Women on Bikes Series: Emma Maaranen

Emma Maaranen here! I’m stoked to get to share a bit about my bike life with you. I am co-founder and athlete of KS-Kenda Women’s Elite MTB Team and, like many professional female athletes, I have a “real job” too.

I am a professor at Central Oregon Community College teaching in Allied Health (vocational medical programs). I maintain clinical hours in movement rehabilitation, coach amateur cyclists and lead personal or small group MTB skills clinics.

My social handle is @emmamaaranen

Tell us about your introduction to mountain biking, what about it made you say "Yes! This is for me!"
I’ve always liked going fast and pushing my comfort level. I enjoy activities where working on technical skills will make me better, instead of just being more fit or reckless. I will do almost anything to be outside, exploring new places, and sharing an adventure with a friend. Is there anything besides mountain biking that fits this bill?

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
When I started riding a mountain bike, I was always “out with the guys” and felt I had to prove I could keep up to be invited to ride with them again. I’ve always been strong and stubborn so holding my own on the climbs was easy, but when pointed down I was death gripping my brakes or blasting through obstacles hoping that I would get to the end in one piece. This strategy often ended up in bruises and lacerations that further undermined my confidence. Riding scarred reinforced my bad habits. I went to Red Bull Rampage as a spectator that fall and took note. The riders had fluid body positions with weight over their bottom brackets and a steady focus on what was coming next. I was inspired, but at home, I just couldn’t move around much on my bike like they did. Enter the dropper post! With a newly installed KS Lev on my bike, I was able to move not just behind my saddle on descents, but to the sides for cornering and ahead to get my rear wheel off the ground. Suddenly I was riding my bike instead of being taken for a ride by it. I slowed down on descents to practice driving my bike fluidly and measured success by how well I used bike skills rather than keeping up.

You know what? Going slower was faster. I was able to adjust to terrain proactively; entering obstacles at a speed I felt was manageable kept me from braking in the thick of it (which is a cause of a lot of crashes) and that let me stay loose so I could react smoothly to bumps and skids. A steady tortoise is overall faster than a go-stop rabbit. And not being scared makes me smile. Long story short, a dropper seat post is a must have for any rider in my books.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
I feel like a buzz-kill, but all aspects of technical riding I still find tricky. As my skills improve, I can ride more obstacles and with more speed. This just opens the door to bigger and more technically demanding terrain that sends me back to working on progressing my skills. I’m pretty sure the cycle is never-ending.

My home trails in Bend OR have had a very dry summer and many of our corners are deep moon dust right now. Recently, while railing a corner, my rear wheel got completely loose and I crashed into a tree (unhurt). As much as I didn’t want it to, this unnerved me. Coming into the next mystery traction corner I let fear drive and my cornering skills went out the window. I braked entering the corner, was heavy on my handlebars, was looking for powder pockets instead of my exit, and half-heartedly leaned my bike. Instead of getting frustrated that I’ve reverted into old habits, I picked one thing to nail on the next corner; dropping my speed well before I entered the corner to be off my brakes. A small task to improve my cornering feels doable and something I can sight improvement on. After a few comfortable corners, I’ve added another task to ride a corner well and my confidence is back. Telling myself to corner better or just saying I’m not riding this well today gets me nowhere. A small “to-do” item is attainable, and success brings more success.
Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
Clips. I first flung my leg over a mountain bike with clips and I am as aware of them as I am of wearing bike shorts. I’m comfortable. I am confident. Is one better than the other? I doubt it. They each have advantages and disadvantages. Ride what you like.

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?
Don’t go for your first ride with your significant other or your “expert” friend!

Most communities have bike shops with women’s groups. These groups often have rides for beginners with a leader who is knowledgeable in helping first-timers. The shop will put you on a fun and safe bike that is fit to you, and the ride will be on appropriate terrain with a community of women with the same concerns as you. You will make friends with other new riders, be on a solid bike, and start your mtb riding out with good habits!

You had a substantial accident several years ago, how did you deal with the mental/physical challenges? What helped you overcome?
I won’t share the details or the gore of the MTB accident I was in, but I was profoundly injured and went through two years of medical procedures to save my left lower leg and foot. Very early in my recovery I understood I could be defined by my accident and live in a holding pattern or I could use the accident as a springboard to grow from. I chose the latter, and this meant that I would have to become a mountain biker. I began my journey by not acting as a victim of fate or circumstance, but taking a look at the pieces of ownership I could have that contributed to my accident. The truth was, I was riding at a speed that was at the top of my ability level because the trail was labeled easy/ green. I was a strong and fit athlete, but not a seasoned or skilled bike handler. I believed that if someone else could do it, I should be able to as well; not giving credit to the experience and specific work that the other rider/ person has done. As soon as I shifted my mental space to taking responsibility, it became obvious what I would need to do to get back on my bike with confidence. When I was approved for weight-bearing activity, I got on my bike in a grassy park and practiced beginner bike drills I found online and in publications. Soon I was taking bike handling clinics and doing drills on mellow mtb terrain. I started to ride easy and familiar trails with friends and embraced that I would be riding my pace and walking any terrain I was uncomfortable with to ensure I was set up for success. By the time I was mentally ready to ride challenging rides from my pre-accident life, my technical bike handling skills became a mental process I applied to ride anything, not leaving room for me to fixate over what-if’s or engage in negative self-talk. I eventually returned to the trail where I had my accident, not putting pressure on myself to ride the part where I had crashed, but just to honor what had happened and how I had grown from the experience. At some point, during the ride, my friend and I stopped to have a snack and she asked where my accident had been. I said we should be getting to it soon and scanned the horizon. Behind us, on the trail we had already ridden was the site. I had transformed myself into an engaged rider and rode the section without even noticing it was the fated spot! Not that I don’t have fears, crashes, injuries, or encounter obstacles that I choose to walk; but I know I will make ride choices that are right for me and this is the secret to loving and progressing as a mountain biker.

What was your inspiration to start participating in mountain bike events?
This surprises people, but I went to my first race the same year I got back on my bike post-accident. I was hoping to meet some strong female riders to ride with and mentor me in becoming a better cyclist. I didn’t care at all about the race itself, I was on a mission to make a biking date. It turned out that I loved the mtb race, made plans to ride with another lady the next day, and signed up for the entire race series as well.

What helped you make the decision to race in the elite field?
I personally do not put much weight into where I finish in a race, but how I am able to use my strengths strategically and adapt to situations. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing when I land on the podium and I take every start-line gunning for the top spot. However, I enjoy the chaos of a pack of riders, making alliances with other riders for mutual gain, and having friendly rivalry on the course that pushes both of us to go just a little harder. For this, you need a large field. Large fields in Women’s XC racing is found in the Elite category so I petitioned for a USAC Pro upgrade as soon as I could.

What were you surprised to learn when you started racing elite?
Pro women mountain biker’s discount how amazing they are. It’s not that they are sand-bagging their abilities but exist in a culture that does not celebrate women cyclists’ accomplishments. The message often heard is that she is good, but… This should create a culture of secrecy, selfishness, and maligned intentions as Elite women scrap for recognition, sponsorship, and opportunity. Amazingly, most of the women embrace and mentor those new “to the club”, generously share resources, and wholeheartedly celebrate other successes even in their own defeat. Yeah, these women are amazing, and it’s no small thing to be one of the best female riders in the country, even if you are ranked 75th! (Number of ranked Pro XC Women in the USA for 2018.)
Tell us about your favorite event!
Just one? I love stage racing and did the Quebec Singletrack Experience this year. It was amazing! Everything was taken care of once I got to Quebec City, each day’s stage featured almost exclusively single track that was among the best in the province, the event fostered a community of riders who I am still in touch with, and the locals could not wait to show off their city. I’m taking my KS-Kenda Women’s Elite Teammates with me next year! You should come too.

Why should folks participate in at least one event?
For every rider, there is a multitude of gains to be had by participating in a cycling event. I have a global reason to entice women to participate in an event. For women to be seen and treated equally, we have to show up! If we don’t participate because we are afraid of being the only woman there, some other woman will be the only one. If we are afraid we are not good enough, that fear will make it so. If we feel it’s a male-dominated sport, we are letting it be by not showing up. Please, show up!

What do you love about riding your bike?
Do you remember when you got your first bike? You were probably like me, a very young kid who was limited by needing others to take you places. The bike was your first real step to independence. Suddenly you could ride over to Jenny’s house to play, watch one more cartoon before going to school because it was way faster to pedal than walk, and you could take the short-cut behind Grumpy McGregors house knowing you could sprint away faster than he could catch you. Bikes are still that generator of independence for me, offering freedom to explore and simplicity to just be me.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I have a stable of Pivot bikes. I’m spoiled I know! Let me introduce you to them.

Melanie Z. (last name omitted to protect the not-innocent) is named after the “mean girl” in grade school. Melanie Z. is a Pivot Mach429SL. She is my go-to bike for riding with friends, racing XC and stage races. Her geometry is trail friendly and playful unlike most XC bikes. I ride and race full suspension: it gives me traction on loose/technical climbs, Pivot Cycles are designed not to bob on climbs so they are as efficient as a hardtail, are fun and forgiving to rip downhill on, and let me recover descending unlike on a hardtail. For XC I prefer 29” wheels because they are simply faster rolling than smaller diameter wheels. This year I moved to Shimano Di2 1x11 drivetrain. It gives me a huge advantage when I need to go from a very small to a tall gear in one pedal stroke like at the bottom of a descent that reveals an instant steep climb. A KS Dropper post is non-negotiable for me as I mentioned earlier. And Kenda Honey Badger tires never let me down on any terrain I encounter.

Baby Back is my “big bike.” Named so because she is large and in charge. She is a Pivot Firebird with 170mm travel to devour big lines and go skyward with ease. I like to ride this bike on obstacles that are heady to give me confidence and when learning new skills. Baby Back is forgiving when I’m short on a double, overshoot a table-top and am riding big drops. It also lets me work on my reactions with increasing speed. All of these transfers to my XC riding, and honestly this bike is silly fun to play on.

Raksasha is the bike I ride when I’m not hitting the trails. She is a Pivot Vault that I swap CX, gravel, and road wheels on. I’ve raced CX and TT on this bike. It’s great to have one bike that is so versatile; this is why she is proudly named after the mythological shape-shifter.

Enzo, named after the Italian race car driver who was famous for sliding sideways through corners, is my fat bike. I will ride in almost any condition before I’ll get on a trainer! This bike is not just fun in the snow, but at the beach and sand dunes too.

And then there is Training Weight. This steel framed, triple ringed road bike has logged more miles than any other and has been in my life since college. I commute everywhere him. He weighs more than Melanie Z.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
When you read magazines, see videos, advertisements, etc. it makes MTB look like a gnarly high-risk sport where dudes grunt, glory is had only in being a beast who thrives on suffering, and you need a graduate degree in Mechanical Engineering to begin talking about bikes. I’m often surprised there are as many women mountain biking as there are they are given this. Women, in general, thrive in a supportive community where mentorship naturally occurs. I am seeing more and more of this for women new to the sport; but there are few communities for women who want to race at the top level, ride the most challenging terrain, or are industry leaders and innovators. I believe this is a large component for reduced female entries at races, a paucity of women at bike parks, and few women in leadership roles in the industry. Tackling this is a goal for myself and my co-founding KS-Kenda Women’s Elite Teammates, Nikki Peterson and Jen Malik. We hope to create a place where aspiring mtb racing women can find community and support to pursue a professional cycling career. We have plans in the next few years to have a mentoring “team” for amateur women and are becoming involved with the industry as business women. Our success in our first year has been more than we dreamed and is prompting other women to band together and form teams for 2019.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
See more women out there! Even if the numbers are less, prizes and support/ sponsorship opportunities need to be equal. If there are only a few women visible, it is intimidating to other women to join in. Often the women who are leaders have downplayed their femininity to be taken seriously. Acknowledge women are a different demographic than men but are equal in buying power, ability, and importance.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
Biking is a platform for unlimited growth in all facets of life. If I know something is awesome, I want to share it with everyone!

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
In the spirit of promoting women’s accomplishments in cycling, I will share that I am the second person in my family to be a USAC National Champion: my dad, Steve Maaranen, as a track cyclist and myself on the fat bike.
Dad also went to the Olympics. If only fat biking would be an event at Beijing 2022…