Women Involved Series: Sonya Looney

It’s perseverance and attitude that have propelled Sonya across the Sahara Desert, Himalayas, jungles of Sri Lanka, and rural mountains of Haiti.

She is a professional mountain biker focusing on ultra-endurance and stage racing events around the world.

She has raced in over 20 countries and has more than 25 professional career wins. Sonya is also the 2015 World 24-hour Champion and a plant-based athlete.

Sonya is also an accomplished writer and motivational speaker including her TED Talk.
She brings stories of determination, defining success, overcoming fear and doubt, and pure adventure into her bright and powerful keynote speeches across multiple industries.

When she’s not racing, Sonya enjoys long backcountry adventures, running her own media business, yoga, cooking plant-based food, photography, and playing guitar. She loves connecting with people and communities around the world- say hi to her on social media!

Tell us what introduced you to your #bikelife and how it has influenced you over the years-
Running is what introduced me to cycling. I got into running when I was 17 and ran my first marathon. I was going to spin class at the gym for cross training, but never really rode bikes outside. A friend of mine at work invited me to go mountain biking and I was instantly hooked! I signed up for my first race 3 weeks after that mountain bike ride and the rest is history! 

If you can recall, tell us about your first off-road ride. How did it make you feel and what did you learn from the experience?
I honestly can't remember the details first mountain bike ride but I do remember details from some of my first rides. I remember seeing something technical and feeling brave (and rode it!). I remember feeling free and fast, and that feeling was addicting. I could get the same feeling of running, but cover more distance and go even faster! I never could imagine that I'd be where I am today from riding a bike. It's completely changed my life and taken me on a trajectory I never saw coming! I've traveled the world, met my soulmate, and am living my dreams because I started mountain biking! 

What would be your suggestions for new riders to help them with nervous feelings on riding off-road?
Number one - it's okay to crash. I've been riding for 13 years and I still crash! Number two - always look at where you want to go, not at the rock you could hit. Number three- BREATHE! If you hold your breath, your body tenses up. I slowly exhale out my mouth if I get nervous on my bike and it helps a lot! 
What would you say has been your most challenging injury to heal from? Was there anything you learned from the experience?
Concussions are the hardest injuries to deal with. You have to be very patient and take them seriously. They are the most challenging because you seem fine, but you're not. I have pushed when I shouldn't and was lucky. I also learned that I'll never do that again. So much so that I had a head injury in 2016...just days before I was supposed to line up and defend my World Champion title. I decided not to race. It wasn't an easy decision, but it was the smart one and I was glad I did. 

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Having the rear tire slip when you are trying to ride something steep was a pretty common occurrence. You have to get your chest closer to the handlebar and center yourself down and over the bike. Think of putting pressure on the rear tire with the lower half of your body but holding strong and low with the upper part of your body. It's also important to learn how to balance going slow. If you're in a rock garden, need to unclip, or have a tight corner, being able to stay upright going slow and move the bike around is a great skill to work on. You can do it by practicing riding really slow and balancing with running shoes (if you're afraid of getting stuck clipped in) over grass. 

You have a number of races under your belt, which would you say has been the one you've been most proud of?
I'm most proud of the ones in third world countries- not necessarily because I was fast and won them (always a plus), but because it was the biggest stretch outside my comfort zone to go there and be brave enough to show up and give it a go! I have done the only international mountain bike race in Haiti (hasn't happened since) and that was an amazing and eye-opening experience.

Any suggestions/tips for those who are looking to participate at their first event?
Focus on the fun and don't worry about results or time. Do your best, enjoy the experience, and the rest will fall into place!

What is the greatest challenge you face as a mountain bike ambassador and athlete?
I run my own show (team of 1!) and it's a huge amount of work. I love every second of it, but balancing training, travel, and managing about 20 sponsorship relationships alongside speaking, writing, and continuing to build my personal brand is definitely a challenge! Sometimes I admittedly do not spend as much time training as a "pro" should because I'm focused on the business side of things, but I'm passionate about both. I also find it challenging as a professional athlete because you have to be so focused on cycling that it's hard to integrate other sports. The reason is that if you're tired from another sport during the season, it can take away from your ability to push yourself most efficiently. I really miss running and tennis! 
What would you say is the biggest motivation behind you blogging about your mountain bike races/adventures with the public?
I love connecting with people and sharing my experiences because I want to break down the barriers with mountain bike adventure travel. I am fortunate to see so many places and cultures. I want people to know that they can go do that too someday and it's not crazy to actually go to Nepal or Switzerland or Chile to go mountain biking! Traveling with your bike (it could just be somewhere 2 hour drive away!) and sharing the experience is what helps you remember it and gives substance to your life.

Why do you feel writing is a great way to connect individuals with what you do as an athlete?
I think it's important to share the challenges as well as the good things that happen. As someone who teaches personal development and a strong believer in growth, I love learning not only from my own experiences, but from other peoples' experiences as well. Deep down, we all want to feel like there's hope and a chance to do whatever it is we want to do. When you see that other people have the same emotions or similar challenges (or victories), it makes you feel more empowered to continue on your journey and a stronger feeling of connectedness in your community. The response to my writing over the years has been incredibly emotional - you really can make a huge difference in someone's life just by telling a personal story. You never know who is listening, who is searching, and something as simple as a photo or even a smile can make all the difference in the world. I think we underestimate the impact we can have on people around us.

You have done TED talks and have an On Dirt Series, tell us about what inspired you to be open with your journey as an athlete and why these talks are helpful in shedding light on women in athletics doing things that they might not have imagined-
​My writing is what inspired me to start talking about my adventures. My speaking series started as a basic mentoring session to anyone who wanted to come so I could answer questions and break down barriers in cycling (nutrition, training, equipment, skills, etc). People always wanted to hear about my adventures and it morphed into a career as a speaker. I love speaking because I not only get to talk to cyclists, but people across all industries. Cycling was my vehicle to teach me about the person I want to be, but it may not be the vehicle for everyone. I just want people to find that thing they are passionate about and go after it. As a female in athletics, I wanted to share the power of self-belief and perseverance because with that combination (as well as patience), you can accomplish a lot! Again, it boils down to story-telling and being about to connect with people on an emotional level. My favorite thing about speaking, writing, seeing people is feeling that mutual spark of connection. It's a big part of what makes us human- feeling connected; and I think it's important to treat relationships, even as a mentor/mentee or teacher/student situation as two equal people.

What do you love about riding your bike?
It makes me feel alive and free, and it is a great community to be a part of. The cycling community worldwide is an easy place to belong and make friends!

Tell us about your bikes and why you enjoy them-
I ride SCOTT bikes. I have a 29er 100mm XC bike (Spark 900RC), a 27.5 120mm XC bike (Spark 700), and a 27.5 150mm enduro bike (Genius). I love them all for different reasons. In BC, I spend most of my time on the enduro bike because I love ripping down technical descents, riding steep rock slabs, and huge drops! I also almost always use a dropper seatpost! I also love carbon wheels (Stans NoTubes Valor and/or Bravo) and I'm spoiled with Shimano DI2!

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
I think people (not just women) are afraid to fall down. As adults, we aren't used to falling down and it can be really intimidating. Once you realize it's okay to fall down, I think it breaks down a barrier. I think people are also afraid of getting lost, but you can get GPS routes and download them to a computer (I like my Wahoo Fitness ELEMNT). You can't get lost when you have a GPS to follow! Also, I think people are afraid they'll be too slow or not good enough, but all you have to do go out and do what you love! It doesn't matter what speed you're going.
What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
For one, women's products need to improve. Women don't want to ride second tier bikes and we like to have more of a variety when it comes to apparel. Some people love to wear pastels and hearts or crazy designs. Others love to wear simple designs. The argument is that a company doesn't want to invest so much money to make women's products because they're afraid that they won't have the market for it. However, if you never make the product and market it properly, and correct- you won't have buyers. I think there's a lot of interest in how to build out women's cycling. I think to grow mountain biking in general, there needs to be better high-end rental programs (Park City Bike Demos is a great example of a company with a cool business model). It's expensive to buy a bike, so you want to make sure you like it first...and maybe you want to ride 10 times before you commit to buying a bike! 

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
Cycling has given me confidence and has taught me that we are incredibly capable, even if it seems impossible. It also has introduced me to people that have changed my life. It also connects you to nature in a huge way! I want to share that with everyone because it's an amazing way to live your life!

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I can play 4 musical instruments, but not at the same time :)