Women on Bikes Series: Jenna Downey

Jenna Downey, born and raised in Atlanta has been an athlete all of her life. She is currently the Regional Marketing Manager for the Southeast for CLIF Bar & Co. and a competitive mountain biker & cyclocross racer.

Growing up doing triathlons and playing soccer, she eventually devoted all her time to running competitively.

After graduating from Holy Innocents’, she went to the University of Richmond to run Division 1 Cross Country & Track.

Fitness and health has always been a passion for Jenna and after moving back to Atlanta, she found the joy of running and importance of overall health while working as a boot camp instructor and High School Track & Cross Country Coach. After sustaining a severe ankle injury in 2013 that required surgery and completely shut down running, Jenna discovered cycling and it has truly been life changing. After dabbling in road racing and finding a love for Cyclocross…it was when she entered the lottery for Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race in 2016 that she started riding mountain bikes and found her new passion. She now races all over the Southeast (and Colorado) and has her sights set on some international stage races!


Tell us about your introduction to mountain biking, what about it made you say "Yes! This is for me!"
Formerly a competitive runner, I started riding because I kept getting injured. After breaking my ankle and not being able to run anymore is when I really got into cycling. Some guys I rode with encouraged me to sign up for a crit. I hated it! I walked into Peachtree Bikes and they said, why not try Cyclocross? They gave me a bike, I went to my first race and I fell in LOVE! I got a mountain bike to work on my bike handling skills for 'cross, but I never really rode it. It wasn’t until I paced Leadville 100 mile run and I decided to enter the lottery for Leadville 100 MTB with some friends. I was standing on the hill at CX Nats when I found out I got into Leadville…I decided it was time I started riding my mountain bike more! I can remember the first real mountain bike ride was at my local trails…we did 10 miles and I thought it was the hardest thing I had ever done!! I did not know how I was going to do 100 miles at altitude…but the challenge made me work for it!

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Tight switchbacks!! They still give me a hard time sometimes! The best advice I got was at the Ladies All Ride Clinic with Lindsay Richter…she said look where you want to go, which means you are pretty much looking behind you and way ahead! Feels weird to be flying into a switchback not really looking where you’re going, but it works.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
Absolutely, but what I love most about mountain biking is I feel like I am constantly learning new things, overcoming new technical challenges and I come away from every ride gaining something new. My favorite place to ride is Pisgah National Forest in Brevard…it has everything!! Every time I leave there, I am a better rider – and I have usually gone over my handlebars a couple of times! Recently someone taught me that if you do crash/mess up on something, you should go back and ride it immediately so it doesn’t get in your head.

Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
I always clip in! I think when learning to try new skills, it is best to be in flats though.

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?
Oh gosh, yes. Last October, I was racing CX in Boulder, CO – it was a UCI race and the biggest field I’ve ever raced in, so I was already intimidated! My tire burped on an off camber and as soon as I hit a downhill section at Valmont, the front tire blew out and I got bucked off my bike and landed on my shoulder. I got up, but I didn’t have a pit bike and it was too late…so I DNF’d. I went out the next day to race again but was completely off balance and did not have the confidence I had going in. I was excited to just finish the race without getting pulled. I went back to Atlanta and tried to ride but really couldn’t – I fell while I was running, I had a stupid crash and busted my knee, and decided I needed to take a break. Turns out, I sprained my AC joint (there may have been a separation in there too) and it took FOREVER to heal – almost a year til I stopped noticing it. It really got into my head because I didn’t want to crash on my shoulder again. I definitely rode less aggressively on my mountain bike and things I had ridden in the past made me real nervous. I have spent the past several months getting my confidence back on the bike by practicing features, working on my technical skills and continuing to get back out there. Besides physical, mountain biking is such a mental sport and it is really important to be in the right headspace. I have learned to listen to my body and brain and if I am not feeling right, it’s better to stick to easier trails, gravel or the road than risk getting hurt.

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?
I was really nervous about mountain biking, especially with other people. I felt like everyone was better than me and they would spend their day waiting on me or laugh when I couldn’t ride something. Turns out, mountain bikers are pretty rad! I highly recommend going with people who want to help you get better and are patient. I also recommend not going on trails that are too advanced…start off on some easier trails to get a feel for the bike and play on the bike! If you have the opportunity, do a clinic – the instructors are awesome and can teach you how to handle the bike from the most basic of skills to jumps and drops!

What was your inspiration to start participating in mountain bike events?
Truthfully, I am not sure where I would be if I hadn’t gotten into the Leadville lottery. We were in, we had to train! I had ~8months to get in shape for a 100-mile mountain bike race at altitude. On the way to Leadville, I did the Austin Rattler 100K (SO FUN!!!) and Blue Ridge Adventures Off Road Assault on Mount Mitchell (ORAMM.) After that, I was hooked!!

What made you fall in love with 'Cross?
The people!!! The ‘cross community is amazing and so much fun. I remember my first race, I walked up clueless and ran into two other female racers. They immediately welcomed me (one has become one of my best friends.) On the start line, we were all talking, laughing and having a good time. ‘Cross is a crazy sport, but it creates a bond like no other. Road racing is very much about tactics (and having a team becomes very important) – I found ‘cross was a way to really push the physical limits. There is truly nothing like ‘cross – as I am reminded at the start of every season!! Hah.

Tell us about your favorite event!
Oh gosh, that is a tough one. I would have to say the Pisgah Stage Race. This is an event where I combine work (with CLIF Bar) and riding and I really get to know all the people racing. Riding in Pisgah is super challenging and a 30-mile day is a BIG day. PSR is 5 days in a row of about 30 miles/day. These are truly some of my favorite trails – they’re raw and rugged, there are rocks and roots – and usually, it is wet. There are long gravel climbs, plenty of hike a bike, and the best descents! At the end of every day, there is an awards ceremony with delicious food and beer and good conversation. The race is limited to 200 people. After 5 days (usually riding with some of the same people) and then eating with others, you get to know everyone and it is just a giant party after Stage 5.
Why should folks participate in at least one event?
I highly recommend checking out an event to see what it is all about – it is not for everyone, but it is a great experience. Cyclocross is a great way to get a taste of racing …and usually, you can jump in with a Cross bike or a mountain bike just to test the waters. It has been exciting to see the increase in women racing in Georgia. The consensus is “it is hard, BUT FUN!” Some people do the Pisgah Stage Race as a way to get a tour of all that Pisgah has to offer – so you don’t even need to “race” it, but you get to experience amazing trails with support and a bunch of new friends!

What do you love about riding your bike?
After a year of very serious training and some extreme fatigue. I have spent the Fall reminding myself why I got started riding bikes and why I fell in love with riding in the first place. It truly is the people and the places it takes me. I got started riding with some friends, then got introduced to group rides and then I started racing. I have traveled all over the country with my bike to ride or race. I have met some of my best friends through riding, gotten to go to places you probably couldn’t get to without a bike and I love the sense of freedom. What I love specifically about mountain biking is it is truly mentally and physically challenging and you continue to pick up new skills each time you ride. When running was taken away from me suddenly, I didn’t know what I was going to do. Mountain biking has truly replaced running for me.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
My very first mountain bike was a Diamondback Overdrive Carbon Hard Tail and I seriously LOVE this bike – I did Leadville on it and won ORAMM on it. It made me a better rider and I am actually in the process of rebuilding it. My first full suspension bike was a Specialized Camber that I just sold to get a brand new Specialized EPIC Evo! I am IN LOVE. It is like Specialized was in my head and created exactly what I wanted...this baby rips and I am stoked to race on it this year! My CX bike is a Sworks Crux, but my newfound love is Singlespeed CX!! Peachtree Bikes hooked me up with a SS Specialized Crux and I fell in love with racing SS. Of course, I can’t forget my road bike…a Specialized Amira (Lululemon team bike) that I have had for over 6 years and can’t part with it!
What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
From my experience – personal and women I have met – if they have a bad experience from other riders not being nice, or going on a trail out of their skill level, or crashing, it seems to discourage them from getting back out there. Riding with people who are encouraging, patient and enthusiastic is really valuable. It is also a male dominated sport and can be intimidating. I remember my first group rides, the guys wouldn’t talk to me until the very end when I was still there (aka, they didn’t drop me) and then they were curious who I was and how long I’d been riding. It still happens occasionally that men do not want me in front of them and will do everything possible to stay ahead. Thankfully, I met a pretty awesome lady early on who encouraged me to keep coming out and helped me early on with how to ride in groups on the road. Whenever a new female comes to a group ride, I try to take that same approach because I know how valuable it was for me.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
It has been really exciting to see the cycling community grow, especially more women, in the past few years. I think it takes a lot of great women supporting and encouraging more women to get out there and ride/race/spectate. Programs like Little Bellas and NICA GRITS are promising for the future of women’s cycling. Not only is it giving girls the confidence and a community to ride bikes, but people like me are inspired by the youth!

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
Everyone has their own story of why they ride. Most of the women I have met through cycling, they say it has changed their life one way or another. Whether it is road, indoor spin class, triathlon, cyclocross, mountain bikes, I have seen women transform -- they gain confidence, have a purpose, a community, women who thought they were never an athlete, are athletes! Selfishly, I want more ladies to ride with too. ☺ I get excited every time I meet another lady on the trail or at a group ride. I know how riding bikes has changed my life, and I want others to experience it as well!

Tell us about your job at CLIF Bar & Co. and why you love it.
I am the Regional Marketing Manager for the Southeast for CLIF Bar & Co. I am based out of Atlanta and manage our partnerships, relationships, and events in the Southeast. I have met some of the most amazing people through my work and I get excited to go to work every day because no day is the same. I am constantly inspired by people at the events we support as well as my co-workers. When I joined CLIF, I quickly realized it is a company that practices what it preaches and that makes me proud. We are a family and employee-owned company and CLIF takes care of its people, the planet, and our communities. We make a great product and we have really awesome people. It just happened to work out perfectly, that I ride bikes and CLIF was born on a bike.

Why do you feel it's important for women to seek out jobs in the outdoor/cycling industry?
It is a very male-dominated industry and the more women that are getting involved as well as the female-owned companies that are popping up, it is clearly changing the landscape.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I started doing triathlons at age 6 and played soccer before I became a competitive runner. I wish I had discovered mountain biking sooner – which is why I love Little Bellas and NICA so much!!

Comments

  1. Wonderful story Jenna, you are an inspiration for everyone, young and old.

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