Women on Bikes Series: Clarissa Finks
Right now that new still consists of taking things day-by-day and figuring it out while relying on my previous skills and expertise in product development that was built over the 10+ years I worked in Hardgoods at Burton Snowboards.
I’m currently working part-time as a consultant for a local company launching a new product line and racing mountain bikes professionally for the Liv-Co Factory team and Earl’s Cyclery, a local bike shop.
I grew up in Maine, went to the University of Vermont and, much to the dismay of my mountain biking Momma, didn’t start riding bikes on dirt until I was a senior in college.
I pretty much started riding and racing at the same time when a friend on the UVM Cycling team got wind of the fact that I had a mountain bike and approached me with the offer of a lifetime…"We have a race this weekend and since you’re a girl and have a mountain bike, all you need to do is finish the race and we’ll get points – wanna come??" How could I say no to an offer like that!?!? From there I dabbled in XC racing but was pretty horrible at that, so continued on just riding for fun until I stumbled upon Enduro racing about 5 years ago. Outside of racing I am also a mentor for the Little Bella’s Program here in Vermont and also love hosting clinics and coaching camps to help people build stronger skills on their bikes!
Tell us about the introduction to your #bikelife and how it influenced you from then on-
I grew up riding bikes all the time as a kid, but once I hit high school and got really into team sports, I didn’t spend much time on a bike anymore. My Mom really got into mountain biking about that same time and as much as she tried to lure me in, I just wasn’t interested. Once I got to college I stayed on the team sports path and ‘played’ soccer for my first 3 years. The reason played is in quotes is because I actually had 2 ACL surgeries back to back years so I spent a lot more time rehabbing than actually playing soccer. That being said I guess you could say my intro to #bikelife was really through recovering from surgery. Riding a bike was the safest and best way to be active again while recovering so I started riding a bike on the road to get the knee back into shape. I think the thing that surprised me, and ultimately influenced me the most, in the beginning was how enjoyable those workouts were. It wasn’t like grinding away in the gym or doing sprints on the soccer field, it was just fun! It almost felt like tricking my body into being in shape again without feeling like I had to work for it.
You stated that you didn't start mountain biking until college (even tho your mom mountain biked)- tell us about your first mountain biking experience and why you kept coming back-
Eventually my Mom talked me in to giving it a try and took me out to some local trails outside Portland, Maine where I’m from. She put me on her hand-me-down Specialized Stumpjumper hardtail, with a Softride stem for suspension and clipless pedals (for my first time out!) Of course I had a heck of a time getting in and out of the pedals, but at that time if you were a mountain biker you rode clipless. I crashed a few times, drew blood from stuffing my front chainring into the back of my calf, but I loved every minute of it and pretty much was hooked from day one. I am someone who loves a new challenge and since I was pretty horrible at this to start, I think that’s what initially drew me in. Something new to learn and conquer. I also was really getting into snowboarding at this same time and to me mountain biking felt kind of like snowboarding for the summer time. Dodging in and out of trees, winding your way through as fast as you can safely go. The movements and overall feelings were similar so I think that’s what really kept me coming back because now I had something to obsess over in the summertime as well instead of just waiting for the snow!
What do you enjoy about participating in a mountain bike race?
There is no question, the best part about racing is the people. I have friends from all over the northeast now and while we are scattered hours apart, we get to see each other at every race weekend which is a blast!
Why should folks consider participating in an event at least once?
What I didn’t include in my answer above is the enjoyment I also get from staying motivated and working toward a goal. Having an event to look forward to helps give you that extra push to get out on your bike when maybe you’re not feeling it, or stick to those early morning gym workouts when you’d much rather sleep in. Even if you’ve only got your sights set on one single race, doing a little prep prior will definitely make that single event so much more enjoyable! Add that to what I mentioned above about the people you’ll get to meet and that’s a full-proof recipe for fun!!
Tell us (in your words) the difference between XC and Enduro and why Enduro jives with you best?
To me… XC = 100% sufferfest while Enduro = 95% fun with moments of suffering sprinkled in here and there. In Enduro you’re primarily just racing down the mountain, you’ll have a set number of race stages (somewhere from 3-6 depending on the race) that are timed and getting from the finish of one stage to the start of the next (the transfer) is untimed. Depending on the race/series you may or may not have specific start times for each stage. The series I primarily participate in, the Eastern States Cup, does not have specific start times for each stage which allows for a really fun and social race day, which is definitely my preference!
The reason Enduro works so well for me is because I am not an endurance athlete, while Enduro certainly takes a lot of endurance it’s done more in fits and sprints instead of hours of grinding away with no break. I’m more of a sprinter/power rider – going hard for short periods of time is more what my body is made for and what I train for.
Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
Clips just because that’s what I’m used to. Would like to ride flats more so I can switch out for really wet/slippery courses.
Oh so many, both in riding and racing. I guess that’s just always been my life in whatever I’m doing so I just pick myself up and keep going. The ACL surgeries were definitely a challenge both physically and mentally because it was back-to-back years so that took some soul searching to get through and more intentional time off than I had planned. I was happy I took a full season off (more than the prescribed 6 months) to really heal because it gave me the confidence to come back after 2 surgeries.
When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Descending steep technical terrain was something that terrified me in the beginning. Learning to drop my heels and really focus on putting my weight in my feet has made a world of difference in my abilities and especially my confidence when going down hill.
Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
I feel like no matter how long you’ve been riding there is always something to tackle or improve and that’s why I think I like mountain biking so much! It’s an endless adventure of learning no matter how good you think you are. Framing the challenges in that way, instead of getting frustrated when I’m struggling, is exactly what motivates me and pushes me forward. Now don’t get me wrong, even though I say that there are DEFINITELY times when I get frustrated but I truly try to focus on the fun of learning and progressing and I’m usually able to snap myself out of the funk when I do that.
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?
Two pieces of advice both equally as important:
1) Get the best bike you can for your budget. Having the right gear for you and your riding goals will help your progression in leaps and bounds. Sometimes the path of least resistance, buying a cheap old bike or a hand-me-down from a boyfriend/husband, seems like a great idea but in the end you’re not doing yourself any favors. There are so many bikes out there all with their own set of benefits so it’s important to think about the type of riding and terrain you’ll be on most frequently and how you’d like your riding to progress.
2) Take a clinic, go to a camp, get instruction. Your gear is important but this may be even more so. I had been riding for about 15 years before I was exposed to any type of real instruction and once I was it absolutely blew my mind! About 5 years ago I attend the Women’s Freeride Fest at Highland Mountain Bike Park in NH and I am not exaggerating when I say that it absolutely changed my life!! Getting specific instruction on body position, bike handling, the physics behind cornering was something I never got just trail riding with friends and it opened up a whole new world of riding. Now there are lots of options out there from camps like Ladies All Ride, Vida MTB or personal coaches for hire, it is all well worth the money and I cannot recommend them enough!
You are a Little Bellas mentor, tell us about the program and why you wanted to be involved-
As long as I am able to ride a bicycle I will be a mentor for Little Bellas. It is the best programs I have ever had the pleasure of being involved with!! Little Bellas is a program whose goal is to help girls realize their potential through riding bikes. It’s aim is to create a community that empowers and promotes and healthy lifestyle and confidence. I have been involved for about 5 years now and I swear the mentors get just as much out of it as the attendees! I’ve watched girls go from shy, tentative bike riders to bold and confident shredders! Getting the chance to be a part of that transformation is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. That on top of the fun we have riding bikes and playing around makes this a pretty special experience for all involved!!
Why do you feel it's important for young women to be introduced to mountain biking?
Mountain biking (and cycling in general) is truly a lifetime sport and even though I came into it a little late I am so grateful for finding it when I did. Mountain biking gave me something active and healthy to transition into after my team sports career was over. Regardless of when you get involved I am a believer that mountain biking truly changed my entire life and I think it’s important for as many young women to get the chance to experience that for themselves. The motivation and confidence it has brought to my life has been like non other and it has also opened up the most inviting and wonderful community to be a part of.
What do you love about riding your bike?
Is it wrong to say all of it?? The freedom, fun, laughs, crashes, people, jumps, berms, climbs and being totally exhausted at the end but still wanting to do it all over again!!!
Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
Right now my primary focus is getting faster at descending steep technical terrain so I ride the Liv Hail Advanced 0. It has 160mm travel on both the front and the rear with a nice slacked out headtube to give me the ultimate confidence in going down anything the trail throws at me. There are definitely times when I probably shouldn’t make it through a section of trail because I get off my line or stuff my front wheel in a spot where I shouldn’t but because my bike is purpose built to handle it, it gets me through rubber-side down!
There are so many reasons but my brain is having a hard time articulating at the moment so I’m just going to list some things out:
More women working in the industry, building brands, making product, leading the way will only help make the whole industry stronger
To be role models - showing girls out there that they too can be a part of it all, it’s not just for the guys
I’ve worked with so many amazing and supportive men in the outdoor industry but having more women at the table in decision making positions is hugely important to moving the whole industry forward in the right direction.
More women involved make it way more inviting to those not involved.
Those involved in a meaningful way find so much fulfillment and confidence through their involvement. It feels good to break through the "boys club" mentality and make a place for yourself.
What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
I think it’s a combination of access/exposure and fear. Some women don’t have the gear or anyone to guide them through the process and experience and sometimes those who do are fearful of getting hurt. Mountain biking is so different than it was when I started that I can pretty much guarantee a beginner that comes out with me for their first time, won’t get hurt and will leave excited coming back for more. Here in Vermont we have access to so many amazing trails you’re able to take someone out for their first adventure on a beautiful flow trail that gives them the rush of excitement that comes from sweeping through the trees
What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
This is a circular answer but more women getting involved will encourage more women to be involved. This happens when we build women’s confidence on and off the bike, focus on that and the involvement follows. I really look to the work Lindsey Richter is doing with Ladies ALLRide camps, she and her team are teaching bike skills but when you’re there and a part of it all, it really is so much more than that. It’s believing in yourself, practicing self-care when necessary and having an incredible time with incredible women.
What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
Riding bikes has changed my life in a million positive ways and I just want more women out there to experience that as well!
Tell us a random fact about yourself!
Just over a year ago I quit my dream job of Category Manager of Hardgoods at Burton Snowboards to force myself out of my comfort zone and into my next adventure…which honestly is still in the process of materializing. :)
I also have two dogs named Dozer and Meatball. They are the cutest.