Women Involved Series: Christina Spencer

I started mountain biking in 2013, coming from a background of collegiate cross country and track and triathlon in my post-college years. People assume I was "good" at mountain biking right away, but I don't think anyone is good at mountain biking right away. Thanks to the support of my now husband, Peter, I just did it a lot and acquired skills and speed along the way. Right away I fell in love with mountain biking, hiding in the woods and challenging yourself both physically and mentally, it's magical. I suppose I should mention I ride a single speed almost exclusively outside of winter.

What started as a way just to keep mountain biking simple as I started out, became my "thing". I enjoy the simplicity of just pedaling the bike! I've completed a bunch of races in the last five years on the trusty SS, Lutsen 99er, Leadville 100, Dakota Five-0, Ore to Shore, Chequamegon 40. And in the last couple of years, have been sharing my nordic ski time in the winter with fatbiking!

Being on a fat bike is like being a kid again, and I love snow, although I call myself "the worlds coldest person". What I like most about training and racing is spending time making memories with friends, pushing myself to achieve a goal and seeing cool places!

When I'm not biking, I am a pediatric physician. I work as a hospitalist (a doctor that only works in the hospital) caring for children undergoing bone marrow transplant for a variety of life-threatening diseases. I find my work extremely rewarding, and although it is incredibly sad at times, I feel so fortunate that it brings perspective to life's challenges. Finally, Peter and I help coach a local high school mountain bike team. We have a blast working with the 7th to 12th graders, they are so energetic and acquire skills so fast, the future of our sport!

Instagram: single_speed_betty

Tell us about your introduction to mountain biking, what about it made you say "Yes! This is for me!"
Peter was passionate about mountain biking and I was looking for a new challenge. I purchased my first bike and hit the trails. The first ride was a disaster, as I hadn't tightened my cleats enough, couldn't clip out and had many unceremonious tip-overs. However, I loved being in the woods and I felt like it was good for my brain to process all of my surroundings as I rode down the trail.

"People assume I was "good" at mountain biking right away" How do you help folks understand that you truly had to work at it?
Middle-aged people are used to being good at things and many are frustrated when they aren't good right away. Those who didn't see me starting out assume I was good immediately, but definitely not true. I was shaky, slow and frustrated at the beginning. I also started out every ride for my first three years mountain biking shaky (adrenaline!) and slow. IT would take me 30 minutes to get into it and then I would be fine. That finally went away in my fourth year!

Your husband was very supportive of your mountain biking, what did he do that worked well?
He didn't say much, he just gave me some basic pointers and followed me around patiently. I asked him for two things I should do on my first ride - he said "look ahead" and "look where you want to go". To this day, when I get in a sketchy situation, I start mumbling to myself "look ahead, look where you want to go, look ahead, look where you want to go."

Any tips or suggestions for folks wanting to introduce someone to mountain biking, especially if it's a significant other?
I tell my male friends just to buy their wife/girlfriend a bike and shut up. No endless string of pointers, stick with a few safety basics - look ahead, use both brakes, don't ride anything you aren't comfortable with. Nothing can test a relationship more than learning a new skill so less is more.

Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
Clips! Although I have taken a couple of skills courses with flats and can see the benefit of them, I just love the feeling of being one with my bike. Additionally, on my single speed, I need to be able to pull!

Tell us about your injury in 2017 and what helped you to heal/overcome said injury-
I fell off my bike riding an awesome single track trail in Nevada in March of 2017. It was the highest speed crash I have ever had and when I hit the ground I thought "this is probably my first serious mountain bike injury". My leg hurt that day, but it actually took months and eventually a consult with a specialist in Colorado to figure out I had torn part of my hamstring off my lower leg. I was able to ride my bike through the injury that summer, although I could definitely tell something wasn't right. I had surgery at the end of August 2017 and spent six weeks non-weight bearing on crutches, followed by months of slow recovery. I just tried to be really patient, do all of my physical therapy and follow all of the restrictions. (Although, I asked my therapists A LOT of questions about those restrictions.) And although people assumed I would miss working out, I was so exhausted from crutches and healing, I wasn't missing the bike. My work with really sick children helped give me perspective on the challenge and try to keep looking forward. It's still hard being away from sport and then having to work hard to get back in shape!

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Oh downhill switchbacks for sure!! Especially to the right, so many dismounts, and dabs! I eventually figured out that if I used my brakes and pedaled through them it gave me the extra confidence and handling to get around them. That, and one million failed attempts! Now I can coast through pretty well. Every time I ride one, I'm still so proud of myself!

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
Long rock gardens, drops, skinnys . . . lots of things. I just focus on the skills I have gained. Also when riding the same trails, I may ride by a feature many times and eventually give it a shot when I'm feeling confident. There are features I can ride at my home trail that I walked through every time for three years, before giving it a go. If you aren't 100% committed, don't try it, wait until that perfect day when you think "I got this!", but don't beat yourself up for skipping things!

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?

Forgive yourself and be patient! It's not going to happen overnight. If you really want to get better and be more confident you have to do it regularly. I hate it when people tell me they just "aren't good" at mountain biking when they only go once a month. I believe anybody can be good at anything if you put the time in, but it won't magically come just because you bought a mountain bike. Also find a group you like to ride with and go - don't apologize if you are off the back, those people like you and chose to ride with you!

What do you love about riding your bike?
I just love being in the woods - challenging myself mentally and physically, and being with my bike buddies!

Tell us about your first mountain bike race! What was the experience like?
2014 Lutsen 39er - I was terrified. I figured out about six miles in you could draft (there's a pavement section at the beginning) and my chain fell off four times (I didn't realize I needed to re-tension the chain on my SS after break-in period). I loved being in the woods with other cool people.

What has been your favorite event to participate in so far?

I love the Lutsen 99er weekend every year. So many stories of accomplishment from first mountain bike race, to first 100-mile race, to the kids crushing it on Sunday. It's a family and woman-friendly event and everyone is just so darn happy all weekend!

My biggest race accomplishment was finishing the 2015 Leadville 100 on my SS. I wasn't sure I could do it and when I crossed that finish line, I was sobbing!

Why do you feel should folks try at least one mountain bike event?
It's all about the community. Fun, outdoorsy people who want to see you love it!

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?

My Niner Air 9 RDO single speed was my first bike purchase. Peter encouraged me to buy a nice enough bike I wouldn't want to immediately upgrade and this was the perfect bike. I did my first Leadville on the original set-up. So many good memories on that bike. I have it geared now 34x16, for gravel or non-hilly single track.

My Otso fat bike set up with custom pink graphics. And Onyx Racing Products did custom anodizing of Wolf Tooth parts to match the new Onyx hubs! Lightweight race machine. I love fatbiking, makes me feel like a big kid again. And those wide tires give you so much confidence. I encourage beginners to try a fat bike, as they feel so much more stable than a standard mountain bike.

My new bling is a Firefly custom titanium mountain bike, it can accommodate a standard 29er wheelset, or I have it set-up 27.5 plus with 3" tires. It is amazingly smooth with Onyx hubs and Whisky carbon bits. It's set-up 32x18 for serious single track shredding. Its got these amazing snowflakes anodized into the titanium finish!

What is the most exciting part about having your husband as a race director?
I love to see people love his events. He puts his whole heart and soul into them. He's so focused on given the participants the very best experience and featuring the communities and areas where the events are held.

How excited for you both for Chequamegon 2019?

Gary Crandall has created this iconic race in the beauty of the Northwoods. It's really a community effort with so many hard-working people coming together to create a great experience. It's a long-term tradition for so many mountain bikers and we are really both focused on trying to honor that legacy.

What do you enjoy most about helping youth enjoy mountain biking?
I just love to see them gain confidence! I want them to know they can do anything they put their minds to, and when you see that light bulb go off it's amazing. Because mountain biking is life - there's fun twisty single track, big hills, and fast downhills. I hope I am giving them life skills, not just mountain bike skills.
Why do you feel folks should have their kids participate in a local, high school mountain biking program?
Ha, see above! That and it's a great life-long sport. The leagues are focused on inclusivity - everybody ride and everybody races if they want to.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
I think there is a big hurdle to get started - the bike, the gear, finding trails and finding people to join you. Also, it's not something you are automatically good at and women have so many responsibilities on their mind, they are appropriately afraid of getting hurt and not being able to fulfill obligations. Finally, women have more safety concerns about riding alone in the woods, it's not something I do regularly. These are all challenges that can be overcome, but it really requires a supportive community to get started!

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

I feel very well supported overall in my community. However, I have only walked into one bike shop ever where I felt like I was being treated equally to the men in my sport. Additionally, many races (not Peter's, of course) are focused only on the male race and male racers. Same with many of the bike and component companies. Finally, some men in the bike community aren't welcoming, maybe they just want to feel more special and tough, but guess what, I'm coming in my pink helmet!!! You can feel things slowly changing, just takes time and more strong women!

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?

So many women think they can't and I think they can, I just love to see them succeed and love it! I also want to set an example for the young women out there. Finally, I love my guy biker friends, but I really just want more ladies to ride with me. You can't beat the camaraderie of other women out there shredding some trail!

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
We have a 16-pound yorkie-poo named scruffy. He's really spoiled and doesn't think he's a dog