Women Involved Series: Gloria Liu

I'm a writer, mountain bike racer, and editor-at-large at BICYCLING magazine. I specialize in enduro racing, but I love all kinds of riding: I've raced XC, 'cross, and even a little bit on the road; and I most definitely enjoy just-for-fun rides, my quick daily bike commutes, and sunny days at the bike park.

My path to cycling was a little unconventional. When I was younger, I partied a lot. I now recognize that I was searching for a sense of excitement, wanting to push into places that felt out of control and unpredictable, and I just didn't have a healthy outlet for it. I had a promising career in finance, but I dreamed of a more adventurous life.

I wanted to feel passionate about what I was doing. Eventually, I quit my job and went to New Zealand to be a ski bum—it was an experiment in doing something I loved every day. Chasing winter led me back to the US by way of Aspen, Colorado, and when the snow melted, I found mountain biking. I was hooked immediately.

That eventually led me to a job in the bike industry, in Boulder, where my coworkers introduced me to racing.

How I got into journalism is yet another story, and involved quitting my job and traveling again—maybe we'll get to that in the questions. :) But I've been at BICYCLING now for three and a half years, and moved to Emmaus, Pennsylvania for the job. I edit all kinds of stories, but my favorites are personal narratives and profiles about interesting people—and those are my favorite stories to write, too.

I started focusing on enduro racing about two years ago. I love the social aspect of the race format—the best races just feel like one big group ride with your friends. And I love the community. It's been a fun and at times funny journey (I wrote a story about the ups and downs of my first season for BICYCLING), but last season was a solid one. I won a few local races in the pro/open category, was 2nd in my age group at Nationals, and was the women's champ in the enduro classification at the Trans-Sylvania Epic Stage Race. The past couple years have taught me a lot about racing, and about myself. I'm looking forward to doing more of the nationally competitive Eastern States Cup races this year, and going back to the Nationals.

Tell us about the introduction to mountain biking and how it influenced you from then on-
I found mountain biking relatively late in life. I was 27. My then-boyfriend and I had moved to Aspen, Colorado to be ski bums. He was a mountain biker. When the summer rolled around, we went to the local secondhand store and bought me a 2002 Kona Bear full-suspension trail bike for $400.

My first ride was up this soggy dirt road that was waterlogged with snowmelt. We just climbed up and bombed back down. I loved it immediately, and I hadn’t even touched singletrack yet. I knew I would go all-in.

Can you take us back to your first few mountain bike rides? What did you learn and what made you say "Yes! This is for me!"
As I mentioned, I was already all-in after ride number one. That was good because my second ride was at the Snowmass Bike Park. “You’ll be fine,” my ex and his friend assured me. We were doing legit downhill trails, and I remember being pretty scared. My arms were so pumped from braking after just a couple runs.

That day, I learned just three cardinal rules that I still tell beginners: 1) On descents, keep your weight back. 2) Don’t pull the front brake on its own. 3) Look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go. Fortunately, that’s actually how I learn best—just being thrown in over my head and having to figure it out. Later, I’d learn that this isn’t the best way to teach everyone.

What do you enjoy about the various styles of mountain biking, since it's an all-encompassing term for XC, Enduro, DH, etc.
I love it all. I started racing XC about five years ago, now I mostly race enduro, and the past couple seasons I’ve had a season pass to our local bike park. But I also ride on the road, and I’ve raced ’cross too. I think it’s cool to be well-rounded enough as a cyclist that you can jump into almost any ride—road included—and have a good time. And I love racing. It’s helped me tap into my competitive side, and it’s taught me a lot about what I’m capable of. I think as women, we’re often socially discouraged from being outwardly competitive. But if you have that personality, racing gives you a healthy outlet for it.

Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
Clips. I learned on them.

Tell us about your favorite race(s) and why you enjoy them-
I love enduro racing. It’s an experience, not just a race. Because most people pre-ride the day before the race, even a one-day local race becomes basically a weekend event. Plus it’s a pretty small and tight knit community. I also like the personalities of enduro racers—it takes a certain amount of YOLO spirit to embrace that style of riding. I get along with them well. They’re my people.

My favorite enduro was the first one I ever did, which actually doesn’t exist right now. It was called PA Rocks (R.I.P.). There were only about 70 racers, and it was two big burly days in the backwoods outside State College, Pennsylvania. It just felt like one big group ride punctuated by moments of hanging on to your bars for dear life. I met all these new people and it was so much fun.

Last year I also did my first stage race, the Trans-Sylvania Epic. I loved it for similar reasons—just the sense of camaraderie we built through the week, and the total escape from work and daily life for five days. My mom was laughing at me when I told her that was how I wanted to spend my vacation days. She was like, “Will you ever just take an actual relaxing vacation?” But after finishing TSE I felt more recharged and energized than I would have lying on a beach for five days. And I walked away with first place in the women’s enduro classification! So that was pretty cool.

For folks on the fence about doing a bike race, do you have tips or suggestions that may help their first experience?
I think for their first race everyone mostly worries that they’re gonna be last. But just remember that if there’s a decent field then statistically speaking that is highly unlikely. :) In all seriousness, I’d just say, do it. You might mess some things up, but everyone has hilarious stories about their first races, so you’ll be in great company.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Right when I first started, I had issues on very exposed trails—singletrack that has a sheer drop off on one side—which there are a lot of in Colorado. The trick that helped me then was one that was key when I was learning to snowboard too—look where you want to go (down the trail), not where you don’t want to go (over the edge).
Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
Cornering! I live in eastern Pennsylvania now, where the trails are very tight and technical. There are lots of rocks, logs, and turns. I didn’t learn to ride on trails like this, and I really admire riders who can corner fast in tight, twisty terrain like this. I do get frustrated sometimes if I feel like a skill isn’t “taking,” but I try to remember a thing a friend said once: “Never be angry on your bike.” I liked that a lot because it made me think about how many things had to be right for me to even be riding a bike: I have to have the financial means to have a bike, I have to be healthy and able-bodied, I have to have the luxury of free time to even be out there doing a recreational activity.

In the meantime, I practice. I’ve done a few sessions with a couple of coaches, and one day a week I usually dedicate a ride solely to skill-building. I’ll go out by myself and not worry at all about the pace, and just work on a single skill.

What do you love about riding your bike?
Going downhill :)

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I just bought a Pivot Switchblade. It’s an all-mountain bike with 135mm of travel. I wanted a 29er, because big wheels just roll faster and make getting over stuff easier. Why not? I rode the Switchblade once during a weeklong bike test a year ago and never stopped thinking about that bike. That’s when you know.

Tell us about your journey into the world of journalism and how it has influenced you.
I always wanted to be a writer. It was my childhood dream. But my parents, who are immigrants from Taiwan, always told me that I should pick something more practical. They both grew up poor, and they drilled into me that in America, we don’t take chances. You pick a career that is needed and you make sure you’re the best at it because if you’re not people aren’t going to give you a second chance. (They’ve since definitely softened on this, but this was what I was brought up to believe.)

So I studied business and worked in finance. I was pretty good at it and got promoted quickly, but I always felt like I had other skills that I wasn’t using. I ended up quitting my job to ski bum for a couple of years, and at the end of that, I got a marketing job in the bike industry. I started writing for a local cycling website. When I turned 30, I had this moment where I was like, what am I waiting for? You only live once. So I quit my job again and freelanced and traveled. While I was spending the summer in Chamonix, France, I pitched BICYCLING Magazine on a story about mountain biking in the Alps. They told me about a job opening for a gear editor position. I had no journalism experience, but I figured it was a way to possibly grease the wheels for a future freelance assignment. I ended up getting a job offer instead.

Working in journalism, writing, and editing, I honestly feel like I have found my career. I think I could do this for many years and be very fulfilled.

You work as a features editor for Bicycling Magazine, what do you do and why do you love it?
I edit and write stories of all kinds: profiles, narratives, interviews, special packages. I love the process of writing, but I also love editing. I love the fact that even if I’m not the best person to write a story, as an editor I can make a story come to life. I love working with writers, seeing how the talented people create. I love brainstorming ideas with other editors. I love hunting down story ideas. I love the idea that the stories we create could change the way people behave, inspire them, and maybe change the world in a small way.

Why do you feel sharing the story of cycling, in its various forms, is important?
If cycling calls to you it can help you discover things about yourself that can make you a better person. (Sorry if anyone’s eye-rolling but I believe this to be true.) For myself, cycling helped me discover my sense of self-reliance and self sufficiency, how far I could push my body, how I could work for something and have that hard work pay off, and how I could trust myself as an athlete to perform under pressure. Bikes can offer lessons that help us get through challenges in life.

I also believe in the limit of bikes. I don’t think cycling can help you find answers to life’s biggest questions. I think cycling can cause problems in our lives when we chase it too single mindedly. Still, cycling is a really effective conduit for telling a story about the world because it’s a unifier. In a cycling magazine, we can talk about bigger issues like abuse, discrimination, poverty, illness, disability, the environment, because we’re starting from a common ground, which is bikes. Readers who might not think they want to hear a story about one of these topics can relate with a subject because we all have the same passion. Bikes give us an “in.”
What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially in mountain biking?
I think the cost of entry is a huge deterrent. When a decent full-suspension bike can cost upwards of $2,000 at a minimum, that’s a huge investment for people in general—and I do think that, for whatever the reason, women are more reluctant to spend that much money on equipment. (I don’t have numbers to back this up, just anecdotal experience.)

I also think mountain biking has a steeper learning curve than road riding. It seems like most people who get have someone or a group of “mentors” who took them out for their first rides, taught them basics like how to lift your front wheel, where to shift your weight on a descent, and basic skills we take for granted as proficient mountain bikers. So if you don’t have someone who’s interested in mentoring and coaching you beyond your first ride, you’re less likely to get involved.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
I’m not sure how much this is an economic reality, but we need more and better entry-level bicycles and parts that work well. That price point is where most new riders enter the sport, but if the experience isn’t good, they’ll stop riding before they can really fall in love with it, let alone get into buying nicer stuff.

There are good things happening in that regard—both SRAM and Shimano’s lower-end 1x MTB drivetrains are solid, for example, and brands like Santa Cruz have brought their popular models down to aluminum versions—but in my opinion, frames and wheels on sub-$2,000 bikes still have a long way to go. Lugging around a 33-pound beast with no rear suspension when you’re already trying to learn all the intricacies of trail riding is just not fun, and if that’s the beginner experience, we’re going to continue to lose a lot of riders in the first few rides. Being on a lighter, capable bike can make riding so much more enjoyable, and ultimately the more people who can get access to bikes like that, the more our sport will grow. But most of the development happens around the higher-end stuff, which I’m sure makes near-term financial sense for companies. I wish I knew the solution to that.

On the bright side, women’s-only rides, festivals like RoamBike, and clinics like Lindsey Richter’s Ladies AllRide series, seem to be blowing up. I think they’re doing a lot of the important work of that mentoring and guiding for newer riders, as well as simply connecting women to other riders. The success of these events is showing that there’s a lot of demand, and it’ll only give rise to more events.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
Mountain biking can be so empowering. You can ride out into the backcountry for hours on your own and discover how it feels to be self-reliant, and to solve problems on your own. It’s a very tangible way of seeing that if you put time into something you can get better. It’s a way to get into nature after being stuck in an office all day. It’s a way to meet people. And more importantly, it’s just really fun. I wish everyone would fall in love with it.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I’m a certified scuba dive master. You said “random”! :)