Monday, January 14, 2019

Women Involved Series: Caroline Washam

Photo Credit: Katie Holdon
Hi! I’m Caroline Washam, professional downhill mountain bike racer, mountain bike skills coach, and content producer.

I fell in love with bikes when I was 10 years old. That's when I bought my first BMX bike with allowance money and started racing in Raleigh, NC at the local track.

Starting out racing against the boys, it took me a whole year to manage six 1st place finishes to move into the "girls" category.

Since then, racing -- whether it is Downhill, Dual Slalom, Enduro, XC, cyclocross, or Xterra Triathlon (yup, I did that once) -- has always been part of my life.

For me personally, having a goal I am working toward helps me be my best self. Every time I go for a ride, pick up some dumbbells or hit the streets for training, I see progress. Biking is cool like that, there's always room to improve and progression is addicting.

In 2019, I’ll begin my fourth year of professional downhill mountain bike racing with my sights set on Crankworx events, World Cups, and World Championships. At 30, I’m getting the opportunity to accomplish my big, crazy dreams.

Racing fulfills the part of me that needs to push my own body and mind to the limit. MTB skills coaching feeds my soul. Mountain biking is so much more than racing or going fast, it is about community, connecting to nature and mental health. After attending my first skills clinic at Rays Indoor MTB Park in 2013, I realized a few things:

1. Even after racing for 15 years, I still had so much to learn (and I shouldn't feel embarrassed about that)

2. There was a HUGE community of women who liked to ride bikes just as much as I did,

3. I wanted BIKES to be my job.

So, I found a job in bikes with Liv Cycling (Liv/giant at the time) as a demo driver, got my PMBI Level 1 MTB coaching certification later that year in Whistler, and started spreading MTB stoke immediately by coaching at Liv-sponsored events.

After moving back home to North Carolina in 2015 and assuming the role of Content Contractor with Liv, I took the opportunity to start my own mountain bike coaching business: Spoked, LLC. My goal is to fuel a passion for mountain biking by bringing people into this awesome sport and showing them what they are capable of!

Learn more about me and my little business Spoked, LLC here.
Social Media:

With your #bikelife experience, how would you say it helped you be your best self?
My #bikelife started at a young age. When I was a kid racing BMX, I never thought I could make a career out of cycling. I thought, “Well, it’s either I become a Pro BMX racer or I go to college.” I chose college, and pursued two degrees in Journalism and Photography. But, little did I know that cycling would continue to find its way into my life. When I found mountain biking and the collegiate cycling team at Appalachian State University, it was like I found my purpose again. Cycling was a part of me, and from then on my best decisions came when I chose bikes over other paths in life. Mountain biking has giving me so much: health, passion, community, and the ability to see the world!

Can you take us back to your first few mountain bike rides? What did you learn and what made you say "Yes! This is for me!"
My first mountain biking experience was not a good one… I was in high school and although I was a nationally competitive BMX racer, I had no idea what I was doing on the local cross country trail. I borrowed my Dad’s mustard yellow Specialized Hard Rock (completely rigid) bike and headed out to the trails with some of my BMX friends and their parents. I came home bruised, bleeding and with a very sore bottom. I swore I was never going to get on a mountain bike again. Flash forward to my junior year of college when the school’s mountain biking team actually found me! I had hung up my BMX bike after my first year of college to focus on my studies, but when an old professor told me about dual slalom I decided to bring my Gary Fischer hardtail out to the next race. To my surprise, I won that race and figured this mountain biking thing wasn’t all that bad. Downhill racing took me a bit longer to figure out, but I loved the challenge, the friends I was making, and the places that I saw collegiate racing taking me. Bottom line: bikes are so much fun!
Tell us more about racing and why you feel it's important for women to participate-
I’ve been asking myself the same question since I was 10 years old: “Why don’t more women race bikes?” I’m not going to pretend I’ve discovered the answer to that question, but I’ve seen so much awesome progression to help more women get into the sport recently with NICA, collegiate cycling, support for women’s events from awesome companies like SRAM and Liv Cycling, as well as the great work done by my fellow female mountain bike coaches across the country. As more women are welcomed into the sport of mountain biking, I would love to see more women give racing a try. The thing is, at least for me, mountain bike racing isn’t about trying to beat the competition; it is about challenging yourself to do something you previously thought was impossible. The more women we have out there pushing their own boundaries, the more we can elevate the visibility for women in this sport and consequently encourage companies to put more dollars behind supporting women and creating better cycling products for women. The result is a better cycling industry for everyone.

Plus, did I mention how FUN racing is?!

Do you have any tips or suggestions for someone who is planning to do their first race?
Find out what type of race is best for you. There are so many different types of races! Do some research to determine what type of racing fits best with the type of riding you love to do. Sure, I started out racing downhill, but that’s probably not the best route for everyone to take. Maybe a short track cross country race would be a good place to start if you are new to the sport and want to test out racing without getting too far out into the woods. If you love the downhills more than the climbs, a local enduro race might be right up your alley. Are you super-fit, love to climb, and looking for an adventure? Maybe a MTB stage race is for you!

Ask questions! No matter what type of race you are doing, the mountain bike community if full of amazing people with big hearts who would love to help you get into the sport. Don’t be afraid to ask your local bike shop, local mtb club, or your friends who ride about the race you’d like to do. What are the trails like? What kind of gear do I need? Is my bike appropriate for this type of racing? What category should I sign up for? There are no stupid questions!

Be prepared. Being prepared for your first race is the best way to ease your nerves. And, that doesn’t necessarily mean training hard for months before the race. If the race is local, try to check out the trail before the race so you know what to expect. Brush up on your skills by taking a mountain bike clinic and give yourself time to practice what you’ve learned before the race. Take a Fix-a-Flat clinic at your local bike shop and become a little more confident diagnosing bike issues. Get a tune-up on your bike at least two weeks before the race to make sure everything is working properly. Going into the race with a working bike, proper gear, and knowing what to expect will help you tackle your first race with your best pedal forward!

Just have fun! Don’t set any expectations or demanding goals for your first race. A great way to have more fun is to sign up for a race with friends that you ride with, but if you don’t have any friends to sign up with – make some at the race! Enjoy the experience, stay positive, and celebrate at the finish!

Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
Both! I started riding clips when I was 12, about two years after I started racing BMX. Because I started so young, clipping in and out was pretty natural for me when I started riding mountain bikes. However, I also had this deep-seated fear that without clips I would be a horrible bike rider. After I received my first mountain bike coaching certification, I knew I had to get over this fear. And, it was hard. I had developed a lot of bad habits over the years, like pulling up on my pedals when jumping and riding with my toes down over rough sections of trail. I definitely slipped a couple of pedals during the process, but it was all worth it. I am a firm believer that being able to ride trails with flat pedals makes you a better rider, even if you ride most of the time with clips. It teaches you proper technique and helps you learn how to pump – instead of power – over obstacles. Nowadays I use flats for coaching, dirt jumping, or pump tracking, but I still always race and trail ride with my clips because I believe I can go faster with them.

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
I have certainly had my fair share of crashes. I want to stress that most of the time falling down does not result in severe injuries. Bruises, scrapes, and scabs are the norm. Sometimes big gnarly crashes happen, but most of the time they are avoidable.

In February 2014, I was riding alone near Pasadena, California on an unfamiliar trail. That might sound like the start of a scary movie, but at the time riding alone on unfamiliar trails was totally within my comfort zone. As I climbed up the narrow trail with a steep drop-off on my right-hand side, I was distracted, tired, and I wasn’t paying close attention to the terrain. I clipped my handlebar on the left hand of the trail and was shot off the right and down a 15-foot embankment. I broke my hand in 3 places, broke my scapula, and separated my shoulder.

Physical healing is just one element of recovering from a crash. The hardest part of physical healing is time. You have time to think, time to be hard on yourself, time to get depressed or stuck replaying the accident in your head and how you could have done something differently. That time away from the bike and thinking about the accident can leave little mental scars that will show up every now and then, but what the time away also does is make you appreciate what you love about mountain biking. I’ll never forget my first mountain bike ride four months after that accident. I was riding the easiest trail ever, going super slow with tears streaming down my face; I was literally sobbing with happiness.

I’m still afraid of narrow trails with steep drop-offs and exposure. But when I find myself in those situations, I stop, breathe, and focus on the trail ahead. I remind myself that I have the skills to ride that trail, I am focused and I’m ready. Crashing is part of mountain biking, but learning from those mistakes is how you become a better rider.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Bunny hopping and getting over logs in the trail! First of all, it took me 15 years to learn how to do a proper bunny hop. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true! I didn’t understand the concept. I thought a bunny hop was the same thing as a level lift. So, I used my clips, I preloaded and I hopped up, lifting both my wheels at the same time. When I finally learned how to do a proper bunny hop (lifting my front wheel first, then scooping my pedals and shoving my bike forward to lift the rear wheel), it made getting over obstacles so much easier.
Finally, I could get my front wheel high enough to make it over logs on the trail!

You became certified in PMBIA 1 instruction- what inspired your decision?
When I was a demo driver with Liv Cycling, the company gave me the opportunity to travel to Whistler to get my certification so I could teach clinics at events. I leapt at the chance to get certified as a mountain bike instructor. Ever since I attended my first clinic at Ray’s Indoor Mountain Bike Park in Ohio, I had dreamed of being able to make the same impact on the community that the instructors made on me in just a couple of hours.

What I didn’t expect was how much my own riding would improve by becoming a certified mountain bike coach. I learned so many things I was doing wrong and have become more consistent and controlled in my riding. Since then, I’ve gotten my PMBIA Level 2 certification in drops and jumps.

What has been one of your most inspiring coaching moments?
You know how I said that it took me 15 years to learn how to bunny hop? Well, two years ago I taught a pump track clinic to a group of about 14 women. We spent three hours working on wheel lifts, cornering and finding flow. It was an awesome day! At the end of the clinic, one of the women asked if I could teach them how to bunny hop. With a sigh, I said, “Ok, but I don’t want anyone to get discouraged if they don’t get it. You’ve all be going hard for hours and this is a skill that takes time to learn.” 15 minutes later, every single one of my students had gotten their wheels off the ground. I can’t explain it, and that certainly isn’t always the case when I teach bunny hops. It must have been the collective stoke and positivity of the group… but I will never forget that moment.

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! The awesome thing about mountain biking is there is always something you can improve upon. There is never a moment when racing or riding that I’ve said, “Oh yeah, I did that perfectly.” It all goes back to the basics: knowing how and when to brake, when to get low, when to unweight, when to push your weight back or get a little forward, how to twist your hips to pivot around turns and obstacles, knowing where to look and how to choose a line. I wouldn’t say there is one specific skill or type of obstacle that I find challenging, the challenge is putting it all together and having the confidence in your own abilities. Messing up, sliding out, casing a jump, braking before a drop instead of sending it the first time… these aren’t things that I let bring me down, instead they are reasons to keep going. For me “failing” is a reason to push back up and try it again.

Tell us about your coaching business, Spoked LLC and what your plans are-
Spoked, LLC is an outlet for me to impact the community around me. I’m so lucky to have the support of some awesome companies in the industry like SRAM who invite me to teach alongside other awesome coaches throughout the year, and I LOVE making an impact at these big events (like Sea Otter, Crankworx, etc). However, I know there is a need for mountain bike skills coaching right here in North Carolina and the surrounding states. With Spoked, I put on clinics in the region and work with local mountain biking groups or municipalities for their events. I also just want to be here for anyone to reach out and ask for help. I’ve loved working with individuals on a one-on-one basis and with small groups at their local trails. Though my main focus in 2019 will be racing, Spoked, LLC isn’t going anywhere. I plan to continue to play a significant role in the Southeast mountain bike community for years to come.

What has been the best part of establishing your own coaching business?
The reason why I do what I do is to grow the community of mountain bikers right here at home. I love seeing that dream come to life. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching women at the beginning of their MTB journey who have now become leaders in their own communities. It’s humbling to know that I’ve played a role in shaping their lives and establishing a growing group of shredders in the Southeast.

What do you love about riding your bike?
Is everything an appropriate response?

Seriously, I love EVERYTHING about mountain biking. I love being outside, the adrenaline, the sweat, the dirt, the taste of a cold beer and Mexican food after a good ride, I love the confidence riding has given me, the strength (both physical and mental), and at the same time the humility to laugh at myself. I love riding alone, sharing rides with my dad, brother and husband, and constantly making new friends on the trail. I could go on and on…

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I'm so grateful to have the support of some of the best bike and components companies in the industry who keep me riding and racing the bikes of my dreams. In 2019, I will be riding all Liv frames for downhill, dual slalom, trail, and road. I couldn't do what I do without SRAM/Rockshox/Truvativ (drivetrain, brakes, suspension, handlebars, and stems), Schwalbe (tires), Industry Nine (wheels), Flat Tire Defender (tire inserts), Joe's No Flats (sealant, bike wash, and lube), and HT Components (pedals).

Why is it important for women to be involved in the cycling industry?
Cycling isn’t a sport for just men, so why should the cycling industry be run by men? Just like in any industry, workplace diversity is so important in the cycling industry. The only way we are going to have fresh ideas that get more people on bikes and create better products for all cyclists is by companies and organizations reaching outside of their bubble… and that doesn’t mean just hiring more women, but it’s a good place to start.
What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
I feel like a lot of times strong women who have found cycling on their own and who feel comfortable in their communities see a question like this and think… well, there are no boundaries for women getting into cycling. Certainly, I didn’t have any boundaries getting into biking when I was 10. I was lucky. I had super supportive parents, my brother paved the way by starting BMX racing first, and I was a bit of a tomboy. I felt comfortable on my BMX team as the only girl, in fact, it made me feel pretty cool to be different. But, not all women had the luxury to be introduced to cycling at an early age or feel comfortable being the minority.

Let me flip the question to, “What deters men from getting involved with yoga?” Obviously, there is something… because every yoga class I’ve ever been to has only 0-20% men in it. Maybe it’s because men don’t feel all that comfortable working out in a room full of women, or maybe it’s because most men were raised to believe that lifting weights is the manly way to work out and yoga-type exercises are for girls, or maybe it’s because yoga studios and products aren’t marketed to men…

So, what deters women from getting involved with mountain biking? Most women don’t feel welcome in a bike shop or group ride when they are surrounded by men, most women weren’t given the opportunity to mountain bike at a young age or were made to feel like it wasn’t for them, and in the grand scheme of things mountain biking is still mostly marketed toward men.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
Luckily, a lot is already changing.
NICA and Little Bellas are doing AWESOME work to welcome more girls into mountain biking at a young age. This is huge and soooo important. Yes, mountain biking is for girls! Women’s Ambassador programs sponsored by Liv Cycling, SRAM, Bell JoyRide and others have created female mountain bike armies that welcome women into the sport and give them the resources they need to stick with it. Women’s MTB Events and clinics have created a community and helped women gain confidence and improve their skills. Heck yeah!

So we are making huge strides by creating spaces where women are NOT the minority in the cycling industry and beginning to do better by bringing young girls into the sport early to create life-long cyclists. I think the industry can still do better by investing more money to create better bikes and gear for women, supporting equal funding for women’s racing across the board, and giving women equal coverage in industry media and within brand campaigns.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
When I first started riding mountain bikes in North Carolina, I had a handful of female biking friends. That number has exploded in less than ten years. Now, it isn’t unusual to show up at the local trails and see several other ladies out riding. That inspires me. I hope by continuing to race downhill (and doing some crazy things on the bike) and coaching I will continue to show women what is possible and what we can do when we lift each other up.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I love animals! During my childhood, I had three cats, two dogs, two rats, two snakes, two hermit crabs, a hamster, and some fishies. My first solo pet was a bunny named Jelly who I adopted while in college. My husband and I currently have two rescue cats named Greer and Grom who make near-daily appearances on my Instagram Story feed. @caroline.washam for all the cute, weird and funny kitty antics.

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