Women on Bikes Series: Mary Avenanti

I am a mother of seven grown children and grandmother of five. I am a graphic designer, copywriter, researcher, and publisher by trade.

I am a recently certified 200-hr RYT (registered yoga teacher) and avid kayaker and mountain biker.

Nature is where I go to collect all my thoughts, gather my emotions, and refocus...I ALWAYS find freedom and serenity there...in the woods or on the water.

Tell us about the introduction to your #bikelife and what it entailed-
I grew up in a family of ten children. For my tenth birthday, I finally got a bike. it was a large, re-purposed 'old lady' bike. (Not the cool high-handle bar/banana seat bike my sister got.) Parents painted it blue and I had to share it with some of my siblings. I rode the hell out of that bike! I used it to race the boys in the neighborhood, and still have the scar on my knee from my first major crash.

I tasted freedom on that bike and bought my first ten-speed with money from my first job at 16.

More freedom...my first real taste of mountain biking happened on a family vacation in Winter Park, Colorado. I was deep in kids and family responsibilities at the time, so it wasn't until almost ten years later, in the midst of a divorce, that I was able to experience riding dirt again.

The first thing I bought for myself after my marriage disintegrated, was a trail bike from Decorah Bicycles. I rode the gravel back roads out to Volga River State Park, lifted it over the cattle fence and hit the horse trails. My body and mind were beginning to remember the freedom. 

Life stepped in, new jobs, new location, kids were the focus and the Giant remained in the garage, unridden, for years. My youngest daughter took it to Ames for school and it was stolen in the first week. Se la Vie. I wouldn't return to biking for another five years...

Tell us about your introduction to mountain biking? What made you decide "Yes! I want to get better at this!"-
There is a program here in the Cedar Valley called Nature Force. Nature Force is the brainchild of Mary McInnis, yogi, mountain biker, kayaker...she is 500 RYT and the program grew out of her love for yoga and biking and nature. She recruited local experts to help train women to kayak, mountain bike and run – a 12-week program that readies participants for a local eco-triathlon (Rugged Toad) at the end of August. Kayak-run-mtb. I was a runner most of my life. From the time I was 12, I ran competitively until I turned 50. I fell in love with kayaking years ago, mostly as a leisurely activity, and have been a yoga student of Mary's for eight years. So I trusted and signed up....full of trepidation, especially over the mountain biking.

The first year, I was terrified. Really! I walked the bike a lot. Anything that scared me I got off the bike and walked. Up or down or through trees, over rocks...I did a lot of walking that first season. I showed up for every practice session though. Something kept calling me back; the taste of freedom and being in the woods. I started to remember how much I loved the woods.

You did not become involved with off-road riding in your youth-years, but rather in your adult years. Why do you feel it's been positive?
In my youth, I loved riding my bike, but the only time I had an off-road experience I ended up going way too fast on a descent into a wooded area on my cousin's bike. I lost control of the bike, went into the trees and landed in a creek. to this day I get a bit nervous riding near rivers and lakes, especially on the edges of steep embankments :)

I started practicing yoga seriously about 10 years ago. Before that, I was a runner, through grade school, high school, college, and well into my adult life. Raising seven children in a broken marriage had its stresses and running was my therapy, then yoga. Like I mentioned previously, About three years ago, Mary McInnis, and the Nature Force Program inspired my participation. I witnessed her excitement and the joy she was finding in mountain biking.

My progress in mountain biking felt slow and frustrating.
I was scared, overly cautious, and I was much older than most of the women who had signed up. I was also inspired by them. I observed, I walked up and down hills, walked over any rock larger than a golf ball, walked between trees, and slowed to a crawl on all the bends in the trails. I cried from frustration because I wanted to ride so badly. I wanted to experience that freedom and my body was remembering that freedom I felt on a bike when I was younger. I remembered my love for the woods! I improved gradually and I was my own worst critic; the leaders and the other women in the program were encouraging. I did not race at all that first year, except in the Rugged Toad, and I was thrilled to finish! I really felt a part of something bigger with the other women in the group and the supportive biking/kayaking community in the area. I started to feel, after living in the area for more than 30 years, that I had finally started to rediscover myself in a safe and accepting community. My voice was respected, and women started letting me know they were inspired by my efforts.

I signed up for a mountain biking clinic in Omaha that fall. I cried there too! I, again, was the oldest by about a decade. But I hung in, tried everything, practiced, and listened to the coaches. I still hear them when I ride today, a year and a half later! That camp was certainly a turning point in my confidence. I started to understand better how mountain biking worked, why balance was important, why and how my body position mattered. (Being a creative person and a mathematician, I have a deep desire to understand the intricacies and dynamics...this is, of course, a double-edged sword. That awareness certainly can empower a rider, but can also hinder progress with overthinking and overanalyzing situations.)

What would you say has been your biggest motivation for riding?
Freedom! Feeling free in body, mind, and spirit is what keeps me heading back out. I feel like I am flying...it's just magic. riding in the woods is, for me, a moving meditation. Mountain biking requires intense focus. Constant reading of the trails, any bends, descents, climbs, and obstacles can be navigated safely and effectively only with intentional focus. My mental clarity and problem-solving ability are always better after a ride in the woods. Once I started riding regularly. I began eating better and sleeping better than I had in a really long time. I truly look forward to the rides and do anything I can to get a ride in. I overcame my fear of being alone in the woods in the dark and rode in the dark last winter. I found it so peaceful. I left behind so many fears, rational and irrational alike. My blood pressure and heart rate are back to what they were when I was on the college track team.

I take the confidence gained from conquering obstacles on the trails and bring it into my everyday life– at work, in my relationships, with my family, and in my own personal goals and accomplishments. My perspective in life has shifted; everything is an adventure and one of my new mantras became "remain curious.

Curiosity goes a long way toward overcoming obstacles on the trails. Don’t judge the bend in the trail, remain curious about how the bike will roll through, about your skills available to you, about your mindset, and let go of outcomes. It's about the experience, and when a person remains curious throughout, the doors remain open to all possibilities.
For folks who feel they are "too old" to mountain bike, what would you say/suggest?
I have 60 years of life experience and on my 6th birthday, I rode the Decorah trails on my fat bike. Three days later I set a PR at Ingawanis on the fat bike! I would say that mountain biking can be approached cautiously. I’ve never considered myself a risk taker, however, calculated risks are in my toolkit, and the freedom I feel out there on the trails is worth it to me. I love the sense of empowerment I feel when I overcome the fear that previously stopped me from experiencing the thrill or joy that usually results. Life is way too short to sit on the sidelines. Adulating is intense, my day job is stress-filled. All I have to do to relieve that stress? Simply think about the next time o get to go play on my bikes.
There are some great mountain biking movies out there, one has a scene where the boss is yelling at the employee for staring at a picture on the wall all day. He yells, "What is so great about that picture?" Of course, it's a picture of the trails, Whistler, I think. I feel exactly like this at work, me daydreaming about riding the trails. Another thing I think is important to remember is that it's your ride...always. It's not about being as fast or skilled as your neighbor. It's skill set and mindset, build one and the other comes along. Everything I learned on the trails I take into life; I have learned so much about myself! I have found my voice- I've been speaking up and sharing more, at work, in relationships, with my kids, and in my community. Do not live life by the numbers! I feel younger and healthier and more energetic than I ever have, and I'm having so much fun!

Clips or flats? What do you use and why?
I found flats to be very helpful, especially when learning the basics on a mountain bike. Some flat pedals have a lot of real estate for my feet and flats give me the option of re-positioning my feet if needed. I have been working on taking corners a bit quicker or smoother (or both) and with flats I can put a foot down or take my foot off the pedal while leaning, even if it never hits the ground. Also, when learning basic skills, like being able to stop on an incline or descent without falling or letting go of the bike etc. There are many instances when taking a foot off the pedal quickly is helpful and can deter a fall, etc.

When first learning all the ins and outs of riding on soft trails, it's nice to be able to focus on reading the trails, one-finger braking, bottom off the saddle, weighting the front or getting weight back etc. without having to worry about getting a foot unclipped.

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
Have I had any accidents, crashes, slow rolls into a tree...etc? Yup. Like I said before, I was overly cautious at first. Until I learned to look ahead on the trail, I had such a hard time riding through trees. It took a while to figure out that the bike goes wherever you are looking, so look past the trees, and like magic, the bike goes right through...look at the trees? The bike heads right for them!

I learned to navigate, to put serious effort into reading the trail ahead, and navigating obstacles mentally before I got to them. I moved faster and smoother on the trails. I gained confidence, and rode faster and rode more challenging portions of trails I was afraid of before.

In the Fall of 2016 at White Rock Conservancy when heading down a descent at a decent speed on a new trail, I lost control on a drop-off. The terrain was red clay and sand that fell away from beneath my front tire, it happened really fast. The bike went one way and I went the other. My helmet cracked when my head hit the ground, and my hands were horribly bruised. We were out in the middle of nowhere and the quickest way back to camp was to ride the rest of the trail, so I did. That was a good thing, it kept my mind off of my hands. The palms of my hands and up into my fingers turned purple almost immediately.

I found out later that the lockout lever on my front shock had malfunctioned and I had been riding the bike with the shock locked out for weeks- No travel at all. More lessons learned. I was more determined than ever to continue riding and apply any new knowledge to improving my experience on the trails.

Writing about it helped a lot and talking it through with other riders helped as well. It helped me process what had happened, what I could have done differently if anything, and what skills could have helped. I have been working on those skills since. I am a much more assertive rider today than when I started out, it is truly a wondrous evolution.

Being forced to get back on the bike right away really helped. I finished out our weekend riding the rest of the White Rock trails. Having a supportive, non-judgmental riding partner was helpful too!

Since then, I have gone over the handlebars once or twice, and have gotten kicked off the bike a few times. No serious injuries. I didn't fall the whole first year I rode..and that was ok. It's ok to ease into it, and it's ok to jump in with both feet pedaling hard and fast! It's ok to do anything in between. It's your ride...always YOUR ride.

One of the revelations or "aha" moments I had recently, a life lesson learned on the mountain bike trails was learned riding the trails at Banner Lake in Indianola. Banner is challenging. A lot of punchy climbs and more than one scary steep descent. At one, in particular, I stopped at the top (it was my first time on this trail and Chris was shouting out tips and features. I saw him go over and had stopped to hear him) I looked down that descent and was readying for my 'jumping off the high dive routine' where I try, chicken out, and try. This time I said "I'm not going down this tonight. I'm too emotionally and mentally fatigued to fight with my mind right now." That was truly freeing. I didn't feel bad about myself, I didn't stand at the top in angst; I recognized my fatigue and took care of myself.

How do we heal? We remain curious...about how a crash happened, about steps we might take to prevent it, about awareness building, and about our skill set and our mindset. We continue to love the amazing people we are, give ourselves high marks for the courage it takes to be out there, and our attitudes of loving and living life to the fullest.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Not long after riding George Wyth for the first time in awhile, I thought about the ascents, the descents, the twisty trail between trees...how it all was so scary to ride in the beginning. I had walked so much, up and down and through trees etc. George Wyth is the flattest and easiest trail in these parts, however as a beginner, I found it intimidating.

How the hell was I supposed to get the bike through those trees so close together? No way am I going down that hill...with rocks at the bottom? Are you nuts?

Cornering? Ha!

Mountain Bike camp helped a lot...and practice. Practice does not make perfect, but practice does make stuff more permanent!

Skills Drills in parking lots or in the yard, or in the street for ten minutes a day. Seriously, just spending more time with my bikes help. The more time we spend with anyone, including our bikes, the more we learn about each other.

Watching MTB videos! :)
What do you love about riding your bike?
Ha! How long do you have? The sense of freedom. How it literally feels like flying, like magic in the woods, I have a personal relationship with each of my bikes..they each have energy that's a little different...but mostly I learned and am still learning to trust them...each of them...and really enjoying learning to let them move under me. It is my go-to for stress relief, for sorting, for meditating, for playing, playing, playing!

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
My first bike was a basic hardtail, Fuji Addy and was an unexpected gift from my sister and brother-in-law who own Action Bikes in San Antonio Texas. I learned all the basics, was super cautious and the Fuji carried me through the first year or so with grace. I learned so much, took her to a mountain bike skills clinic and was told the fit was off quite a bit and was too big. I rode her for another year and shed ten minutes or more off of timed routes on trails, even on a bike that was too big! The reach was way off and I'm sure my body position was not ideal because of it.

I rode cautiously and gradually improved over the year+ that I rode the Fuji. (she became my trainer this winter).

I bought a Specialized Hellga fatbike and it was a mega confidence builder. Fatbikes feel sturdy and supportive underneath you. The geometry (which I began to understand a bit better) really fit me so much better than the Fuji. This was my first experience with a bike that was the right fit, and it felt playful. Although she weighed as much or more than the Fuji, she felt so much lighter and bike handling really started to make sense. I learned so much and most importantly, I learned to trust her. Trusting the bike will do what it's built to do, and that's huge!

I gained a ton of confidence going over rocks, and my climbing improved 100%. I rode the Hellga in the snow and even raced her in the snow. I took some winter trips to Missouri and rode her on rocky descents, up and over chunky boulders. Ripping down a twisty descent is so f**king fun if you have the confidence and skill to do it, but before that it's scary. Period. Climbing can be frustrating, but once skills and stamina are built, they are more fun. Really, probably not a word most mountain bikers would use to describe climbs, but they definitely become less frustrating! You get to the top faster and can hit those awesome downhill sections sooner. :)

My experience on the fatbike led me to my next decision to purchase a full suspension trail bike. After much research on quality, price range and fit I settled on a Specialized Camber Comp 29'er. Pure bliss is all I have to say about it. I put in a lot of hours on a mountain bike in the last two and half years and felt my skill level was ready for this bike. Decorah Bicycles' Travis and Josie were super supportive and spent one whole afternoon (not kidding, we were there for four hours) letting me try different bikes, running 'fit' numbers, sharing their knowledge and I could not be happier with my choice. I bought the bike on my birthday in April, picked it up a week later and have already put tons of miles on it...ride every day I can! I named her Magia which is 'magic' in Italian (nickname Camberghini ;))...playful, similar fit to my Hellga, moves amazingly well under me and absorbs the terrain beautifully. I'm enjoying learning new skills and practicing old skills with renewed perspective. All with a better understanding of how things like balance, bike/body separation, using legs to power things like manuals, body position to lean the bike, rear wheel lifts, and all sorts of subtle body movements that direct my energy where it's needed and letting the bike respond to that energy...Magia is very responsive....
I love all three of my bikes...and when I first started riding I didn't understand why anyone needed more than one. Honestly, to get started in learning the basics and riding local trails, a basic nice quality bike is all that's needed. Find a bike shop that will spend some time with you and listen to your needs and wants.

Why do you feel a women's clinic was/is helpful for those new or experienced in off-road riding?
I just experienced an all women's clinic and I liked it a lot; the first clinic I went to was co-ed. It was advertised as all levels, and was well done, however as a newbie I was very intimidated and also felt I was holding up the group. There was not as much opportunity for women-specific issues (and I am talking about anatomy.)

More times than not, the fact remains that some women are not as experienced in this type of activity and some of us were not taught as girls to take risks. The boys could climb the tree, but we were told to be careful and no climbing (not ladylike). When I raced my bike and got scraped up, when I went to explore the woods with the boys and got hurt, when I had snowball fights and got nailed from them, climbed trees, etc. I was told, "I told you not to play with those boys. You can't do the same stuff they do." This message followed me into adulthood and I think it was the same for many women in my generation. Women have been infantilized at every turn for a century or more. We believe on some core level that we are not as capable and yet we manage so much in our lives that screams the message "you are capable!"

Off topic a bit. Just learning to stop apologizing on the trail and learning to own our badassedness. Feeling emotionally safe is important and especially important when you are feeling vulnerable. Women usually know how to offer support and understanding to other women. Can relate to their fears and frustrations. We understand each other's tears, and we inspire each other through moral support. So yes, the women's clinic was awesome and we are still teaching and learning from each other.
For folks on the fence about mountain biking, do you have any suggestions that might help them gain confidence?
I think I would encourage them to try it a few times before giving up. The fear is a tough challenge for men AND women alike. Learning and practicing basic mtb skills on pavement or flat ground is something I wish I had done more of before I hit the trails the first time. A bike that fits properly is very helpful, finding a patient coach or mentor who is willing to walk you through the little things more experienced riders don't think about like how to navigate roots, rocky or sandy surfaces, trees... even riding on grass is very different than riding on hard surfaces. No one taught me about gears... that would have been incredibly helpful. Even knowing the names of the major bike components and how they work increases understanding and inspires more trust in your bike. Learning to trust my bike was huge. Letting it do what it's built to do really freed me up to focus on my responsibilities as the rider.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
Fear of injury. Lack of confidence. Wearing too many hats and remaining in the caregiving role, feeling guilty about taking time for themselves. Putting others first and their wants or playtime last. Lack of support from family and 'friends'. (My family thinks I'm a little nuts. Resent to an extent, the time I am taking for myself after spending decades caring for others.) I'm much more free of negativity and drama, finding freedom in all aspects of my life. Free to be my authentic self.

Also mountain biking takes time to learn. Have to focus and gain some technical skills. So not as easy as running or walking or riding the road. So supportive community is vital.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
Well, the industry can get more serious about making quality bikes (with 29 inch tires) available to women. There is a huge opportunity for them to cater to women, find out what women want in bikes, accessories, clothing, and shoes. The number of women ages 40 and over who are interested in mtb is growing fast, so cater to them! We want to give you our money! Give us quality women-specific stuff to spend it on...and ASK US!

I think education is in order. Educating ourselves. Educating the bike shop owners. Owning our knowledge and power and letting them know what we want and be confident enough to demand respect from them. SHOW them that we know what we want, what we need etc.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
I know from personal experience and from seeing first hand the changes in other women, that mountain biking is truly empowering stuff. It pushes women out of their comfort zone faster than most physical activities, it requires a regular mindfulness practice when out on the trails, we are constantly forced to face our own fears and get to the root of them...this is not an easy path. To be honest, sometimes it just sucks...however, when we shed the layer, reveal our truths, and conquer that downhill, rocky ascent, first wheel lift, successfully corner etc, or navigate a drop...what a rush, what a feeling of accomplishment! We ride off the trail and take that confidence and fearlessness into all aspects of our lives and holy moly, it's the best kind of magic...I have seen women (Mary McInnis included) morph into spirited, confident, supportive, empowered loving warriors.

I want to share a Facebook post of mine- "Two summers ago, I started mountain biking with a group of local women and that Fall I attended a MTB camp in Omaha led by Ryan and Roxzanne Feagan. There I met Wendy, another curious and somewhat terrified MTB student. We brought up the rear in most activities, and most likely stood at the top contemplating drops and descents long enough to grow roots. cut two years later and we meet again... at a MTB race of all places! she reminded me today that while she was hesitant and felt completely out of her element at camp, she did not cry, like I did... point being we both lacked confidence and skills, but we showed up all three exhausting days, and we were inspired to just keep going. Now, look at us! This sport, this community-- who knew empowerment could be so much fun! Congrats Wendy, it was WONDERFUL seeing you out there Truly a highlight of a crazy fun day ridin' bikes and playin' in the mud! #natureforce #randroutside#mtblove #gratitude"
Tell us a random fact about yourself!
There are so many! The question is which do I not mind sharing! My last three vehicles over past 15 years have been five speeds (manual, stick....) I'm pretty sure I was a race car driver in one of my past lives! I drive with no shoes and bare feet in the summertime, then I'll wear socks when the temps get cooler. I'm very tactile and gotta get intimate with the clutch!

I love socks...nothing more comforting than sliding tired or cold feet (that serve us so SO well!) into some great, soft, warm socks...and nothing more empowering than pulling on my favorite pair of MTBing socks when getting ready to ride. :)