Women on Bikes Series: Martha Flynn

I work in health care by day, but my true love is teaching and welcoming new female riders to mountain biking. I am the director of Crank Sisters, an outreach program of the Minnesota High School Cycling league and my mission is to recruit more girls to the league and do what I can to make sure the atmosphere is welcoming so they stay with it, hopefully the rest of their life.
I’m also completely obsessed with bike racing, mostly on my mountain bike and fat bike in the winter.

When did you first start riding a bike?

My dad taught me how to ride a bike when I was about 8 or 9. He told me if I learned to ride (on my big sister’s bike), then he would buy me my own. I was so jealous of my older sister having a bike. I couldn’t wait to prove I could ride and be able to follow her everywhere again. Our local bike shop was at the bottom of a very large hill in St. Paul. Part of the deal was if dad bought me the bike, I had to ride up the big hill home. Now that I think of it, maybe that’s why I struggle with hills to this day.

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
I have FOMO (fear of missing out). I love the social aspect of riding and racing and love having something to look forward to.

What would be your favorite competitive biking event and why do you enjoy competing?
My favorite event is always the next one on my schedule, and that usually means a mountain bike or winter fat bike race. I enjoy competing because it pushes me to work hard. I have trouble doing that on a ‘normal’ ride, where I tend to space out and take in the scenery. Racing can be whatever I need it to be that day. Some days I need to dig deep and push my limits. Some days I ‘ride’ the race and encourage others during it. Some days it’s a mixture of the two. No matter what it is, I’m on my bike with ‘my people’ who share in this obsession. It always makes me smile.

Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride?
Prior to trying mountain biking, I had only been out on asphalt. . bike trails or streets. Biking was either transportation or a workout that felt like a chore. I hated the wind, the hills, the sun, the boredom of it. I remember my first few times mountain biking and realizing how cool it was to ride in the woods. So different than the road. It was a ride without purpose. . just for fun and to be outside in nature. It wasn’t the chore it felt like on asphalt.

If you had nervousness at all, what did you do or think to overcome it?
I was lucky in that I had a friend who taught me mountain biking the right way. We started on easy wide trails, and slowly worked up on the difficulty. I do remember being nervous when I switched from flat pedals to clipless.

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 use clipless pedals, though just this year went back to flat pedals at the beginning of the mountain bike season to help reinforce good technique. It was wild to go back to flat. My feet were flying off the pedals anytime I hit bumps. Going back to flat pedals reinforced the need for ‘heavy feet/light hands’ and keeping my heels down when on downhills, braking, or rock gardens.

I switched back to clipless when the racing season started because they really help me on hill climbs, and I feel more confident clipped in for the technical sections.

When I first switched to clipless I spent time riding around a park and practiced getting in and out of the pedals a ton. I’d suggest doing that for sure. Spend time coming to a stop and unclipping. . start slowly, then increase the speed so you’ll be ready to bail if needed. Know you are going to fall over and be ok with that. Everyone does and it’s nothing to feel bad about. .if people laugh about it, they are usually only laughing because they know exactly how you feel. And you have to admit, it does look kind of funny.

I also used to unclip one foot when going through rock gardens because it made me feel safer. Honestly, it’s more difficult to ride through rock gardens that way, but it made me feel better so I did it.

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
After I had been riding about a year, I was at a point where I was fearless. Because I had been introduced to mountain biking slowly, I hadn’t had a really bad crash. I felt like I could do anything. I remember riding with my then boyfriend (now husband) and we were ripping down some pristine single track on the CAMBA trails in Wisconsin and he yelled that there was a jump coming. I thought, “SWEET!” and kept my speed up. I hit the jump and went flying through the air, then crashed hard over the handlebars. I landed on my shoulder and had a huge bruise and scrape. He felt so bad and said, “I thought you knew to pull your front tire up.” Yea, NO, didn’t know that. The ride back to the trailhead was painful and slow.

After that, I was scared to get any air at all. I still don’t take big jumps, but I got over it by practicing smaller bumps and slowly increasing my speed and the size of the jump, but I still don’t like to take bike jumps to this day. I recently did a women’s GRIT clinic and forced myself into the ‘jump’ group for the skills sessions just because I know it scares me. I like to remind myself of the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “Do one thing every day that scare you”. Mountain biking is good for that!

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
When I started I would freeze up on rock gardens. It was weird, I could go over a log easily, but if a rock was in front of me that was smaller than the log, I’d think I couldn’t go over it.

Two things helped me get better at this. One was learning the ‘ready’ or ‘attack’ position. I remember the first time I tackled a nemesis rock garden after taking a mountain bike clinic and it was a light bulb moment. . “Wow, this position really works!”. The second was just riding rock gardens, over and over. Going out by myself and walking it to figure out my line, then trying it. Though I will caution, if you are going to try this. . give yourself three tries. If you don’t get it after that, move on, if you stay there and repeat failure again and again it can de-motivate you. I also talk to the rocks as I’m walking to check my route. The “Oh yea, you think you can scare me? No way, I’m riding over you, you puny rock.” kind of self-talk.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
I’m getting better at rocks, so now I’m trying to improve on riding skinnys—logs, skinny wood bridges, especially those with height or bumps and turns. I know it’s mainly mental stuff that prevents me from even trying. I am working at not doing the negative self-talk for the times I decide NOT to try a skinny.

Here’s a skinny I finally got the guts to try, AND I made it! Video Link Note: video is a friend of mine riding it, not me.

What do you love about riding your bike?
Wow, everything. I love riding hard or long and feeling completely spent at the end. I love competing and digging deep during races, at time hating the women out on the course with me, then loving them again at the end as we tell our race stories. I love that I can share this experience with my husband and friends. I love using my bike to commute and feeling like I’m making a difference in the world as one less car.

I love riding alone, especially in the woods, and taking in the enormity of nature and reflecting on life and appreciating all that I have.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
Specialized Epic Mountain Bike: I got this bike after getting a bike fitting from Chris Balser on my old Orbea. He told me he couldn’t fit me on it because it was too big. Darn, I had to buy a new bike! I looked at the Specialized line up because they are great supporters of the High School Cycling League, and my son worked at a Specialized Dealer Bike Shop. So I test rode the Specialized Epic (in a small) and I loved it! I felt comfortable in the cockpit like I could completely control it, even though it’s a 29r. The full suspension and upgraded dropper post was what my advanced age body needed. And the carbon frame helped keep it light. I LOVE this bike. Can’t imagine riding anything else for mountain bike racing.

Salsa Beargrease Fat Bike: I upgraded to this bike last year from my Salsa Mukluk. The Beargrease is carbon and perfect for racing. I end up doing about 12 or more Fat Bike races in the winter, so it’s worth it. Rocking this baby with my 45North tires, and a spare set of studded tires for the ice--I’m ready for anything.

Salsa Casseroll Commuter Bike: I bought this as a singlespeed, then had my husband deck it out as a 1X10. I have a fenders, bike rack, panniers, and lights as staples on this one. Gets me around the hills of St. Paul (and Minneapolis) nicely. And yes, we do have hills in Minnesota!

KHS Crossbike: I raced recently on this bike and someone pulled up with the same bike, looked again at mine and said, “you’ve swapped out everything on that bike except the frame!”, and yes I have. Carbon fork and new wheels helped to make this pretty light for schlepping on my shoulders during a cross race. I’m looking to do more gravel races next spring so I’ll try this out for that as well.

Specialized Allez: This is my road bike that gets ignored most days, unless the mountain bike trails are wet and I want to go on a longer ride with skinny tires. I’ve had this bike the longest and I still love it, for a road bike of course. This bike fits me to a T. I never get aches riding it, even for those long summer rides.

Fatbikes- people often times question why one would ride one. Why do you like riding a fatbike?
My fat bike gave me the freedom to ditch cross country skiing as a winter sport, and lets me ride all year round. Riding trails in the snow is an experience everyone should try! I have become such a better summer mountain biker from the bike handling skills I’ve needed to acquire from riding in slushy snow, icy trails and deep snow. Though now that more and more trail bosses are investing in grooming equipment, it’s getting easier to ride on the trails in winter, they are so nicely packed down.

Many folks ride fat bikes all year. Fat bikes are great entry level bikes for folks new to mountain biking.

What clothing/bike accessories do you love? What would you recommend to your friends?
Since we’re getting into fall weather, merino wool base layers, socks, hats, neck warmers, etc are the bomb. I love the 45North brand because their designers are all winter bike enthusiasts who are always looking for ways to make us more comfortable riding in cold weather.

I also recently got a Lift cyclewear jersey. It doesn’t look like your typical lycra jersey with graphics. It’s a solid color, soft, super comfortable and has a waterproof zipped pocket in the back.
What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
I think many women (and girls) don’t try mountain biking because they think it’s all about jumps and wicked downhills or technical sections. Yea, it can be that if you want, but the majority of mountain biking, especially in Minnesota is cross country type trails.

I also think the equipment, the maintenance and the attitude that in order to ride you HAVE to have X part, or X wheel size, or flat (or clipless pedals) are off-putting for women. In reality, it doesn’t matter what gear you have, just ride your bike, any bike. The equipment tweaks and loyalty can come later.

What could change in the industry (or in general areas) to encourage more women to ride?
It almost seems like bike related companies and local bike shops should have advisors to come and do an analysis on how they are doing to attract and retain women (customers and employees). It seems like we are doing a lot of two steps forward, one step back lately.

Things like if you are doing women specific design, don’t make the women’s line be only recreational with no high end products. I’m glad to see women’s bike mechanics classes, but the ones I’ve attended still have the ‘gear head’ attitude. I attended one with a girlfriend new to biking and they looked at her mountain bike and told her she NEEDED to get clipless pedals. I waited until they walked away and told her they were completely false, she could stay on flats as long as she liked. Have hands on interactive classes, not here let me show you how to change a flat and think that we’re good to go.

Train the staff at bike shops to walk that careful line of not being overbearing, but don’t ignore us either. And most importantly, don’t condescend. I’ve heard many stories of women wanting to but a higher end mountain bike and the sales guys are steering them to a hybrid!

Hire women in positions of leadership. We look at this in the High School Mountain Bike League. We are always trying to get more women to sign on as coaches and ride leaders.

You are involved with Crank Sisters- tell us about Crank Sisters and why it is important for the community:
Crank Sisters is a program within the Minnesota High School Cycling League with a goal to recruit and retain female athletes, coaches and ride leaders. 

It is important for these girls to feel that this is their sport, even if their numbers are lower compared to the boys. These girls are the future of our sport and we want to do what we can to encourage and empower them through the sport of mountain biking. The mountain bike teams are all co-ed and can be very masculine focused with the majority of coaches and volunteers being men as well. The Crank Sisters program will send a woman out to lead a girl’s only practice for teams, so they have some time to practice outside of the male dominated environment, and they get to see an adult woman who rides. We also do ‘Try It Out’ sessions for girls thinking of joining or trying mountain biking. These sessions are important to do separate from the boys, as girls benefit from a different approach to learning the new skill of mountain biking.

We are just now seeing some of the impact of our efforts this season. Friendships have been made through some of our programs, girls from competing teams are arranging rides together that end with hanging out at a coffee shop, girls are wearing the bike jewelry they made on race day at the Crank Sisters tent and that sparks conversations with others about riding and they share the story of the High School League and let other girls know that it’s an option. I get goosebumps hearing the stories.
You are a Level 1 IMBA certified instructor- how was the certification process for you? Any suggestions/tips for those thinking of becoming certified?
The certification process for Level 1 was not difficult. You do have to commit to studying the material ahead of time, and then giving a full weekend to the task. The instructors we had were fabulous and really encouraging. Level 1 certification is pretty basic; you learn how to assess for basic skills and safety lead a trail ride. Still, the test out on the last day (written and on the trail) was a little intimidating. My only suggestion to those considering is to commit to it 100%. It is an interactive process and exhausting. Don’t plan on any other events over the weekend of the course.

What is the best part about being able to help others learn riding/handling skills?
The best part is seeing someone do something they didn’t think they could, or they were afraid to do before. 

Tell us about Ride Like A Girl Cycling and how you became involved-
Teri Holst and I were talking about how Penn Cycle could help with the Crank Sisters efforts and during that discussion she talked about the Ride Like A Girl program and I knew I wanted to help. It is such a great grass roots program to give women the skills, resources and community necessary to embrace cycling. I just love seeing the friendships develop from women involved with it.

Why do you feel women’s groups are a benefit and/or necessity?
Women’s groups are particularly beneficial for beginner riders. Women in general take to riding differently than men. Most women want to see skills demonstrated, hear why we do things a particular way, and then attempt it in a safe, non-judgmental environment where we can try things at our own pace. Not all women fit into this mold of course, but that’s the general characteristics of women I see in clinics.

Women’s group rides are a necessary activity for me as a way to socialize with other likeminded women. I love how women are so encouraging to each other on group rides and bring the fun factor on.

Any suggestions on how a woman can find a group to join? What are some key points for people to consider before joining?
Start with your local bike shop and see if they have any women’s only rides. Volunteer at a bike race and watch the beginner races. Talk to the women afterwards and find out how they started riding, if they know of any group rides. When you show up for your first ride, bring an openness to trying new things and a positive attitude. Know that these women want you to succeed, to have fun and they have been in your position before so they understand.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
Seeing a woman accomplish something she didn’t think she could do. Riding over that log, making it up a hill, whatever. I soak up the joy and triumphs of the women around me. I recently gave a private lesson to a woman that needed to quickly progress to 'advanced' mountain bike skills for a trip she's taking. After we finished she said, "I feel so bad ass now!" Doesn’t get much better than that.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
In my early 20s I went for a full month without telling a lie while I was writing my senior thesis on lying. I was a Philosophy major.
To this day I try to tell the truth as often as possible, it’s simpler, and you don’t have to keep track of your stories.