over small stuff was tricky. I found that I was probably too rigid on the bike, and not moving my body back and forward enough for that sort of maneuver.. it’s critical to relax your body position and don’t be afraid to use body english. It’s amazing how much worse I ride when I’m tense. Point your hips where you want to go, bend your knees and hips and let the bike bounce around underneath you. Also, for manuals, which are still challenging for me… don’t try to pull up on the handlebars; you want to move your center of gravity BACK and push forward with your legs. That was the best tip I ever received. I’m no manual queen, but I can handle.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
This is so cliché, but corners will forever be challenging. . They are SO HARD!!! I find that if I focus too hard on trying to ride a corner, I don’t ride it well. I always do better when I am having fun and feel relaxed. I’m getting better at corners, but I often finding myself staring at my front wheel…. Once I snap out of it and look UP and through the corner, it makes a huge difference!

What inspired you to work towards becoming an Elite (Pro) racer? What was that journey like?
I didn’t start racing with the goal of becoming an Elite racer, I race because I liked the motivation, focus, and mental aspects. I spent a few years at the Expert level, and I decided I would upgrade when I felt like I was ready for the preparation and mental aspects of the sport. I didn’t want to upgrade just to call myself a “Pro”. Over the past few years I was earning a PhD and then a travel-intensive postdoc position (which is still underway) and didn’t have a ton of time or resources to dedicate to off-season and race specific training. Plus, I have other hobbies! But this year I decided to upgrade and I am excited to put some focused effort into prepping for and executing a Pro race season.

What do you love about riding your bike?
Focus. Friends. Exploring. Fun.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I ride a Devinci Wilson downhill bike. It was my first carbon bike and coming from a previous hunky steel beast, it felt really light and flimsy… it took a little bit of getting used to, but I absolutely love it. I like how the design allows you to really feel the trail under your pedals, and the snappiness of it is great for punching up and over tricky things and out of corners. My trail bike is a Devinci Spartan. It can pretty much handle anything; it’s basically a mini downhill bike…. And finally, I have a Deity Cryptkeeper dirt jumper. I mostly use it for pump track and small dirt jumps, but I’ve seen it throw down on the big stuff. Oh and the other best part about my dirt jumper?? The rainbow brake cable I got for it in Japan. A little bit of flare for the kids these days…

What clothing/bike accessories do you love? What would you recommend to your friends?
EVERY person that rides bikes should have a pair of Five Ten shoes. I think I have maybe 5 pairs?! Hands down the biggest game changer in my biking life. They have a ton of actual women’s shoes, not men’s shoes that have been “shrink’d and pink’d”. The Impacts and Elements lines dry SUPER fast. A must have for rainy conditions like we get in the Pacific Northwest.

Bike wash (like Finish Line Showroom Spray & Polish)- keeps it like new!

I super nerd out on numbers, even if I don’t record any of them, so I use a Suunto watch to tell me location, distance, time, and heart rate. The new Garmin is pretty sick too. I sometimes time myself up and down things and then try to beat it the next time. I don’t use Strava or Trailforks but same concept.

Tell us how you became involved with Prairie Girls Racing- how did you hear about them and what prompted you to join?
When I found out I was moving to Canada to work at University of Alberta, I knew absolutely nothing about the area. I joined a regional mountain bike forum on Pinkbike and one of the first posts I saw was from a gal looking for ladies to join a new mountain bike team based out of Edmonton, Alberta. What a better way to make new friends to ride with in a place I know nothing about?! So I sent her an email. The ladies welcomed me like they had known me my whole life. I had never met them before and the first time I came to town to work, they came to pick me up at the airport! I ended up based in British Columbia, but now every time I travel to Alberta for work I have an amazing group of girl friends and riding buddies. I even have a friend to ride with in Ireland now!

What suggestions do you have for someone looking for a women’s group to join? What were key factors that helped with your decision?
There are a ton of women’s groups out there and more are popping up all the time! It’s a pretty amazing phenomenon. If you are looking for a women’s group you should decide what you want to focus on… do you want to get together for casual group rides? Train for an event? Get coaching and race? Participate in the community, do trail work, etc? Then look for groups that focus on those things. If you can’t find one in your area… start one! It can be as easy as creating a Facebook group. Anyone reading this can always contact me for more information; I know quite a lot of ladies and ladies groups around US and Canada and will try my best to hook a sister up with some riding friends whenever possible!

Why is being part of a group/team so positive for you?
Having a good team or group is like a having a rad hodge-podge family that is bonded over common love of a sport or a lifestyle, and as a result you get to meet all sorts of people that you may have otherwise never encountered. I enjoy being part of a group or team because of the support and camaraderie. I have a group to turn to when I have frustrations, success, failure, or to have a post ride beer and eat poutine. Some of the Prairie Girls take racing seriously, some just do it for fun, and there is a wide range of skills and competitiveness but overall the team is about supporting women riders and having a good time.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
Sometimes I think women get really hung up on comparing themselves to other riders. Stop comparing yourself… In person or on social media. A lot of the things you see on social media aren’t real anyway, they are personas created for marketing purposes or other avenues of personal fulfillment. Just focus on you and your journey and what makes you happy and motivated. Easier said than done, I know... but I believe that it’s an important concept to focus on in these days of the internet and social media revolution.

Like any sport, there is obviously some degree of intimidation involve with getting into mountain biking. I think finding a cycling group can be really great for getting women into cycling, especially if you are the type of person that feels intimidated by going after it solo. That way you have support for mechanical issues, can get new skills, learn trails, and carpool for shuttles or rides. But don’t be afraid to just randomly reach out to other riders for riding buddies or questions about anything. The cycling community is a very friendly and welcoming place. Oh, and wear knee pads. Just that little extra precaution can give you a lot more confidence and save you some pain and band-aids.

What do you feel could happen to make changes and/or encourage more women to ride?
It would be great to see more women’s specific events, competitions, clinics, etc. There is an Enduro that is held in Washington, called the “Sturdy Bitch” and the past few years it has been HUGE. I think those sorts of things are really fun and productive, and can help reduce the intimidation-factor. I think groups like Prairie Girls Racing, which is just one of MANY, are really helpful for bringing girls together to ride, challenge, and encourage each other. As well as blogs like this… any platform for disseminating information on what’s out there and the resources available to them is awesome for encouraging people.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
I like to see women out there getting after it; it’s good to have female representation and perspective in every aspect of life. I know riding has helped me a lot with many of life’s stresses and I know it can do the same for others. The more women we can get out there, then the more PEOPLE we get out there… which means better land stewardship, more trail maintenance, healthier communities, more events, and more fun.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I used to sing the National Anthem at college rodeos.