Women on Bikes Series: Erika Sawinski

Photo Credit: Hannah Hoglund Photography
Hello! My name is Erika and I’m a 27 year old Minneapolis native working in the agriculture commodities industry.

 I currently live in Uptown right near Lake Calhoun and love being able to easily go for a run around the chain of lakes or ride my bike up to Theo for some time on the dirt.

Four years ago I signed up for my 1st sprint triathlon to try to become more active after college.

That not only led to my 1st bike purchase but also me competing in many triathlons, duathlons, and running races of all distances culminating in my first full marathon this past fall. For the past few years I have also been dipping my toes into mountain biking while still training for running events but after my marathon I was ready to make the plunge. I am now in the middle of my first season racing bikes and since I’m a Minnesotan naturally it is racing my fat bike, Tank, in the middle of winter. I have plans for a fun summer of racing on dirt as well and absolutely cannot wait!

When not riding one of my bikes (or going on the occasional run) you can also find me jamming out to awesome music (90’s rock is my fav and Dave Grohl is my hero), drinking lots of coffee (Caribou!), spending time with my horse Braveheart and planning my next adventure.

You started riding after you signed up for a sprint triathlon, tell us about that bike purchase and why it inspired you to keep riding-
I had no idea what I was looking for or what I needed and pretty much went into it blindly. I did not do much biking as a child and it had been at least a decade since I had ridden a bike. I walked into my local bike shop one day and got very lucky with the guidance and patience they offered. I went into it thinking I was going to buy a tri bike but thankfully they guided me in a better direction for me. They wheeled out the most perfect, snazzy road bike…and it was on a closeout sale! It was a women’s specific Trek Lexa SLX and I have been so happy with the purchase. Once I got through training and the triathlon I realized that riding was a bit easier than I remembered as a child and since I had invested in the bike I should keep using it! Although running won me over for a while, I still rode the bike in tris and dus and would adventure on my own around town.

What would be your favorite competitive biking event and why do you enjoy competing?

Well, so far I have only competed in fat biking events this winter but I am definitely enjoying the ones that have more singletrack. Also, the shorter distance ones are fun because you can really just go all out and push your limits.

I have always been competitive and in sports since childhood so I’m naturally drawn to the option of racing bikes. I love the adrenaline rush and putting yourself out there and testing your limits. For me, it’s not as much about winning but more about seeing how I stack up against myself. It’s a good way for me to test my progress and give myself areas to improve.

What inspired you to give mountain biking a go?

At the time, I was dating someone who mountain biked with his friends. They seemed to have so much fun doing it and would take trips to ride and race together. I had literally never heard of mountain biking before which made me curious about what exactly they were doing out there in the woods, sometimes coming back bloodied and still going back for more. I just had to try it out. Towards the end of that summer there was a women’s weekend clinic put on by the local park district so I signed up to find out what all the hype was about.

Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride?

I was pretty nervous pulling into the parking lot for the first day of the clinic but once I got on my demo bike and started practicing small skills and going through drills I became less and less nervous. And then when I hit the trail with the group for the first time I remember clearly thinking “How have I never done this before?” It just felt so right. I was in love immediately.

If you had nervousness at all, what did you do or think to overcome it?

Other than my initial parking lot nerves I really don’t remember being too nervous. I just went with the process of the clinic and took things step by step with the group. But I think that since my initial experience was during a women’s only clinic taught by women, it really made a difference. There was so much support, positivity and encouragement throughout the weekend that it was hard to be too nervous or intimidated.

Did you have any fears/worries about mountain biking when you originally started? (Such as not being very good, getting hurt, etc.) what helped you alleviate those concerns?
Well I would say I am still just starting out as last summer was my 1st full season and most of that time I was dedicated to my marathon training. I am excited to see what kind of progress I make this summer when I am only focused on biking. I do not have a lot of fear about getting hurt. I already have and I’ve learned that if you’re too focused on the possibility of getting hurt or crashing you are less likely to get in the groove and actually more likely to biff it.
I have tried my best to just be confident, have a positive attitude and tackle each section of the trail as it comes. I swear talking to and yelling at the rocks and trees in your way helps too.
The biggest hurdle that I have dealt with actually, is feeling guilty about being too slow or not skilled enough for the people that I am riding with. My boyfriend Joe and his family have been mountain biking for 20+ years and as a beginner I found it somewhat intimidating to jump into the group for fear of holding everyone up. I still struggle with apologizing too much when he and I are on a ride together but I am trying to change my thinking and instead thank him for riding with me and teaching me new skills or waiting ahead on the trail for me occasionally.

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?

It depends on what bike I am riding and where. I have always ridden clipless on my road bike. When I purchased it I remember telling myself that if I was truly going to commit to the bike I needed the clipless pedals. Something that helped me learn was riding around the yard a lot clipping and unclipping over and over…the yard is much softer than the road, which I have also done the slow tip over in. Just keep practicing and pretty soon you really won’t have to think about it, I promise! As far as mountain and fat biking I have played around with both clipless and platform pedals. I felt more comfortable being able to get my feet out quickly while learning technical skills so I stuck with platforms on my mountain bike. I am hoping to make the transition over to clipless this summer though as I am starting to feel more comfortable and confident.

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?

Last Spring Joe and I rode over to the Theodore Wirth mountain bike trails for a weeknight spin. It was my 4th time ever on a mountain bike and I had decided to use clipless pedals. I was already so nervous that I forgot to unclip at a road intersection prior to the trail and did the slow tip over. That shook my confidence and about 2 minutes into the singletrack I encountered a large rock at the top of a hill, on a curve, and the next thing I knew I was laying the opposite way on my back with my bike on me. Apparently I had caught quite a bit of air over my handlebars and also landed on some smaller rocks down the trail. I knew right away that I had hurt my ribs pretty badly. Urgent care deemed that they were not broken but very badly bruised and prescribed pain meds and rest. The physical healing took about a month but the mental healing took a little longer. That is when I decided to start using platform pedals and for my 1st ride back I chose to go to Elm Creek which I was told was less technical and more flowy. I found that the more positive experiences I had, the more my confidence built and the fear slowly started going away. I have had plenty of less serious crashes since then but all of the triumphs and progress I’ve made have far outweighed them.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?

Initially getting back into biking as an adult on my road bike I had a hard time getting used to how twitchy it was. Definitely very different than my bike growing up! Just simply getting miles in helped out a lot and now I only get a little nervous if it’s my first ride after winter. On the mountain bike I had a hard time grasping how to fully utilize all my gears. It helped a lot to ride with Joe because he knows all of the trails so well that he could let me know what was coming up ahead and whether to shift up or down. I would definitely say if you have the opportunity to ride with people more advanced than you do it! I have learned so much just by riding behind Joe and watching what he does. I also made it a point to start leading so he could see what I needed to work on. I ask him to give me specific things to work on and then I choose one to really pay attention to that ride. One ride I might decide to really focus on my cadence, the next maybe choosing good lines or not braking in corners. I have found it really helps me to keep the focus specific. We also go out to the skills area at Lebanon or even a local parking lot to practice features and small curbs, etc. Sometimes it is easier to practice those type of skills off of the trail where you aren’t worried about people riding up on you.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?

I still have a long way to go technically but I really think fat biking this winter helped a lot with certain skills and also grew my confidence. I still find larger logs and log piles, especially uphill ones, tricky to get over. Also, rock gardens still get me most of the time. I have learned there is a limit to how many times you should try a certain feature each day before just moving on. There is no shame in walking features. Once I get too frustrated there is no chance of me executing it anymore. Also, carrying more speed into a rock garden or over a feature really does help in some cases even though it may seem counter intuitive. If I am having a really hard day on the trail or find myself starting to get negative I have learned to make myself take a “time out” and pull off to the side for a bit to get back into a more positive headspace. It almost always works as I feel like sometimes you just need to take a breather and remember that you’re out there to have fun.

What do you love about riding your bike?
I love the feeling of freedom and the pure joy and confidence I get when I conquer a technical feature, especially for the first time. I also love that you can simply cover more distance and see more of this beautiful world on the bike than on foot. I often think about how I could not have covered nearly as much ground running and just how many different places my bikes have taken me. I also love that it is something that my boyfriend Joe and I can do together.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them-

Road bike: Trek Lexa SLX “Lexi” – This is a light, responsive women’s specific road bike that I have absolutely loved since the day I first saw it. This bike really chose me at the beginning of my journey and has been the perfect bike for me to cruise the roads and trails on.

Fat Bike: Salsa Mukluk “Tank” – I am Tank’s 3rd owner. I wanted to try fat biking this winter but didn’t want to spend a ton of money on a bike. By buying used, I still was able to get a very nice bike for a much smaller price tag. And I love this bike!! It is sturdy yet fast and I have had a blast racing it this winter! Also, as a side note, in my opinion the Surly Nate tires that came on it are seriously the best…in all sorts of conditions. I think this bike is a great example of the fact that you don’t have to buy new if you aren’t sure you are going to like something.

Mountain Bikes:

1) Trek Top Fuel “Vintage” – This is actually Joe’s sister’s old bike that she graciously let me use and learn on last summer. It is an older full suspension model but a really nice bike and I felt more comfortable knowing that it had been put through the paces by her and others before me. It is reliable and super fun to ride.

2) Trek Top Fuel 9.8 WSD (yet to have a nickname) – This is my most recent “N+1” purchase and I also found this one used….although barely. It was an amazing deal! Once again I was able to get way more bike for my budget than I could have new. I wanted to upgrade to my own bike this season as I have committed to quite a few races and am really enjoying the sport so far. Also, this bike is an XS which for my size is something I needed and is somewhat hard/rare to find. This is a full suspension, full carbon bike that I cannot wait to actually be able to ride and race soon!

Fatbikes! Many people knock them before giving them a shot. What opened your eyes to fatbikes and what would you like others to know from your perspective?
I feel like since I was fairly new to the biking world that I didn’t really have any preconceived ideas about them. I was up at Cuyuna this fall spectating the Salsa Oremageddon and they had fliers for their winter race, the Whiteout. It sounded really fun so I took one with me and told everyone that I was going to do the race this winter. Their replies were, “But you don’t have a fatbike”. So I bought one and did the race! And so did Joe and the rest of his family! It ended up being a really fun winter being able to continue riding and racing together. I think people just need to try one out and most likely they’ll get hooked. It seems like everyone I know that has started riding fat bikes are having the time of their lives :)

Why do you love fatbiking in the winter months? Many people seem surprised that you can ride trails in the winter with snow on them. What are your thoughts?

That’s exactly why they’re so great…you can still ride the mountain bike trails in the winter! It just extends the fun throughout the entire year. Personally it can be hard to keep up motivation to stay active in the winter and I found that riding my fatbike made it a lot more enjoyable! Plus there is something to be said about being one of those very few people outside on a snowy, bitter cold day enjoying what nature has to offer.

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

I think cycling in general seems like a fairly complicated activity to get into. At least for me it always felt that way. There are so many different elements to worry about such as what the best/safest route is, how/where do I lock my bike, what if I get a flat, weather, gear, etc. Plus you have to invest in the bike after going through the process of figuring out what is right for you. I think it is much easier to get into cycling if you already know someone involved or like me you sign up for something cycling related and just kind of jump in. I also think that it is easier for women to get started biking, especially mountain biking, if there is a women’s only ride or clinic they can attend to start. That first introduction to mountain biking for me was perfect because it was women led and I didn’t feel intimidated. I think that would put a lot of first time women riders at ease and hopefully leave a good first impression so that they keep riding.

What do you feel could happen locally and/or industry-wise to encourage more women to be involved with cycling (and/or the industry)?
I honestly think that it is already happening more and more and that we just need to keep up that momentum. As a woman just getting involved in cycling and the local cycling community I have been pleasantly surprised at the amount of women only learning opportunities and groups available. And I may have just been lucky so far but pretty much every man I have encountered on the trails, at races, etc has been very nice and supportive. I really do think things are changing, at least locally, and it is especially evident to me when you look at past years race results and see just how many more women are showing up each year. This winter we seemed to have a significant increase in numbers and that is just amazing! The more we support each other the more the women’s cycling community will grow.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?

Knowing just how empowering biking is and how much confidence you can build through riding makes me want to share those feelings and positive experiences with other women. Plus the camaraderie is great and the more the merrier!

Tell us a random fact about yourself!

When I was born my parents named me Katrina but changed it to Erika when they had to fill out the birth certificate before leaving the hospital. However my middle name is Dee and that is what my family actually calls me.