Women on Bikes Series: Bonnie Larson

Hi! My name is Bonnie, I’m 56 years old, and I love to mountain bike! While I currently teach high school math, in my former career I flew refueling aircraft for the Air Force and passenger aircraft for a major airline. I guess that’s where I got my sense of adventure!

I live in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota with my husband, Ray, and during the summer, my son Rowdy.

I bought my first mountain bike in 1991, a Schwinn Paramount. I had friends in the Air Force who mountain biked, and it seemed like a fun thing to do.

To be clear, I didn’t really “mountain bike” at the time, but just rode in the woods when the opportunity presented itself. I still have that bike and use it to commute to work.

We lived in Florida for a time and after riding at Santos Mountain Bike Trails, we were hooked! Part of their trail system meanders through the woods between the Ocala horse farms, which is perfect for family rides. After moving to Minnesota, we continued to explore the trails but didn’t really become serious about riding until Rowdy joined the Minnesota High School Cycling League (MNHSCL) in 2013.

Rowdy now rides both mountain and road bikes for the University of Texas Cycling Team in Austin. Ray and I coach with the Roseville Area Composite Team, and Ray is the social media director for MNHSCL. Because Ray spends every race weekend on site, I have volunteered in virtually every position on race weekends, setting the course, parking cars, running the skills obstacle course, riding sweep for girl’s races, acting as a crossing guard, course marshal, etc. I am also on the MNHSCL Demo Team, which trains our league coaches on skills and how to instruct them. I coach at the league’s summer camps, direct Dirt School for a community ed program, and have helped coach at the Liv Ladies All Ride clinic in Bentonville and the Copper Harbor Women’s Weekend. I have both IMBA Level 1 and PMBIA Level 1 certifications and am the Liv Ambassador for County Cycles in Roseville, MN. I lead road and mtb rides out of the shop and do ladies’ workshops as well.

Social media links: 
IG: @bonlovesbikes, @county_cycles
FB: www.facebook.com/countycycles/

Tell us about the introduction to mountain biking and how it influenced you from then on-
I always enjoyed mountain sports like downhill skiing and hiking and was an avid runner and racquetball player. On a trip through Colorado in the mid-90s I went mountain biking with a friend and had a great time, at least on the downhill portion of the ride. However, I eventually moved to South Florida, which had a shortage of both mountains and mountain bike trails, so I spent more time riding horses than bikes. After Rowdy was born, Ray and I began to explore the dirt roads in the Everglades by bike and ultimately discovered singletrack around the state. The more we rode, the more we liked it. We booked a trip with Sacred Rides to the northern rim of the Grand Canyon and knew we had found a sport that the entire family could enjoy.

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!"
I like to say that although I have had a mountain bike for many years, most of my time was spent just riding through the woods, not “mountain biking” in the sense that I know it today. Who knew that there might be a set of skills to be a better rider or techniques to help negotiate the iffy spots on the trail? Over time, I learned there is a fine line between having fun and scaring yourself, and even though I crossed the line many times, I still had a grin on my face from the experience. I always wanted more, and that’s when I knew that mountain biking was the right fit for me. 

When it comes to buying a mountain bike, do you have any thoughts or suggestions that might be helpful?
The best bike is the one you will ride. That being said, buy the bike that fits, does the thing you want to do, and makes you a more confident rider. If you’re new to mountain biking, don’t worry about what features your bike may or may not have. Just keep improving your skills and when your bike no longer does the thing you want to do, trade up.

Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
I ride primarily in flats unless I am in a race, sweeping a high school race, or riding with people I know that will leave me in the dust. I switched to flats about three years ago. I find I am more in sync with the trail and more confident knowing I can bail if need be. I feel less pressure to be fast and am free to be more playful on my bike. I believe the switch has vastly improved my riding and would encourage other riders to give it a go to see what happens.

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 am currently recovering from a broken clavicle, my first major injury on a bike. I haven’t yet ridden since my accident, so am not sure how I will react on the trail. I am going through the phase where I am second-guessing my decision-making and wondering why I’m flying over drops and jumps when friends my age are content spending time with their grandkids! My biggest challenge remains how to become a better rider while getting older and where my limits should be. I have a few friends close to my age who took big spills requiring surgery and time off the bike, which has not helped the dilemma. It’s not like there are many older women bombing the downhills that we can use as role models! I feel riding is now more of a mental game, taking risks and believing I can continue to improve as a rider while entering my senior years. 

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Keeping my eyes far enough down the trail and trusting peripheral vision was not something that came naturally to me. I thought that if I kept the rock or other obstacle in view, I would miss it, but you know how that story ends. Also, I took many spills before figuring out weighting, especially in corners, and I’m still working on that. Cornering is something I hope to be good at one day. 
Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
I learned to ride cross-country on old-school trails, so the speed of flowy singletrack and jumps still intimidates me. I would like to say I’m getting better at them, but my broken collarbone would not agree! Skinnies are also a nemesis, particularly if they are more than 12 inches off the ground. While I know I can ride in a straight line, I am not a fan of heights. If the fall might be much worse because of the height, I tend to think twice before attempting. This is where I find it important to focus, keep a positive attitude, and concentrate on the can instead of the can’t. However, in the end, some days you have it and some days you don’t. It’s important to be able to tell those days apart and give yourself permission to attempt challenging obstacles on another day. 

What do you love about riding your bike?
I love being outdoors in all sorts of weather. I love the feeling of freedom that riding a bike provides. I love feeling like a kid and being able to play on the trail. I love the community of bikers and seeing riders (myself included) accomplish something new, especially if they previously didn’t believe they could do it.

What did you love most about your son having joined the NICA league while he was in school? 
After Rowdy joined the local high school mountain bike team, we quickly came to realize that race weekends were the absolute best weekends of the year. On race weekends, a horde of like-minded parents, racers, and volunteers descend upon a venue, creating an atmosphere unlike any we had experienced in other sports. In NICA, it’s all about getting kids on bikes. While performance has its place, the majority of the riders won’t podium and are there for the fun of it. Racers from competing teams cheer for each other, hang out in hammocks in the woods, and brutally push each other on the race course, only to laugh and cool down together when the competition is over. Kids that may not have fit in or warmed the bench on high school sports teams find themselves racing for points since in NICA, every rider competes. Race day is a big outdoor party with food, music, friends, and fun. Everyone finds their place in the tribe, a group of adults and students athletes united by their passion for mountain biking.

Through MNHSCL, Rowdy has made friends across the state that he visits and shares riding adventures with. In addition, he has traveled to places such as Arkansas, California, and Utah to ride with teams from those states. NICA is like a big family with members ready to ride with you wherever you go. 

What do you enjoy most about volunteering your time with the MN NICA league?
The sense of community in NICA extends to the parents as well as the athletes. On our team, parents are quick to pitch in and help out in one capacity or another, which I believe fosters a greater sense of ownership and belonging. Many of them are bikers themselves, so we began to have our own rides and social outings apart from the kids. We formed a group of moms of the bikers, the Crank Muthas, who began riding together during practice, some who had never tried mountain biking. Several of the parents also coach the team. This group of parents has become our closest friends even though many of our riders have graduated. Ray and I weren’t quite ready to leave NICA, so we continue to coach and volunteer for the Minnesota League. On any race weekend, we’ll be somewhere on the grounds, sweeping the course, assisting parking, acting as crossing guards, etc.
What do you enjoy most about becoming certified to teach mtb skills?
Being a teacher, it seems to be in my DNA to help others gain confidence in their skills, whether it be at math or at mountain biking. I enjoy the relationships that are formed by interacting with riders, and I enjoy when you are able to explain or demonstrate a skill so someone understands. I love seeing riders grow in ability and confidence and knowing that I helped in the process.

Tell us about being a Liv Ambassador and why women should apply for ambassador programs-
My favorite times are spent on my bike and I like to share that experience with others. Being a Liv Ambassador for County Cycles allows me to do that, whether it is through organizing rides, coaching at clinics or camps, or just getting out and riding with other women. I especially appreciate that Liv bikes are designed by women for women, and how Liv seeks to create a community of female bikers. I feel that when you’re involved with a shop or a brand such as Liv, more women will make time to come out and ride in a group, and it gives your efforts credibility. 

Women should apply for ambassador programs because of the opportunities to learn about riding, bike maintenance, or the bikes themselves. And of course, the opportunity to meet fellow bikers! It connects us with other like-minded women and creates a common bond between us. Just like in NICA, I have crank sisters across the country who I can reach out to ride with, even if we’ve never met before. I think it’s this type of kinship that makes the world a little better place to inhabit.

What do you enjoy most about helping women (and young women!) become more confident with mountain biking?
Biking can a very empowering experience for women, taking them out of their comfort zones and forcing them to stretch their limits. I think many women, especially younger women, have not given much thought to what they are capable of or how powerful they are, or what a difference they can make. I think biking gives women a glimpse into different possibilities, the confidence to try something new, and the permission to pursue their desires, whatever they may be. 

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I currently have 4 bikes but, as you know, life on a bike is n + 1. I still have my first mountain bike, a 1991 Schwinn Paramount, which I use to commute to work. I keep it around because it’s a fun bike to ride, especially if I wander off the road on my way to or from work. My current mountain bike is a Liv Pique Advanced 1, which is incredibly lively and responsive. I ride a Salsa Beargrease fat tire in the winter or whenever I feel like being a kid, and a Liv Avail Advanced for the times when the trails are closed, and I’m forced to ride on the road.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
I think many women do not get involved in cycling for many reasons. First, cycling, especially mountain biking, can seem intimidating. Ads and videos portray images of mountain bikers barreling down a mountain catching air or dropping off sheer rock faces. It looks plain scary, not something a sane person would attempt without placing themselves in grave danger. On the road cycling side, distracted driving is an issue that regularly shows up on the evening news. Again, too dangerous. Second, most of us lead incredibly busy lives. We are doing so many things that adding anything more would require us to drop an existing activity, or time with family, etc. that we might enjoy. Or, we may be so busy we have not even considered it. Third, I don’t believe many women know other women that mountain bike. While the percentage of women in mountain biking is growing, it is still just a fraction of the male population. I feel one would have to have a great deal of confidence to show up at a trail and head out without having a companion providing support. 

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
As bikers, we should be helping others to join the tribe. We need to reach out to bring down any barriers to women interested in trying out the sport. We should create a community wherever we live. Invite a friend to bike. Make a point to meet and ride with other women. Show new riders a more realistic picture of mountain biking. Get them on a bike, keep them safe, have a good time, and empower them to do it on their own. The joy of the experience will take care of the rest.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
I just love riding! Many people have helped me with my mountain bike journey and I want to share what I have learned as well. Mountain biking is a sport that continually offers up new challenges and you can take it as far (or not) as you wish. It always seems fresh and exciting and I would like to pass on my enthusiasm for it to others! 

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
Random fact – During Operation Desert Storm, I was deployed as a pilot to the Gulf. On the deployment, I flew an airplane around the world, departing to the west and arriving home from the east!