Women on Bikes Series: Sonja Savre

2003 - the first year my family all rode the Short and Fat together
 (Cole Stiegler, Keir Stiegler, Sonja Savre, Mike Stiegler)
I’ve biked all my life, but wasn’t aware of mountain biking until my mid-40s. It seemed like something I would enjoy so I borrowed a mountain bike and entered my first race in Winona, Minnesota – and have been mountain biking ever since.

The next year we signed up for the Chequamegon fat tire race, not quite knowing what it was about. But that first race was enough to keep us going back every year.

Chequamegon is all about fun and family for me.

We – my husband and two sons - started with the Short and Fat the first few years. In 2008, when both sons were 18, we switched to the “real” Chequamegon – the 40-miler.

We meet up with a group of 20 family members (siblings, nieces, nephews, and in-laws) for a mini family reunion in conjunction with the race. Gary Crandall’s care and nurturing of the race has created the perfect venue for a family that likes to bike, eat, compete and socialize.

When did you first start riding a bike?
About age 5 or 6. I can still remember climbing on the bike, holding onto a tree for balance and then pushing off from the tree and coasting/pedaling until I lost balance and fell over. That process was repeated over and over, getting a little further each time before losing balance.

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
It’s a great way to get around before you’re old enough to drive. I continue now as it’s still a great way to get around, it's good exercise, you get fresh air and it’s environmentally friendly. I think traveling by bike is the perfect way to get to know an area whether it’s traveling in your immediate neighborhood, cross country or abroad.

You started mountain biking in your mid-40's, did you have any concerns/worries when you first started out? (such as the fear of getting hurt, etc.)
I don’t remember how I first became aware of mountain biking, but when I did, it seemed like something I would enjoy. So, no, no concerns or worries – just seemed like fun.

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

It was a blast. After being on roads for years, getting off-road and into trees and dirt was very energizing. Plus, I liked the concentration it required rather than the tedium that can set in on long road rides. For that first ride, I borrowed my sister’s mountain bike and my brother-in-law took me for a ride in Peninsula Park in Door County, Wisconsin. Shortly after that, I borrowed her bike for my first mountain bike race in Winona, Minnesota. I’ve been hooked ever since.

If you had nervousness at all, what did you do or think to overcome it?
I don’t remember any nervousness.

With learning to mountain bike as an adult vs. as a child- do you feel you've had any advantages or disadvantages?
Having ridden a road bike for 40 years, it wasn’t that big a leap to move into mountain biking. I think the most important trait for enjoying mountain biking is confidence in your biking abilities. Forty years of riding gives you that confidence.

Why do you feel it is never too late to start riding off-road?

See above.

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 started out with bike cages and moved to clipless in my second or third year of mountain biking – when I started to race more. Rule of thumb – don’t ever try something in a race that you haven’t tried before. The first time I went clipless was for a race at Buck Hill in the Twin Cities. It was a very hilly race and I kept finding myself behind very slow riders going uphill. I didn’t know that you could adjust the tension. Needless to say, I went down a few times in that race. Tip: start out with the tension very loose, and tighten as you need to; and never try clipless for the first time in a race.

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’ve had my share of falls, but nothing serious. When I’ve had a rash of falls close together, I start to get a little tentative, but time usually helps 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?
It’s the confidence factor. On challenging terrain, the more tentative you ride, the more likely you are to go down. I’ll pull my shoes out of the clips if I’m unsure of myself, but beyond that, nothing special. Only suggestion is to do cross training that strengthens the upper body and core. I think overall strength helps for all mountain bike challenges.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky?
I don’t do super technical rides and have never liked large rock beds. But if I find myself on a more difficult course than I’m comfortable with, I know I can always walk around/through a difficult area I’m not as aggressive as I was when I first started, but I probably ride smarter.

What do you love about riding your bike?

The freedom it allows! With two wheels and the right gear, you can go almost anywhere.

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

In fifteen years I’ve only had two mountain bikes – both Treks – and still ride both of them. My first bike was a hardtail Trek 8000. I upgraded about four years ago to the full suspension Trek Top Fuel. As much as I love riding, I’m not that into the technical aspects of bikes. As long as the bike works and gets me where I want to go, I’m happy. I didn’t choose my first bike – my husband gave it to me for a birthday present. When I was in the market to upgrade, I found the Top Fuel online on an end-of-the year sale.

Tell us about your first Chequamegon experience- what about it made you keep coming back for more?
The festival-like atmosphere is unlike any other bike race. The excitement at the start, the spectator support along the way and the crowds at the end make it a great event. Plus, it’s just a fun, challenging course.

How old were your sons when you first introduced them to Chequamegon? What inspired you to make it a family event?

Our older son did his first Short and Fat when he was 14. The next year, his younger brother turned 12 and they both raced (you have to be 12 to do the Short and Fat and 18 for the Chequamegon 40). We all continued with the shorter race until both boys were 18 then we all moved up to the Chequamegon 40 together. They each decided on their own to do the race the first time. They knew they would be driving up to Hayward with us so they figured it would be more fun to race than sit around and watch. After that first year, I think they enjoyed the festive atmosphere and by now it’s become a fall tradition. We have a number of relatives (brother-in-law, nephews, nieces) that ride, so now it’s also a chance to see them. It’s often the only time that we’re all together in a year so it serves as a mini family reunion.

2015 - (Cole Stiegler, Keir Stiegler, Sonja Savre,
 Mike Stiegler, and Betsy VanCleve Stiegler)
Do you have any tips/suggestions for someone attending their first 40-mile Chequamegon?
First and foremost – have fun!

The Chequamegon is not a technical ride. Work on endurance and hills.

What do you feel could happen to make changes and/or encourage more women to ride?

I see a lot of school programs offering biking and mountain biking for girls now. I think getting girls interested when they’re young and developing skills early will go a long way toward encouraging them to ride into their adult years.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
(Awkward – I just noticed I have the same shirt on in the two pictures – 12 years apart!)

I like to give theme parties. I just hosted a birthday party with 20 friends where we all played Whirlyball and all the food served was in the shape of balls (meatballs, rice balls, potato balls, melon balls, pizza balls, spinach balls, cake balls, etc.)