Monday, October 1, 2018

Women on Bikes Series: Becky Mikrut

Hi! I am Becky Mikrut and I race mountain bikes and cyclocross at the elite level. I am also the founder and manager of the all-women mountain bike racing team, Skunkworks Racing. I serve on the board of directors of the Chicago Cyclocross Cup. By day, I run an internal creative powerhouse as the Americas creative director for JLL, which is a commercial real estate firm.

I grew up in western Michigan, but I’ve lived in Chicago for 13 years, which I’m told is long enough to make me an official Chicagoan. My childhood in Michigan created my deep love of the outdoors, but Chicago is really the place where my bike life began.

I started commuting by bicycle after college. I was broke and someone gave me a bike for free. It was a 1980s turquoise blue Peugeot hybrid and her name was Penelope.

Over time I began commuting in the winter and I got a vintage road bike, and through that I had the realization that I was pretty fast at biking and I wondered if bike racing was a thing? Can adults do that?

I googled bike racing and came across a great video (https://vimeo.com/9952653) of the Chicago Cyclocross Cup and I wanted in. It was weird, hard, and most of all fun. From there, my boyfriend (now husband) told me I had to learn to ride off road so he took me out on mountain bike trails on my new cross bike. It was crazy hard, I fell a lot, but I was hooked. I also thought this must be better on a mountain bike. Turns out, it is!

Eight years later and I have achieved some major accomplishments on the bike—including a recent podium at USAC Mountain Bike National Championships—and have been extremely involved in cycling from the organizing side.

I have been co-leading women’s group mountain bike rides called the Dirt Days around Chicago for 7 years now, have organized and hosted MTB and CX skills clinics, did some community organizing under the guise of Pretty.Fast. and Illinois Women Cyclists (both now have evolved into efforts lead by new women leaders), was previously a Trek Women’s Advocate, and have served on the CCC board for 3 years running. As much as I love racing and riding bikes, I enjoy helping other people find that freedom and enthusiasm too!

You can find me on social media at:
Instagram: @bekasaurus and @skunkworksmtb
Facebook: Becky Mikrut and Skunkworks Racing
Twitter: @bekasaurus and @skunkworks_mtb

The introduction to your #bikelife started off more commuting than competitive, tell us how the evolution of #bikelife inspired you to help others find it, too.
At first, my #bikelife was all commuting. It was the easiest and best way to get around and it still is. I found my way to competing because after riding for a while, I realized that I was missing competition. I had played competitive sports through childhood and high school, from tennis and soccer to figure skating. But I was never good enough or passionate enough to continue those sports as an adult. With cycling, I felt like I finally found the sport that was the ideal match to my body and my abilities. No doubt, all that experience in those other sports prepared me to be a strong cyclist- from the short bursts of quad power from jumping on ice to the body awareness and strength of mind from soccer. I realized that I really missed competing and when I learned you could compete in cycling as an adult—in fact some the fastest women around are well into their 30s and 40s (Gunn-rita Dale, what!?), I just found that really awesome and worth sharing. However, joining a new sport as an adult is also intimidating and I want to remove those barriers to entry for others as much as I can.

Tell us about the joy you found with Cyclcross-
Cyclocross combines all the weird bits of my athletic background plus my new love of cycling all into one. The way that it combines bike handling, different terrain, the dismounts, remounts, and running barriers is just so unique, it always puts a smill on me face—well, after the race at least! Plus, the scene at a cyclocross is amazing. It’s a great entry to competitive cycling because they are shorter races and super spectator friendly. There are always people cheering for you and it’s an easy way to get to know other racers. There is something really great about having fierce competition with someone on the course, and hugging and high-fiving after. It’s probably my favorite thing about women’s bike racing.

For someone who hadn't participated in a bike race before, what was your biggest inspiration to participate?
I saw the energy and the challenge of it and wanted to give it a try. I was in a place in life where I wanted something new and this was it. Little did I know it would totally suck me in and take over my life, but it was worth it. I also just wanted to know if I could do it. I remember standing on the line to start my first race and Tony (now my husband, boyfriend then), had made a big sign that said “Go, Becky Go!” which caught the attention of the woman next to me. She and I chatted—she was an ER nurse who was just out there racing for the workout before she went into her shift later that day. That blew my mind! I was totally destroyed after a race, and here was this woman who would race just to get out there and then go work a shift where she’s on her feet all day. To me, that says anyone can race and find their own purpose and goals within it.
Why do you feel folks should participate in a cycling event at least once?
It’s really liberating to try something new, and maybe something that scares you a little. I think any time I race I feel butterflies in my stomach. That nervous energy as I line up to do something is a little bit magical. It’s great to push yourself and try it, and try not to get caught up in the numbers and placements. I used to really pay attention to my placements like it was the whole point. When I finally learned to let that go and just race to have my best day, I actually started getting better results. So, do it for fun first, glory last.

Another great reason is the people you meet. I have met all of my best friends through bike racing. I have friends from all walks of life and we come together over this shared experience. While one of us may be a creative, another an accountant, or another woman who is a minister, we have these shared qualities of hard work, seeking challenge and overcoming it, and a love of cycling. And we socialize by riding bikes—and the food and drinks we get after.

Your husband was the one to introduce you to mountain biking, what was the experience like?
The first time we went, I just really wanted to impress him and not quit. But I had enough fun that I wanted to try it again. He was very patient, but perhaps he made a few choices that were ill-advised in retrospect. The very first time we went, I was just learning to clip in and so every time I fell, I couldn’t get my foot out of the pedal Slowly it got better, but at first, mountain biking was really hard! My riding style now is very much like my husband’s—I love to jump things and get air, and I love the harder, more technical trails. After I got my bearings on the bike, following him around has helped me learn to ride things that I would have not tried on my own.

Finding a group of women to ride with helped a lot too. I had a teammate I started riding with and it helped that I could keep up and follow her lines, and also I thought “If she can ride that, I can ride that,” and it inspired me to try things I would have stopped at.

Some folks do not have the best experience when their significant other introduces them to a new sport/discipline. How did he make it positive?
I remember one time when I threw a tantrum on top of a big ravine. My shoes felt too loose, I was hot, I was not having fun, and I was NOT riding that. Tony was wise enough to stop and say “Ok, you’re not having fun anymore. We can be done.” He knew that if I wasn’t having fun, I wouldn’t want to do it again. So he was smart enough to recognize all the signs and pull the plug before it was too late. I think that made a huge difference. He would also wait at intersections and come back and ride with me until I got better.

Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
Mostly clips. I learned on them, and between cyclocross and cross-country MTB with the climbs, it makes the most sense. I do occasionally ride flats when I’m learning new skills because the bail-ability is higher and it helps you feel more willing to try something new if you know you can easily put a foot down.

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
Oof, I can’t remember any notable ones on the mountain bike, but I have certainly had them on pavement. I was hit by a car on my way to work maybe 5 years ago now, and I broke my right hand and my cheekbone. I had to have plastic surgery to fix my face, and that was really hard to get past. I had some PTSD from it and I was very nervous riding in the city. But, I knew from previous minor falls that the sooner I could get myself out there, the less it would become a big thing in my head. I did actually start with the mountain bike. And while I was afraid of falling and breaking more bones, mountain bikes seemed safer because trees don’t move—cars do. Eventually, I found my comfort on the bike again.

Generally, I’d say if you’re not crashing sometimes on a mountain bike, you’re not testing the limits. Crashes are part of the game. I have so many scars. My signature move for a while was washing out in corners and ripping my elbows open. I think I overcame that by learning to corner better through practice and some clinics and understanding how to calculate that risk better.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Riding over big things—rocks and logs mainly. It’s a total mental block. I surely remember endo’ing over a log when I ran straight into it. To overcome that, I attended several skills clinics in my first couple years of riding. I was fortunate to go one where Shaums March was the coach (a stellar downhiller who wrote the IMBA coaching program) and another coached by Alison Dunlap (a retired Olympian and world cup XC racer). Having those skills broken down into steps and understanding the physics behind WHY the bike will respond the way it does helped me wrap my head around it and overcome those challenges. If you can sign up for. Skills clinic, DO IT. It helps so much! Mostly, the challenge of riding over big things is mental more than anything else, so I just had to practice once I knew the how and the why.
Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
Riding over big things UPHILL! Same challenge, just harder. I was afraid of riding up and over big rocks last summer. There is this rock between two trees on this trail in Brown County, Indiana, that I have walked up for YEARS. It was silly, I knew it was mental. My husband told me “Picture the rocks like dirt. They are the trail.” And that helped. Finally, I just decided to try it. What’s the worst that would happen? I’d fall? Ok, I fall a lot.

So, I tried it, I got up over it, then I stopped and grabbed the tree. He observed that the only reason I didn’t keep riding is that I didn’t actually think I was going to make it, so I wasn’t prepared. He was right. So I did it again and cleared it. That mental aspect is huge. You have to visualize it, believe you can do it, and a lot of the time, you’ve already got the skills to do it. But… I still chicken out on things like this from time to time. I went back to being afraid of big logs uphill after that rock. And for that, I just kept trying it until I got it because now I KNOW it is mental for me.

For folks who are nervous about giving mountain biking a shot, do you have any suggestions on how they can go about creating a positive experience?
Adopt this mantra: When in doubt, walk it out! You may find yourself riding with people far more experienced than you and feel upset that you can’t keep up or ride things like they can. But, remind yourself it is OK to walk. When you are not sure, walk the line. You can see it and then decide if you want to try it. And if you don’t, just walk past it. I still have things I walk. I have trails that I ride clean one day, and walk parts of the next. So remember each day is different, and give yourself some slack. And when the scale tips from fun to not fun, call it a day. When you are tired, you make more mistakes, so know when it’s time to be done. Listen to your body and you’ll know. Beyond that, look for some women’s rides or groups and clinics to help you find your tribe and learn some skills so you feel more confident.

What do you love about riding your bike?
Being in the forest! I love being surrounded by trees and the beautiful sights you see while mountain biking. But I also love going fast and catching air. If feels like flying, and that equals freedom.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I have 3 mountain bikes. A Trek Top Fuel 9.8, Trek ProCaliber 9.8, and a Trek Fuel EX 8. My husband bought me the Fuel EX as a wedding gift. It was my first full suspension mountain bike and I like it because it’s a slacker geometry that makes it great for trying new stuff and riding gnarlier trails. I chose the ProCal as my race bike 2 years ago. I have always raced on a hardtail and that bike is a hartail with a little bit of kindness. It handles so well and climbs super fast. I got the TopFuel last year after watching some ladies ride away from me on some rocky bits on full suspensions. Plus, my back was bothering me, so I figured it was time to give it a try. The bike surprised me because it is fast and nimble and is now my race bike choice 80% of the time.

You have been involved with advocating for women and biking for several years- what was your inspiration to do so?
I just really like the joy and freedom I feel from riding a bike, and especially mountain biking, that I want to share it with others! But I also love the community—I have made all of my best friends through cycling. And specific to racing—I was so happy to find a sport that I could compete in as an adult and I want other women to know that is possible, and for girls to be exposed to non-traditional competitive sports.

Tell us about your cycling team, Skunkworks Racing-
Skunkworks is an all-women competitive mountain bike team based in and around Chicago. We focus on racing specifically because while there are many women mountain biking these days, there are still very few at races. I selfishly started the team to unite the few women I’d see at the races and to have buds to race with. It is so awesome to have teammates on the start line, and also just awesome to have such a strong, talented, and fun group of women to be teammates with. We all face the same challenges getting to the trails in our big city, and there’s camaraderie in finding other women who are willing to jump through the same hoops to do so.
Why do you feel it is important for women to be involved in the cycling industry?
So that we no longer enter a bike shop and feel unwelcome! And so that we find products that work with our bodies, and that we are no longer treated like second-class citizens in the bike world. Having women in bike shops, in product development, in outreach and community building, as team managers helps raise the collective awareness that we ARE 50% of the world, and it makes for a better experience for everyone. I feel fortunate to live in an area where most of the shops have moved past the patronizing view of women and bikes, but occasionally while traveling I will enter a shop and have that experience where I’m talked down to or ignored, and it is enraging! The more women in the bike industry we have, the less frequently this will happen.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
It’s scary! There’s a lot of technology hurdles and cost barriers to overcome. That and, most women did not ride mountain bikes as girls. Most of us didn’t build ramps in our driveways and launch our bikes off them. So we have to start from zero—where men have an innate understanding that goes back to being encouraged to do these things as boys.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?

Locally, I think we have a really good women's community, but I think we can always be asking ourselves if there is more we can do? Road and cyclocross are huge, and more and more women are trying mountain biking which is so cool. So, maybe we could have a bike shop that rents mountain bikes closer to home? Or has a demo fleet of bikes with a full size range so women can try mountain biking before the investment.

You are a former Trek Women's Advocate, tell us about your experience as an advocate and why programs like that are beneficial-
I think the Trek Women’s Advocacy program is awesome. They have done a great job of assembling some really rad women and equipping them with the knowledge to help change the bike industry and grow women’s cycling communities. They are also putting it on the retailer to change the way they sell and train their teams to better serve female customers. After all, women predominately hold the purchasing power.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I was once in a pin-up calendar of Chicago women cyclists that raised money for the Chicago Women’s Health Center!

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