Women on Bikes Series: Larissa Fitchett

If you're riding a mountain bike anywhere within a half mile of where I am also riding you will know it.

You will know because I cannot help myself but to giggle, squeal and laugh my way down pretty much any trail, and I think that pretty much sums up my relationship with the #bikelife.

To find a pastime that fills you with so much joy it cannot be contained, that simultaneously challenges you and rewards you with the luxury of getting to see some of the most beautiful natural places around you is pretty special.

To turn that pastime into a career has been hard for me to wrap my head around, and still is. That's exactly what happened in June of 2016 when I was able to pack up my high school math classroom and turn in my keys to become a full-time professional cross country racer.

Now, one year into 'just racing my bike' I am still overwhelmed with gratitude for those who made this happen and bewilderment at the fact that this is my life. I have raced in 6 countries, competed in 6 world cups, won the US Pro XCT series, and competed with team USA at XC world championships. All of these dreams are dreams I didn't know I had 10 years ago, but the bike gave me something big to get excited about and work for. At the end of the day though, I am still just a girl who gets a kick out of riding a bike, up or down hill.

Tell us about the discovery of your #bikelife!
I have been riding mountain bikes for as long as I can remember. During my childhood the bike was a way to seek freedom and independence, to explore the state park behind my parent’s house and spend as much time in nature as possible. In college at UC Davis though I discovered road racing, and happened to be kinda good at it. Through collegiate cycling I met my husband, and when his job at Felt bikes forced us to relocate to Southern California I switched to mainly mountain bike racing. #bikelife shaped my life from being a gawky teenager to a collegiate racer, to pro XC racer, a bike has always been in my life, and gradually took over year after year to the point where it is my livelihood.
Rather than being deterred by the challenges that surely came with learning to ride off-road, why did you aspire to conquer them?
When I was a kid it felt so important to keep trying to clean that one rock garden on Spring Creek trail in Annadel state park every summer morning riding with my sister. Although we both struggled so much when we first rode that trail, we both somehow knew that one day we might be able to clean the whole thing, and we had all the time in the world to commit to trying day after day during lazy hot summer days in jr high and high school. We didn’t know then that the persistence we demonstrated was the number one characteristic that would later shape my professional cycling career, but it was never a question to give up, we just kept trying. I think this attitude is the reason I have never given up when facing challenges, because it has always been part of who I am to keep trying, over and over. Being stupid competitive also helps; you better believe that sister and I were both striving to beat the other to be the first to ride the whole trail without putting a foot down :)

What would be your favorite competitive biking event and why do you enjoy competing?

This is super tough question because if you ask me at the finish line of any race I will say they are all the best race ever, but if I had to choose just one it would have to be the Annadel XC hosted by Bike Monkey. This race takes place on my home town trails, which are seriously fun, sometimes techy, sometimes screaming fast and super pretty, and is one big loop so you get to ride tons of fun trail! It’s put on by an incredible group of people who have every detail dialed and make the whole weekend stress free and fun from reg to the post race atmosphere. Proceeds of the race go towards saving the state park it’s held in, and this is so important to me, because I learned how to ride a mountain bike in those valleys and on those ridges, under those trees and swimming in that lake. AND they have by far the best free post race Paella you have ever tasted! Cherry on top is racing with hundreds of amazing people, most of whom live in my hometown Santa Rosa, CA.

Do you have any suggestions for those who are on the fence on whether they should compete in an event?
Racing doesn’t have to be for everyone, I think it’s perfectly ok to enjoy #bikelife without ever toeing a start line. BUT if you’ve never competed and have the opportunity to race then set an achievable goal and focus on what is important, getting the opportunity to ride bikes (possibly in a new place) with cool people. If things don’t go well, you are still riding bikes! Also try to do one lap of the course if you can in the week before the event. Knowing where tricky rocks and stuff are makes is so much less stressful on race day.

What is the most important thing you've learned about yourself since you started racing?
This is really deep, haha, but I learned in the past 4 years that I don’t take disappointment well, and that has been something I have been working on so so hard. Racing bikes can be a mega roller coaster of good and then tragic things happening and you really need to ride each wave of good and survive each depth of the lows knowing that things always change (for better or worse) so no matter how bad things seem now, they will get better. I let the lows get me down a lot, and it’s been such a great life lesson that I shouldn’t let them bring me down so much.

Who or what was the biggest motivation for becoming a professional racer?
My husband told me at the end of my first year racing that I needed to upgrade to pro. When I resisted because I was afraid I would never win a race again he said ‘I can buy you trophies if that’s what you are after’. So he basically shamed me into racing pro. Then after a year of racing regionally he pressured me into traveling to compete in the PRO XCT races all over the country because he thought if I was traveling I wouldn’t want babies… we have a very healthy relationship :) Brendan is my biggest supporter though, he has always believed I was strong enough to compete on the World Cup level and when I was first starting out he traveled to all my races and wrenched on my bikes/fed me bottles during races. He always encouraged me to give it everything I had and told me I was good enough to leave my day job to pursue cycling, basically I wouldn’t be here without his encouragement and support.

What would you like folks to know about being a pro racer? Is there a common misconception some may have about what it means?
Ooofa, this is a weird one. It seems like a dream job and in many ways it is, but there is so much nuance to wrap your mind around and a huge portion of the job itself is about mental strength, maybe as much as physical strength. When I was teaching and racing most of the time I didn’t have a choice in how much I was able to train and recover, but as soon as I became a full time bike racer I was overwhelmed with constantly wondering if I was doing things right, resting enough, training enough, doing enough yoga, core, sleep… or doing too much of all these things! Having the mental strength to trust what you are doing is HUGE and even though it seems like the job is pretty easy/straightforward, it can be incredibly stressful because of this (at least for me, maybe everyone else things this isn’t an issue!).
Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride?
My first real mountain bike ride was in Soquel Demonstration Forest on Braille trail with my now husband then boyfriend on a super crappy frankenstein bike and I was TERRIFIED! I kept thinking Brendan didn’t value my life to take me down such a steep, technical trail, and I broke up with him maybe 7 times on the ride (in my head because I was alone the whole time since everyone else was way faster than me). At the end I think I was pretty stoked to have lived and then I got hooked on that ‘I survived!’ feeling.

If you had nervousness at all, what did you do or think to overcome it?
I think I was too naive to be nervous. Had I know what I was in for I would have been pretty scared, but nope, just thought we were going for a spin in the woods, haha.

Clips or flats? What do you like and what has worked for you?

I always hear that riding flats will make you a much better rider, but I have ridden clipped in my whole life and I am honestly a little scared to try flats. I’m mostly scared about how much harder the climbing will be, but I want to try it out sometime! Clips just works because it’s all I know!

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
When I crashed between intervals this year the Wednesday after my first UCI win and thought I broke my arm, that was a doozy. I had so much confidence and power coming out of the Fontana race and to crash and be injured for the next few races was really hard physically and mentally. The hardest part was knowing if racing the following Saturday was the right thing to do, and then pushing through the pain in my arm during the race was also a rough experience. A lot was riding on those races following Fontana so I used the series points to motivate myself and it was also a great test of whether I was the type of athlete who is willing to suffer extra physical pain to make it happen, and I’m glad I went to the start line the following Saturday and gave it my all despite the injury.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?

Everything! Haha, well, I started riding with people who were WAY more skilled than me so I felt like I sucked at everything except climbing fire road. I never really focused on improving individual skills, but I spent a lot of time watching the rider in front of me, and trying to copy where they went and how their body moved. This is probably the slowest way to learn to ride well, but I had a great time riding with a ton of different, rad people!

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?

I would say right now I am most intimidated by slippery muddy rooty riding because I live where it never rains, so I don’t get to practice it much. In races where I have to face these conditions I focus on the learning experience over feeling like I HAVE to master it and then crashed and slip ups in the race don’t stress me out as much. The World Cup in Le Bresse France was a great example of this, I pushed myself despite the crazy slick conditions, crashed A LOT, but I had a great time and learned a lot!

What do you love about riding your bike?
Mostly getting to see new places, being in nature and getting a workout at the same time. But the thing I love the most about mountain biking is that feeling you get when you ride a really scary obstacle you have always been afraid of before for the first time, that feeling is amazing!

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
Right now I’m riding 3 bikes on a regular basis, my Felt F1 road bike, Felt Edict FS mountain bike and Felt Decree trail bike. The F1 is like a freakin rocket ship, seriously the fastest road bike I’ve ever been on. It’s so snappy and quick I feel like I have super human speed on it, and I often ride WAY longer than I should because it’s so comfy and fun. The Edict is the mtb I take out when the ride will be on the less technical side and I want to go fast! I love this bike A LOT a lot, and I raced it a ton this year as well. And the Decree is the bike I ride on long, epic, technical training rides and when I want hubby to be able to keep up :) It’s a tiny bike heavier than the Edict but has 150mm travel in the front and rear and a dropper post. It’s crazy capable on really gnarly trails, and climbs pretty well for a big travel bike too! Extra bonus: hubby designed it so that makes me super happy/proud!

Any product favorites you'd like to share with us?

I have a love/hate relationship with my Oakley Radar Prizm sunglasses. I love love love them for being unbelievably comfy and for making everything seem a million times prettier than it really is, but they’ve given me unrealistic expectations of what the world looks like because the real world isn’t nearly as pretty as it is with them on! Also I never go anywhere without my Mobot foam roller/water bottle. It’s 40 oz so I never run out of water and I can foam roll any time anywhere!

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
It’s so dang intimidating to walk into a shop and when you do I feel like you never get taken seriously. Although this is changing a lot lately, up until recently I would always get treated like a bike path rider and it was frustrating to not get treated like a legitimate mountain biker. There’s nothing wrong with just riding paved bike paths, but don’t automatically tell me I can’t handle a trail or a long ride just because I am a girl. You don’t know me, I’ll kick your butt!

If you could talk to someone who is curious about mountain biking, what would you tell them?

Just getting out in the woods and smelling the dirt makes it worth it, so why not give it a try! You don’t have to start by hucking 5 foot drops, and if you have to walk a section, who cares?! I still walk stuff!! And pretty much everyone who has ever ridden a mountain bike has as well! So get out there and smell the dirt!! And you don’t NEED an insanely expensive bike, but if you think you’ll like mountain biking, a nicer bike makes everything a little more fun.

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

I think the industry is doing a really good job shifting its attitude towards women lately. There are so many clinics and women specific products out there that it feels like we are a valued portion of the market. I think getting more women in magazines and websites is kinda huge. It’s getting better, but the media is still male dominated, I look through current mtb magazines and I still see mostly men. I know ladies can shred and huck just as good as dudes so print their pictures!!

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?

Honestly it’s the women around me who work tirelessly to put on clinics and ladies rides and who raise money to get bikes to women in 3rd world countries that inspire me to want to encourage women to ride. I live in a place where there is so much going on, so many women’s groups and rides, sometimes I get invited to participate, and the energy and enthusiasm is contagious!

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I was born with my twin in my neck and it had to be surgically removed when I was 4 years old. I like to tell students that I basically ate my twin… :)