Monday, November 12, 2018

Women on Bikes Series: Jes VanDerPuy

I'm a wife. I'm a mom. I'm a mountain biker. I work in management at UPS and and I love a good adventure. Preferably outdoors. I love Jesus and the opportunities I have through mountain biking to show it. I started cycling after my second baby mostly because my husband couldn't shut up about how awesome it was. (Turns out he was right, but don't tell him that.) He raced in the Wisconsin Off Road Series (WORS) and I remember watching all the fast girls and thinking that it looked really tough but would be cool to try. So I did.

I trained all summer for that one race and all I kept thinking was... "Don't be dead last. Just finish."

It turned out to be a life changer for me. I won. By a lot. But I really didn't think I would even finish going in. I took that as a lesson and have been racing ever since.

I love mountain biking because it's a chance as a woman to feel secure in a place that I would never walk alone, but on a bike, you feel so free and able to venture into the unknown unafraid and confident. It allows me to get that little bit of peace in a chaotic world. And it's an absolute blast.

Tell us about your introduction to mountain biking, what about it made you say "Yes! This is for me!"
It’s funny because years ago I always thought biking in the woods sounded cool. I never realized it was something that you could actually do and compete at until I met my husband. He raced through four of my pregnancies and I would tag along and watch all the women race and think how hard it must be. I contemplated trying it but never really thought I actually would. I actually rode with my husband a couple of times and decided that mountain biking sucked. It was extremely difficult and I hated it. All I could remember was rolling my eyes as he would say, “just wait…. Once you get enough fitness it will be fun. I promise.” Then he conned me into buying a road bike. I used that to increase my fitness level and actually started to enjoy mountain biking. Once I realized I could actually do it and enjoy it, I was in.

How did you learn the basics of mountain biking? Did you figure things out solo, take a clinic, or did your husband help?
I had a lot of help from my husband as far as getting started, but once I figured out what I needed to learn I just rode. I rode as much as I could. I would re-ride things I couldn’t quite get. I used an extremely heavy mountain bike to learn on, which I truly believe helped me master a lot of my skills. Then when I hopped on a new bike it was like magic. I just flew.

Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
I have always used clips. Flats scare me. I feel more secure in clips. However, my first time using them I fell flat on my face from a complete standstill because I couldn’t get unclipped.

Have you had any biffs (accidents) that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
I really haven’t had anything too serious. I have a few scars that remind me that I don’t have to kill myself out there. I have four kids at home that need me. I try and remember that.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
I couldn’t climb. It was so frustrating. We have a section of trail in my hometown that is uphill with probably a million roots. I watched some YouTube videos on climbing and went out and climbed for days. Once I got that section down, I moved onto the next one. There is still one hill I have yet to conquer. But I will.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
Of course. There will always be things that need some work. Cornering will forever be a work in progress for me. Also, I’d really like to learn the manual. I can’t let it drag me down, because I’m the kind of person that always needs something to work on. It keeps me interested and gives me something to look forward to.

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?
Remember that you may not love it overnight. Ride with people who are patient and remember, you’re just riding a bike. Stick with it. Get in some road bike miles so you have the fitness and spend the money on a good bike.

What do you love about riding your bike?
The freedom. The fact that I can get lost in the middle of nowhere. I clear my head and just pedal. I love that it is a sport that I can do with my entire family. I don’t have to sit on the sidelines of a soccer field on Saturdays, we can all do it together. And it keeps me healthy and fit enough to be able to do so many other things.

Tell us about your first mountain bike race! What was the experience like?
It was a WEMS race. My husband and I did the 6-hour duo. It was awful and I was so ridiculously slow. But I really did have fun and it piqued my interest in racing. It gave me a starting point to train for something else. When it was done, despite being dead last it was the most amazing feeling to actually have finished. I was hooked from there.

Why do you feel should folks try at least one mountain bike event?
Racing is different than just mountain biking and it’s hard to tell where you are at without competing against other people. It is a great way to meet people to ride with and an awesome chance to show your skills.

What has been your favorite event to participate in?
We have a winter series here in Wisconsin called Hugh Jass. It’s a one of a kind winter fat bike series. We get to drink beer at every lap and wear ridiculous outfits. It’s actually pretty stiff competition if you want it to be but it’s an absolute blast.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I have a Giant OCR-1 road bike. It’s old, but it’s the bike that made me fall in love with cycling. I got it cheap on craigslist and don’t love road biking enough to buy a new one. My hardtail is a Trek Superfly AI. I absolutely love this bike. We fly together. Also, a craigslist purchase.

I also just recently purchased a Salsa Spearfish from a friend. This bike is my dream bike. And she knew it. When I ride this bike, I feel like a superhero. I remember where it came from and how hard I worked to get here and it gives me the drive to keep moving forward. There is something special about each and every bike you own and it’s always a cool story to tell.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
Have you seen women racing mountain bikes? They look like they’re about ready to kill someone. It’s extremely intimidating. I remember watching these girls race and thinking, whoa. That would be so cool to try, but I could never take anything that serious. I get it now. It’s a sport that requires you to be intense. And it’s tough. But conquering something you never thought you could is so empowering and extremely worth it.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
We as women mountain bikers need to encourage our friends and especially the younger generation. Be intense in your race, but afterward remember to make yourself approachable. There are so many people that would be so much more willing to try new things if people made a point to make them feel comfortable. Not just on the bike, but socially as well. I would have tried it a lot sooner if one of the women I watched would have said, “Hey, have you ever tried mountain biking?” Or something like that. Get yourself out there and encourage other women to give it a shot

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
My daughters. I want them to be able to try anything they want in life. The best gift my parents gave me was that chance to try new things. I never stuck with anything for very long, but now I have so many options.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I’m a private pilot. I got my license when I was 16. I had a near death experience and haven’t flown much since then, but still go up whenever I get the chance.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Opening Up To Hope

Letting hope in. It can be a hard task to accomplish when the year has been so full of challenge, and I wasn't ready to let go of my positive mindset.

I had told myself I would not say any particular year would be "the year" but at the same time, I knew in my bones that 2019 would be a better year.

I wasn't going to sit around and just expect next year to be better, but I would go about ways of ensuring it would be by my own ability.


Next year I plan to go on a mountain bike trip, and I'm very excited about it. I'll say nervous too because there is only so much planning I can do between now and then. It may wind up being a solo trip as well, and goodness knows I've never flown by myself. Also, to strategize getting from Phoenix to Sedona. Yaaaas Queen! I'm going to do this. All because I was invited to the fest this year, but wasn't able to make it work out due to our local college homecoming weekend + gun auction.
It looked like it would be so much fun and would allow me to go outside of my comfort zone and experience different riding. I want to meet some of the amazing women I've interviewed. I want to find more women to interview. I want to challenge myself to be fearless! 

Shortly after my mental commitment to going to places unknown, I got the email from Specialized announcing I was brought on as one of their Specialized USA Ambassadors!

This was something that I felt quite torn on if I should or should not apply. I've applied for programs like this before- and have gotten the emails saying I wasn't selected. Reading those emails sucked. With the year I've had, why would I want to read another one of those? I looked at it this way. If I didn't apply, then it would definitely be a no. If I did apply, maybe, just maybe there would be a possibility of being chosen. Also? I was so incredibly stoked over having two new Fearless Women of Dirt chapters in development. I felt that FWD was gaining some serious traction and I was excited to share that. I've continually had great relationships with our Specialized reps and they have been awesome with helping me out for the FWD Women's Night and in general, being supportive.
I know I live in a smaller community, but I dream big. Things are happening. I figured it didn't matter if I got an email saying "We're Sorry"...that wouldn't stop me from growing FWD in 2019.

The fact that I got accepted solidified in my mind that if I stay determined and focused on my dreams, and allow hope in, I can accomplish. I'll leave that statement as is because I don't have just "one" thing I want to accomplish. It's an extensive list!

One thing I'm excited for is to be able to work more closely with a company that has been so supportive of my endeavors. Decorah isn't a large city, so for a large company to recognize what I'm trying to do is really awesome. As a company, I love how they are continually working to increase the women ridership as well as taking steps to get more youth on bikes. From Little Bellas to Riding for Focus- it's absolutely awesome and I really hope we can bring those to the midwest/Decorah at some point.

I had an emotional high.
Something unexpectedly positive happened and I felt my dad had a hand in it.
More because I let my heart open up. I let the sunshine in.

I had a ride shortly after all of the good news. I made time on a Tuesday morning (when I typically don't have time) to go out for a ride. The sun was out as well as the critters. I saw two blue jays flying around- I have always liked blue jays and never knew why. Not long after my dad passed away, when Travis and I were riding trails, I found a blue jay feather. They were something that I felt connected us in some way.

I heard a lot of rustling off to the side of the trail and looked over in time to see a buck running across the hillside. He was magnificent. That moment of seeing the blue jays and the buck was breathtaking. It was a perfect outdoor scene and one that I imprinted in my mind.

Later during my ride, I had this wish of seeing the buck again. Maybe, just maybe...
On the lower half of Little Big Horn, near one of my favorite spots, I heard the sound of deer running. I looked up and saw the same buck with a doe following behind. I wondered if she might've been the same doe I came upon when riding a few days prior. I had a beautiful moment in time where she and I were literally within feet of each other. It was incredible.

During that time, I was feeling a bit down because I was dissecting the differences my dad and I had. The things we never had the chance to do together.
I realized that we both had a deep connection and appreciation for the gifts nature can give. So what if I never learned to hunt? I found a way to be outside in a way that my body and mind appreciated. I think my dad was simply overjoyed that I found something to be passionate about. Something that gave me drive. Something that inspired me. I feel like he looked for that often in his life, perhaps finding it and sometimes not.

For fun, I decided to look up the symbolism of the blue jay and these were some of the words that came up:
Assertive, Vibrant, Curious, Intelligent, Talkative, Determined, Fearless, Audacious, Trustworthy, Resourceful

For the deer:
Deer also symbolizes the gentle, enticing lure of new adventures. Should a deer come into your life, Ted Andrews tells us to look for new perceptions and degrees of perceptions to grow and expand for as long as the next five years (deer shed and grow their antlers for five years).

It didn't seem wrong for me to assume that I will be continuing quite the journey for the next while. Opening myself up to possibility. Adventure. Growth. If there is something to take away from what I've experienced this year, I would say that it has given me the push I need to go out of my comfort zone. To believe that there is more I need to experience and see. To do.

I'm not sure how adventurous my dad was. I'm not sure where this streak came from. All I know is, I am ready to explore this side of myself, and I know he'll be there with me.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Women Involved Series: Helena Kotala

My name is Helena Kotala and I live in rural central Pennsylvania with my husband Evan and our dog Dinah. Bikes are a major part of both of our lives, and are actually the reason we started dating.

I fell in love with him and rekindled my love for mountain biking riding fat bikes through the snow in Rothrock State Forest in the winter of 2013.

It wasn't long after that I went on my first bike camping trip and began exploring the hundreds of miles of gravel and back roads in the forests and farmlands that surround where I live. I love technical singletrack but I also love long gravel/road rides and visiting new places via bike.

To me, riding offers a sense of both peace and empowerment that is essential to my existence. It is more than a hobby. Feeling my legs burn, my heart pound, and the wind in my face is a necessity. Biking has given me my adventure and life partner and an amazing group of friends and fellow riders. It has connected me to people all over the county and the globe. I love exploring new places but I also love showing people the familiar places that I am proud to call my home trails.

When not on my bike, I work as a mapping specialist for a non-profit called the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. We do a lot of work to help facilitate conservation and outdoor recreation projects such as trails, especially those that connect places and offer people a healthier mode of transportation. I'm also a writer. Previously, I was the web editor for Dirt Rag Magazine and I do freelance work. Other hobbies include trail running, hiking, canoeing, photography and basically anything else outside.

Instagram: @helenakoala
Facebook: Helena Kotala 

Tell us about the introduction to your #bikelife and how it influenced you from then on.
I rode mountain bikes as a teenager but then got away from it for almost 10 years. My introduction to my #bikelife as I know it happened in early 2013. It was half curiosity and a deliberate desire to get back into the sport, half luck, and happenstance. I was a generally outdoorsy person, so I was friends and acquaintances with people who rode, but I didn’t really seriously think much about mountain biking until I started seeing fat bikes popping up in the local scene. I’m not sure why they piqued my interest so much, maybe just because they are something different. Then, at this party, I happened to be standing next to an acquaintance (Evan) who I knew was a local mountain bike guru. He and I knew each other but had never been friends and never talked a whole lot, but for whatever reason, I felt the need to make conversation so I brought up fat bikes and mentioned that I’d be interested in trying one out. He invited me to come ride with him “sometime,” which I thought was probably a statement he’d forget about come morning. But nope, he sent me a Facebook message the next day and asked if I was serious about trying a fat bike and if so, we should go ride the following week. I took him up on it.

That first ride, I pushed my bike SO MUCH. There were about two inches of snow on the ground, and I thought I was in good shape from being a trail runner but I found out that mountain biking is a whole different beast. But I also remembered how fun it is, and I was immediately hooked. Evan told me to come ride again. He worked at a bike shop so he brought me demo bikes to ride. We started riding together about once or twice a week. After about a month, he asked me to dinner.

I fell in love with both bikes and the man who reintroduced them to me. Two and a half years after that first ride in the snow, Evan and I got married. That random conversation about fat bikes at a party changed my life completely.

You stated that in 2013 your love of mountain biking was rekindled after fatbiking in the snow, how did that experience influence your decision to get back into the dirt scene?
Fat bikes were simply the point of intrigue that caught my attention and made me realize that I wanted to give mountain biking a try again. It was only a natural progression to other forms of mountain bikes and cycling in general. From that first ride in the snow, I was hooked on bikes again.

Speaking of fatbikes, why is fatbiking so fun?
Fat bikes open up a world of possibility in conditions that would normally be extremely difficult to ride in, and make riding in certain conditions a lot more fun. Not just snow, but sand, bushwacking and “freeriding” through the woods, and a personal favorite, lakeshore riding. A couple of the big lakes near where I live are drawn down most winters, which allows for a really cool experience riding on the shoreline that is normally underwater. It feels pretty remote and otherworldly, like riding on the beach in Alaska or something.
On a “normal” mountain bike, your tires would be sinking in, but with a fat bike you can float over a lot more.

Fat bikes also helped me build confidence when I was first getting back into riding, which I think is really cool. Not only does more traction actually help you roll over obstacles easier, but the mental security of having all that meat was beneficial as well and probably allowed me to try more things and progress faster because I felt more confident.

What do you love about having a partner to share the cycling journey with?
Ride nights double as date nights, neither of us get mad about the other spending money on bike parts, and we both understand each other’s need to get out and pedal.

For the two of you, was it relatively equal when it came to skills/riding or was there a learning curve? What has helped you both with cultivating a positive partnership with riding?
Evan is one of the best riders I know, so when I first started out there was a HUGE gap in our abilities. I used to get down on myself and had a bit of a complex about being so much slower. I felt like I was holding him back or that he was annoyed that he always had to wait for me, but within the past year or so I’ve come to terms with it. Progressing and closing that gap a little has helped a lot, as well as realizing that he knows my speed and abilities and still chooses to ride with me.

Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
I ride in clips 90% of the time, simply because it’s what I’m used to. I transitioned to them pretty shortly after I started riding so I never really learned to ride flats well. Sometimes I think I should transfer to flats for a year or something just to learn and challenge myself but I haven’t done it yet.

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
About a year after I got back into biking, I was riding back through town after a mountain bike ride and was playing around trying to ride a curb. I’m not even sure exactly what happened but I fell over on the pavement and broke my elbow. I think that since then, I’ve been more nervous about skinnies, narrow bridges and anything elevated off the ground.

Overcoming that has been hard, probably one of my biggest struggles currently as a mountain biker. I practice on low-consequence obstacles -- things that are close to the ground and don’t have a lot of stuff around that I could get hurt on. The more I practice, the more confident I get that I CAN ride whatever skinny or bridge it is -- I’ve done it a hundred times, after all! It’s slowly getting easier.
When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Most of the trails near where I live in Pennsylvania are pretty rocky and difficult, so learning to ride through rock gardens was a challenge from the get-go. I used to just plow through them and hope for the best, but at some point, along the way, I learned to break it down and practice individual skills that would help me improve my bike handling and ability to actually pick a line and make the bike do what I wanted it to. I became a lot more aware of body/bike positioning and moving the bike underneath me. Practicing trackstands has helped a ton with riding rock gardens because if you can trackstand, you can pause without dabbing if you miss a line and need to get back on track or just need to regroup for a second. I practice little skills like that when I’m in the parking lot before a ride waiting for other people or even if I’m waiting at an intersection. Use those moments when you’re just standing around before, during or after a ride to work on the fundamentals and you’ll see an improvement in your riding.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
As I mentioned before, skinnies, bridges, and anything elevated is mentally challenging for me. So are drops and big log overs that I can’t clear with my bottom bracket. When I’m getting down on myself for struggling with those things, it helps me to think of sections of trail that I used to be really difficult for me that I can now ride with ease. That helps me remember that as long as I keep trying, I WILL progress, even if it’s slower than I’d like.

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?
Choose the trails you start out on wisely. If you ride something that’s way above your ability level, you’re just going to walk a lot and not have fun.

Ride a bike that fits you and that is properly tuned. You don’t need to go out and buy a fancy, expensive bike just to get started, but you’ll enjoy the experience more if you’re comfortable and works properly. For example, shifting issues or a bike that hurts to ride because it’s not the right size or suspension that isn’t set up for your weight can all cause unnecessary frustration on top of trying something new for the first time.

Don’t compare yourself to others. Everyone starts somewhere. If you go out with a group of more experienced riders, try to refrain from dwelling on how slow or bad you are compared to them. They were beginners once too.

What do you love about riding your bike?
When I am riding my bike, nothing else matters. I struggle with depression and anxiety in my daily life but when I’m riding, all of that melts away as I’m only focused on where I am and what’s right in front of me that I have to ride through. I like to say it makes me the best version of myself.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I have 5 bikes:
Proudfoot Primed - This is my go-to mountain bike. 27.5 plus, full suspension, steel frame. I actually got this bike custom built for me when I was writing for Dirt Rag Magazine as a review bike and I loved it so much that I ended up buying it. It’s the perfect setup for what I like to ride and it fits me like a glove.

Salsa Beargrease - My fatbike. My husband surprised me randomly by buying it for me when Salsa was selling off their demo fleet and he got a great deal, but it’s also the exact bike I would have chosen if I was choosing it myself (and he knew that). Right now it’s set up with a 100mm front suspension fork, which makes it a great bike for all sorts of conditions. I tend to ride only my fatbike from November to April just because.

Salsa El Mariachi - This is my first mountain bike. Evan built it up for me when he was working at a bike shop from a bunch of random parts. It’s had many iterations, first as a 1x9 with a fat front tire and regular 29er rear, then as a singlespeed with that same wheel setup, then I put gears back on and 29x2 inch tires and used it for a lot of bikepacking, then I put a suspension fork up front, and now I’m turning it back into a singlespeed with the suspension fork and 29x2.3 inch tires.

Raleigh Willard - My “fast and light” gravel bike. I bought this bike pretty cheap about 4 years ago because I was really starting to get into gravel and road riding, not thinking it would turn out to be as trusty as it’s been. I probably have about 7,000 miles on it with minimal maintenance. It’s always there for me and it just keeps going.

Penhale Gypsy - The latest addition, this is my “bikepacking/go anywhere” bike. It’s a steel frame with drop bars and 29x2 inch tires. I reviewed the frame for Dirt Rag and again, liked it a lot so I wanted to buy it but the builder told me to just keep it and keep enjoying it!

Tell us about your job as a mapping specialist for a non-profit, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, and what it entails-
The Pennsylvania Environmental Council works to bring people together on a variety of issues and projects throughout the state, from trail building to reforestation to water resource protection and climate policy. We act as a facilitator and intermediary between various on-the-ground groups who are striving for a common goal and figure out how we can all work together to get more done. My job is to provide mapping support for all the different programs and projects. On a day to day basis, my tasks are pretty varied. I make both print maps and interactive web maps and maintain a geographic database of information on trails, watersheds, project locations and more. It’s a combination of creative and analytical tasks. One day I might spend 6 hours entering data into a spreadsheet and the next I might be designing graphics to show how a bunch of different trails could connect. The job is a combination of a lot of my interests -- maps, writing, environmental issues, trails, etc. My boss mountain bikes so that’s rad too.

Why do you feel it is important for women to be involved in the cycling industry?
Women like bikes too and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t!

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
I think there’s an inherent “bro” mentality that feels very unwelcoming to a lot of women. I personally have always had a lot of guy friends and have felt more comfortable being “one of the boys” than I do with most women, so this wasn’t much of an issue for me when I was getting into the sport, but I see it happen to others. I also am lucky to hang out with guys who are super supportive! But showing up and being the only woman in a group of 10 dudes is intimidating for anyone, much less a beginner. The fact that it’s a male-dominated sport means it’s harder to find women to ride with. I think women also have a higher tendency to beat themselves up about being slow or not good enough, and fear that when going into a group ride.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
We need to be treated as equals. Women’s specific events, rides, and bikes are awesome and it’s great that those things encourage more women to ride and make them feel at home, but we also need to be able to show up for the “guys ride” and feel like it’s okay for us to be there. If we can hang, what difference does it make what gender we are? Same goes for when we walk into a bike shop. Don’t treat us like we aren’t as knowledgeable about bikes or like we don’t need high-quality bikes and gear. I know that I just want to be treated like a fellow rider and bicycle enthusiast, my gender doesn’t matter.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
My own positive experiences with riding are the driving factor that makes me want to get others out there. Riding has drastically increased my confidence and has given me an excellent coping mechanism for the mental issues I struggle with. I want others, especially other women, to experience those things too.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I’m extraordinarily bad at coming up with random facts. ;)