Women on Bikes Series: Heidi Kanayan

It all started at a young age due to my dad love of motorcycles. At the age of 5, I was gifted my first motorcycle and the two-wheeled adventure took off from there. I loved riding it and the adrenaline rush from the start.

Finding People to ride with was always tough. Even though I had a younger brother who rode, the fact that we didn't see eye to eye on much didn’t help nor did our almost 5yr age gap. So I was relegated to ride alone but my mom had qualms with this.

Her main concern, aside from injury, was that I was a girl alone on the trails and that the male riders would take advantage of me. After multiple failed attempts to sneak out of the house to ride without my mom knowing (that engine did not make for a quiet getaway), I switched to mountain biking.

It was helpful that I was also able to fix any attempts to disable my mountain bike unlike on my dirt bike. Sad to say but I never did learn how to work on my motorbike. My mountain bike gave me the freedom to anywhere I wanted and to get out of the house and set out on my own adventures. The fact that I grew up in a home that backed up to the national forest and hundreds of miles of trails was a huge perk. It was also great that I could ride my bike virtually anywhere unlike my motorcycle. The cops and sheriff aren’t too pleased to have a dirt bike without street plates and lights to be driven on city streets even if you live in the mountains. I was also under the age of 16 so there was no driver’s license option. My bike was my transportation and I could sneak out of the house whenever I wanted without being noticed. FREEDOM! I convinced my parents to take me to a race. So in 1998, I started racing my bike at the local cross country center. Now I know my bike had been my means of transportation for a while but I was a horrible and slow climber so that first race was brutal. Thanks to all my time on my motorbike the technical sections of trail were a breeze.

It was interesting to learn that a lot of the other riders, though very capable and fast on the ascent, were very intimidated by the descents. So I began to set to work on my climbing fitness. In that time I started to look further into the varying disciplines of mountain bike racing and discovered downhill. The light bulb went off! So let me get this straight, you take a lift up the hill to ride down the trail. The trail its self is littered with technical features. There is little t no climbing involved? What!? Okay, I am in! I had one BIG problem. I needed a better bike. When most 16-year-olds were asking for a car I was asking for a new mountain bike with suspension front and rear. They complied and I got a 1996 team addition Gary Fisher Joshua Y with Rock Shock Judy, 21 speeds. I still have her to the say and refer to her as Old Squeaky. My intention was to race Downhill but as I looked into all the gear that was needed and the cost of it the races, I decided to stick with cross country for a while. This morphed into later racing cyclocross in 2003, Super D in 2005 for the first time and US Nationals at Mammoth Mountain, 24 hour mountain bike races and later in 2007 Downhill, thanks to a downhill bike loan from a friend at Specialized. In 2013 I competed in my first Enduro race at Mammoth Mountain and decided to race in the Pro field.

Over the years I split my time between my bike and alpine ski racing. Unfortunately, I have sustained multiple knee injuries over the years due to skiing. Some of these injuries and their necessary rehab time have taken a great toll on my bike racing career and have forced me to put my goals of racing professionally on hold. The upside is my physical therapists are thrilled that I love to bike. This love has aided me in all of my recoveries from my many knee surgeries. The time I have spent recovering has taken away my opportunity to really make a go at a mountain bike racing career. Though my most recent injury of two fractured vertebrae in my neck was on my bike. It has told me it is time to get back to riding for fun and sharing that love. At this time I am four months out from that life-altering injury and I am happy to say that I am back out on my bike. Things are still a bit fuzzy as to how far things will go racing wise (for fun) and technical riding wise, but it is good to be back on my bike. Like always my bike is helping me through all of this. Every time I go out things feel better and I feel like I can get back to where I was. It will be a long trail but I will be on my bike for it all until the end.

Facebook: Heidi Kanayan
Instagram: hmkanayan

When you were younger, why do you feel the freedom that #bikelife gave you was so important?
Ever since I was young, my mom and I have never really seen eye to eye on things. So my bike was my way of escaping the house and our fights. She didn't understand why I preferred to spend my time participating in sports or my approach to doing homework. It always got done and I had good grades so I did not see why it was a big deal that I did not do things the way she would do them. As I got older, my bike became my mode of transportation and gave me freedom. It was also a way of getting out on the trails when I didn’t have anyone to ride motorcycles with. My brother was too young and we didn’t really get along, so riding with him didn’t really work out. My parents didn't allow me to ride moto alone and it was kind of hard to sneak off with a running motor and my mom knew where to cut me off. I could sneak out on my mountain bike and go somewhere in stealth mode. Even after I was old enough to get a license, I held off because I had my bike and I loved the fitness I gained from riding everywhere.

Tell us about your decision to start competing- what was your inspiration to ride competitively in your teen years and beyond?

I have always been competitive and had a dream of being a pro athlete. Getting paid to do what you love?! Sign me up!! I grew up ski racing but didn’t start young enough so I knew that would not be my professional competitive path. My parents were not so sure about this aspiration and stressed that I focus on school. So there was a lot of butting heads over my choices to compete but competing made me feel alive and gave me the feeling that I accomplished something that I valued. I had my bike and when I got to high school some of my male friends raced and I asked them if I should give it a try. They told me to go for it. I did my first race at the local cross country ski center that summer. The climbs were really hard but I loved the descents they took you to and that had me hooked. As the years went on I discovered Super D racing (predecessor to Enduro). A friend loaned me a downhill bike one summer so I could try it out and I had a blast. Then there was Enduro. The perfect mix of endurance and downhill.

Out of the events you've done, which would you say is your most favorite?

The ones where I feel really fit and ready for! Hahaha! But really, the 24-hour race at Killington Vermont had a great course. It had flowing single track through the trees and the most amazing loam soil. So much fun! During my laps around 3 a.m. I began to hallucinate that the headless horseman was after me, fell and had no idea I was on the ground and forgot it was summer at one point due to some twinkly Christmas lights. Downieville Classic!!!!!!!!! (it is on the do again list) Love that race! I raced the omnium in 2009 and crushed the downhill and held my own on the cross country. I am working on being that fit again. For that race, you had to race both the XC and DH on the same bike with all the same parts. The DH is 17 miles point to point and the day after the 29mile point to point XC race. Any cyclocross race. They are so fun and the vibe is amazing.

For folks who have not participated in an event before, what advice would you give to someone attending their first one?

Believe in yourself and go for it. You will never know until you try. I wish someone had told me that when I was younger. A race or ride will only be as hard as you make it. Have fun! Have enough food and water and ask your friends who bike for recommendations of what to try. Try the food you are going to use in a race beforehand to know if it will agree with you or not. Did I say have fun?!

Can you take us back to your first few mountain bike rides? What did you learn from them that kept you coming back for more?

Gosh, that is a hard one. Well, I transitioned from a motorcycle to a mountain bike because I wasn’t allowed to ride my dirt bike on my own. So the first thing I learned was that I really missed my throttle for the up hills. My right grip on my mountain bike was a twisted mess over the years due to me wishing (and twisting) that I had a throttle. I saw this as a challenge though, so I dug in and worked on my climbing and made peace with walking and being slow for a while. I learned that downhills were fun and reminded me of my moto. My dad instilled in me to avoid rocks so it took a bit before I got my first flat. When that happened I quickly learned to always have a repair kit with me and some tools. Since I was the only rider in the house, I had to figure out how to work on my bike on my own. My brakes were not working very well after several rides, so I took the levers apart and had springs popping everywhere. I figured out then that I needed new brake pads and to not mess with my levers. When in doubt call a bike mechanic or search the web.

Clips or flats, what do you use and why?

I use clips largely due to some knee issues I have, however, flats are great for beginners. I’m a big believer in personal preference and what is best for the situation. That being said everyone who wants to be a skilled rider needs to learn to ride with flats. I really wish I had done it more once I started racing. It teaches you a round pedal stroke and how to move with the bike, especially on jumps.

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?

Oh crashing……um, yeah…..well….Biking has helped me come back from a few knee surgeries and allowed me to prolong my ski instructor career. However, since 2009 I have blown out my knees 3 times and most recently fractured 2 vertebrae in my neck. The first knee op was 6 months before I crushed it at Downieville. Due to growing up riding a dirt bike I got used to crashing, dusting myself off, and getting back on because it was the only way home. So when I biff on my bike, aside from the cuts and scrapes, I don’t really think much of it. The times where I have hit my head, blown up my knee, dislocated things, or had to go to the hospital to have gravel cleaned out have had me take a step back. All in all, I have only had about 4-5 big wrecks that really affected me. The blows to my head, same with cuts, scrapes, and joint issues needed time to heal and strength training. My blown knee sidelined me for about a year and it was really hard to deal with mentally because it was a year after I had already had it fixed.

It definitely made me rethink jumping. But I soldiered on and I don’t jump when it is windy anymore and worked more on perfecting my technique. What I have found to be my greatest strength, and sometimes a crutch, is my ability to look at a situation and to know if I can or can’t pull it off, or to know if it is really worth it. But out of all of this, my most recent injury to my c5-c6 cervical vertebrae and head is the worst mentally. I know physically I will get back to where I was, but to be back to square one and having to rethink my whole life has been hard. I also realize more every day as to how hard I hit my head and as to how much it affects my day to day life. I feel like Will Smith’s character in Fresh Prince “my life got flipped turned upside down…” It's going to take awhile to recover from this one and I am trying my best. It's hard and I have to remember to be patient. I have some great friends and family who are helping me out. One of the hardest things is that I have had to move back home while I figure things out. It has motivated me to simplify things including what I want out of biking and life. I am going back to my roots and happy to just be on my bike.
When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Going up steep hills without stopping, not falling into bushes, and going slow. Hahaha! I am so guilty of target fixation. I attended a skills camp when I was younger with Team Go Girl and they helped me think of looking at the trail and where I wanted to go instead of the bush next to the trail. I have also learned to session things I have trouble with, and to watch other riders who can clear said feature to learn how they handle the feature. With climbing, it came down to embracing the pain and setting out to find the longest hill I could find to work on climbing it without stopping. Then to do it faster. It helped that I had a teammate for a training partner who had an insatiable appetite for climbing. Her minimum initial climbing ride is an hour. Others were 3hrs. I would dream about the slice of cake, burrito, or the large plate of food I would eat after. All in all, I am an observer of others more skilled than me and my background in riding moto has helped me out immensely, except for going slow. That was until I discovered slow races. So fun and great for mixing it up on group rides.

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

Features that give me the most trouble are gap jumps, drops with a sketchy lead-in, and off camber or flat turns. My whole philosophy is starting small/slow and breathe. With gap jumps it is all a work in progress. I did not grow up jumping so I have a lot of trouble gauging how much speed I need to connect a jump. The more time I spend playing with jumps the better I get. Following and watching better riders helps a lot too. In the grand scheme of things, I try to not let it bug me because I know that if I crash I may not be able to ride the next day. I really want to ride the next day. As for drops with a lead-in, it's all a work in progress; this is an area I have a bit of trouble with. It was getting better while I lived in Mammoth because the riding there is one piece of awkward trail to another piece of awkward trail, so I had to be on my toes all the time. Then you mix in the pumice and it is all awkward. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anywhere to easily or safely session and practice features that gradually got bigger and harder. While riding at Whistler and playing in their skills parks I was finally starting to see some improvements, but a move to a developing bike park staved off some of those improvements. The lack of challenging trails and features caused me to get sloppy. When it comes to cornering, my go-to is to start slow and work on my braking, tipping my bike, angling/twisting my body, and trusting my tires. Lots of trust in my tires. Then slowly increase my entry speed into the corner. For all of this, breathing and patience.

What do you love about riding your bike?

The freedom it has afforded me and the adventures it has taken me on. I have seen some amazing places and sights and I have only barely scratched the surface of what can be seen and ridden. It also makes me feel alive and is my own personal roller coaster where I am in control of the thrills. The challenges that riding has presented me over the years has also made me a stronger person and forced me to not give up.

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

The first bike that I really rode was a ridged Sport Mart (think Walmart) bike that was an add special. It was cheap.

First real bike: 1996 Gary Fisher Joshua Y team addition. It was full suspension and I wanted to give downhill a try, but it only saw xc races!

2004 Rocky Mountain Slayer. I was ready for a real bike with disk brakes and could go both uphill and downhill.

2005 Specialized S-Works Epic. It was time for a real xc race bike.

2004 Giant TCR. First road bike! Training bike!

2004 Giant Anthem. I broke my Specialized and it was a great bike for a great deal.

2007 Specialized Big Hit. I was a demo that was loaned to me so I could race DH. I later bought it for a steal.

2010 Giant Glory, single crown. The Big Hit was stolen and this was a good deal.

2012 Rocky Mountain Flatline. I needed more suspension then the Glory.

2012 Felt Z2. New carbon road bike. It’s carbon it has electric shifting!

2013 Intense 951. First nice DH bike!!!!!

2016 Liv Intrigue. Needed a bike to race Enduro and be able to ride up the hills.


With no racing on the radar- what biking goals do you have for yourself?

The focus is going to be 1) Getting my fitness back that will enable me to ride any length trail/ride I want. 2) Ride for the fun of it. 3) Let go of the what ifs. If there is a race that looks fun, the goal is to be able to enter and do well, maybe win. I am tired of being slow and weak. I have had this crazy idea of being able to ride a double century in a day. Think of the base miles that would entail!!! How awesome would that be?! So cool! I also want to give back to the cycling community with skills clinics and empowering women to get on a bike and kill it at any level.
What are your thoughts on not riding competitively vs. for enjoyment? Is there a sense of excitement? Relief?
I have always ridden for enjoyment and loved racing. I will find my way on to a racecourse at some point but they will be fun races and I will avoid crazy DH races. Racing was a way to travel, meet people and ride new trails. At this stage, the likelihood of having any sort of pro career that would pay for itself is not going to happen. I am okay with that, as sad as it makes me. I have won the races I wanted to win and attained the titles I wanted to attain, even if the big one was last year. That makes all of this bittersweet. In the end, my race season last year was really frustrating. I was the old lady on the circuit, yet I am not old, and I had a hard time connecting with the other girls. Could be due to talking too much due to nerves. I was traveling alone to all the races, where in the past, I had teammates. I made a few friends but still felt alone. I was riding horribly and was having a lot of trouble putting a race together. Something that once came naturally to me. The relief is that I can go ride with friends and not stress about how to cover race fees. That money can be better spent on adventures and seeing new trails. If I do race, I am going to see if I can race in the master’s class. Most of the women I grew up racing with are in that field and I miss them.

On a side note. Since answering this question I have gotten back into racing, for fun. I set a goal to race and win the last Sturdy Dirty race in Big Bear, California. Well, the good news is….. I did it! I won! Best news!! I was excited to race and not scared or driven to panic attacks. So I guess you can say that I’M BACK!! To race for fun.

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

The sport is intimidating. I am a great rider and there are days where still don't feel I am good enough. As for getting women on any sort of bike. That is a hard one. I am not sure how to answer that. I used to say the clothes needed revamping, but that has been taken care of. It is hard to find a selection in most shops though. At least it is hard for me to find the type of clothing I like that is feminine but also functional. Can’t say I am a fan of a tank top while riding my mountain bike. Hmm, road rash and bad sunburns. The more time I spend in the industry the harder it is to pinpoint the issue. I have often said that we need more women working in bike shops and shop employees that are encouraging of getting women on bikes of any style. The more I travel, the more I see that happening. Women are social beings and having an area with a strong women’s riding group has done wonders in getting women on bikes. In the end, I would say it has to be us as women spreading the attitude of inclusivity and support to one another to get out and ride. No judgment. No drop. To remind others that the ride will only be as hard as you want to make. If you want to go slow, go slow. Just ride and have fun.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
In any local area, I feel it comes down to having a strong social network of women to ride with and encourage each other. The industry is making a huge push in demo tours and fun rides, so let’s keep them going and invite your girlfriends to come with you. Here in Southern California, due to the passion that drives Wendy Engelberg, we are fortunate enough to have the Girlz Gone Riding organization. I have been involved with a few women’s cycling organizations over the years, Velo Bella and Team Cycle, and the outreach programs that Wendy has been putting together. The community of female cyclists that has grown from this effort is an awe-inspiring thing to watch and to be a part of.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?

I need my girls!!! My self-indulgent side knows that if there are more women out riding our clothing and protection offerings will get better. That means better, cuter, and functional clothing and bikes!!!! Truly, it is an awesome thing to see a woman or a girl find her wings to soar through riding. I have seen so many women learn that they can take over the world and achieve anything they put their mind to simply because they were able to ride the rock garden or switchback this week that they believed to be unrideable last week. Oh, and having people to talk about hair and fashion. The guys don’t seem to be into that as much.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
Deathly afraid of spiders (seriously, I moved out of my room once for 3 days due to a huge one) and though I hide from pictures, I actually really want to be in them. Especially action shots. Hahahaha!