Women on Bikes Series: Amanda Dekan

I am one of those lucky people who absolutely loves what they do! I work full time as the Senior Instructor for REI Outdoor School in the Twin Cities. I program the logistics for all of our year-round field classes that we teach, and orchestrate about 15 instructors. Of all of the varied program areas I teach, my favorite (and should come as no surprise) is our mountain biking program, and in particular our women's specific mountain biking classes.
There is something about getting women together to tackle a predominantly male sport, and watch how they empower each other!

I have been working for REI for the past 8 and a half years, and love it!

In my free time, I always try to find a way to get outside! Generally that time is spent on one of my bikes, and usually fat biking or mountain biking. I have been mountain biking since my husband got me into this sport in May of 2010, and have been pretty hooked ever since. I was a distance runner, turned cyclist, and wish that someone would have turned me on to this sport when I was young enough to start riding a bike! I can't imagine where I would be now!

I also love backpacking, and have been organizing a backpacking trip for all of my four brothers and our significant others every year for the past few years. My husband and I have hiked every section of the Superior Hiking Trail along the North Shore of Lake Superior, which is beautiful in every season!

When did you first start riding a bike?
I had to dig pretty deep for this one, but I have distinct memories of my dad teaching me to ride my bike when I was in kindergarten, around age 5. He told me that he would hold the back of my seat while I pedaled. I will never forget him running alongside me, saying that he was holding on, and I looked back and saw both of his arms swinging through the air, running alongside me…and then I crashed!!

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
I didn’t own a car throughout college, or until a couple of years after I graduated. My main means of getting around was either biking (with the bike my mom got me for high school graduation – which my husband now uses as his winter commuter bike – thanks Mom), or the bus, or borrowing cars from friends/hitchin’ a ride. So I have bike commuted for a very long time and it really became how I preferred to get around! My mountain biking life began in 2010, but it really started to take off when I got a pretty bad ankle injury from running a marathon back in May of 2013. I didn’t even want to run anymore, and knew that I needed a new obsession to keep fit…thus began my passion for mountain biking and fat biking.

What would be your favorite competitive biking event and why do you enjoy competing?
My favorite race still stands: The Cuyuna Whiteout!!! It was the first ever mountain bike race I had ever done and I did surprisingly well, considering it was also the same year that I had bought a fat bike. I love the trails up at Cuyuna in both the summer and winter. The race is always so well run, and the support crew is so enthusiastic and energetic! The first year I did it, we won PIES! I don’t know if there is a better prize! J There is something about fat bike racing that really gets me going! I LOVE the comradery in the Twin Cities, and have met so many inspiring women who I race with! We have a very competitive, yet healthy, relationship with each other.

Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride?
I remember feeling quite a thrill, realizing that my body had to have a different posture/position while riding, and it felt like it was more of an “active riding style” than just the comfortable (and kind of monotonous) road riding that I had been doing for so long. All of my senses were alert, and just when I thought I was getting the hang of singletrack, I picked up my speed, and I hit a rock and flew over my handlebars! A wise woman (Megan Barr) once quoted, “It never gets easier; you just get faster.”

If you had nervousness at all, what did you do or think to overcome it?
I was too foolish to be nervous…at that point I hadn’t really considered all of the crashes that were about to ensue over the next chapter of my mountain bike life! I was also riding with my husband, whom instilled so much confidence in me, and that really helped. Though, to this day, he still wonders how I managed to hit the rock that I did on that trail! That was when I learned, “Look where you want to go, because you will go where you look.” It never fails; if you look at the rock you will hit the rock!

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?
I ride clipless pedals when I race or while I am training to race. I use platform pedals when I teach and when I am doing technical riding skill sessions. If you plan to try clipless, start in a large, flat grassy area. Practice from a standing position with all of your weight on the foot that is on the ground, and practice getting clipped and unclipped with your other foot. Once you get a feel for that foot, switch sides and shift to the other foot. Then put some motion to it by starting to ride, and have a goal to get one of your feet unclipped at a certain point (maybe you lay a water bottle down, or a backpack, etc.) with enough room after the goal line so that if you don’t get it unclipped you still have some time. Work on timing. Once you get the timing down and feel really comfortable getting your foot out, then move on to some easy singletrack that you feel comfortable with, and practice unclipping even before you would need to. Pretty soon you will get the hang of it, but know that all of us still fall and can’t get out from time to time!

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
I have definitely had my fair share of biffs! There was a point when my nickname was “crash”. One crash in particular really shattered my confidence. Two years ago, my husband and I, and a friend of ours, were doing a shakedown ride for a big bikepacking trip that we were doing on the Maah Daah Hey trail in ND. We were fully loaded up with all of our gear on our fat bikes and we headed out to Battle Creek, here in the Twin Cities. I was feeling really good, and we were on the second lap and coming down this really fun section called the “Luge” that makes you feel like you are in a bobsled (well named!). There is a pretty big jump near the bottom that had just recently been built up even more since the last time I had ridden there. I had skipped it the first time around, and I thought I had heard my husband yell “HIT IT!!!!!”! I went for it, full boar, fully loaded, and totally bit it!

After I landed, everything went fuzzy for a bit, I got the wind knocked out of me, blood was running down my face and arm, and my new pack was shredded (photo attached for your viewing pleasure!)! It turned out my husband actually yelled “DON’T HIT IT!!!” because he had a feeling that I would try it. I wasn’t seriously injured, but needless to say, my confidence was shattered. It had been a couple of years since any serious crashes, but I learned that anytime you push yourself past a comfortable limit, there is that chance you will fall. It taught me to be a bit more cautious and to read the trail. Since then, I have been quite a bit more of a responsible rider, especially on trails that are new, or features that I haven’t ridden for a while.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
I seem to remember tight turns and wheel lifts being difficult. Once I learned that there is a progression to every bike handling skill it made learning the proper way to execute the skills a lot easier! Get a good teacher, watch some YouTube videos (I really like the 60 second video clips the two guys on singletracks.com put out) and keep practicing through the progressions.

Do you feel that if you had started out mountain biking at a younger age it would've been easier? Do you feel there is benefit to learning in your adult years?
I think I would have been quite a bit more fearless if I would’ve started out younger. I wish I would have started out at about age 10 or 12 doing technical singletrack on platform pedals to develop the skills! Muscle memory is huge, and when you are that young, you are very impressionable, and pick up on physical activities really well. The trick then would have been to stick with it while there were all of the other sports that are offered to kids! I think being in competitive sports all year long made me the competitive racer I am today, and I’m happy to have just been introduced to this sport!

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky?
Yes – timing while doing technical features while I am out riding singletrack!! It’s one thing to do skills while you are in a controlled environment with a skills park area that you set up.

It’s a whole different game when you are out riding things that you’re not used to! Also, SKINNIES! They still freak me out; especially if there is a significant margin for error, and a decent drop associated with them (Murphy Hanrehan’s super long skinny down in Savage, MN comes to mind!). Maybe someday I will try it, in a full-armored body suit!

What do you love about riding your bike?
I love trying to push myself to the limit of physical exhaustion while riding my bike.
I am one to go for the lung burn, rather than tackle all of the technical stuff, but I like to try technical features because I know it continues to make me a better rider. The uniqueness of being able to race against myself is always great too. I love to track all of my rides that I do (on a super nerdy Excel spreadsheet) so that I can see how I did compared to other rides. I also love when I am mountain biking or fat biking because while I am doing it, I think of nothing else besides the trail, the here and now, and how awesome I feel! It’s like a strange kind of meditation!

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I have several bikes: my commuter bike (Novara Zealo), my road bike (Raleigh Capri 3.0), my hardtail (Cannondale Carbon F29), my fat bike (Sarma Shaman), and I just ordered a full suspension Ghost SLAMR 6 LC. My commuter is great for getting me to and from work (a 31 mile round trip) and is burly enough to do gravel rides, and is my top choice for everything I want to do on any type of road conditions. This brings me to my road bike, which I am getting ready to sell! I loved it for fast road rides because it is light aluminum, but when it comes down to it, I can still be fast on my commuter, and I have more stopping power with my commuter because of its disc brakes. It’s been sitting in the basement on a trainer for the past couple of years and it’s just time to get rid of it. My hardtail is my fast and light racing bike. It’s full carbon and has pretty minimal travel (just 90mm). It’s a lefty, a 29er and pretty nimble! I feel super-fast on it! Same goes for my fat bike: full carbon, got a screamin’ deal on it from Sarma’s Cyber Monday Special online this past year, and I splurged and bought studded tires too! It’s a big step up from my Surly Pugsley that I started fat biking on - that thing was a hog! I am super pumped for my Ghost SLAMR to arrive and soak up the bumps with its 130mm travel (both front and rear), for all of the gnarly trails I plan to hit this year! It still should be pretty light with its carbon front triangle, and pretty nimble on its 650b’s.

Fatbikes! Why should people try them before forming opinions over them?
YES! I LOVE fat bikes! Winters are so much more enjoyable since I got a fat bike! I always say that they are the bike that you always wanted as a kid. You can’t help but feel large and in charge while riding one…and I guarantee you cannot wipe a smile off your face the whole time you are on it! You can ride them in ALL seasons (trail conditions permitting, of course), and they help to build confidence for riding technical stuff because of how wide the tires are. There are also SO MANY CHOICES now, which makes it nearly impossible to go wrong based on the features you are looking for! I love introducing people to them and watching them fall in love with such a fun type of bike!

Your husband was the one to introduce you to mountain biking; do you have any suggestions for those learning to mountain bike with their significant other?
Yes! Patience! Make sure you have open communication about your learning style! View criticism as their way of pointing out tips that can help to make you a stronger rider. Also, recognize that it’s ok to make mistakes in front of them. They were once a beginner too, and have struggled through all of the same steps that you are going through. The benefit is, they have hindsight, and hopefully have the patience to teach you how to get through the tough stuff! Realize that some of the best learning comes from when you have hit your limit and then give it one more push! Also, find the best way to communicate with them when you have pushed your way through you limit and are not feeling comfortable. If you feel confident enough, try going out either on your own, or with other riders who haven’t mastered the skill or section of trail you are working on, and try to pick through it, or better yet, teach them! It will help reinforce what your significant other has been trying to teach you, and a light bulb moment may happen! Then you can come back to it with your significant other and impress the pants off of them! :)

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
Mountain biking has been, and still is, a male dominated sport, and quite a few of the men you see out riding are riding faster than you, and hitting more technical stuff than you, and it’s just downright intimidating. Sometimes it can feel like you are worlds apart from their skill level, and that you are just in their way, and that you may never be at their skill level. It can get in your head, and then it becomes a bit of a mind trap every time you go out to ride, or go in to a bike shop. There are so many components to know about for bikes, and so many maintenance tips. You have to either have someone in your life that you trust to be your mechanic, or have the determination to learn it yourself, or both! It is a sport that is not for the dainty, and you’ve got to have guts to tackle most, if not all, of the technical features that you face while mountain biking. Most women you come across get really excited to see that there are other women out riding, and usually want you to feel welcome, because no matter what level they are at, they know that they were once beginners too, and felt lonely being surrounded by all the dudes!

What do you feel could happen in the industry and/or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
As a woman who is in the industry, I feel it is important to continue to offer women’s specific programming in as many categories as possible. Something amazing happens when women get together to learn technical activities! Many women get encouraged to see other women tackle tough features, and have a tendency to better explain what they did to get through it. You don’t often hear “you just lift the front wheel” when trying to describe how to do a front wheel lift. There is usually more of a descriptive explanation! Also, it would be great if there were equal components on bikes that are at the same price point for men and women. Another thing that is getting better, but could still be improved is equal payouts/awards for women and men at races.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
I get inspired to continue to encourage women to ride from continuing to see more and more women out on the trails, and competing in races! It is way more fun competing at races when there are new faces at events, and when you notice the field/category that you are in continues to expand! I love knowing that the freedom I feel and the sense of being a strong, confident and empowered woman is being transferred to all of these other women who are on bikes! I can’t even imagine how different my life would be if I hadn’t gotten in to mountain biking. For how much adventure, balance, health and enjoyment has been brought to my life from it, I would feel a bit selfish not sharing that with other women!

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
From a very young age, I have found it incredibly difficult to pronounce words correctly while reading out loud. I don’t know if it is because I was intended to speak a different language, or if I’m slightly dyslexic, or that I never properly learned how to pronounce words, but it still happens to this day.
Some of the best examples are: vinegar, tobogganing, vehement, naked (which happened when I was about 10, long story, but ironically is also my last name spelled backwards!), and Hawkeye.