Women on Bikes Series: Zoemma Warshafsky

I feel like I'm still a beginner mountain biker because there's always so much to learn! When do you ever advance from beginner? I've only been mountain biking for about a year and a half (started spring 2017), but wow how I've progressed. My husband (at the time boyfriend) bought me my first mountain bike. He's in the Coast Guard and was in Hawaii for 6 months. The first day when he got back, we went to look at mountain bikes. The second day we bought a beautiful Scott Scale Contessa. Previously I'd only ridden on the road and had been doing road triathlons for about 6 years and was a good road biker, but had very few bike handling skills.

The thought of riding off-road on bumpy, rooty, rocky, twisty trails scared the crap out of me. But I was getting a little bored and burnt out of road tris, and mountain biking was a great new challenge! My husband Alex has taught me everything. And when I say everything, I mean everything (how to go over a curb, how to brake, how to shift my weight, etc, etc) because I had no idea how to do anything at all!

It's been so amazing learning something so challenging with the person I love the most in the world and to have him believe in you more than you believe in yourself. If it wasn't for him, then there's no way I ever would have tried mountain biking and kept trying to get better at it. Now our weekends are spent out adventuring on the trails.

I needed a creative project recently and noticed that most of the content online about mountain biking is by experienced riders that are mostly male. I wanted to write about learning to mountain biking from a beginner's perspective (and add another female face to the mix), so I started my blog The Unexpected Mountain Biker. Hopefully, it will encourage more people to get out on the trails, no matter their skill level or confidence. Because if I can do it, then anyone can!

Tell us about your introduction to mountain biking, what about it made you say "Yes! This is for me!"
The last place I ever thought I’d ride would be on trails, but when my husband suggested it, it sounded like a fun challenge. I warned him how terrible I’d be, but he was okay with it and has stuck with me every step of the way. Even though I rode barely faster than walking speed for my first ride, I loved it. I love learning new things and working toward improvement, and mountain biking offered all that and more. All the challenges, obstacles, and sense of adventure (not to mention all the time I could spend with my husband being active) made me really fall in love with mountain biking.

Your husband was very supportive of your mountain biking, what did he do that worked well?
I would never have started mountain biking without Alex and I definitely would never have gotten as good as I am without him. I think the biggest thing he’s done is believe in me more than I believe in myself. He’s probably the most patient person in the world and will wait forever while I session something, no matter how silly the obstacle. Also, he is sort of lazy in that he never really cares how fast he goes or how much of a workout he gets in, so he was happy to just bop along behind me as I timidly felt out the trails. Really importantly, he encourages me to try scary things and push myself. He’s my teacher and is great at breaking down skills into their fundamental movements so I can learn them. He’s my biggest supporter and best friend and there’s no one I’d rather ride with.

Any tips or suggestions for folks wanting to introduce someone to mountain biking, especially if it's a significant other?
I think the most important tip is to view someone learning to mountain bike as a long-term investment. Alex knew I wasn’t going to awesome overnight, but knew that if he put the time into it, I’d get faster and have better skills and then we’d be able to ride more technical and challenging trails. His investment has definitely paid off! It’s much more fun to ride with others, so if you can put in the time and effort to teach someone, then you’ll both have more fun in the long term.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
ALL OF THEM!!!! Despite the fact that I had been road riding for 6 years, I had almost no bike handling skills. I didn’t really ride bikes as a kid, so I never developed that innate balance and confidence on a bike. So I basically had to learn how to ride a bike. I had to learn how to ride up and down curbs (which still scares me), how to turn (still struggle with), and pretty much everything else you can think of. I think me making Alex break down the skills into their basic movements and body positions were essential. And Alex demonstrating them a million times and him not letting me give up when I got frustrated. I don’t think I could have ever learned them by myself.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
Can I say all of them again? I much better at going over the little stuff, but now the curbs have turned into drops and the turns have turned into tight switchbacks. If I only rode things that I was capable of riding, then I’d get so bored. Though I love to challenge myself, riding things that are outside of my comfort zone can get frustrating quickly when you feel like you’re walking more than you’re riding. But that’s where sessioning becomes so important. If I mess up on something, then well session it until I can confidently conquer the obstacle. But if I’m getting tired or just want to ride, then I’ll try to do the more intimidating parts and if I can’t then I’ll say next time and walk over it and keep going. It’s good to stop and work on things, but it’s also good to just ride. And if I’m not having fun on a ride, then it’s probably time to call it quits for the day. Because what’s the point of riding if you’re not having fun?

Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
One day I’ll ride clips… maybe. But for now, it’s flats for me. I get scared too much on the trail riding on flats that clips would probably be an even bigger mental block because I’d be too nervous that I wouldn’t be able to clip out in time if I were attempting a more difficult section. I really like the freedom of flats and I don’t think the benefits (more power climbing, more traction on technical sections, more peddling efficiency) would benefit me much at this point in time. I also like being the only person at an off-road tri in skate shoes. I think I make a good fashion statement.

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?
The only goal you should have when you’re starting to ride is to have fun. If you’re not having fun, then you’re doing something wrong. Who cares how fast you’re going? Who cares what you have to walk over? Who cares how long your rides are? But if at the end of your first ride you don’t have a smile on your face and a sense of accomplishment in your heart, then rethink why you want to mountain bike. Be proud of yourself for doing something challenging and celebrate all your accomplishments, no matter how small. Also choose your riding partners carefully. Some experienced riders aren’t as good at going slow and working with beginners because they want to ride hard and long. That’s fine, maybe you can ride with them in a while if that’s your style. Choose someone who is encouraging and patient and has a fun attitude, but definitely ride with someone else or a beginner group where you can have lots of support around you.

Tell us about your first mountain bike race! What was the experience like?
There’s a trail about a mile from our house and they were doing a race there so I figured I’d do it. I did a 5k running race that morning because it was also less than a mile from my house. So my legs were a little tired to start. The trails are super, super rooty and twisty, so not really the most fun trails, but I knew what to expect and there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do. I had practiced the week leading up to it on two sections (one they didn’t even include because it was “too difficult”, psh!) and I knew I’d be fine skill wise. I was the only female there, but I knew a bunch of the guys doing it since we ride with that group a lot. I wanted to race in the Women’s race, but I did the intermediate one because it was the same distance. It started off down a fire road to try to spread everyone out. And I was with the group for the little sprint, but I let everyone go in in front of me because I didn’t want to slow anyone down and I knew they were all faster than me. I was just doing the race to do it since I hadn’t done one before. I was alone for most of the race and I didn’t come in last only because someone wiped out and I passed them. It was kind of boring being alone and I missed riding with Alex. I don’t think I really like mountain bike races because I’m not super comfortable going that fast, but I want to go fast because I’m racing, so it’s kind of pointlessly stressful. I much prefer off-road triathlons where not as much pressure is put on the bike portion. I also kinda prefer riding just for fun and sessioning things and exploring new trails. I also really want to get into cyclocross races, which I think I’ll be terrible at but I think they’ll be silly fun.

What has been your favorite event to participate in so far?
My favorite event for mountain biking has been the XTERRA Myrtle Beach Triathlon. I LOVE that trail. It feels like you’re riding a roller coaster the whole time. And I’m not afraid to go fast on that trails because it’s so smooth and flowy. I got to see my mom and Alex several times on the bike portion, which was awesome. And the best part was that my dad did! He’s the one that got me into triathlons, but he’d only ridden a mountain bike once before. So when he came down for the race, Alex and I gave him a crash course on mountain biking. He’d been having some injury issues, so I wasn’t sure how he was going to do, but he did the whole thing and loved it! I also got 6th female overall and 1st in my age group. I really hope I can do it again next year.

Why do you feel should folks try at least one mountain bike event?
I don’t think people need to race. You can get enough pleasure and excitement out of regular trail rides that racing isn’t necessary for having fun mountain biking. But if you need an excuse to push yourself or a reason to get up off your butt, then a race is a great motivator. If by event you mean anything bike related, then I think a skills clinic is probably the best event you can go to! It’s amazingly helpful to learn from someone and to be with a group that wants to learn. Lots of bike shops offer skills clinics and I did one recently and it was a lot of fun. I learned a lot from it and definitely want to do others in the future. You can also meet new people to ride with!
What was your inspiration to start blogging about your mountain biking journey?
Before I started blogging, I saw that most things online about mountain biking were by experienced riders and mostly male. But I thought I had a different viewpoint given that I’m still learning and could encourage people to ride by sharing my ineptitude and eventual successes. The experience of beginners is very different from that of experienced riders. Also, most of what I saw online was people succeeding, not everything it takes to get there. So I wanted to share my journey of learning to show it’s possible to get better. I also wanted to add another female face to the mix.

What has been the best part of sharing your experiences?
The best part has been seeing how many people view my stories even though my reach is so small. I’m only a few months into blogging, so my following is pretty small. But when I share my posts on Facebook, people somehow click on it! I thought after a few posts, people would stop, but (knock on wood) they haven’t. I think it shows that reading how people face challenges is something that a lot of people can relate to, whether they mountain bike or not. Also, it’s been pretty cool seeing that people from all around the world read my posts!

What do you love about riding your bike?
I love the freedom that a bike allows. It’s a vehicle that can take you to some spectacular places as long as your legs keep peddling. It can take you to places that you’d otherwise never go. It takes you into nature and away from the stresses of life. You can go almost anywhere on a mountain bike!

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
You can never have too many bikes right?? For off-road riding, I have a Diamondback Clutch 2, Scott Scale Contessa, and Fuji Cross 1.3. For on-road riding, I have a Fuji Aloha TT and Felt ZW76. And for commuting, I have a 20+-year-old Specialized Hard Rock. (Alex has the same number of bikes). I won’t talk about my road bikes since this is about mountain biking (but I miss riding them!). My first mountain bike was my Scott, which is a hardtail. After we were apart for 6 months, our second day together he bought this bike for me. I had no clue what to look for in a mountain bike, so he was helping me find one. I rode it and it felt good and it was a good deal, so we got it! It was a great starting bike and was great for me to learn on. Then I started getting tired of dealing with stupid little roots, so when I finally felt I had learned enough on a hardtail, I got my Diamondback full suspension. Alex has the guys version of this one, and when he was away, I rode it and liked it, so when I found an awesome deal online for it, we go it! It’s a super fun bike to ride and feels very reliable and comfortable. My ‘cross bike was more of an impulse buy because I found a good deal for it online and it had pineapples on the fork (very important factor in my decision). I want to get into gravel riding and ‘cross races, but there’s just not that much where we live now. But when we move next year, there should be more opportunities to ride it. And I really want to because it’s a very solid, fun bike!

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
I don’t think there’s a lot that deters women from road riding since it’s become more mainstream (except access to good, safe roads, which is pretty hard to find). But mountain biking is much more male-dominated than road riding. I think the things that deter women are lack of exposure, fewer friends that ride, and most importantly lack of confidence. I really didn’t even know what mountain biking was or had any desire to try it before Alex. Very few people that I knew mountain biked and because I had no handling skills on my road bikes, I would have been afraid and completely lost to try mountain biking on my own. It’s hard to get into a sport where you don’t know anything about it and there’s a pretty steep learning curve. So having someone or a group to introduce you to the sport is essential to trying it and staying with it. I think these barriers apply to both men and women, but I think women may struggle with self-confidence more than men and are more likely to let it hold them back. But everyone is scared and self-conscious while mountain biking, regardless of their gender. So don’t let your fear or gender hold you back! Being female means absolutely nothing about how much you can enjoy mountain biking and how skilled you are. Mountain biking is for everyone, no matter their gender, age, skill level, exercise level, etc.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
I think something that could really help would be to feature more women riders on YouTube channels. Most (almost all) of mountain biking videos are of males, but showing that women are involved and active and badass would probably inspire more women. And showing that it’s okay to mess up and not be the best would probably show that you don’t have to be a daredevil to pick up the sport. Also having “bring-a-friend” rides would probably be really helpful in getting more women out there. It’s intimidating to arrive at a ride by yourself, so if you go with a friend, then you’ll probably be more comfortable.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
I am inspired to get everyone riding regardless if their male, female, young, old, black, white, whatever! I just want to see more people on the trails having fun. I want to help people overcome their fears and see their happiness at their successes.
There’s no better joy on the trail than seeing someone clean something they were struggling with.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I rode with training wheels until I was around 10 years old when my cousins made fun of me and I finally rode without them.