Women on Bikes Series: Holly LaVesser
By 2016, I had moved my way up through the Citizen, Sport, and Open categories and competed as an Elite for the first time in the Wisconsin Offroad Series (WORS), which I have done ever since.
That is the first year that mountain biking finally overtook running, and I quit running altogether as a result of my leg weakness and gait deficiency (ultimately diagnosed as focal dystonia). I generally mountain bike about 4 days/week, strength train, and pop in other cardio when needed (and XC ski in the winter). Outside of this hobby, I also enjoy geocaching, traveling, my rabbit, Coconut, and skydiving.
Tell us about your introduction to mountain biking, what about it made you say "Yes! This is for me!"
I was a competitive runner, so I was fit and had motivation. My husband (then boyfriend) would go mountain bike and I sometimes came along and would run. I'm not sure what made me want to try it, but he took me out to an easy double-wide trail, and I decided I wanted more, though looking back, I can't place my finger on why. Perhaps just to have another activity to do with him?
When you were new to mountain biking, did you learn most of what you know from your now-husband, go to a clinic, or learn from other women riders?
I learned everything from my now husband. I still have never been to a clinic, and I don't ride with others all that frequently. My husband grew up doing BMX bike tricks and got into mountain biking. Therefore, he has an entire host of skills when it comes to technical riding. He would always ride behind me and suggest things I could do better (not constantly, but when I was open to feedback). As the years passed, the comments lessened and it turned more into me asking for feedback or how to do something better.
I am quite lucky that my husband gets a lot out of teaching others to do something and watching the excitement it brings them. I'd say if your significant other is deeply into training & racing, it might not be the best idea to have them guide you, or you'll want to be on the same page about planning certain days for that. I say that because I know I wouldn't make a great teacher because I am so focused on my own performance right now, that I wouldn't have the time to invest into riding at someone else's pace and skill level on a frequent basis. You want this to be a positive thing that you do together, so you both need to want to go on these rides together.
You got involved with mountain biking in adulthood, how do you feel this benefited your learning experience?
One way I benefited by starting as an adult, was that I didn't have to scrape together cash to get the gear or equipment I wanted, or compromise on choosing one component over another. I started at a point in my life that I was settled, and had a decent job. When I decided to buy a bike, I definitely didn't go all out, but I was able to get something nice enough that was comfortable, things on it worked reliably, and the bike didn't make me dislike the sport, as could be the case with a cheap-o bike! The other benefit I can see is that I was living on my own, free to make my own decisions about when and where to ride. I never had to rely on a parent to drive me to a trail, and I wasn't living with my parents, who tended to be conscious of driving distance & the associated cost. If I had the time to drive an hour to a trail, I was willing to deal with that cost to have the enjoyment of the ride.
Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
Clips always! It feels funny now when I don't have clips. I would have told you that I still mostly push down on my pedals, but when I'm not clipped in, I realize that I actually do pull-up. I am one with the bike!
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?
While I have had my share of crashes, I am fortunate that none have taken me down for more than a day. Only one stands out as causing a slight mental setback. I was pre-riding a race course and had to majorly slow down in a tricky rock spot. I thought I might be able to carry more speed if I took a different line, so I decided to practice it. Turns out what I took was not a line. I flipped over the handlebars when I hit with speed and landed on the palm of my hand. A large welt appeared, and I couldn't continue riding because the pressure of my hand on the handlebars was too much. I was so upset because I wanted to race the next day. I fretted that night and kept icing. The next morning, it was tolerable and I did race. However, during the race, I went super slow, and in a couple other spots on the course where I never had an issue, I was now stepping down to make sure I got through, even though this was a race! It took me a few weeks to get back to what I'd call "normal." The injury obviously wasn't that severe since I could ride the next day, but just all the associated feelings of anxiety with the possibility of it wrecking my season must have got to me. I think also the fact that the crash was so unexpected. It's one thing to approach something on a trail you never rode and biff, but I scouted this out, had an expectation of what my bike would do, and when it didn't happen that way, it just put fear into me - at what other point on the trail when I thought I had it together, would things come apart? It just took time and continuing to ride the techy stuff I always ride to get back confidence.
When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Nearly everything was challenging! Taking corners with speed was something I worked 1-2 years ago. I still often ask my husband for advice on how to do these types of things. I still don't have great skills on getting over large logs, but doing them and conquering them over and over makes things like that become more of a non-event. I also get a weekly newsletter from Singletracks and read any articles or watch videos that I feel pertain to me.
Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
I definitely have my moods. One day I'll be willing to try things that may be over my head, and another day, I am stepping off my bike, feeling the frustration build as I miss riding feature after feature. I try to balance these moods. I don't ever want to have every day be the stepping off my bike day. At that point, I stop learning. However, I'm not going to force something either. I'd rather live to ride another day, and that's what I tell myself on those frustrating days.
I find that I am fearful of jumping new things. There are a few trails I am familiar with, that over time, I have developed the skills to launch off things, however, these are few and far between. I rarely launch off anything on a new trail, and even though I must possess these skills since I do it where I'm comfortable, I am so afraid of drops. I also lack the skills to lift my front end up onto a boardwalk if it's more than a couple inches. I'm not a fan of any boardwalk, in general, but have gotten more comfortable with wider ones by riding them. Sometimes riding a trail that you are unfamiliar with forces you to do things you wouldn't do if you had scoped it out ahead. I find I have most of the skills, and it always comes down to fear that stops me.
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?
Start on an easier trail with someone who knows what they're doing, and that knows the trail well enough to call out features ahead of time. My first ride was on a double-wide grassy trail. In retrospect, that ride was probably more about learning what the bike feels like, what clipless pedals feel like, and navigating some very gentle features. After one ride, we were off to singletrack trail, with my husband warning me of features ahead of time. I also found when I was learning, that having other stressors going on made me get frustrated much more quickly when I couldn't bike-handle out on the trail. Early on, I was learning to skydive, and was doing that the same day as a technical ride. I had a bad day on the trail, likely because I was stressed about the skydiving, and I didn't ride again for about 6 weeks. Now, riding is a stress reliever, but early on, that wasn't the case, and I really had to show up with focus if I was riding anything the least bit technical.
What do you love about riding your bike?
I love being in the outdoors and getting a workout at the same time. I'm not a gym rat, and want to workout outdoors. I often ride alone, and that allows me to set the pace and push hard when I feel good, and scale it back when I'm tired. This means that after most workouts, I am happy with my effort. The solitude in the woods can be so enjoyable at times. When I do have the opportunity to ride with others, I find it such a social experience and it makes it so easy to just open up to the people you are with.
Tell us about your first mountain bike race! What was the experience like?
It was in 2012 at the Alterra Coffee Bean Classic WORS race. At that time, I was still a devoted runner, so I started my day with the WORS trail race that morning and won! Then, I entered the Citizen bike race and was so ridiculously nervous because my skills weren't the best, and the thought of passing made me cringe. I recall riding at the front of the field with other women, and that I felt impeded in the technical parts because this was a trail I knew well. We caught men almost immediately and the race was mostly me frustrated in the technical sections, unable to open up any sort of lead because of all the men in my way. I did work my way up, and I did win that race. I enjoyed the experience, but wouldn't race again until it was held the next year, because I still didn't want to race on a course I didn't know well. I also didn't get the same joy out of racing as I did running. Running was so pure and free, where everyone had a clear path to go as fast as they could and others didn't affect your performance. With MTB racing, I couldn't race to my full potential because of men clogging the course.
If you already mountain bike, you should try an event solely to see what you're capable of, and to overcome your fears. My guess is anyone that rides, but hasn't raced, hasn't done so because some aspect of the race brings some fear. Whether it's not knowing how to pass like me, or just being fearful you'll be last or impede others, don't let that hold you back. You may find that more joy comes out of the experience than you expected, and if it doesn't, then you know and won't wonder about it. That said, there are different types of races. Some are serious atmospheres, and other are laid back and may even have beer hand-ups. If you don't like one atmosphere or environment, give another one a shot.
What race would you say is your most favorite to participate in?
My favorite race is the Fall Color Festival at the John Muir trails. Many years ago I set out to try the 35-mile event which was probably 15 miles longer than I had ever ridden. It was a big part of my summer to make sure I got build-up rides in, and I approached it similar to marathon training. It is the trail I probably have logged the most miles on, and know inside out. It is also an easy-going atmosphere with music, food, merchandise, and a place where people stick around to hang out. The women's field is usually pretty small, but I usually find myself able to ride with some men for long portions of the race. I've done it many years and now find I don't need to specifically train for it like I did that first year. I can more or less just pop into it now based on the rides I do all summer. It is a no-pressure, fun race!
Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
My very first mountain bike was a Specialized Epic with 26" wheels. I got the smaller wheels because it was more fun to ride. I didn't know much. We went to the bike shop and wanted to know what kind of scratch & dents they had available in my size so that I could get more for my money. That fit the bill. I had that for several years when a piece of the frame started to fail, and it was something that could not be fixed. After a trip out west, where I rented a Rocky Mountain Thunderbolt, I tried looking around a bit for demos to try out other bikes, but then I finally said forget it. I loved that bike, and being a bad decision maker, I decided to buy it before clouding my mind with other options. My husband wanted to build the bike, so I was just trying to order a frame, and that was quite the ordeal. Those bikes weren't around the area, and I hunted down a bike shop that was a dealer. They told me the frames were out of stock, and I had to wait for the next model year release. We were only months away, so that is what I did. Chris built this, and that was the new bike that I loved. After a season racing it and getting more focused on mountain biking, I struggled with hills and knew that if I wanted to have more of an advantage, I'd need a bike with 29" wheels. I naturally looked to what Rocky Mountain had, and the Element seemed to fit the bill. I started inquiring with the few bike shops in the area that now carried this brand, but none of them had that bike, and the demo fleet didn't carry it either. It was at this time I was recruited to be on a new bike team, Neff Cycle Service, where the founder, Isaac Neff, was a Rocky dealer. I was able to express my concerns about never having tried this bike and what it would be like, and he said I'd love it. I ordered one, and have 2 full race seasons on it and I do love it! When I got a fatbike last winter, I didn't even flinch, and just went for the Rocky Mountain (Suzi Q) without even trying it. I really have loved that brand! I also do cyclocross and love the Van Dessel Full Tilt Boogie that I got after last season. It was the same story where it was a bike I demo'd, and I decided I wanted it without ever trying anything else. Lucky for me, Isaac Neff had a fleet of pit bikes to sell post-season.
What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
As far as the sport itself, I don't know that it is unique to women, but access to resources is enough to make someone look for something easier. You have to get a bike, find a trail, have shoes, know how to fix the bike, and on and on. Even if the desire is mildly there, it's so much easier to pick up something like running where you just have to step out your door. I think more women lack confidence than men, and can be intimidated. You have to get over that intimidation multiple times (at the bike shop, in trying to fix/maintain the bike, at the trailhead, etc.) to even get to the trail. Probably not worth it to most people that don't have an invested friend tugging them into it.
Because I had the easy route with my riding boyfriend, I found my deterrence centered around racing. He had only casually entered a couple races, so that was something he didn't have the scoop on. What deterred me from getting into it, and has made me progress slower than is probably necessary, is the lack of understanding and answers around categories. I was a runner. If you wanted to run a 5k, you signed up and showed up at the start time. Now, I wanted to compete in mountain biking, and I had to decide if I was Cat 1, 2, 3, or Open (or Cat 4 & 5 in cyclocross!) These were foreign terms to me - what did they even mean? Shouldn't the fastest person just win the race?! Once I was in the Open category of WORS, I found that race schedules never referenced this category, and I always felt it was unclear when and what distance I would be doing in that class. When I got better and started looking at National races, now there were differing UCI categories, and it became unclear if you needed a Pro license to compete in a race labeled "Pro," and would your domestic USA Cycling license work in a UCI event? Because I didn't grow up doing bike races or have a parent that raced, I had no one to turn to with these questions, so I often dragged my feet, or threw away the idea of competing in something because I didn't understand what I'd register in and if I was eligible to do so. When I joined a team, I remember asking questions about categories, but few were competing at the level I was, or they weren't looking to do similar events, so I didn't get always get answers there either. Even now, I just lack someone to look up to. At least I now have some men on my team that compete at a very high level and have more experience & familiarity with racing. However, it frustrates me that I need to rely on other people to get answers and that these things aren't laid out in a clear manner that I can just understand! I am detail oriented, so I need my answers!
What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
Not having raced much outside of WI, but reading national articles that are published, I am encouraged that WI has things right. I still see articles written about the need for equal payouts for women, and that is foreign to me. That has been a staple of WI racing, both in WORS & cyclocross since I started, so I never realized there was that inequality. There are also several cyclocross races that have free entries for first-time women riders. I think taking it a step further and having bikes available for women to use at an event whether it's a race or a demo takes one large hurdle out of the way. Who wants to spend thousands of dollars on gear if they don't know they'll like something? Not me! More demos could offer Small & Medium bikes, or go as far as to offer a woman leading an informal loop to ride as a group would only further help. While I enjoy riding alone, I think many women do not, either because they are social people, or feel uncomfortable in the woods alone. Any type of rider-connect forums or scheduled rides by shops or groups can help women to avoid that too. It's almost as if there needs to be a central online forum for women to go to either find a mentor or just ask all their questions, especially since many don't have the first clue how to fix their bike!
What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
It is always amazing to show up to a race and find that there are 20 other women on the starting line with you. That type of field size doesn't often happen. It's exciting when you see all those other women riding, and know that there are even more not at the race. And, it's not just about racing. It's about having other women to ride with and talk bikes with. It's knowing the success I feel when I ride a line clean and wanting other women to feel that sense of accomplishment. Sport, in general, is a good, healthy thing to have in your life.
Tell us a random fact about yourself!
In my lifetime, I have donated 6 gallons of blood.