Women on Bikes Series: Grace Chua

I have done a lot of different things in my life—skincare promoter, radio dj, event host, film production assistant, shop assistant, copywriter, advertising executive—but I’ve never stuck with one thing for very long.

I get bored and dissatisfied very quickly. Mountain biking is the one exception. I live and breathe it each day, and don’t foresee voluntarily giving it up. Ever.

I don’t have an exciting story for how I got into it. My then-boyfriend, now-husband felt guilty about leaving me on weekends to go ride, so he asked me to give it a shot.

Not wanting to be a Debbie downer, I said Sure! and took his size L Trek hardtail to the parking lot for a spin. That was 9 years ago, but for the first 6 years I probably rode an average of 10 times a year. Or less!

In spite of the Husband buying me nice bikes, I was scared, unfit, intimidated and didn’t want to ride much more than broad fireroads. Being caught up in the relentless world of Advertising also meant that on weekends, I’d much rather sleep than ride.

All that changed in 2012 when we visited Whistler Bike Park in Whistler, British Columbia. We fell in love with the beauty of BC and, for the first time, saw what mountain biking could be in such an incredible place. In 2013, we quit our jobs and moved to BC for a much-needed break.

It’s been 3 years since I was properly born into mountain biking in beautiful British Columbia and because of that, I will always love a good technical trail; the kind that makes you go “Whoa, WTF is this” before dismounting to scope out a line. I love looking back at a descent and thinking to myself, “I can’t believe I made it down that.

I’ve since moved to California where I continue to grow in the sport and, in turn, hope to grow others in it too. I’ve taken to chronicling my mountain bike journey on Instagram (@alittlewhine) and save my lengthier musings for my blog.
Tell us about how discovering your #bikelife changed your life-

It taught me to stop playing the victim. In life, it’s easy to blame circumstances, luck or other people. In mountain biking, it’s hard to blame anyone or anything else but yourself for when things go wrong*. That tree, that rock, those roots; they’ve been there and don’t move. That bike is just an inanimate object. Everything is what you make of it. Take responsibility, own the mistake and work on being better.

Through working on being a better rider, I’ve also become really awed by my own body; by how much it takes for me and how it keeps rewarding me for what I put in. I appreciate it so much now for how strong and resilient it is. I am forever grateful that mountain biking has taught me to appreciate my body for all that it can do, not for how it looks. I explain this journey a little more here.

*Of course there are times when it’s really the fault of the other @sshole barreling through a blind corner, riding beyond his/her ability or overtaking unsafely. But those are so rare; I’ve personally not experienced an accident due to another rider’s fault though I can see how it could happen.

Whistler Bike Park seemed to be the key that opened up your door to the love of mountain biking, what would you say was the turning point for you?
At the time, I was a corporate rat in Advertising, spinning on my wheel for 12-14 hours a day. Deciding to visit WBP was a crazy whim; I knew nothing about Downhill biking and I was hardly riding my bike. I just wanted to get as far away from it all (I lived in Singapore then) as possible.

I remember the first morning we walked to the Fitzsimmons gondola and looked up at all the trees, the mountains, the huge jumps (Crankworx was about to start, so all the structures were set up) and breathed in that alpine air. Invigorating doesn’t begin to describe it.

The natural beauty of the place, coupled with this sense that there’s so much out there that I hadn’t tried or discovered, suddenly gave me this urge to be free and explore it all. And what better way to do that than on a mountain bike?

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

A little. I remember feeling excited and awkward. I also remember falling and taking a handlebar to the ribs.

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

I think I was just excited. At the time, I had no concept of what kind of brutality mountain biking could exact on my body so I wasn’t afraid.

Tell us about a ride where you had a defining moment with mountain biking- what clicked together to make it a rad experience?
It’s pretty random. I was demo-ing bikes at the Santa Cruz Mountain Bike Festival, and it was my first time riding high-end, carbon bikes with new fangled suspension and all that.

(At the time, I was using an old aluminum hand-me-down that was too big for me.) I was pedaling the same trail up and down because I wanted to give each bike the same standing. On one of those descents, it all suddenly came together for me and I felt totally in the flow, in the moment, one with the trail and bike. I think it was the combination of trail familiarity and amazing bikes that actually fit me.

Looking back, do you have any advice you would give your earlier mountain biking self based off of what you know now?
I used to get insecure and demoralized, comparing my skill and fitness to others. Sometimes, I still do. But now, I tell myself that I am my own best competitor. Nobody else had the same starting block and journey as me, so it wouldn’t be fair to compare myself to them. I can only be better than I was last month, last year.

Clips or Flats? What do you enjoy and why?
Flats, because I’m too chicken to try being clipped in! But also, I like the way flats allow me to feel my pedal and the feedback from the bike/trail, being that the soles are much softer. As well, I like being able to shift my foot position easily and use the inner/outer edge of feet depending on what I’m doing. I don’t think I would have this flexibility with clipless.

I’ve also learned to climb with flats, angling my feet in a way that uses my hamstrings to pull the pedal up. I also don’t suffer from having my feet bounced off the pedals on bumpy descents… As long as I remember to keep my heels lowered.

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
So many! There was the one where I hit gravel, endo-ed and scraped off half my face, the switchback one where I tumbled down a steep side and tore my left rotator cuff, then there was the one where I clipped a pedal and rolled down a ravine, injuring my right deltoid. Then there was the one where I misjudged a transition from rock to ladder, and I endo-ed head first into a rock, then there was the drop that I tried and endo-ed—TWICE. Those are the ones I remember.

Based on all those incidences, I’ve come up with a sort of guideline to help myself get back:
1. Resist your brain’s desire to replay the incident. It will try, because it’s trying to teach itself not to do something like that again. But by allowing the replay to happen, you’re actually programming yourself to fear and repeat the same faulty movements. Instead, play back the times you’ve actually executed a similar move successfully. And make sure you’re playing back from the first-person perspective.
2. Try to focus on what you could have done better. If you have videos of the crash, ask a trusted advisor to watch it and tell you what you could have done differently. Try not to watch videos of your own crash!
3. Allow yourself to rest and recover. This includes just riding for fun with no fitness or skill agenda. Just enjoy being on a bike in nature. Nothing more.
4. Restart your progression a few steps back, and dial in your fundamentals again. For example, if you were attempting a 5-foot drop, go back to a 1-2 foot drop and dial in the correct form and technique before progressing forward again.
5. Be patient with yourself, and have your best cheerleader keep you company through this journey back.

I should do a blog post about this!

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Ummm, everything? I am not a naturally athletic or coordinated person. The only things I have going for me are balance and flexibility, but everything else was hard-earned. The best thing I did, and that anyone at any level can do, is to take lessons. Everybody can benefit from professional advice, no matter how long you’ve been riding or how accomplished you think you are.
And that friend who’s an awesome rider? Unless s/he has taken an instructor course and possesses the gift of communication, s/he may not know how to accurately break down and convey the steps, and can cause more frustration and confusion.

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 think there will ever be a point where I don’t find something tricky. Today I might master riding a steep rock face. Tomorrow, I might encounter a steep rock face with a right-angle, off-camber turn in it. Today I might make it up and over a 9-inch log. Tomorrow, I might encounter a foot-high, square-edged rock ledge on a climb. But I love the idea of always having something else to conquer. I think it helps that I LOVE sessioning and taking the time to figure things out. Right now, I’m trying to get better at wheelie drops and manuals.

What do you enjoy most about having a partner to ride with? Do you have suggestions for those who are hoping to introduce their partner to off-road riding?
Having a riding partner who is perfectly in sync with my riding goals and preferences is like being on a forever-adventure. We both want to see each other succeed and reach new heights so no matter where we are, whether we’re actually on a holiday or not, it feels like we’re always on an amazing journey.
I think that the best way to introduce a partner to it is to first of all make it appeal to him/her. For example, if that person likes relaxing things or is risk-averse, showcase the leisurely, scenic side of off-road biking first. If that person loves eating (me!), make it a ride to a perfect picnic spot. Take lessons together. It might feel redundant for you, but make like you need it, and just want to do something different together. I think the less forceful and deliberate your attempts are, the more likely the newbie partner would be open to giving it a shot.
Finally, be patient. Throw your ego away and don’t try to ‘school’ your partner. There’s nothing more off-putting than being made to feel incompetent (intentionally or not).
Do you have suggestions for women on how they can connect with other women riders? What worked for you?
Honestly, not much has worked for me! I am a shy introvert that doesn’t connect well with others face-to-face. But a lot of other female bikers have found each other through local group rides. Many bike shops also do a ladies’ night now. Joining bike camps like the Trek Dirt Series is also a good way to meet other female riders.

What do you love about riding your bike?
Feeling untethered. Feeling like there are infinite adventures to be had and sights to see. Knowing that there is an endless list of things I can achieve. That sense of power and accomplishment when you achieve a goal is also priceless.

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

I have my trail bike, a black carbon Pivot Mach 6. It’s a very responsive bike that will own you if you don’t tell it exactly what you want it to do. I love that it makes me an involved rider because if you don’t assert your dominance over the bike on the trail, the bike will punish you. But when you give it clear commands, the Pivot Mach 6 delivers above and beyond what you expect.
I have a Specialized P3, which is an aluminum dirt jumper. It’s a fun, poppy bike for pump track and dirt jump days when I just want to have some casual fun. It’s also a great bike to learn bike control at the pump track on because the feedback is so immediate.
I’ve got a matte and gloss black 2013 Specialized Demo 8 which is an aluminum, dual-crown downhill bike. Ever since I moved to California, this bike hasn’t been used. But it’s still such a beauty, and I’m sure one day I’ll do more lift-serviced park riding again.
I still have my very first bike, a red hardtail that now sits in my backyard and is fitted as a commuter bike.

What clothing/bike accessories do you love? What would you recommend to your friends?

I love Ion’s bike clothes. They’re extremely well-thought out and well-made. I also wear Sombrio a lot. Sugoi and Pearl Izumi roadie chamois are great. POC makes really nice gloves. I love EVOC for backpacks and Five Ten Freeriders for shoes. I choose helmets based on how they fit my head shape, and Smith’s Forefront fits perfectly. It also has fantastic venting and the honeycomb-ish lining means that you’ll never get an angry bee or wasp stuck in your helmet!

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

I think that often, they just don’t know where and how to start. Guys will be more likely to have mountain biker friends who would introduce them to it, whereas women often have to look for someone to show them the ropes. Generally speaking, women are also more self-aware and may feel shy asking for help (“Oh I don’t want to bother anyone”) or asking to go on rides (“I’ll be slow and clumsy”).

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?

I actually think a lot of it is moving in the right direction. Many brands are working on making biking more accessible to women by moving away from male-centric communication. Lots of bike companies also have made it easier for women to choose their first bike. There are many online communities where women can ask for help or find riding friends. It takes a bit of Googling, but pretty much anybody who is interested enough can do that.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
I love it when another woman is surprised by what she can do. I consider a ride a success if I can make even one other girl feel proud of herself for a moment.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!

When I was a kid, I used to collect soap. My favorite was a large teddy bear-shaped one. I don't collect them anymore, but I still have a penchant for scented things like candles, body lotion, perfumes. I even spritz a bit of perfume on before a ride. I just need to smell nice all the time!