Women on Bikes Series: Ashlynn Smith

Well my name is Ashlynn Smith. I am a laboratory technician for a professor at the University of Florida (Milton Campus in Milton, FL) as well as a teaching assistant and graduate student in the Environmental Horticulture program. Because of this, my biking life has had to slow down a bit this semester, but I would have to say my niche in the biking world is definitely in the long distance endurance events, especially the self-supported ones!

This past October I completed a self-supported, self-navigated endurance race called the Tallahassee Tango. I was so proud of myself for that one!

I also try and host at least one ladies-only off-road ride each month. I do this because I’m tired of women attempting to get involved in off-road biking and being intimidated or afraid of being left alone in the woods because they are dropped from a group or hurting themselves because they feel pressured to ride faster or above their skill level.

The group is called Women’s Adventure Riding- It’s not that big of a group yet, but I have had up to 10 ladies join me and I would love for us to start going on small bikepacking adventures together!

Tell us what introduced you to discovering your #bikelife and how it has influenced your world.
I was first introduced to road biking by a co-worker and I took to it right away. I think I liked biking so much because I was able to use the same muscle groups I had already developed from rowing in college. Rowing is all legs! Road biking evolved to triathlons, that evolved to road bike racing (which I was NOT good at!), which evolved to a cross bike for commuting, which then turned to gravel grinding / mountain biking / bikepacking.

Can you take us back to your first mountain bike ride? What did you learn from it?
I can’t remember my very first mountain bike ride, but I can remember my first time being clipped in on a mountain bike. My husband and I were visiting family in Kentucky and I thought it would be a great idea to bring our mountain bikes! We stopped in Tennessee to ride so not only was I over my skill level, but it was also my first time being clipped in. There were a lot of tears and crashes that day. One crash I had was so scary for me, after finishing the trails up there, I was afraid to get back on my bike for a month. What I learned from that ride was how important it is to take things slow. Slowly work your way out of your comfort zone and on to harder courses/skills. I always keep this ride in mind when riding with beginners. I know that if they get scared, it may take them a month or they may even not get back on the mountain bike at all, so I try to be very patient and understanding of their fears.

For those nervous about off-road riding, do you have tips or suggestions that may help them cope?
I guess I sort of did that in the previous question, but I always try and tell women who are new, that I can’t promise they wont fall or get scratched up, and may even be a little scared at times, but once they feel comfortable and in control, there’s nothing like tackling a challenge on the bike and coming out on the other side.

Clips or flats? What do you like and why?
Even with my first bad clipped-in experience, I’m still a clipped in rider! I like feeling connected to the pedal at all times. I can apply more power knowing my foot won’t slide off the pedal.

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 honestly feel that many physical challenges are often just mental/emotional ones. I learned in college as an athlete at a very competitive level, that the body is capable of things beyond what you can even imagine it’s capable of. You just have to get past mental blocks to allow it to reach its full potential. Even being aware of this, getting past those barriers is way easier said than done. I mentally talk myself out of all kinds of things! I would recommend though that setting a specific goal helps me get past the mental blocks. By the way, I NEVER make my goals about winning and rarely are they about a finishing time, but setting a distance goal with a long endurance event just helps keep me focused and I’m less likely to talk myself out of training and such.
When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
At the very basic level, I just had trouble putting my bike exactly where I wanted it. If there was something I wanted to get around, it was hard for me to get my bike to do it. It’s easy for people who have been riding for a long time to forget what not having control of where the bike is going feels like, but it’s not always a ‘given’ when people get started. A female mountain bike instructor finally told me that inevitably where your eyes look, your bike will go there too. This changed my life! Haha! So that tree I wanted to go around, if I focused too hard on it (because I wanted to avoid it) without spotting with my eyes the alternate path around, sure enough, I would go right into that tree!

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
Of course!! I still have a mental block with rocks (probably because we don’t have many in FL)! It’s like if I see them, I freak out inside, my skills I’ve worked so hard on go to crap, and I talk negatively to myself. Again, I just take it slow, calm myself down, and tackle what I can. I think something that really helps me is that even minor accomplishments on the bike make me really excited, so I can sort of forget about the stuff I can’t do yet (like big rocks!). I’m a beast at roots! LOL

What do you love about riding your bike?
I’m sure this question gets you a lot of long answers because there are so many things to love. Mine might be a little strange. The challenges I’ve been telling you about are real and my skills were not natural in any way. It has taken me so long and so many miles to feel comfortable and in control on my bike, and that’s my favorite part! It’s a challenge every single time I ride. There are always going to be things I can improve on. If I did what comes naturally to me, I would be a weightlifter or do crossfit competitions or something, because that is what I’m best at. Mountain biking scares me, hurts my feelings, pushes me down, but when I get through a tough course or event, it’s just that much more rewarding knowing how hard I worked to get to where I am. Nobody knows how I feel on the inside, but me. I think people assume that it’s easy for me, or something that’s a natural fit, but that’s not the case. I love it because I have never liked easy ☺

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I have the 2015 Giant Brava SLR. It is a cyclocross bike. I chose it because I live in Blackwater River State Forest and there are lots of dirt and gravel roads. I wanted to be able to commute wherever I wanted and not worry about having to stick to paved roads only. This bike was my transition into off-road riding and it got me hooked! I’ve done one cyclocross race on this bike and that was pretty awesome as well!

I also have a Salsa El Mariachi – single speed. It is a steel frame, but has a Whiskey carbon fork and a nice American Classic wheelset. I got this bike because I felt like I could handle most of terrain here in FL on the cross bike, so I didn’t see the need for suspension. Also, I wanted to take it on bikepacking adventures with my husband and there’s just less fuss with a ridged frame. I don’t have to worry about adjusting the shock fluid pressure or anything like that. I switch it back and forth from geared to single speed, but single speed is definitely my most favorite way to ride.

How did you get started with participating in endurance events?
My husband definitely had a big influence in getting me involved in endurance riding. He was Did you know there are people who bike for hundreds of miles off-road and camp along the way?" and I was like..."That sounds awesome! Let’s quit our jobs and do that!"

We still both work full time and now I’m also back in school, but one day, we will be seeing the world by bike! For now, we train the best we can for ‘shorter’ distances while learning what we need to bring for particular distances and temperatures. He has really helped in doing most of the research and purchasing our gear so that all I need to focus on is being physically and mentally ready for a ride.
With long-distance endurance events, how do you prepare yourself?
I ride a LOT. The best way for me to get miles in is to commute to work by bike. It’s about 20 miles away so I can get 40 miles in each day I can commute. The rest of the miles come in on the weekends. At one point this summer, I was doing about 200 miles each weekend for maybe 6-7 weeks in a row. We also found some other crazy people to do these rides with us who were willing to start at 3am to avoid the heat. I don’t do any special training programs and I definitely can’t afford a coach, so I just ride.

Tell us about your favorite event that you've participated in-
My favorite event by far was the Tallahassee Tango. It is a 160-mile self- supported/ self-navigated mostly off-road ride from Tallahassee down to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and back. The people who do this event aren’t in for bragging rights. I can say that because it’s a small event with no prize money. There are no people along the course cheering you on, except for the event coordinator, Karlos and his fiancĂ©. The best part was that at the finish (11pm for me) my husband was the only person standing at the end of the road on a sidewalk, waiting for me in the dark. The only people who knew what I had done were my family and close friends who were tracking me using spottracker.com.
There was hardly anyone else around me the entire time. Any people I passed were genuinely happy that I was feeling strong and doing well. There was nothing but encouragement from other riders. It’s just great to accomplish something like that all on your own and have only those people, who really care about you, know about what you’ve done. It is a beautiful course you share with some really down to earth people!

You have a women's group: Women's Adventure Riding, tell us about your group and how women can get involved-
The group is really small right now, but I started it because I noticed that the local off-road riding groups were male-dominated and were holding group rides at a pace that was way too quick for casual riders and people just starting out. There was no way a person just starting out was going to enjoy riding in one of these types of rides. I decided to open the rides to only women because there just weren’t any women-only rides being held in my area.

Women can get involved, in general, with their mountain biking communities by holding women-only events. If anyone has questions or would like tips on how to get started, feel free to contact me. As far as getting involved with Women’s Adventure Riding, just by sharing and liking the page on Facebook is a HUGE help to spreading the word about us.

Why do you feel it's important to have women's groups?
It is important for me to provide an atmosphere where women can be themselves while trying something new, or polishing up on skills they already know. Women are encouraging and supportive by nature, and taking them out of a male-dominated environment helps them express those traits even more. It’s amazing the positive talk that occurs during the W.A.R. rides! I love it and it seems like the local ladies appreciate the opportunity to ride among other women as well.

What has been your biggest struggle with establishing your women's group? What has been your biggest success?
My biggest struggle has been getting the word out to women in the area that these rides do not foster a harsh competitive environment. It’s hard to reassure them that they will not be made to feel like they are holding anyone up, that they are not an inconvenience, or that they will not be made fun of if they fall or wipe out. It is just really hard to get women over that hump. Once they show up though, it seems like they really enjoy the rides.

My biggest success is when I get asked ‘Ashlynn, when are you going to have another ride?’ It lets me know that what I’m doing is making a tiny difference in my community.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
Fear. Definitely fear. Fear of being injured. I think women sometimes have this idea that mountain biking has to be descending down a rocky mountain or cornering so fast you nearly rip your arm off on a tree. They don’t realize it can be just a low-technical trail in the woods with the sunshine and wildlife. You don’t have to go fast and you don’t have to battle rugged terrain. You just have to get outside!

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
Oh gosh! Now I get to vent. LOL I have two major pet peeves when it comes to women and mountain biking. I HATE when other female mountain bikers post their injuries on social media. How the hell are we ever going to get women out on mountain bikes if we post nasty pictures of our wounds?! It won’t happen. It doesn’t make you tough because you crashed and tore up your elbow/knee. We need to be posting pictures of women riding together and having a great time if we want more women to get involved in this sport.

OK now for number 2:
I have seen over and over again at local bike shops that men are offered a higher quality bike than women. They sell down to women if they aren’t familiar with their abilities or riding style. Doesn’t it make sense to make more money? And isn’t someone more likely to stick to a something new when they have the best, most comfortable, equipment to use? I even heard about a local bike shop ‘hiding’ the larger sized women’s shop jerseys behind the counter and not putting them on the floor in the clothing area. This is unacceptable. These both seem like they would be a counterproductive business practice, but I guess I don’t know much about selling biking products to women ☺ I think more women would get into mountain biking if shops treated them as if they were equal to their male customers.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
I don’t really know what my inspiration is. I just know that more women would be able to enjoy this sport if there were more women promoting it and working together.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I love to read, I’m obsessed with podcasts, and I hate cooking. I read a great book recently called Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo.