Monday, April 8, 2019

Women on Bikes Series: Emma Rehm

I’m a rider, writer, and dispenser of high-fives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (ancestral Osage land). I’m a bike commuter, a mountain biker, backpacker, and a road joy-rider. I’m deeply motivated to learn and grow and expand my skills and abilities. I’m interested in inclusion and access in mountain biking, community building, learning the indigenous place names and history where I live and where I travel, and I’m not really interested in competition.

I bought my first ever brand-new bike when my partner and I decided we wanted to ride from Pittsburgh to Washington DC. I was reluctant to be a person who cared about “gear” but I found so much joy on a bike that fit and was reliable and suited to the task at hand! The next couple years were a rapid succession of getting into road touring, mountain biking, and bikepacking. We rode in Spain! In Idaho! In Mexico! In the Adirondacks! Across Pennsylvania twice!


Mountain biking is the first thing I’ve ever been bad at and loved anyway, and I think that’s because I got serious about yoga at the same time as I got serious about mountain biking and learned how to approach everything in life as a practice. I think of my writing as a storytelling practice, and I post my stories at https://ridingthatbike.tumblr.com/. I post on Instagram too @the.emmahazel.

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Tell us about your introduction to mountain biking, what about it made you say "Yes! This is for me!"
It wasn’t for me at first!

I thought mountain biking was a bunch of jerks yelling at each other to go harder and faster, trying to outdo each other, buzzing hikers on the trails, crashing in the woods, getting hurt and breaking expensive equipment, and then getting shitty drunk. Not for me, no thank you, this is not a community I have any interest in.

But a laid-back gentle-natured mountain biker friend of mine was certain that I would love it, encouraged me to try, and continued to invite me along on rides (that I declined) for at least a year before I finally agreed to come out. I found it scary but I loved riding bikes in the woods.

Even so, it took a long time for me to realize that I can choose to go as fast or slow as I want, I can say no if someone is encouraging me to do something I don’t want to do, I don’t have to drink, I don’t have to be a jerk. We can choose to be a community of people lifting each other up and helping each other be who and how we want to be.

The day I knew that mountain biking was for me was the day my partner and I went out to ride in freezing rain. You know you love something if you take any available opportunity to do it, no matter how questionable that opportunity is.

How were you able to overcome the challenge of not being "good" at mountain biking and still love it?
Learning to love the process rather than the end result is one of my favorite things to talk about. I was so excited to learn how to love something I’m bad at!

Growing up, I put a lot of pressure on myself, which turned into damaging perfectionist tendencies. I’ve worked hard to unlearn my perfectionism and train my mind to stop negative self-talk and to be kinder, gentler, and more compassionate toward myself. I have great resources I can recommend if anybody else out there is struggling with this (I know there are other people out there struggling with this).
One useful strategy for me is framing everything I do in terms of practice. My introduction to the idea of practice as an adult was an annual art project called Fun-a-Day, where participants do something fun every single day for an entire month, document it, and then have an art show at the end. It was such a novel concept for me, because it completely removed any pressure to make something good: the entire point was to have fun and to develop and maintain a regular artistic practice. But of course when you are maintaining a regular practice, you’re warmed up and your skills are fresh and you wind up making some great stuff!

Then I started to really enjoy the process of learning in the context of developing a yoga practice, so when I started to learn to mountain bike, my brain was primed to enjoy the process.

Syd Schulz has written about expectations and her racing performance, which has been cool for me to read, since she is a pro mountain biker experiencing and writing about the same things I am experiencing and writing about in a very different context.

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 it! I went into it thinking, ok, I ride my bike all the time, I have decent city and touring bike handling skills and I’m pretty strong, I’m sure I can do this! But a mismatch between expectation and reality is the source of suffering, so after discovering that I couldn’t figure out how to make switchback turns on the uphill and that slipping around on loose leaves made my heart jump out of my chest, I did a big reset of expectations and found more joy in the learning.

Early on, I went to a women's mountain bike skills weekend and that helped open my mind to the idea of learning as I go, and not needing to have a certain skill set before I could consider myself a mountain biker. That took off a lot of (self-imposed) pressure, which made it easier to learn.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
There will always be aspects that I find tricky, because as my skills progress, I keep trying harder things. I surround myself with folks who also focus on practice, and we ride with an understanding that pausing to session a feature is always welcome.

One thing I’m working on is getting more comfortable riding with the downhill on my left side. I have some anxiety about it, partly because I have significantly less vision in my left eye (which is what it is), and also because I’m a left-side dismounter (which I can work on).

If I find myself getting frustrated that I can’t ride something or I can’t ride it cleanly, I move on, because I’ve learned that the frustration is a clear indicator that I’m in some kind of deficit (sleep, calories, water) or that some other life stressor is manifesting on the trail. It is never about the actual trail, so that makes it easy to not get mad at myself.

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?
Do some expectation-setting first! Don’t go out on a first ride with somebody who wants to ride a trail straight through and is only willing to let you tag along and chase them. Go with somebody who is willing to stop and take their time and talk you through how to do things, and who won’t give you a hard time if you aren’t ready and want to walk a section.

I am lucky to live in a city with an indoor bike park, and double-lucky because they hold free weekly women’s skills clinics. It’s a great way to learn fundamentals. If you have access to coaching or skills clinics, I heartily recommend it!

What are your thoughts on inclusion and access pertaining to mountain biking?
As a white person who is into outdoor adventuring, I have easy and unquestioned access to any place I want to go. That’s an incredible privilege when you consider that the indigenous people who have been forcibly removed from these places have access that is limited by many factors, including the cost of travel and the degree of welcome that the present inhabitants may or may not offer.

For instance, I know several (white) folks who have hopped in a car and done biking and paddling adventures in the part of Lenapehoking that is presently called the Delaware Water Gap. Contrast that with the incredible effort to create and fund a program to send Lenape youth to visit the area, which is their ancestral homeland. There’s a beautiful documentary about the program, which you can watch here: http://delawarenation.com/the-water-gap-return-to-the-homeland/.

I think white folks have a responsibility to engage with land and people in an equitable way, and writer Carrot Quinn models this kind of engagement in a way that I think is really interesting. This post, about how wilderness is not apolitical, is a great starting point:

https://carrotquinn.com/2018/04/30/intersectionality-and-long-distance-hiking-the-wilderness-is-not-an-apolitical-space-2/

As my social world has begun to revolve more around bikes, my circle has become notably more cis/white/hetero/male, which tells me that something is going on here that makes this sport, this way of engaging with the woods, uncomfortable or unwelcoming for many people. If I, as a cis / white / hetero woman, sometimes feel alienated and uncomfortable in the mountain bike world, how much more alienating must it be for someone whose identity ticks fewer of those boxes?

I want to see straight/white/cis people doing the work to make this space comfortable/livable for queer and trans and nonbinary folks and nonwhite folks -- it’s not on a person with a historically marginalized identity to be a trailblazer, it’s on those of us who have social capital to make it a place that someone would want to be in. That means examining and rooting out our own internalized white supremacy (Do Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy Workbook! Read White Fragility by Robin Diangelo! Follow Rachel Cargle on Instagram!) and “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Representation is another crucial part of that work, and there are tons of resources.
Ayesha McGowan (who is aiming to be the first black pro-woman racer) wrote a great piece about tackling diversity in cycling:

https://www.bicycling.com/culture/a19702179/diversity-is-cyclings-most-urgent-problem/.

This article about Daniel White, a black man who has hiked the AT and biked the Underground Railroad route, discusses the lack of diversity in the outdoor industry:
https://southerlymag.org/2018/11/19/the-blackalachian-treks-to-shed-light-on-the-outdoor-industrys-diversity-problem/

Anna Schwinn, bike industry insider, is building clubs that are explicitly inclusive of trans racers:
https://www.bikepgh.org/2018/02/15/meet-anna-schwinn-keynote-speaker-5th-annual-women-biking-forum/

Mountain biking has helped me find my power and confidence, and I want everyone to have access to that feeling. Whether mountain biking is someone’s path to that feeling is a different story, but I want it to be an option.

Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
Flats. I like that you can get a zillion colors of plastic platform pedals.

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 did a brutal superman-style full body dirt surf that scuffed me up pretty badly, including scrubbing off a bit of tattoo on my elbow. I didn’t break anything and I rode out, and then went mountain biking and paddling the next day, trying my best to keep The Fear from creeping in. But after the adrenaline comedown, it took a long time for my elbow to heal up, which meant several months away from mountain biking: plenty of time for The Fear to grow.

When I was healed up, mountain biking was hard and I didn’t know if it was because I was weak and out of practice, or if it was because I was scared. My strategy was to isolate the variable so I could do more targeted work to address the gap, and I figured it would be easier to address strength first, so I got totally shredded. But mountain biking was still hard, so I knew I had to address the fear directly. I signed up for a weekend skills clinic for people interested in doing stage racing (I wasn’t interested in stage racing, but I was interested in intensive coaching on tough rocky terrain), and it helped a ton. It took about eight months for me to stop feeling post-crash fear and just feel the regular everyday learning/growth/new things fear. I proudly celebrated my one-year crashiversary and have only had minor scraps since then.

What was your inspiration behind creating a blog about your adventures?
Initially, I started writing them down to remember them distinctly, to keep one adventure from blurring into another, and to remember the special moments that happen when you’re out in the world. I also used them as a reference point for myself, so that when I was getting ready for my next adventure, I could look back at my pack list, or see what I was worried about, what tools I was learning to use, what I was excited to try.

As I started doing bigger and longer adventures (and accumulated knowledge and skills), I discovered that it’s boring for me to write (and to read) adventure stories written in a day-by-day chronological format. My interests and focuses changed in terms of what I wanted to remember about a trip, so I started to practice different ways of thinking about and telling the stories.

For instance, looking back at our trip in Baja, I am not going to care much what bottle cage mounts I used. But I will want to remember camping in a steep-sided valley near a small stream and hearing a shy horse try to nerve itself up to walk past us as we ate tacos around a tiny campfire.

So I write these things down, like a snapshot of a moment in space and time and memory and senses. I like to go back and read my adventure stories as a way to witness my own growth, and to access the things I was feeling as I wrote them. I share them, but I write them for myself.

How can storytelling bring realness to mountain biking or other outdoor activities?
To tell a good story, you have to leave a lot of things out, so I think storytelling can but doesn’t always bring realness. The good stories are about the hard parts, the gross parts, the scary parts. The boring parts that enable the adventure are usually left out: breaking down camp exactly the same way every single morning, stuffing your things into your bags in exactly the same sequence, lubing your bike chain, all the everyday things that are actually the bulk of a trip -- the framework within which the adventure is possible.

Storytelling can also present a distorted version of reality, like glorifying a sunset vista without talking about how you were creeped out by the dude who circled in his truck three times while you were setting up camp. I think we often write about what we want to remember, and we don’t necessarily want to remember the mundane or the struggle. The story that is told is a representation of the person who is telling the story.

There’s no one objectively true experience -- we all focus on and feel and see and notice different things -- so one of my favorite things is when multiple people write about their experience of the same event. It’s such a rare treat to get a glimpse into how differently we all experience our own realities.
What do you love about riding your bike?
I spent most of my life feeling disconnected from my body, or feeling resentful of it, and riding bikes has helped me connect my mind and body, and to have a relationship with my body that is based in gratitude.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
Surly Long Haul Trucker, my commuter and road-tourer. This is my first ever brand-new bike, fitted for me, and the beginning of a relationship with my local bike shop. Having a bike I loved changed everything for me, and it was the start of serious bike commuting and touring. It’s easy to load, rides like a dream, and fits perfectly.

Barbie Dream Bike (a purple Surly Troll), my adventure bike. Indestructible, warty with infinite mounting points, capable of getting rad and carrying everything. This is the bike I learned to mountain bike on, and having a bike with 26” wheels is probably the reason I stuck with mountain biking. I didn’t feel comfortable or in control on the 29ers that everyone else was riding, and I’m so glad I trusted my gut on that.

Specialized Fuse, my main dirt ripper. Incredibly, I won this bike in a giveaway, and it was my introduction to both suspension and to plus-size tires, which I think I wasn’t ready for until this bike arrived in my life. It’s so peppy! I love it!

When you became more involved with cycling, what were some of the accessory/gear purchases you felt were really beneficial for your experience?
I live in a rainy place that is cold for months of the year, so waterproof and windproof gear like jackets and gloves mean I can joyfully ride year-round.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
There is a lot of research about what deters people from marginalized groups from cycling, and to address it, we have to acknowledge and address the fact that institutionalized racism and sexism (plus the uniqueness of every individual’s existence) means that we don’t all have the same lived experiences. What can feel empowering for one person might feel scary for another person. Here’s an example of some research, including suggestions for steps to address the barriers, from a study of occasional urban cycling commuters in Portland OR:
https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1042&context=trec_briefs

It comes down to making sure people feel safe, physically and psychologically.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
I will do anything to help people find their power. We are all so much more powerful than we have been lead to believe.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I have a budget for gummy candy.

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