Women on Bikes Series: Leah Pickett

I have always been athletic and involved in some sort of sport since I was old enough to run and follow directions. I love being outside and challenging myself. I played soccer and hockey up through high school, I dance(d), I was a college cheerleader and figure skater, I love doing yoga, kayaking, skiing, and snowboarding.

I had a rec bike growing up, but never biked more seriously than trying to beat my time doing the mile loop around my neighborhood.

Up until about a year ago, my only (current) serious sport was racing in inline marathons (speed skating on racing rollerblades).

I bought my first nice, bike shop bike Feb of 2016 to help beat the crazy Minnesota cabin fever, and to add an element of cross training for my inline races. It was a pretty, purple Raleigh hybrid bike, and I loved it.

We didn't get much snow that winter, so I biked and rollerbladed on the extensive Minneapolis bike trails the rest of winter, and into the spring and summer. I had an amazing workout rotation of skate-day, bike-day, kayak-day, yoga/rest.

I started dating my now boyfriend, Paul, and he was already very much into the WORS races. Since I had a bike, we started biking on the paved trails together whenever we would get to go visit one another (Paul lived in WI). My first experience taking my bike off the pavement wasn't my favorite. Paul wanted to show me some of the random mountain bike trails that were near the paved trails, but my tires had no grip, and soon my brand new bike shoes and white bike gloves had mud on them! I was not yet a fan of mud, and I was a bit upset hahaha.

I moved to WI in 2017, and Paul raced the WORS series again. Race weekends were a ton of fun exploring towns all over Wisconsin. I was quite content to be the girlfriend on the sidelines, and would always answer the question "so when are you getting out there?" with "eh... not just yet."

Until the last race of that summer... It was about a month away from my big inline race, and my competitive urge was building. Paul made the podium, and as we hung out for the awards presentation, I watched all these girls being called up. And I felt majorly left out. I was athletic, I bet I could figure this out! I told Paul then and there that I wanted to give mountain biking a shot.

A week or so later, he rented a bike from the shop and we went to a local trail. My first lap on the easiest trail was so slow, Paul was able to ride one handed and type out some emails on his phone behind me! I never really had to turn my handlebars before (paved trail = straight line!), and weaving around trees was tricky. However, I was so determined to get the hang of it, I rode the 2 mile loop over and over again, getting faster each time, and eventually graduating to the slightly harder loop, totaling just over 15 total miles for the afternoon! I was exhausted and very happy. Paul surprised me with the bike (a Trek Top Fuel 8 Womens) a few days later! We road together in the woods every chance we got.

I did my first mountain bike race that fall. The 5 mile at the Fall Color Festival. It was challenging, super fun, and I ended up being the first place female! I was hooked.

The following summer (2018) I raced the WORS Cat 3 Citizen Series, and finished the season first in my age group! It was an insanely fun summer. I learned so many skills, bled a lot, made a ton of friends, and have the best inspirational mentors. It's been so much fun being part of a sport that I can work on with Paul and share with friends. We've been constantly pushing each other to be better riders.

They say Cat 3 is where you learn to survive a race, and Cat 2 is where you learn how to race. I decided to bump up to Cat 2 this 2019 summer, and I hope I can continue building my strength, my skills, and really start working on my racing strategy. I'm so excited to ride another race season with the friends I made over the last year.
Last summer, as we made more and more bike friends, we started to hear more and more about winter fat biking. My only experience with fat biking was watching some very miserable looking people try to ride their fat bikes through the unplowed Minneapolis roads, I had no idea that MTB trails converted to snow trails in the winter! We borrowed fat bikes from some friends for the first rideable snow of the fall and went to New Fane. We were completely overdressed, sweated profusely, and ended up shedding layers every lap, but it was so much fun to get back on the trails with these bikes that felt like they could conquer anything! We spent a lot of time researching bikes and chatting with seasoned fat bikers and bought fat bikes for ourselves! It was a winter-saving decision. Every time there was snow in the forecast, we’d think YESSSSSSS let’s go bike! It was like being kids again. We’d frequently meet up with friends at the trails after work for some winter group night riding in the woods – side note: night riding in the winter is AWESOME. No bugs!! We also got the chance to make a few of the Hugh Jass races. You wear flannel, can have beer hand-ups/take beer short cuts, and afterwards, hang out around a fire with some great music and food! Fat biking was such a great way to stave off the winter blues AND the winter weight gain! :-D haha!

Your second introduction to mountain biking was far better than your first, what about it made you say "Yes! This is for me!"
Well, my first excursion into the woods lasted all of 2 minutes before I wanted out! haha! We were on a road trail biking date (Paul was using his mountain bike, I was on my hybrid bike), and I was not mentally prepared for the trees, mud, or terrain, plus, I had the wrong equipment!

My "official" introduction was much better. I was mentally prepared to be out of my element and had the proper bike to learn on. I took it slow and only sped up when I felt comfortable doing so. As I got more comfortable on the bike and gained some speed, I started enjoying the feeling of fast corners! I did end up body-checking a tree and got a nice scar on my thigh. I had so much fun, I biked just over 15 miles my first time out.

How did Paul assist you in the early learning stages when it came to figuring mountain biking out?
Patience plus the right amount of push. He started by leading on the trails so I could see what lines he took, and would stop frequently to let me catch up and ask if I was OK (there was a lot of yelping on my part while going over rocks and whatnot in the beginning). I'm also very technical when it comes to learning new sports and asked many questions, which he would answer or try to help me find the answer to. Eventually, he started having me lead on trail rides to help me learn how to pick lines and build my confidence. Within a few weeks of getting on a mountain bike, he suggested I enter my first bike race (The Fall Color Festival), because I love racing and having a goal helped me focus on improving my skills.

Do you have any suggestions for folks looking to introduce their significant other to mountain biking? What they might consider?
Like anything new, it can be frustrating and uncomfortable to not know what you're doing or what to expect. Talking about the bike, the trails, some broad pointers, can all help as an introduction before even going in the woods. Easy trails are key to help build confidence initially, but throwing in a good challenge here and there (and conquering it!) can also be a confidence booster as well. A decent mountain bike doesn't hurt either - renting or borrowing one from a friend is a great way to get a good feel for the sport before dropping all the $$$. And finally, remember that this is for fun! The woods are a great place to be, you're doing this together, so stop and check out the scenic views when you find them! :-)

Paul purchased an awesome mountain bike for you to learn on- do you feel having a bike of that level was beneficial to your learning experience?
We initially rented it, but I loved it so much there wasn't any question that I wanted to ride it again. And again, and again, and again.

I felt great on the bike, so I wanted to keep riding it. The full suspension gave me enough confidence to try going over rocks and roots on day one! I'm not sure what it would have been like getting on a different mountain bike the first time, but having an awesome bike let me have a great experience that I kept wanting to come back to. If you feel confident on the bike, then it's the bike for you.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Corners and downhills!

Corners were technically challenging for me because they were completely opposite of every other sport I've done that involved turning! Every other sport, you lean into the inner part of the turn. Biking, you push your handlebars in, but you push yourself to the outer part of the turn. This initially made no sense to me - because wouldn't putting myself on the outside of the turn throw me off my bike?

It wasn't until I watched some YouTube tutorials that slowed it down and overlaid diagrams, that everything people kept telling me finally clicked. The next step was developing my core strength and muscle memory to get myself to the correct position. The second step took much longer. ;-)

Downhill riding (either extended downhills or quick drops) made me very nervous, mainly because the slope made me go so much faster, and I didn't feel in control. This past summer, the first WORS race of the season out at Iola had these great long stretches of hills. The WORS race director, Don, holds a "learn to ride" lesson every Saturday before race day. I learned some great pointers, and was able to practice better body positioning without having to worry about a quick turn at the bottom or trying to weave myself in between any trees. (I had so much fun practicing during the Saturday pre-ride, I think I wore myself out too much for the Sunday race day!) This one weekend did not cure my downhill fears, but it gave me a good starting point to work on my body positioning. When we rode, if I had trouble going down something, I would walk my bike back up and try it again and again until I could figure it out. It took the entire summer of riding to get my confidence up to the point where I could go down *most* descents we encountered without stopping to take a courage breather. But, I always keep to the best injury-avoidance advice, that if it makes you really uncomfortable, there's no shame in walking down it until you feel you're ready.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
Corners still get me if they're tight, crazy downhills are still nerve-wracking. It's become a mental game, so I do my best to take a breath, relax my shoulders and arms, and focus on doing my best on the next one, and not thinking about the last one.

Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
I use clips. Once I transitioned to clips on the paved trails, I loved how much more power I could generate with each rotation. I started mountain biking with clips (which may or may not have been the best, but here I am!) which lets me get more power, but causes bruising if I can't get my foot out when falling. I've read that learning basics on flats helps with technique more, but I've never tried it that way.
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 had a series of falls mid-summer that crushed my confidence. My legs were getting stronger faster than my body was improving its technique, and I kept flying over my handlebars - usually into gritty gravel or rock-filled sand. It felt like my leg was either constantly a scab or actively bleeding. The falls hurt. Not enough to cause serious injury, but enough to make me take a minute to figure out if all parts were where they were supposed to be. I started becoming afraid of falling, which caused my arms and upper body to tense up and threw my balance off completely.

I picked a few key phrases to run through my head while riding. Reminders on technique, and reminders that this is fun, and we're here to do our best. Repeating these things helped me focus on what I was doing, and not what I was afraid of possibly happening.

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?
Take it slow and be patient with yourself! Everyone learns at their own pace, and there's no reason you should expect yourself to be able to excel by leaps and bounds right away. Progress is progress, big or small.

I'm a big fan of celebrating the small victories. Over the past year, some celebrations have included: only tapping my breaks a little on the descents, getting over that one rock that always gave me trouble, making it down a trouble section on the first try instead of the third or fourth, and completing a super-confident first lap at my local trail (usually I needed a bit of a warm up to get mentally ready).

Finally, I mountain bike because I love being out in the middle of nature. I like to stop occasionally to admire the scenery and take in the quiet. Work hard to get to the scenic overlooks, and reward yourself with the view!

What was your inspiration to start participating in mountain bike events?
Paul! I always watched him race WORS, but never knew what was really happening in the woods until we raced the Fall Color Festival together. After that race, I was hooked.
Tell us about your favorite event!
The WORS Cup was my absolute favorite event last year. Instead of racing all of the men and women of Cat 3 together at one time, they put the Cat 3 and Cat 2 women together for one race, and then the Cat 3 and Cat 2 men together for the next race. For about an hour, the course was flooded with women, it was a great flow with little congestion, and it was awesome!

Why should folks participate in at least one event?
It's a different feeling to bike by yourself or with just one other person vs biking with a ton of people. It can bring up all sorts of feelings! It can be inspiring, uplifting, motivating, even intimidating. Some people come to compete, some people come to just ride with a bunch of other people who also love to ride. Either way, there's something special about hanging out and having some drinks or snacks with a bunch of people who have also just worked their butt off.

For folks who may not know what Cat 2 or Cat 3 mean for races, can you explain to us what the difference will be for you when you enter a race?
There are 5 racing categories in the WORS races, which help divide riders up into similar groups of experience and skill. Junior, Cat 3 (Citizen), Cat 2 (Sport), Open (Comp), and Cat 1 (Elite). Cat 3 will do 2 laps of a more moderate section of the course. Cat 2 will sometimes do 3 laps of the more moderate section, or 2 laps of a longer, harder section. Etc. You get to choose your category, and moving up is at your discretion.

What do you love about riding your bike?
What I love most about biking is how hard I get to work both mentally and physically while being surrounded by the complete peacefulness of the woods. It's easy to get lost in the moment of just you, the trail, and your bike. Before you know it, 3 hours are gone and you feel fantastic. It's very satisfying to be able to tire yourself out so completely.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I currently ride a 2016, full suspension Trek Top Fuel 8 Women's. Our local shop (Extreme Ski and Bike in Thiensville) had it available and suggested it when we wanted to rent a bike for the day. I loved riding it, and Paul surprised me with it a week later! I now have the tires set up tubeless to reduce weight and allow me to run lower PSI, and I recently upgraded my drivetrain to a 1X and added a lock-out to my shocks!

My fat bike is a Trek Farley 9.6. It has a carbon frame with tubeless 27.5x4.5˝ Bontrager Barbegazi TLR tires. It’s so light and fun to ride! I took a lot of different fat bikes for a test ride, and this one let me feel strong and confident from the first ride.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
The lack of knowledge and the fear of getting hurt.
Since there's not a ton of women who mountain bike, there's not a huge network of women telling other women how awesome it is (although I think we're all doing a great job of spreading the word now!). And, since most girls didn't grow up launching bikes off make-shift jumps at the end of the driveway, many women aren't used to sports where we could get hurt.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
A women's-only race could be fun. They have "Mud Girl Runs" now, which are basically women-only Tough Mudders, and I've seen a lot of women become encouraged to get out of their element and try something new because of that specific event.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?

The friendships I've made through the year, and seeing how confident biking makes all my friends!

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I am an avid cosplayer and love creating elaborate costumes!