Women on Bikes Series: Bonnie Gagnon

My passion is in off-road riding - mountain biking, bikepacking and fatbiking. My favorite places to ride are in forests and over mountains. There is nothing like being enveloped in the beauty of nature!

In addition to riding, I enjoy writing and taking photographs along the trails. It is my hope that in sharing these experiences with others, that I might inspire or encourage someone to venture out on a bike as well.

When I'm not out adventuring, I am working as an analyst, deep diving into Cyber Security, and building up my company Virtual Trail Ride.


At Virtual Trail Ride we take 360-degree videos of trails anywhere in the US and abroad and turn them into VR videos that others can use to check out a trail or use for motivation while riding on their bike trainer. Best of all, I have four amazing kids who make me proud every single day.

A lot of people are familiar with my backstory in which I was diagnosed with Lemierre's Syndrome in late 2010. I went from finishing my first Ironman triathlon to staring into the eyes of my surgeon in the ICU a month later and being told I might not live. The bacteria had not only severely damaged my lungs but had also harbored itself in my lower back and ate through part of my intestines, my uterus, and my appendix. I underwent several life-saving surgeries before finally being sent home without assurance I would live. More important than my backstory is my comeback story. We all go through trials, sicknesses. and hurdles that may seem overwhelming or insurmountable at the time, but those times in our lives do not define us. They are more like transition points. Our comeback story is of far more value - how we overcome what we encounter; what our attitude is like; how we use our experiences to improve our lives and help those around us. That is the story I am writing today, and every day, as I give life my best.

My bike life includes riding from my house to places I've never been before - whether that's a nearby city or to the next state. What better way to get to know your surroundings than to experience it by bike! My favorite adventures include riding and hiking in Colorado, and the Tour Divide. A race along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR). I have spent several summers in Leadville, where the elevation will challenge even the fittest athletes, but the scenery pays off in huge dividends. In 2016 I had the pleasure of racing the Tour Divide for the first time. It is a 2745 mile race that starts off in Banff, Canada and goes up and over the Continental Divide more than 30 times to the finish line at the Mexico border in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. It is off-road and completely self-supported, meaning you have to carry everything you need - from a sleeping bag and tent - to your food and water. No outside assistance is allowed. It was a blast! I am currently preparing to race it again this June and if all goes well, I will be taking along my 360-degree camera to film the entire course. After that, I am hoping to take two weeks off with my family before preparing for the Marji Gesick. I hope to ride the new ~3000 mile Wild West Route created by Bikepacking Roots which starts at the Canadian border and serpentines its way to Mexico, west of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, next year. Lots of adventure ahead of me and I could not be more excited! Lastly, I am working on my book "Taking Down the Giant" which is about my experience on the Tour Divide. I also have a few surprise guest contributors that have shared some great stories for the book. 

I can be found on Facebook at:  https://www.facebook.com/ bonnie.gagnon77
Tell us about the introduction to mountain biking and how it influenced you from then on-
In 2010 I went for my first mountain bike ride. I had an old $75 bike from Target that was meant for easy road riding around the neighborhood. I pulled up to a local mountain bike trail – Lebanon Hills – and yanked that sexy machine off the back of my car, ready for action. I ended up on the intermediate loop – going through a few rock gardens, over log piles, and nearly the bodies of fellow riders while I quickly learned that I had no idea what I was doing. I crashed multiple times, felt completely out of my element and told the friend whom had met me there that I hated it. But there was something about the beauty – being immersed in nature and the aroma of the trees, that the allure to come back usurped even the swarm of mosquitoes I was covered in. I returned by myself the next day, determined to learn how to navigate the trail. I did not care how many times I crashed or that I had zero coordination. I wanted to be right back in the middle of nature. Due to training for my first Ironman, as well as having a serious illness that was developing in my lungs at that time, I did not come back to the trail for a year, but when I did I realized there was no other place I would rather be on my bike, so I gave up road cycling and embraced a permanent passion for off-road riding.

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!"
On my very first mountain bike ride, I learned that I am a lot less coordinated that I thought - I turned too tight and fell over, went over the bars multiple times, couldn’t climb to save my life and had a horrible time breathing due to permanent lung damage I sustained from Lemierre’s Syndrome. But I also learned that in spite of all of the obstacles, despite that I might be slow and not very efficient at navigating obstacles and terrain, that passion supersedes skill when the spirit is stronger than the body, and even if you’re simply not that good of a rider you can still enjoy every aspect on a mountain bike. I said, “Yes! This is for me!” because mountain biking is the most amazing abecedary I have ever had – it does not care about skill, age, gender, weight or any status quo. It invites you to simply embrace everything it has to offer and gives back tenfold. I love that. I also learned that there is no other place I would rather be than immersed in the beauty of nature - surrounded by trees, the aroma of pine and the purity that envelopes you when you’re deep in a forest or alongside a remote stream.

Tell us your introduction to bikepacking- what helped you decide that it was something you wanted to pursue, especially for long distances?
In 2015 I was preparing to race the Leadville 100. I was talking to my brother on the phone and mentioned that I wished I could ride my bike in a forest not just for one hundred miles but for days. After we hung up I thought about that – What would it be like to actually ride a contiguous trail for multiple days? I started googling ‘longest bike race in the world’ and came upon the Tour Divide – a 2745 mile off-road race that starts in Banff, Canada and goes all the way to the Mexico border in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. I looked at a few photos from previous riders and knew right then and there that I wanted to race it. Two months after the Leadville 100, just seven months before the race, I started thinking about it again and dropped my name in the race director’s hat. I had zero gear, no experience or knowledge about bikepacking, and no idea how to get started. I discovered that two local friends of mine had actually already attempted the Tour Divide and was able to talk their ears off asking questions, collecting gear recommendations etc. I really appreciated their patience and help.

Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
I ride flats however I do like the aspect of being able to pull up on the pedals as well. I used to clip in until I injured my knees in 2016, two months before the Tour Divide. I switched to flat pedals to allow more flexibility in foot positions in an effort to alleviate some of the knee pain.

Have you had any biffs (accidents) that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
I have definitely had my share of crashes – from flying over the bars to hitting my head on a rock and getting a semi-concussion, but those things never discourage me; they are risks that come with the sport. My goal is to minimize them as time goes on and my skills continue to develop. The hardest thing has been my own limitations – whether imaginary or real - often coming in the form of feeling too slow, wishing I could ride larger obstacles but not yet having the skills for them, or just overall endurance. I have had to learn, and relearn, to be patient with myself. Most of those things come with time and practice and one of the beautiful things about mountain biking is that it withstands the test of time – it will always be around - and therefore gives us the opportunity to develop our skills and endurance to the potential we hope to obtain.

When it came to recovering from your illness, what helped you stay positive and mindful?
Gratitude! I was so thankful to be alive – to have more time with my family and see my children grow up. That superseded everything else. I still think about how fortunate I am to be here and it fills me with joy. Additionally, instead of focusing on what I couldn’t do, I made a concerted effort to focus on what I could. Mountain biking replaced road biking and running, and though I missed both of those for quite some time, I wouldn’t give up mountain biking to go back to them. I love what I do now more than racing triathlons and road cycling.
When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Coordination and understanding the dynamics of mountain biking have been my biggest areas for improvement. For me, learning, practicing and implementing skills on a continuous basis are a must. I have ridden with friends that are very skilled in mountain biking and they have helped me improve my skills through demonstration and technique correction. I also joined a few mountain bike skills groups which have been very helpful in developing skills, and also a really fun way to get to know other riders. I would encourage new riders and even veterans to join skill development groups and not be shy about asking a coach or a well-seasoned friend for input.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
I struggle with going through rock gardens and over large obstacles. I tend to hesitate which creates a bigger disadvantage and I often doubt my own abilities before I’ve even given myself a chance to succeed. It’s at those moments that I have to quiet my doubts and focus even harder. I try to challenge myself to take on obstacles every chance I get instead of avoiding them to give myself the opportunity to succeed but also to not create a habit of avoiding obstacles.

What do you love about riding your bike?
So much! It’s liberating from the grind of daily life and invigorating mentally, emotionally and spiritually. From the discovery of hidden sanctuaries of beauty, being enveloped in the perfection of a forest, listening to the scurry of a small animal or the swaying of the trees, seeing up close the sparkles on the waters of a babbling brook and breathing in the purity of pines and sagebrush – all of these things beckon to me to saddle up and go on an adventure. I love to see the smile on my son’s face and watch him ride alongside me, to hear the voices of friends chattering about new bikes and gear, to see families enjoying a group ride. There are no prejudices with cycling. All are welcome. And that is a very beautiful thing.

What inspired you to write a book about your Tour Divide experience-
While out on the Tour Divide route, I was awestruck with the beauty of the thick forestry, majestic mountains and the full spectrum of riding and weather conditions. The parallels the race has to our life experiences are undeniable. It’s hard to get off work in sufficient blocks of time, or have the resources to embrace a large adventure so we live vicariously through the experience others share. Because of these things, I decided to write Taking Down the Giant and really hope that I might be able to share my experience in such a way as to inspire others to do whatever it is that sets their heart on fire.

For women who read about your cycling experiences and say "No way can I do that!" What would you say?
I totally understand that statement. I felt the same way about myself. As the saying goes – we eat an elephant one bite at a time – meaning we don’t have to take it all on at once. Ride your bike on a bike path, then progress to the easiest local trail you can find. Ride that easy trail for a year, or ten, if that is what it takes to get comfortable. There is no time frame within which you must progress in mountain biking. Take it at your own pace. If someday you hope to participate in a big race or ride a technical trail, hire a good coach, attend a few bike clinics (there are usually free beginner classes a few times a year at the local trails) and just have fun. It’s like math – none of us could perform calculous operations without having first learned basic algebra and progressing upward. Learn the basics and you will be amazed at how fast you progress. Most of all, believe in yourself. You have more talent than you'll ever realize so tap into it!
What has been one of the best lessons you've learned on your bike either mountain biking, bikepacking, or both?
Adventure has no confines. It doesn’t require a specific increment of time, a special location or even a certain level of skill. Go where you can with what you have – whether that’s a local trail, a weekend trip to a place you’ve long admired or to a trail that leads you to places few have had the opportunity to venture. Five years ago, I did not know I could and would ride my bike on a snowy trail, in the dead of winter, in the quiet solitude of trees and frozen streams. I would not have guessed that only two and half hours from my home I would ride on a red dirt path covered in the confetti of soft golden leaves on a twisty turning trail that led up the bluffs on the Iron Range. In the Twin Cities and the surrounding areas, we have a ton of amazing trails, you just have to look. It has been a gold mine of discovery. A couple of weeks ago I set out to ride as many trails in one day as I could, which ended up being ten total. It was an absolute blast. Even if you only have one day, go ride your bike.

What do you enjoy most about helping women become more confident with mountain biking or bikepacking?
The greatest reward in helping other women become more confident is seeing the inner rewards they achieve from riding their bikes. I love their excitement, seeing their courage build, the passion they exude, watching their confidence grow, and seeing them, in turn, mentor others. It’s absolutely rewarding in every way.

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

2019 Salsa Cutthroat. Chosen for bikepacking and racing the Tour Divide. ENVE rims, Rockshox SID World Cup fork, Schmidt SON 28 Dyno front hub, Thomson Ti flat bar, Hope Tech 3 V4 brakes with 180mm rotors, Eagle XO1 drivetrain, and custom bags by BikeBagDude.

2015 FS Trek Superfly 100. This carbon black beauty got me over the climbs at elevation in the Leadville 100 and continues to be my favorite mountain bike to this day. Full Shimano XTR and Bontrager Race XXX lite carbon build.

Salsa Woodsmoke – My Tour Divide weapon for 2017 complete with a Rohloff, ENVE rims and all the bells and whistles. I wanted to compare it to the Salsa Cutthroat I had the previous year. A fantastic bike that is going up for sale.

Twin Six Ti Fatbike – Absolutely my favorite fatbike ever. I bought this forever bike to ride snowy trails and get me through a few winter races such as Tuscobia. Currently set up with Dilinger 4 studded tires, Sram GX 1x11, Rockshox Bluto fork.

CEEPO Viper TT (time trial) bike – This bike became my weapon of choice for triathlon and long road rides due to its geometry and cool batman like look. It is currently hanging on my wall looking a bit neglected so I hope to take it out for a spin next summer and give it some love. Dora-Ace 7800, Mavic rims.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
The most common concerns women have shared with me regarding their hesitation for getting into mountain biking is that they are worried they will get hurt and that they feel like they don’t know what they are doing. I completely understand both of those reasons. I found a friend who mountain biked and asked to tag along. For a very long time, I felt awkward and embarrassed by my lack of skills and knowledge. The good news is that mountain bikers are a pretty friendly bunch and we are just stoked to be out there. No one is going to make fun of you, and in fact, we are happy to give input when needed. Stop in at your local bike shop and ask about group rides or find a local website that puts the information out there such as morcmtb.org in Minnesota. Don’t be afraid to go to a local trail and check out the beginner’s loop – it is usually designed for the skill level of new riders, as well as for kids, and is a great way to get your tires dirty and see what all the excitement is about. Whatever you do, go ride your bike!

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
I have seen the greatest surge in women riders when rides and clinics cater to women specifically. Receiving instruction in those environments helps lessen the fears and self-consciousness many of us experience and are great confidence boosters. All in all, I wouldn’t say a major change is needed, rather a continuation of the great directions we are now going.
What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
A lot of what I do when it comes to encouraging others is from a heart of compassion and empathy. I have a shy side that has often gotten in the way of trying new things that interest me – whether because I was very cognizant of my lack of knowledge and skill, I wished I had someone to join me or I simply had no idea where to start. Every time I have found a way to overcome my inhibitions I have been met with huge rewards. By extending my hand to others, I have had the privilege of helping other women overcome their barriers as well. Seeing that joy and sense of accomplishment in them is so rewarding. Truly an honor!

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I love Economics and tutored college students in Micro and Macro both in the US and in S. Korea.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this share worthy interview. A very informative piece that fills in some of the things I did not know of this remarkable woman, Bonnie Gagnon.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your kind words, Don! You are always kind, always positive!

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