Women on Bikes Series: Leah Barry

I'm Leah Barry and I love riding my bikes off-road! My love of dirt began as a little girl and was reignited as an adult when I discovered cyclocross racing in 2015.

After trying triathlon but discovering I really only liked the biking part, I competed in Afterglow, a late-season, casual, cyclocross race. I raced on my single-speed commuter, with a slick back tire, and despite wiping out in the mud (or because of it?) I fell in love.

I love racing the Chicago Cyclocross Cup each fall, and competing in various gravel races such as Barry Roubaix and Rough Road 100, but had wanted a mountain bike for as long as I'd been riding. I decided this year would be the year I finally go for it, and ended up falling in love with the Jamis Dragonfly.

On June 8, 2019, I plan to put my mountain bike and body to the test at the Sancho 200 in Traverse City, Michigan, riding 200 miles of scenic terrain. Until then, I'll enjoy my Dragonfly racing short track at Big Marsh Bike Park, riding the pump track, and hitting whatever trails I can throughout the Midwest.

Tell us about your introduction to mountain biking, what about it made you say "Yes! This is for me!"
I had a mountain bike as a kid and enjoyed the ability to ride on dirt and grass, but I think I really became interested in mountain biking as an adult once I had discovered cyclocross and long-distance gravel riding. In adventuring off-road with my cyclocross bike, I’ve occasionally encountered sections of trail that were too rough or technical to ride, but with a mountain bike I can easily monster-truck over every root, rock, or log in my way. The confidence gained through technical, off-road riding has helped me grow in so many ways, and being an FWD ambassador will help me share that with others!

Tell us about the world of CX and why it's so dang fun!

Cyclocross in Chicago is basically a big, all-day party with your friends. I fell in love with CX racing in 2015, and raced my first full season in 2016. The Chicago Cyclocross Cup (CCC) is one of the biggest CX race series in the Midwest, featuring courses that run the gambit from technical climbs & descents at Dan Ryan Woods, to beach-racing in December at Montrose - but the crowd is what makes cyclocross so fun! During races, it’s not uncommon to hear an especially creative heckle, or be handed a beer or treat (Pro-tip: Don’t take the giant marshmallow when you’re huffing and puffing on lap 4)

Tell us about your favorite CX event-

I think my favorite CX event was racing Bloomer CX last year in Rochester, Michigan. A technical course featuring MTB singletrack and a steep, muddy, double-runup on the side of the Velodrome, my parents and grandmother came to the race, even bringing a cowbell! Coming from the CCC, where the crowd-noise can be a big factor, racing a small event where the only cheers were from my family was something special, and coming home with podium cash is always a plus!

Tell us about Sancho 200 event you plan to do. What inspired you to choose that event?
I’m from Michigan, and just about every year since I was born my family has traveled “up-north” to the Leelanau Peninsula to vacation with family friends. The region is beautiful, and when I heard there was an ultra gravel event happening there, I knew I had to check it out. Despite being a small event (limited to 100 participants, only offering the 200 mile distance), the race organizers offer two aid stations and drop points - something that really encouraged me to check it out, as drop points are a chance to swap bottles, change to clean clothes, and take a mental reset. I’ve never ridden 200 miles at once before, and have been consulting friends who have done Kanza, online race reports, and other resources to figure out how best to prepare myself for the event. I have no clock-based goals for the race, my only goal is to SUPERMAN MY BIKE AT SANCHO 200 because why not slap another ridiculous goal on top of riding 200 miles? Truly, I just want to finish the event, hell or high water.

Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
I ride clipped in on my CX bike, and flats on my MTB and commuter. I personally feel there is a time and a place for both, and appreciate the nuances and quirks that come with each. When I’m mountain biking, I appreciate being able to make fine adjustments in foot positioning that I get with flats; I also like playing with my MTB at the bike park and pump track, so it’s just easier to stomp onto a flat pedal and take off on the pump track vs. fuddling around with clipping in. I ride Raceface Chesters on my MTB and Crankbrothers Eggbeaters on my CX.

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
In mountain biking? Not anything too challenging to overcome (yet) - however, I went down hard on my first group ride and that was pretty embarrassing. The group ride I showed up on ended up being mostly cat 1 & 2 women, really strong riders, and I’d only gotten my mountain bike about three days prior, showed up late, hadn’t adjusted my tire pressure, etc. We were cruising through a section of a few steep dips into gullies that are designed to help drain the trails, and are lined with flat rocks at the bottom to assist with that task - I ended up focusing too much on the tree at the edge of the gully, and gave it a big hug, landing on the rocks with my butt and praying the woman behind me was able to stop in time. I was a little embarrassed, I felt like I wasn’t up to the level to be on the ride yet and maybe was holding everyone up, but what I realized as the day went on is EVERYONE FALLS mountain biking and even if you don’t see them do it - they’ve done it a million times before; the most important thing is you get up and keep going! I finished the ride and felt really proud of myself, but was definitely sore the next day!
Photo Credit: Robert Clark
When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Cornering used to scare me so much! I’d scrub off so much speed I’d fall off in the corners and lose a lot of places, I was so scared of hurting myself (and my bike!) but one day, one of the mechanics at Bike Fix in Oak Park told me “Your bike is a tool! Use it like one!” and it helped change my perspective. Are my bikes expensive? Yeah, but a derailleur hanger is pretty cheap and it’s WAY MORE FUN to shred through corners than to timidly pull through them.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
Manuals/getting my front end up are still a pickle for me. I developed a bad habit of using my clips to lift my rear on my CX bike, and have been working this summer to drop it, spending more time practicing popping my front end and bunny hops on my flat pedal bikes.

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?

Go slow and go with a group! A group ride is a great opportunity for beginners to not only have a guide to local trails (so you don’t have to worry about getting lost!) but also gives you a line to follow, and someone to cheer you on when you session that big log that’s challenging you!

What do you love about riding your bike?
What I love about riding my bike is first and foremost, riding my bike: the simple fact that I have an able body to do so is a gift I am always grateful for. The thing I love most about riding my bike offroad is technical, low-speed handling skills (ratcheting tight spots, off-camber riding, riding over obstacles, riding sand). As children, I feel like we have a ton of opportunities to feel that “I did it!” sensation when doing something tricky, but we do not get that as much as an adult - however low-speed handling skills give me that little boost, especially when I overcome something that was a major challenge for me before.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I have three bikes I ride on a regular basis and one 1994 Trek Singletrack that is in need of restoration before being enjoyed. The bike I ride most is my daily commuter, a steel, single speed CX bike. It’s a Retrospec Amok that is covered in stickers, geared for cruising, and most enjoyed riding no hands down side streets. I’ve been bike commuting from Chicago to Oak Park for about 4 years now, and this bike has been my partner through all of them! My other CX bike is an aluminum Fuji Cross 1.3, a copper-colored beauty with a carbon fiber fork (printed inside with pineapples!) that has brought me so much joy and really opened up the world of off-road riding for me; I’ve taken this bike everywhere from gravel events, to CX races, to long road rides, and have loved every minute I’ve spent piloting it. The newest addition to my stable is my mountain bike, a Jamis Dragonfly Sport. I spent a lot of time shopping around, comparing different mountain bikes, and contemplating what my goals were before settling on this model. While I’ve completed events on my aluminum CX bike with 35c tires, I wanted something a bit more plush for a 200-mile day at Sancho 200. The ability to switch the playful 26” wheelset that came stock on the bike with a 27.5” wheelset gives me the option to roll a bit faster on such a long ride.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Aguilar

What inspired you to want to be involved with Fearless Women of Dirt?
I’ve read Josie’s blog since late 2016, when I started racing more seriously and noticing all the cool women hanging out together - I wanted that! I started reading whatever blogs I could about women’s cycling (Pretty Damned Fast, Saddle Sore Women, Josie Bike Life, to name a few). I was on a very small, coed team at that point and was having trouble making headway in meeting other rad women riding bikes, so in April 2017 I left that team with the explicit goal of getting more connected with the Chicago women’s cycling community. I began attending a variety of rides offered by shops and teams, with the Women’s Monthly “WOMO” ride being integral in helping me meet people who I’ve become friends with now! My confidence and circle of friends have grown tremendously, and I want to share that with other folks (especially those who are into off-road riding!).

What benefit do you see from establishing a women's mountain biking community in your area?
I definitely can’t take any credit for establishing a women’s mountain biking community in my area! We already have some AMAZING women leading educational clinics through REI, SkunkWorks Racing & Half Acre Cycling women leading Lady Dirt Days (a series of group MTB Rides for femme folks), and other teams have tons of women competing in races at the local and national level as well. However, I’d like to be able to help build on all the hard work they’ve done by facilitating and organizing group rides, particularly for beginners, that start late enough that people can rent bikes if they don’t have one, and incorporate some basic skills education before hitting the trails. Having a community of women encouraging one another and doing tough stuff together is the best way to build confidence and friendship!

Why are you excited to be a Fearless Women of Dirt Ambassador?
I’m excited to be able to facilitate women exploring on bikes in a new way! I’ve been leading our BFF Beginner Ride this summer, showing new group-riders around the city of Chicago, and I look forward to being able to do so when it comes to hitting the pump track or the trails. Like I’ve said a zillion times already, I think the confidence and perseverance that comes with riding off-road is something that can change anyone’s life for the better!

You are on Team BFF- tell us about the team and the camaraderie you have-
Wow, where do I start? I LOVE MY TEAM, I LOVE BFF BIKES! When I first started racing in 2016 for a different team, I was encouraged to “chase the BFF girls because they’re strong”, and so I did - setting the target and beating some of the same people every race. When I left that team, I began looking for group rides near me, and the BFF Bikes shop was just down the street! I joined the Hammertime Sunday training rides and suffered every week, but got stronger and got to know the women I’d been trying to beat just a few months prior. Well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! After racing “indie” (no team) for 2017, but spending almost every week of the CCC hanging at the BFF tent, I decided to make it official and join up. Joining BFF has been one of the best decisions I’ve made, the team is composed of some of the most badass, self-motivated women I’ve ever met, and they constantly inspire me to push harder and go farther.

Recently, I brought to the team my desire to fill a gap I’d observed in Chicago - the lack of a CX practice for women/trans/non-binary folks exclusively. The resounding support I received excited me, and we host practices every Saturday morning (BFF WTFNBCX), giving folks a space to practice and improve their skills without the nit-picks that have become one of my biggest peeves of being around Men Who Race Bikes (what pressure are you running? Are those clinchers? Isn’t that aluminum a harsh ride? Are those stock wheels?). Each week, we work together to fine tune skills ranging from remounts & dismounts, to high & low-speed cornering, off cambers, starts, and hill work, on up to the fundamentals of bunny hopping; at the end of practice, we engage in a peanut pursuit, or hot laps race (depending on what we’re working on that week) with the winner taking home a lobster-shaped cake.
Were you nervous to join a team/group? What helped you alleviate those fears?
A little, but the benefits outweighed the nerves! I wanted to make absolutely sure that the team I chose was going to hit all the pros and cons I’d laid out after leaving the first team I was on. I wanted a team with a large presence of women, especially at cyclocross races, that was friendly, welcoming, and felt open to new members. I spent a lot of time riding with and getting to know other women from other teams and waited until nearly the end of the 2017 cyclocross season to make my final decision.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking? (or CX?)
The cost is a huge, HUGE, barrier to so many people - including myself. Bikes are expensive, even a “cheap” bike is going to be an expense in the long run. Is it cheaper than a car? Of course! But particularly for a bike that has little day-to-day utility, such as a mountain bike, it can take a long time and a lot of figuring out what you enjoy before you’re ready to drop the money on a bike you may only ride 3-5 times a month. I waited years before I was able to justify the cost and the space taken up in my apartment, and I am so glad I have a mountain bike now, but truly I think this is the biggest barrier to women - not just mountain biking, but cycling as well.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
Part of BFF Bikes Racing Team’s ethos is to “be an excellent ambassador to the sport of cycling”, which boils down to being a friendly, welcoming face to all sorts of cyclists. I make an effort to approach new racers I may not have seen last year, and invite them to hang out at our team tent at races, or come to our practice. I try and be the person I would’ve wanted to meet when I first started racing, a welcome wagon to the wide world of the wonderful Chicago women’s cycling community. I feel that’s the best thing I can do locally. Nationally, I think there needs to be more access to women’s mountain bike rides and clinics. It’s more accessible and friendly than riding with a bunch of dudes, and a great way to make friends!

Tell us what Fearless means to you-
What does fearless mean to me? As someone who has struggled with anxiety, and, in the past, let it completely dictate my life - I define fearless as “feeling the fear, but doing it anyway”. I refuse to allow my life to be ruled by past traumas and hurts warping my perception of the current experience. Acknowledging that the anxiety I may be feeling is colored by past experiences has allowed me to enrich my life in wonderful new ways - I connected with some amazing folks in the Chicago women’s cycling community and found a great team and support system, I’ve hit skills and ridden lines I would’ve been terrified of just a couple of years ago, I’ve gained the confidence and beat down “imposter syndrome” to do something I’ve wanted to do for years - get more women into cyclocross. So, yeah, I don’t think fearless to me is about being “fearless” as in free from fear, it means you take a moment to acknowledge it and say “fear and anxiety, you’re not making the decision, I am!”

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
The people who’ve encouraged me to ride! I wouldn’t have gotten into bike commuting without the encouragement and support I’ve received from my partner, Frank. After my first crash, I was hit and run pretty severely, requiring major dental work and a new fork for my bike (that I’d only gotten a few months prior), he found me a fork, installed it, and encouraged me to keep riding. He woke up at 4:30am to watch me race my first (and only) triathlon in the rain, suggested I try cyclocross, helped make me the bike handler I am today and has been one of my greatest supporters since I was just a baby biker in the city. Not everyone has that, so I try and be that person for the women I know by being a steady wheel to follow, a wrench when you need it, and a competent and patient teacher of what I know (and unashamed to direct to youtube when I do not).
Photo Credit: Joe Frost

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I have a lively sourdough starter that I’ve kept for almost three years, and I bake at least one loaf of bread on a weekly basis. Baking bread began as a form of self-care through a particularly difficult winter and has become a special ritual for me.