Women on Bikes Series: Melissa Putzer

I am 45 years old and have been racing for the last ~20 years. I did not grow up as an athlete. I’m a small build of 5’4” and 119 lbs. I hated gym class and really didn’t ride a bike and I certainly didn’t race!
My entire foray into biking began with Chequamegon. I've done mountain biking, crits, time trials, cyclocross, Fat Biking and Ironmans but I didn't grow up as athlete at all. I'm heavily involved in my local community to support cycling advocacy. 

I did my very first mountain bike race that spring at Black River Falls, WI.

My husband and Jeff Curtin (who is now the Vice President and Chief Council of the company that work at) drove over in the LBS's van.  I recruited a buddy of my husband's to go with me because I was afraid of getting lost.  The race was supposed to be 8 miles for the beginners. And my husband pep talked me that I'd done that before and I'd be fine.

Then they announced that they had to reroute and lengthen the course to 12 miles.  He still told me I'd be out there for about an hour and that it would be okay.   He went off with some higher level category before me.  Well, they had to modify the course  again and it was double the distance.  16 miles - further than I'd ever gone and the same distance as my big event in the fall.   OH God, what did I get myself into?????  

Off I went with Andy by my side.  I couldn't stop laughing because as soon as they said go there was a cloud of dust and everyone was gone - it was like a Bugs Bunny cartoon.  I was pedaling as fast as i could and I could see NO ONE except Andy, my recruited company.  My husband caught me right before the finish line and opened with "what happened?"  This didn't go over well.  What do you mean what happened?  I have been pedaling the entire time!!!!!  He didn't know I'd done double the distance.  I was hooked and my racing experiences have only gotten better and better.
I don't hang out and drink wine in the driveway with the other moms in my neighborhood, I really don't have girlfriends that eat lunch with at work or go clothes shopping with but I have a ton of women that I've met solely thru the bike and every one of them is a strong, independent woman.  If I had to call a female to go dress shopping I'd be hard pressed to find a willing candidate BUT I could probably assemble a peloton of 50 women in a few hours to do a ride.

What I think I like most about biking is all the wonderful people it has connected me to and to know that the 45 year old version of myself would crush and the 25 year old version of me.  I serve on the board of a local bike club and do everything I can to inspire and draw more women into the sport.
I love that biking is lifelong sport.  This year I am training for the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race.  I've attempted it twice before.  The first year I failed to understand the time cuts and got pulled at the first station, not tired but failing to realize that the relaxed eat and move forward approach that can get you thru an Ironman won't cut it for Leadville.  The 2nd attempt I was pulled off the course and deemed retired by the Search and Rescue crew after literally being blown off my bike with hail at 12,000 ft and facing rain ,12 hours into the event making me  so cold that my hands wouldn't grip my handle bars - I was 14 miles short from finishing.

Not being athletically inclined in your earlier years, what inspired you to take up riding vs. another type of sport or activity?
That is a fabulous question!  One I've never thought of before but is easy to answer.  I never felt the kind of positive energy and community from any other sport that I have cycling.  I mentioned that my first commitment and spark to riding came from watching at the start line of the Chequamegon Short and Fat.   Seeing those people all on the start line and their smiles was what hooked me.  I've explored lots of different cycling - road racing, Ironmans, time trials.... cyclists are just different from runners, bowlers, soccer players to me they have more of sense of bond even when their interests are very different.  Every cyclist has seen an inattentive driver, experience an unscheduled sprint from a dog or a crash of some sort.  I don't feel like you get that sense of commaradarie from other sports.  A sport like bowling can't help you commute to work, play in the woods and offer you a competitive outlet all in the same week.     

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
Every time you come back from a ride your brain is in a different space than when it left.  I think different when I ride.  Riding is just something I look forward to.  It's enjoyable so to me that's a  much different motivator than just running or other exercise to keep extra pounds or stress away.  Sometimes my brain is sorting thru everything I have do when I get home, other times it's enjoying the scenery, when I'm hurting in a race I count or pray, when I'm happy in a race I tend to sing in my head and if I'm really working hard all thoughts stop.    

Your first experience at Chequamegon Leadville did not go as planned, why did that experience cinch it for you and keep you coming back for more?
It was my first attempt at the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race in 2012 (Not Chequamegon) that didn't go as planned.  I immediately knew I needed another crack at it because poor clock management on my part wasn't a test of my true ability.  I wasn't tired or ready to be done - I knew I had more to leave out there.  My second time when the 12 hour clock ran out after making all three time cuts - I absolutely had given it my all and I was at peace.  The first time I cried in a porta potty by myself.  There were no tears the second time because I had left every drop of my ability and soul on the course.  The conditions were brutal - I'd never been blown of my bike before nor had I eaten hail like a snow cone because it was coming down so hard.  Both happened to me in 2014 at Leadville.  My third attempt this year will be one of two things - third time is the charm or three strikes and you’re out.  I think I can still improve on my training and hopefully some luck with conditions will come my way too.

For those not familiar, could you tell us about Chequamegon and why it's such a fun event to attend-
Hmm, this makes me smile - Chequamegon is magic for many reasons.  The mainstreet in Hayward, WI is quaint and fun.  The announcer in the morning has this melodic booming voice.  It's cold - sometimes colder than the Birkie Ski marathon start but the fall sun usually makes an appearance later. There's the Bakery, the Candy Store, Riverbrook Bike Shop in a massive 100+ year old historic library --- this mainstreet goes whirring by you on the start.  Then once you hit grass it's hard to not laugh when you see bikes going everywhere set to the William Tell Overature or Flight of the Bumble Bee playing from a loud speaker.  Everything gets quiet, really quick once you hit the Birkie trail hills and towards the end the signs for those who can still process information will keep your head wondering with things like - Flying Monkey's Ahead and Sasquatch Crossing.   It's just an endless parade of suffering and joy all wrapped together.  The newbies are constantly asking is this Seeley Fire Tower?  Is this Seeley Fire Tower?  Seeley is the big climb with about 11 miles to go.  BOY - the guys on top of Seelley have life figured out because they're enjoying a beverage AND they've figured out how to "test" the durometer of the backside of spandex clad racers while being thanked!  IF you're on your bike at the top - not an easy feat and it's loose, steep and congested - they'll ask if you want a push.  I always gladly take a push.  My husband has told me he's never been asked if he's wanted a push - that's too bad because it really perks you up.

Do you have tips or suggestions for those attending their first Chequamegon?
Pace yourself.  You see many people blow up half way thru.  Many mountain bikers races are for 45 min to an hour in length.  Chequamegon is longer than most mountain bike races.  For me this is more like a 3 hour venture.  You have to pace yourself differently.  The scariest part to me is also the road start.  I have the advantage of road racing which helps but I would advise riding in large groups on the road at some point before throwing yourself into a sea of thousands.  You're riding in a road pack at the start that is 10X bigger than anything a Tour de France riding will see in terms of number - it's good to have some pack riding experience to help you stay out of trouble - like knowing to NOT over lap wheels.   I also like to stay to the outsides on the highway roll out because you have an out - aka the ditch if a crash happens.  OH - and Pirates don't lie!  If a Pirate in the woods asks you if you want rum - he has rum!  For some reason some people are shocked by this.

Tell us about the Leadville 100 and why you chose that event-
The Leadville Trail 100 is a mountain bike race that has a heart soul that goes back to the founder much like Chequamegon.  It has long lasting community roots.  The races there were started by Ken Clouber and unemployed rock blaster from a local mine that had the vision to draw people to Leadville to enjoy its brutal challenging terrain.  Leadville has turned into a mecca for endurance athletes including runners and bikers.  I'm always looking to challenge myself with something new and Leadville just seemed like a natural progression.  I've done 100 miler MTB races in WI, I've done more climbing and distance in challenge rides like the Horribly Hilly Hundreds in WI on the road so the allure of earning a Buckle by getting myself 104 (Yes, it's not 100 miles, its 104) in 12 hours at elevation off road was a natural next progression for me. 

Tell us about the types of riding you enjoy and why-
My favorite is a long mountain bike ride on the fire roads outside of Hayward, WI.  I can go for 5 hours and never pass a single house and not see a single car.   I will still see a dozen mountain bikers coming across the CAMBA single track and redirect a handful of misdirected ATVs.  I like that because dealing with car traffic can stressful and around houses there are dogs, I HATE being chased by dogs.

Can you go back to the first or one of your first mountain bike rides? The first few are many times what will either inspire one to keep riding or they decide it's not for them. What made you decide mountain biking was for you?
Oh gosh yes!  I will never forget trying to ride the northern trails at Greenbush, WI when they were still on the ski trails and hard packed gravel.  I didn't know how to shift.  I ended up on a steep short hill, I didn't shift, I didn't have the legs to just muscle thru, I stood up, lost momentum, stopped, couldn't unclip and literally ended up falling over off the trail into the bushes like some sort of stranded turtle.  My husband came back and opened with - "Do you want to know what you did wrong?"  I replied - NOT NOW!   I wanted a, are you okay?  Can I help you up?  He said he knew I was fine and would get up.   He has never let me whine about anything.  He has always coached me to figure it out, problem solve and get back up.  Those are priceless skills for biking and life.  Mountain biking has been for me because it constantly challenges me.  I've been doing this for 20 years and it's gotten better, by far, but I still find a slippery root or tight twist that challenges me in the single track.  You're always growing and learning as a rider. 

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?
Yes, I ride clipless pedals.  They are the ticket for better control and power pedaling.  Everybody falls.  Even pro tour riders.  Sometimes you're clipped in just standing around and if your balance shifts to the opposite side unexpectedly, it's hard to save yourself.  Most clip falls are in slow motion and nothing life threatening, just ego bruising.   Some brands of pedals allow you to adjust the tension.  I recommend that type because you can turn the tension way down low.  It also helps to place a dab or two of chain lubricant on your pedals before you ride to make sure they don't get bound up with dirt etc and move freely and easily.  Clip falls happen but the benefits to getting used to them are priceless.  If you're really worried start with them on a trainer or spin bike where getting out isn't a timing issue. 

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 had a crash on the road from a complete fluke.  It was a group ride and I had drifted back to ride with a friend who had fallen off as the lead fast group was starting to turn it on.  My friend told me I should challenge myself and to go ahead.  I was sprinting back to the group when a young rider that had lost his water bottle fell back and didn't know I was coming.  He turned 90 degrees right in front of me, to go back for his bottle, and I T-boned him at ~20mph.  I was knocked unconscious.  I had a black eye and learned that in road crash you lose the skin off anything that bends.  I still road ride but I'm more leery of knowing who is in the pack and staying up front to stay safe.  My husband woke me up all night for a concussion protocol.  If anything this drove me to like riding off road more - I think the crashes there are usually softer and at lower speeds. 

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them? Are there skills that still challenge you?
LOL!  Everything challenged me when I started riding.  I had a good teammate, Shelly Gruzynski, who would do things like push me and run next to me when I learned to ride up steep stuff like a local ski hill.  There are funny little mantras that helped me such as - "weight back, no smack" for when I was going down something steep.  Or if I had to lean forward and down to keep my front wheel on the ground climbing the mantra was "boobs to the tube".  Meaning, place your chest closer to your top tube to help with weight distribution.  I was lucky to actually take my motorcycle license test at Road America and a formal road racing class for cycling that taught me a lot about handling.   I feel like I'm riding well in single track when I'm challenging my motorcycle instructor telling me to turn my head before a turn and my body will follow.

How did you discover you were able to do endurance-style events? What made it click saying "I can do this!"-
The LBS had a Tri team in addition to the mountain bike team.  Ironman WI was introduced in 2001 and my husband gave it a whirl.  I watched him learn how to swim and run and do lots of really long road rides.  I had this great social network and I got sucked in.  They were nuts and would do 130mile + road rides.  I went to the local YMCA and had a lap counter - I think its 83X down and back to make the 2.4 miles that equal the Ironman swim distance.  I did that in the pool to know that I could make the Ironman time cut.  What people don't realize is that if you just want to finish an Ironman the time to do so is relatively generous.   You can be a relatively slow swimmer, you can average roughly 12mph on the bike and you can walk the marathon.  I don't advise that approach but the time cuts aren't brutal like they are for the Leadville Trail 100.  

Your husband rides as well- what do you enjoy about being able to share an activity with your other half?
We typically leave the house at the same time but it isn't too often that we ride together for training.   He's a stronger rider than I am.  He will help me on group rides if I'm trying to stick to the lead pack; he's got one of the best drafts around.  Sometimes the downside is that if one of us gets a new bike or a new training tool - there's nobody to question, do you really need a Thompson seat post?  Do you really need carbon wheels?  There's just an echo of hey - me too, that sounds great!  It is a JOY that he gets what I want to do.  Not all couples get that and I know some riders who are up early to get their rides in before family demands start.  Having the same interests does really make things more joyful.  He gets it. He knows where I've been when I come back from a ride and who the characters are from the different social groups - there's a lot to share and that's always nice.

When you were newer to riding, was there any challenging moments on the trails with your husband during the learning stages? Do you have any suggestions for couples wanting to take to the trails together?
WOW - yes, many times!   We learn to laugh and break the tension.  IF we are disagreeing on something, I'll say okay - fine but if we find out I'm right, you're going to have to say those 3 words that mean so much to me and it isn't I love you, it's "I was wrong".  We refer to the episodes as "marital moments" - ending up in the bushes off the trail and him asking if I want to know what I did wrong is a perfect marital moment.  There's something weird about learning things from the person you love.  Some couples can do it, but not many.  Sometimes women learn better from women and guys from guys.  A friend's wife was flustered about shifting and the guys will use technical terms sometimes which doesn't always help and can be overwhelming to a new rider, depending upon their learning style.  I rode with Shelly in the single track, behind her, and would just prompt her to right trigger finger pull, left thumb push - for when she needed to shift.  No big gear, little gear, make it easier, harder - just what she needed to do with her hands.  Her husband missed that and 5 min with me helped her immensely at shifting.  I actually have a coach - it's strange and dumb but he can tell me things and I will listen with no emotional agenda that if my husband tells me - I might be frustrated with him.  It's weird - everybody goes thru "marital moments" or learns to hire a coach.

What do you love about riding your bike?
Clearing my head and feeling strong and capable. 

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
WOW - I think I own about 12 bikes right now everything from a TREK Speed Concept, to a Belt Drive, to a Salsa Bear Grease Fat Bike.  Hmmm - it's a mix of budget, research and emotion.  Sometimes I've gotten a great deal from a local mechanic who needs to have dental work done and is selling a sweet ride.  Other times I'm paid way more to get the color I want - the Super Fly SL - I needed the red on black version, which came priced at the top level.  Fit - the right fit is the universal important factor if a bike doesn't fit you well - it doesn't matter what the color or price is.  Shockingly when I got my first carbon road bike I wanted something unique and rare.  After test riding bike after bike - I couldn't deny that the Trek Madone felt like magic and it didn't matter that it wasn't so rare or exotic.  So does it fit me?  Does it fit the budget (not always)?  Color? How does it feel? 

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
Often it's man land.  On the start of the Chequamegon Fat Tire - there are roughly 2000 people in the start gates with me and most are men. Women are roughly 10% of the field.  I'm lucky if I can see another female competitor.  I don't think it is always an inviting atmosphere that says you can do this, let me show you.  It should be and I really try to do that for other women.  I remember standing in Gate 4 on the start line and this big burley guy next to me looks down at me and says have you done this before?  Not are you looking forward to the race?  Nice day?  Are you nervous?  But a bit of snarky, doubting - have you done this before?  I replied - "I wouldn't be HERE if I hadn't.  Have you?" You have to earn your start position. 

What do you feel could change locally/industry-wise to encourage more women to be involved with cycling/bike industry?
I think it has to be the community and the riders.  NOT pink handle bar tape - I hate it when women specific means a foo foo color.  Foo foo colors are great if they make you happy but having other females to encourage new riders is where I think it's going to be driven the most.  Two weekends ago I had two girl friends do their first snow bike races - BOTH won their divisions and called me to say thank you.  What got them out there with confidence was insights and encouragement not pink handle bar tape.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
You have more people to ride with!  And understand why you're excited about being able to ride that rocky section of single track clean.  Seeing people be happy and smile.      
Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I have a weakness for buying chapstick and lipstick. I don't wear it very well, at all but I buy it all the time.