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. ;)