Women on Bikes Series: Rebecca Eckland
I do a lot of double centuries, I've done Ironman (both 70.3 and 140.6), and I'm currently learning to mountain bike!!
I race with a small, local club (Alta Alpina Cyclists)-- and I'm the only woman to race with the A/B riders. I also coach women who are just getting into cycling with a focus on having fun!
What happened to inspire you to embrace the #bikelife?
It's sort of a long story. I went through a really difficult time after I finished my third graduate degree, a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Saint Mary’s College of California. It’s pretty typical to go through a period of aimlessness and self-doubt after you complete an MFA, and I certainly did. My book manuscript was rejected by publishers, and so I thought I’d move back home, adjunct for a local university and figure things out. But, when I returned home, my long-term relationship ended, and the University for which I taught didn’t have enough enrollment for the spring semester, so I was instantly homeless and unemployed.
When my parents asked me what I wanted for my birthday (because all of that had been such great news) I asked if they would pay for my entry fee to a 70.3 Ironman. I’ve always been able to weather the worst if I stick to my identity as an athlete, and I thought this would help me find my way, too.
A local cycling community through a bike shop called Great Basin Bicycles really ended up saving me in more ways than one. I got strong, and learned proper cycling technique due to the quality of rider which surrounded me during CompuTrainer classes (indoor training on your own bike in a group setting) and later, from outdoor group rides. But, their kindness, generosity and openness touched me, and cycling was really more like therapy than working out.
I was shocked when I performed well in races (I won my age group for that Ironman)— and the great performances translated, somehow, to improvements in my life. I had found so many new friends, I found a new sport, and I fell in love! So, instead of losing my life, cycling has helped me find it. These days, I work as a writer for a company that helps vulnerable kids. I coach some of those kids to ride a bike, and to compete in local races. I teach CompuTrainer classes at Great Basin, and I’m I also compete in cycling races, and it fulfills me in a way I couldn’t have imagined.
So, aside from the wonderful souls I meet on the bike, it's really become a way for me to connect with the natural world, and to discover, again and again, this incredible sense of wonder and deep gratitude for life, and that no matter how bad things get, they do, always, get better.
I've never been good at the "short, fast stuff." There isn't enough time for me to get into any sort of "pace" or "rhythm." In a longer event, there's time to assess your body and to see where you are on that particular day. When I took a music writing class, I wrote an essay which compared my body to an instrument. In a long event, I get to play, if not an album, at least an entire song. Or a short race, I get a jam session with discordant notes and no discernible tempo.
It's a balance of pacing, of nutrition and of mental acuity. I don't mind being on the bike all day, or swim/bike/running all day-- the reward for crossing the finish line is that much sweeter. I guess, too, I see every long event as a metaphor for that particular time in my life. Ironman, for instance, was a huge accomplishment because the training bookended so many changes— the end of a relationship, of my career, etc— but also the beginning of new relationships and directions in my life. Fitting that volume of training into my life wasn’t easy, and crossing the finish line validated the struggles in a way that I wasn’t prepared for.
Double Centuries, by their very nature, also define chapters of my life. I completed my first double century in 2014 and then I tried to complete one of the hardest on the California Triple Crown circuit, the Alta Alpina Challenge. Over 200 miles and over 20,000 feet of climbing (8 mountain passes in the Sierra Nevada Range)— my ride ended after 7 of the 8 passes (160 miles) depleted of pretty much everything. I will never forget collapsing on the top of Monitor Pass with the dry wind and dust all around me. I went back and attempted the ride again this year, and I was one of 37 riders to complete all 8 passes, and the second woman to check in at the finish line.
So, for me, I think these races and rides are about defining myself as a person who can overcome adversity and who can work hard, and make measurable improvements. In other areas of my life, these milestones are not so easily defined (I’m a writer, so my measures of success come when an editor sees value in my work, which isn’t always directly correlated to my effort or progress.) Outside of the stressors of life, cycling exists as a domain where I simultaneously lose and find myself, where the landscape is timeless, and that is (paradoxically) defined by time paired with distance.
Do you have any training tips/suggestions for those looking to do longer/higher mile rides/events?
Yes! First, give yourself permission to do them. I've met so many athletes who don't do what they want to because they don't think they can or ought to. Even as a coach, I do less actual coaching than I do empowering and encouraging: I give people a reason to ride. And, honestly, that's the first step. If you want to ride long rides, you have to ride your bike... a lot! (No matter how slow you think you are. Get over it, and ride your bike!)
The second piece of advice will probably not settle well with most people, but seriously: stop doing intervals. Long rides have very little to do with power output (I mean, in terms of getting yourself to the finish line. Getting yourself up a steep incline or sprinting to the finish— that’s another story.) Instead, you should focus your efforts on efficiency, and of sustaining a power output over a longer period of time. Intervals will not get you to the finish line; working on efficiency will.
Plus, you really need to build a solid aerobic base, and there is only one way to do that: ride your bike. A lot.
Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride?
I started seriously cycling when I was 30. I learned NOT TO RUN OVER THINGS OR YOU EAT SHIT and then, at 34, I am trying to learn that, while mountain biking RUN OVER THINGS OR YOU ARE GOING TO EAT SHIT. The transition in basic epistemology hasn’t been easy.
My first mountain bike ride was a beautiful moment, though. My bike-husband, Rich, took me to this jeep trail on this hill above Reno, and we rode as the sun sank behind the Sierra Nevadas, under this color display of reds and violets. It was an absolutely beautiful moment. I think we rode, like, three miles maybe? But, it was one of those perfect moments.
Moments like that remind me why I fall and get scratched up and scared: it’s a matter of time, and patience— one day, I will be able to decently ride a mountain bike.
If you had nervousness at all, what did you do or think to overcome it?
OMG I’m always nervous before a race, just like I was always nervous before teaching my first class of the semester. It only gets better with practice, and knowing that there’s nothing, really, to be nervous for. In other words, it takes more miles on the bike. Rich takes me to trails to ride the mountain bike, I ride them, I fall. I cry. I say I won’t ride again and that I’m terrible.
And then, I’m back on the mountain bike again. Little by little, natural obstacles become things I simply run over with my front tire. I want to be able to go on rides by myself one day, so I’m committed to trying, no matter how lame I am.
On the road bike, it’s a different fear. I’m afraid I’m not fast or good enough. But honestly, I am not ever going to be the kind of athlete to worry about that. Instead, I tell myself to pay attention to the world, to enjoy the sun or whatever, and keep riding.
That’s what I do: just keep riding.
Clips or flats? What do you like and why?
Clips! You can power the pedal for 365-degrees with both legs that way both mountain bike and road.
Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
Rich and I had ridden some jeep trails up to Bodie, one of the most well-preserved “ghost” mining towns in California. I had a great day on the bike, and so the next day, he wanted me to ride to another ghost town, called “Como” which is perched on the top of the Pine Nut Range. The ride started out just like the other one— jeep trails with some climbing, but nothing awful. Four miles from the town, though, the road got nasty with loose scree and large boulders. I honestly would have been terrified to drive it in my car. But, I didn’t want to let him down.
I don’t know what I did wrong. Probably everything, but I didn’t climb over one of the larger rocks with enough momentum, and I tipped over— almost in slow motion! It was less about the actual fall (which bruised my ego) and more about my lack of any sort of “feel” or “finesse” on the bike. I realized that I have no feel for how the bike will react in certain situations yet, and it was so hard to get back on.
I mean, I’ve fallen on the road bike (I still have a huge scar/bruise on my hip from a fall five years ago) but I totally understood what I did wrong to make that fall happen, and it’s never happened since. With mountain biking, I don’t have that proprioception yet. I will, though. I just have to be patient.
When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Riding in a group was— and is— challenging. It has taken me YEARS to learn to read the body of another rider to know if I can rely on his wheel or not. Riding with the Great Basin Bicycles community for several longer rides also helped— that was a lot of learning to draft and learning to hold a line.
Now that I have more experience, I really love entering small, local races. There’s a cycling club near where I work, and I join in for the road races and time trials on Thursday nights. I’m the only woman to ride with the A riders— but holding a line, working in a group (while working really hard!) has helped me to develop new skills. I really love it.
I’ve had to get over the fact that I’m slower than 95% of the guys. One thing I tell myself (because it’s true): I’m just a girl on a bike. I’m doing my best, and learning every single ride and race. That’s all you can ask for, really.
Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
I don’t descent at 75 mph like Rich does. I’m also not comfortable in my aerobars on a descent I haven’t done before. And mountain biking, well— let’s just say that the whole thing is tricky and uncomfortable.
The thing is: riding (road or mountain) is the best part of my day. It’s better than writing operations policies or a detailed grant proposal. On the bike, I get to be myself, and I’m not being paid to do it, so if I want to wear something crazy, I wear something crazy.
I ride because I love being in the world, I love the wind on my face, I love the challenge, I love to compete and I love to see myself improve and/or find my own limits.
There have been races when I feel like such a failure because all the men beat me. Or, this year: I am second in the CA Triple Crown Stage Race, a 600 mile 3-stage event across California (I was first last year) and even though there is one stage left in the race, I will not catch the lead woman unless some sort of miracle happens. I could get depressed and quit, but I think it’s really inspiring that there are women who are that strong. I want to be that strong, and riding with those women motivates me to get up at 4am to ride my bike before work and to do the things that aren’t necessarily normal and comfortable. Learning to be the rider I want to become is an adventure, and one I’m willing to embrace.
In the end, it’s all about the experience— what did I learn, how can I improve and what amazing thing did I witness? There’s only so many years I have on the bike, and that part of my life will end. I need to enjoy the miles I have left.
With being new to mountain biking, what inspired you to give it a go? Do you have suggestions for those curious about mountain biking? Why should they give it a shot?
Originally, I wanted to compete in X-Terra Tri’s. Now that I’ve been riding more, I think it’s a way to improve my bike handling skills, to see some really beautiful places and to connect with myself in the silence of nature.
I don’t know if I will ever compete in mountain bike races— or X-terras. Every year I get older, I’m less able to recover from injury and even less likely to risk it. But, my desire to explore has expanded. I really want to ride the trails around Moab and the Southwest. The beauty there is incredible.
If I was to offer any advice: be humble. I think the word has its roots (no pun intended) in the same word for “earth.” Expect at the beginning, you’ll fall, not be fast, and that you will be terrified. The only way to get better is to continue to practice, and that’s what I do. Little by little, I ride and I learn mini-lessons one pedal stroke at a time.
I have also shifted my expectations for myself on the mountain bike. I ride to see something amazing. I ride to work on pedal stroke. To stop and catch a lizard, or snap a picture of the rare desert flower. I ride to enjoy the ride. Let the aspirations of podium finishes fade away until you are truly ready.
And, when you are ready: grab them with both hands!
What do you love about riding your bike?
Freedom. Power. I traverse 200 miles at a time on my road bike. In my day job, I work with young people, and (I hope) my cycling inspires them. I coach women from my community, and I think they find inspiration in my long races, too. Or, they just think I’m crazy!
My bike inspires me. I love waking up at 4:00 am to ride my bike before work. I love the challenge of finding ways to improve my times while working a full time job, managing a community group (of writers), coaching and ghost writing.
I also love the cosmetics of it: my beautiful yellow and black Focus bike. The way my shoes, jersey (Shebeest), gloves, helmet et. al. all match. I love how so many people call me “Bumblebee” (the name of my road bike) and know me as “Bumblebee.” I hear it at races and long rides. It’s like I’m a super-hero, and I save lives by getting other people to ride their bikes.
I love the wind in my face. I love the quick-click of my DI2 electronic shifters. I love the dusk fading behind the Sierra Nevada when I’m out at 9:00 PM on a Wednesday night like a kid on summer break. I’m riding, and it’s fun. In those moments, I’m so happy it shouldn’t be legal.
Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I love my bikes. My road bike is a Focus Carbon Cayo 48 cm. I have embraced its yellow-and-black color scheme and turned it into “Bumblebee” with yellow and black bar tape to match the yellow and black frame, with my yellow and black Shebeest jersey and shorts..
My mountain bike is a Cannondale “Habit” which is an “Acid Strawberry” pink to which I added black polka dots. I call her “Ladybug.”
For both: I have less of a feeling that I chose them. They chose me; and I embraced their colors, their spirit, and convey that energy while I’m riding.
What inspired you to become a Shebeest Ambassador?
Great Basin Bicycles introduced me to Shebeest. Since, I’ve come to love the “fun” and “color” they bring to women’s cycling. When I wear their colorful kits, I feel as though I’m asking the world: “Why not?” or, even “Hell yeah I just did!”
Honestly, though, I loved the word “Ambassador.” Unlike “sponsored athlete” (which grants a sense of entitlement and ownership) the word ambassador conveys, in a way, why I ride and why I want to continue to reach out to others and encourage them to ride, too.
Ambassadors can serve as examples. There is an element of excellence— or, of striving to be better. I’m not excellent, but I think of that word when I wake up early and train, and I think of it when I am racing and trying to achieve a personal best.
Ambassadors, though, are also responsible for welcoming others. They introduce you to new or unfamiliar concepts and customs. An ambassador, therefore, is a friend and a mentor. They are friendly, and welcome rather than exclude. Ambassadors improve the quality of life around them. Maybe not directly, but the idea that everyone can work hard, can improve and can shine in their own way— that’s what Ambassadors facilitate.
It’s an honor to compete, but it’s an equal honor to ride with cyclists new to the sport. This isn’t an exclusive club; I believe riding your bike (mountain or road) is about happiness and fulfillment, and that’s something we should all access every day. Riding your bike is fun.There’s a specific joy that happens sometimes when you’re on the bike and it’s dusk and you’re going down a long hill. You become a kid again.
To help someone find that feeling— wow, that’s pretty amazing. I’m not sure I have or will. But, hey, an “ambassador” can dream, right?
What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
Yikes, that’s a tough question. Personally, a lot of bike shops made me feel inferior to the point where I wanted nothing to do with them. I also think entering a sport that is proportionately more “male” can be daunting, too.
I really started loving the cycling events, though, because it was the ONLY public event where there was no line to the women’s restroom (lol).
Joking aside, I think women have to stop comparing themselves to men and realize that they are truly physiologically different, and to learn to appreciate the sport for what it is. I think a lot of women, too, come to cycling later in life, and that poses its own set of challenges. I guess there could be a host of other reasons, too: the difficulty in bike mechanical maintenance and repair, the fact you have to wear a helmet or the time commitment.
After several conversations, though, I actually think it has more to do with uncertainty. If you’ve never ridden a bike, you know you’re not very good. So, how do you just “join a club” and ride with a bunch of guys who are “really good”? It would be like joining a debate club in a foreign country in which you had only begun learning the language.
But again, I think the key is to give yourself a break. It takes years to develop an endurance athlete, and years to learn any sport, no matter how “simple.” Maybe it’s time for women to form their own ride groups and to work on skill development with each other. Maybe it’s time to give yourself a break! Learning to cycle is a lot like the “couch-to-5k” apps on the phone: you start with a little at a time, and build on each new skill you learn. So, you’re not fast right away? Nobody starts off fast. Everyone has to learn how to do it. And, so do you (and so did I.)
My friend told me during a 200 mile race in which I was really about ready to quit: “Stop worrying. You’re not being paid. You’re just a girl on a bike.” He’s right. I’m not ever going to be a professional. I have my lessons to learn, too. I still consider myself a beginner.
Beginners learn more. And I’m happy with that— learning, exploring, racing to learn.
What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
A paradigm shift, but one across the board: if you are an elite athlete, why not help those who are not as good as you are? The celebration of the body isn’t an exclusive club. It’s open this thing up, and deepen the field. The more, the merrier, right?
I guess the unspoken skeleton in the closet is the fact that a lot of women (and I include myself in this) don’t want to be objectified. As a society, we have a laundry list of “what female athletes are” and if you don’t follow those guidelines, people let you know about it in ways that aren’t always pleasant.
I can’t tell you how many times in my life (no matter what sport I competed in) people told me: “you’re not thin enough to be a runner/ a cyclist/ a swimmer/ a gymnast” etc. I have also had similar comments about my height (I’m 5’2.) Those comments are not really all that encouraging.
I truly think change has to start at the individual level, rather than an industry-standard. Identify your strengths, and embrace them! Shorter riders are better climbers. More leg strength means more strength on the flats. More weight? You’ll crush the downhills. Work on what you’re not good at, but give yourself some credit.
Do you honestly think none of the professional riders ever looked themselves in the mirror and said: “you rock?” You know they do. Listen to their interviews. Why not remind yourself how you are strong, while working on what you’re not that great at?
What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
So many people discouraged me from riding! I was too fat, too old, too— etc, etc. Life is too short to not be happy! I don’t know if any of the young people or women I coach will want to race. But, if they do, I hope they cross the finish line with a smile. And, if they don’t want to race: I hope they ride their bike and feel fantastic about themselves. I hope they ride their bikes to work, or commute down a boardwalk or to the farmer’s market and that cycling becomes a part of their life.
I have ridden with vulnerable, at-risk boys and girls. I’ve helped to teach these teenagers to not only ride a bike, but to complete community, cycling events. I’ve seen them smile and act like normal kids despite all the challenges in their lives. In the “AMBR” ride this summer (Ride Around Lake Tahoe) I rode with three young men, and one out-sprinted me at the end. Afterward, he apologized for “snaking” me.
When I told him, again and again, he didn’t need to apologize, he had the world’s biggest smile. But, that’s the thing: people need to smile like that. It’s in our nature. I’m shocked—and honored— that I help others to find that sort of happiness.
I hope, in other words. that I can help someone find an unexpected source of personal fulfillment my the simplest thing: by riding a bike.
What do you love most about being a coach? Do you have a favorite moment you'd like to share?
I learn more from the athletes I coach/mentor than they do from me. I have a group of female cyclists who’ve started a tradition of taking unique/fun pictures of ourselves on the rides. We pose in front of “Tuscan Villas”, old fashioned (newly constructed) wells, peacocks, in neighborhood playgrounds, and with a sheepherder (and sheep) of all things. They have helped me to see my hometown in this new, funky light. I think that’s my favorite part about every Monday: wondering where and what we’ll find, riding through the neighborhoods of Reno. But, more than that: they help me see myself in a new light, too. In the grand scheme of things, I’m just a girl on a bike. I’m out here to do my best. But, it’s also about having fun, about experiencing the world. Being out in the world, being not only OK, but happy with yourself, your body, your spirit, etc— isn’t that the best we all can ever be?
I think, though, it’s my interactions with young people which stand out. I have watched these high school kids learn to shift, learn to climb— basically, learn the most basic road biking skills. I have been a part of their journey. I know I’ll miss them when they go back home, or continue their journey in their home communities in the military, in a career or a community college.
One night, the kids and I did a time trial race up Kingsbury Grade, on the West side of the Carson Valley. Only 10 miles total, you climb over 3,000 feet. The race was the climb: the descent is incredibly beautiful. They all had smiles on their faces as they felt the wind on their faces down Kingsbury in that summer dusk, and I will take that memory with me for the rest of my life.
Tell us a random fact about yourself!
As if this whole interview hasn’t been random enough, lol! Out of the saddle, I raise five chickens (all of whom I truly love), we keep bees and grow a vegetable garden. I run a community-based reading series (www.LiteraryArtsandWine.com) that promotes the literary arts in our area for young, emerging and established writers. I really want to write a book about all of the incredible experiences I’ve seen on the bike. But then again, I also want to ride my bike forever which really cuts in to the time I would need to write something long and serious (or not-so-serious.)
It’s a tough choice, and maybe I won’t have to decide.