Women on Bikes Series: Sara Johnson

An unexplainable joy overcomes me nearly every time I am riding my bike which causes me to crave riding all the time! Yet I must constantly work to find a balance.

I am a wife to a biking husband, a homeschooling mother of four children, ages 5 to 10, and a mountain bike racer. It is a challenge to devote the necessary time to all areas of my life but I make it work by choosing to enjoy my love of biking with my husband and children.

This equals lots of quality time together! I love to inspire other women and mothers to get out and find something that brings joy to the every day munedaneness of life.

I truly believe that spending time in nature on my bike has made me a better and calmer wife, mother, and friend!

Tell us about what helped you discover your #bikelife and how it has influenced you over the years- 
I started really riding my bike in Mankato during my undergrad work there. My husband and his best friend were into trials riding-bouncing on their little trials bike’s back tire over every obstacle possible, so I followed along and would attempt some of their stunts with an extra small Gary Fisher frame. I even did a Trials competition in Colorado and placed 2nd out of 2 female participants! I did a little mountain biking during that time too but then I started pharmacy school and right after that, started having babies so I had a big break in my riding. About a year after my fourth child was born (2013), I started riding again and purchased a new bike. I went a little overboard after that once I realized that I really enjoyed the “alone time” I had while riding. My husband and I have had to compete for time to ride our bikes since having kids…we do get babysitters though on a regular basis so that we can ride together. We also go on frequent family rides whenever possible-usually at Lebanon, the River Bottoms, or somewhere fun to get a treat. 

I’m pretty sure that I never knew the impact that biking was going to have on my life. It has really become a big part of my identity. I am more joyful, healthy, and purposeful. I am able to process and think more clearly while riding. I’ve also had some amazing times of worship and revelation on rides. Being in nature fulfills me in ways that I cannot put into words. I love to get to the point of exertion where my frontal cortex turns off (the reasoning part of your brain) and just flow on my bike while being able to think more freely. It’s similar to a runner’s high…I call it the weeeeee! factor and it makes me crave riding!!!

Biking is a family affair for you, with your spouse and kids being involved. Why is it so great to have cycling be a part of your family?
It’s what we do together as a family…we don’t have our kids involved in activities because we made a commitment early on to not be a family that is running to events every night and weekend. So since we bike, they bike too. It’s a great way to encourage them and to help them become overcomers. They love going to the weekly summer Buck Hill races with us-it’s funny how normal it is to them to have parents that race mountain bikes together. They just assume that’s what they will do too!

What is your favorite event to participate in and why do you enjoy being involved in events?
I LOVE the Chequamegon 40! I think that it’s the ideal distance and challenge for me. What I love most is the training leading up to it-doing longer rides on mixed terrain and trying to hit every hill around the area that I live. I’m very talkative on my bike during races so when I get to ride with about 2000 other racers, I’m in my happy place. Some appreciate this and others just think that I’m super weird and ignore me! My strength is definitely climbing, so I get a thrill from passing lots of guys on the uphills during that race!

In general, I like to race because it helps me stay focused and push myself during training. It gives me a purpose and a goal to attain. I’m certainly not super fast but I enjoy challenging myself to reach my own goals and I work on not getting disappointed about how I finish relative to the other racers. For me, it’s all about having fun. If the event isn’t fun, then it’s not worth my time and energy!

What helped you feel comfortable when it came to attending your first event? Do you have suggestions for those new to competing?   
Your first event can be very nerve-wracking! A lot of riders look professional in their matching kits and others appear to “size you up” from their super-focused mode. This can be really intimidating! What I did and still do, is look for someone who makes eye contact with me and then start small talk about the race details. This calms me down and helps me to feel like I’m part of the group. I also always admit that it’s my first race of that sort and just be honest that I have no idea what I am doing! It’s very freeing! You will find that in general, racers are really nice people and are just as nervous as you are!

Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride? 
I do!  A college cheerleading friend took me mountain biking at Mt. Kato one day and I was absolutely hooked from that day forward…although I was SO incredibly sore for the next week!
 It was thrilling and I loved the exertion and concentration it took to stay on the trail.  I remember being told to “look ahead,” but other than that, I didn’t receive any formal training until much later. I have always enjoyed a challenge while doing physical exercise-for example, I hurdled in track because running in a circle would be way too boring-so mountain biking fits me perfectly!

If you had nervousness at all, what did you do or think to overcome it?  
I was very nervous but I also didn’t really know what I was fully in for. Once on the trail, I was concentrating so hard and experiencing so many adrenaline rushes that I didn’t have any room for nervousness anymore!

Clips or flats? What do you enjoy and why?  
Clips! I rode flats for a long time but now that I have switched to clips, there is no going back! I feel more connected to the bike-like a “oneness”. It definitely helps with climbing too. I have my clips set super loose so I can usually clip out in time before crashing but I still take the occasional spill because I can’t get one of my feet out. It’s still worth it!

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 crashed bad in 2015 at a Wausau 12-hr race during my last lap. It was dark, plus I was very tired mentally and physically. I hit a rock at too-slow of a speed, mistakenly grabbed my front brake, and slowly tipped over my handlebars without unclipping. I proceeded to land on my hip onto a pyramid-shaped rock. I seriously thought that I had chipped some bone off my hip or something. I was on mile 6 of 11 and somehow rode slowly, coasted, and walked the rest of the trail in the dark to the finish. The next morning, I had the EMTs assess my hip and it was determined to thankfully just be a very bad deep tissue bruise. Unfortunately, I still don’t have complete range of motion in my right hip. I was very shaken mentally for quite awhile. I rode that same race again this year and had some serious overcoming of fear to do during the pre-lap. What helped me was to simply make it my goal to have fun, walk sections that were causing me to tense up, and cheer myself on out loud during the race. It sounds silly, but when you encourage yourself on the trail, you get a serious boost of confidence! Try it!

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?   
Bridges totally freaked me out at first and I always slowed down way too much for every turn. I also was on the brakes too much at any new trail because I was concerned about the unknown. I have to constantly remind myself of the first advice that I ever received in this sport-LOOK AHEAD! You go where you are looking so don’t stare at the big rock to your left or the close tree on your right. Scan the trail ahead constantly so that you have enough time to safely react. It seems so simple yet it’s so easy to forget.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?   
I’m not one that loves obstacles. I don’t need to ride the “skinny” or go over the large log pile to have fun on a ride. Sometimes I get discouraged by this because I see my friends doing it, but then I remember that it’s actually amazing to just be on a mountain bike trail as an almost 40-year old female and that I don’t have to do every feature to have an excellent ride!

When it came to mountain biking, did your husband introduce you or was it something you were already doing? 
As I mentioned before, a friend in college introduced us to the sport but my husband did not take a liking to it at first like I did. Then, somewhere in the baby birthing time of my life, he started riding and racing with some buddies of his and he was hooked. After the last baby, he thankfully urged me to start riding again. Now he can’t stop me!

What do you enjoy most about having a partner who you can ride with?  
I love that we share the same passion! It’s actually super helpful for a successful marriage. We are usually thinking along the same wave length and we get excited about the same things-like a new bike, or a fresh snow fall to ride in, or one of our kids riding without training wheels at a young age. It also makes for really cheap and healthy date nights!
Were there ever challenging moments when riding together, especially if he was the one to introduce you to mountain biking?  
I can get discouraged sometimes because he’s so much faster and better at handling than I am. But…I’m usually the one to place at races because my field is so much smaller so that makes me feel better…I’m not competitive at all, am I?

How did you introduce your children to off-road riding? Any tips or suggestions for parents who would like to do the same?   
We highly recommend starting children out on a balance bike at about 2 years of age. They can safely take those little bikes everywhere! We built little ramps for them to go over at home and encouraged them to go up and down curbs. Simple and effective! Once we started going to trails, we took it really slow and gave lots of praise and encouragement along the way. They really just like to do whatever their parents are doing at a young age!

Why is mountain biking such a great activity for kids to participate in? 
It’s an individual sport that builds confidence, character, and amazing fitness. Kids can set goals for themselves and celebrate their victories along the way.  It gets them outside and exploring nature while getting a rush of excitement as they speed through the trees! It’s also a lifelong activity that can be shared with the whole family-that’s pretty rare in today’s sports scene.

What do you love about riding your bike?  
I love that when I ride solo, I have my own time to worship and process my thoughts freely while getting energized, rejuvenated, and renewed. I have been told that I literally “glow” after riding a trail. It makes me feel younger and I am usually bubbling with energy and excitement from all the adrenaline rushes. I used to shy away from letting my non-biking friends know about how much I ride (thankfully they are not on Strava!) because I had been afraid of their judgement concerning the amount of time I spend on a bike. But I had a good friend tell me not too long ago that I need to do what brings me joy and not feel guilty about it. Best advice ever-I have experienced so much freedom since she changed my mindset. 

I also love to go on group rides with friends because that fulfills me in other ways. I have the hardest time sitting still so hanging out at a coffee shop while having a conversation just doesn’t do anything for me!  It’s so much better to be riding and having a heart-to-heart talk with a wonderful friend instead! 

Then there are family rides…these cause me to slow down a bit and intentionally connect with each of my children. I also love to watch them compete with each other yet come together to bond over the same activity. There’s a sense of pride that comes over me when we all ride together. It’s really easy to have self-doubts while parenting, but when we bike together, I feel like we got it right.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?  
My husband just built me an Otso Voytec and it totally rocks! I am absolutely loving the 27.5 plus sized wheels and perfect geometry! Plus, it’s dark grey and blue…so beautiful! The color of my bike has always been really important to me. It rides like a mountain bike with the benefits of a fat tire on dirt. Now that we are experiencing a very snowy winter, the Voytec can simply be converted to a fat tire. I am a huge fan of becoming comfortable on one frame that I ride for the majority of my rides so this new bike fits me well since I can ride it all year. 

I also share a Specialized Diverge gravel bike and a Specialized Roubaix road bike with my husband (we are conveniently similar heights) for riding when the dirt trails are closed. I enjoy both of these bikes for training but I am definitely made for the off-road trails in the trees!

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?  
Fear of the unknown and thinking that you have to be a serious risk taker to try it. I have found that when I introduce a woman to mountain biking for the first time, they almost always love it and experience the same thrill that I do. I think that a lot of women have had a negative first-time experience when their husbands have introduced them to the sport simply because guys have a hard time acknowledging some of the fears that women have.

What would you like to tell women who are on the fence about riding off-road?  
Borrow a good mountain bike and find a female friend or group to ride with and have them teach you some simple safety tips to think about during your first ride. Don’t be afraid of going at your own pace and walking when you feel uncomfortable. Try not to apologize for your lack of skill or speed but feel good about yourself because you are not sitting on the couch!

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved? 
I really feel like the high school mountain biking league is already making a serious impact in getting more women on bikes at a younger age. The cool thing is that I know of several moms that started riding because their kids started the sport and they didn’t want to just wait in the car while their children rode!
Otherwise, I think that it’s truly up to each of us that already ride to invite newbies to experience
some of our fun!

What inspires you to encourage women to ride? 
I want more friends to ride with! I get super excited to invite others into sharing some of the joy that I receive from riding. It’s been life-changing for me and I would love to help others have a similar experience.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I love to dance and have the privilege of dancing at our church during worship. I love to be extreme and fierce on a bike and then change into a poised and graceful ballerina. It makes my life full of variety!