Women on Bikes Series: Stephanie Kaplan

My name is Stephanie Kaplan, and I am first and foremost a lover and believer in all things bikes. They came back into my life later in life, and have been instrumental in an entire redirection (including career) of my life.

I recently left my position at Specialized Bicycles as a Road Product Manager. I managed the product lifecycle of several road bike families.

I was the only woman, currently, in a bike product management role at Specialized (holdin’ it down for the ladies! Hah!).

My love of bikes was rekindled during a 2-year stint in the Peace Corps in West Africa (Burkina Faso). They issue each volunteer a bike to use as transportation, and it gave me a new appreciation for what the bike enabled people to do. Upon returning from my service, I moved back to New York City and wanted to keep riding. I bought a road bicycle and decided I would try out a riding club (NYCC – New York Cycle Club) and triathlon (Asphalt Green Tri Team) because…why not. It was there that I got looped into the idea of bike racing and it all spiraled from there. I joined a race team, raced a ton (I was average, at best…hah!). I always gravitated towards the technical side of bikes – I loved looking at specs, building my bikes up custom (because I was small) and just loved all of it. I began coaching and loved helping others discover the sport that I loved. That led to being invited as a Specialized Women’s Ambassador in their inaugural year. Once I visited the office in Morgan Hill, I was hooked. There were so many passionate cyclists, like me, and I felt at home. A year later they offered me my dream job…and I picked up and moved to California (my husband and I were bi-coastal for 2-1/2 years). Once I got pregnant with my daughter, he moved out there. And about 18 months later we had to move back East for his work. Luckily, I was able to continue my work for Specialized remotely.

What did you love about using the bike for transportation when you were in West Africa?
I think what was interesting about ‘cycling’ in Burkina Faso during my Peace Corps service vs. the US was that it wasn’t a luxury, it was a necessity. Your options were either to take a HUGE (and questionably looking) bus/bush taxi, or ride yourself where you wanted to go. Riding just seemed to be the most reliable, and it didn’t hurt that it happened to be fun and challenging for me. I think cycling took on a whole new meaning for me, and I saw it in a way that I never would have been able to see it in the United States. When I lived in NYC it was solely for ‘sport’ as I used it to ride around for fun, maybe ride to a soccer game or something. Once I joined the Peace Corps, it became an integral part of my life and being able to function and achieve my needs on a daily basis – which, in reality, is a real thing for some people living in the United States.

Why does having a #bikelife mean so much to you?
I, like many women, discovered a love for cycling much later in my life – when I was in my mid-twenties living in NYC. Of course, I cycled as a child, but past that, it was never an important part of my life. Once I relocated to NYC from Alabama, I became ‘trapped’ in the concrete jungle that was the city and lost parts of myself that I loved – being outdoors, escaping, etc. The bicycle entered at a time in my life that I think I needed it most (even if I didn’t fully realize it). It was my ticket to escape – escape from the city, escape from my busy NYC life, and an escape into the nature that surrounded the city, but was so hard to get to if you didn’t have a car. It opened up a whole world to me, and a group of friends that I still have to this day, that has fulfilled me and sent me down a lifepath (working in the bike industry) that I NEVER would have imagined when it started. And now, having been involved for almost 10 years, I can truthfully say that it means as much to me now as it did then, and continues to show me new things and new places every day – cycling connects us all…to the world, to each other, and nature.

What was your experience like on the race team and why did you enjoy it?
I have been a ‘competitor’ my whole life. I played soccer most of my young adult life (and even still now) and love pushing myself to the limit in whatever I do. So, naturally, when the opportunity to join a race team presented itself I signed up. Why not? That decision definitely sent me down a path that I look back on and can’t help but smile. My absolutely BEST friends in my later adult life came out of my participation on the race team. We all joined, no one having raced before, and had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We just jumped in with a huge leap of faith in the team and in each other. That first year of racing still fills me with pride and joy, and we all still talk about it as the best time we’ve had. The camaraderie, teamwork and physical demand was everything that I needed/wanted – even if I sometimes took it to the extreme. I don’t race much now – thanks in large part to my 2-1/2 year old and the new baby. I do think about going back to it though…I loved pushing myself and being a part of the scene. So, we’ll see…there are other ways I get my ‘kicks’ – I’m particularly loving gravel riding at the moment whether it’s ‘racing’ or just riding.

For those curious about participating in a race, why do you feel they should give it a shot?
Truthfully, you have nothing to lose. Bike racing can be simultaneously the most amazing/thrilling thing, and also demoralizing. However, it’s about finding joy and pushing yourself to the limit. If you can keep that all in perspective then I think it’s one of the most fun things I’ve done. There are lots of opportunities to participate in the race scene and try it out.

At the same time…YOU DON’T HAVE TO RACE to be a cyclist. I know this goes without saying, but if it’s not for you, don’t worry about it. Cycling can bring joy to people in so many different ways (racing, commuting, gravel riding, gran fondo, whatever).

You have enjoyed building up custom bikes, what do you like most about the process of a custom build?
I really do enjoy custom builds – I don’t personally own any custom bikes, per se. That’s how it all started for me was building up my bikes custom. I am short, 5’2”…so when I first started riding seriously in 2010 there weren’t many options for ladies like me. I was having to research and scrounge for parts that gave me the proper fit (hello, 165mm crank arm lengths!) and performance I wanted. I really learned on the go…and my partner, Mike, wasn’t into riding so I had to take it upon myself to learn. I also didn’t like all the men who I rode with telling me “YOU HAVE TO BUY XYZ IT’S THE BEST.” I was kind of like this perpetual toddler who kept asking “why.” I didn’t want to be told what to do (definitely a personality trait of mine). I wanted to make my mind up on my own…which led to a lot of spreadsheets, reading online, etc. so I could educate myself and make my own decisions.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
Oh man, I’m embarrassed to tell you how many bikes I have. I mean, I guess I can make an excuse as it’s a part of my job, but here you go:

Specialized Sirrus – my city commuter – it has a Dynamo hub with integrated light and rack/fender mounts. I love using this bike to get around and haul stuff

Turbo Vado – my VROOM VROOM e-bike for running errands. My husband and I both LOVE this bike and share it. Sometimes he rides to work on it, I’ll head to the grocery store or to a soccer game.

Specialized Crux – I bought it for CX, but truthfully haven’t used it a ton. It’s such a fast, light and snappy bike

Specialized Diverge – I manage this family as a part of my work, and LOVE gravel riding – it’s been on some fun adventures in and out of the city

Specialized Allez Sprint Disc – this is my workhorse bike. I’m not racing much anymore, but I tend to gravitate towards this bike for the simplicity and durability of it. AND…it feels FAST. I just love riding it.

Specialized Epic – I used to MTB race and hope to get into it a bit more, so I held on to this for the future.

Specialized Stumpjumper 650B – my ‘trail’ bike. You’d be surprised to know that there is actually quite a lot of great MTB’ing nearby NYC…so I like to get out and enjoy doing that sometimes

Specialized Alibi – solid core tires for those times when I can’t let my bike fail me. I attach a trailer to it and haul my daughter around a lot. It’s such a fun and cute bike.

Specialized SW Tarmac Mixtape – this was a product I worked on and just loved the graphic scheme that the designer, Kayla Clarot, created. This is my GO FAST bike!

Specialized Roubaix – we just launched a new Roubaix and it is incredible – truthfully, it pretty much obsoletes my Tarmac (especially on the bumpy roads in the city). I got it early in my pregnancy, so haven’t gotten to get tons of miles on it yet. Now that I've had my son and am no longer pregnant, I'm looking forward to longer rides on this bike...when I have the time. Hah.
You were part of the inaugural set of Specialized Women Ambassadors, tell us what you enjoyed about being part of the program-
Wow, it’s so hard to describe what that program meant to me – I mean, ultimately, I am where I am in my career because of that program. It all stemmed, initially from my love of sharing my passion for cycling with others. So, it was a natural fit when my bike shop nominated me for the program and I applied. Essentially, I was already a cycling ambassador, this just gave legitimacy to what I was doing and sharing my passion with others. Many of the women who I met during that time are still close friends of mine and it continues to exemplify the community that can be created from our shared love of cycling.

You worked for Specialized as a Road Product Manager, tell us about your job and what it entailed-
That’s a pretty big question. Ultimately, I had the opportunity to work with the most incredible team of designers, engineers, marketers, supply chain and sourcing teams to help bring a bike product to life in the marketplace. As a product manager, it was my job to survey the market place (globally) and help drive the vision for a product family as it moves forward. So, for example, I worked on the Allez bike family. My job was to analyze that particular product, target rider, marketplace needs, etc. and create a vision that the broader team can buy into and drive towards as we developed the next iteration of that product. We also worked at the granular level on the yearly minutiae – like what spec the bike will have, working with graphic designers on the color offerings for that year, etc. We have to be the voice for the rider and the face for the company on the products that we manage…but it’s a HUGE team effort and what we do couldn’t be done alone. We rely on so many incredible and passionate people at Specialized to help us get the product to market and help us to be successful in what is an incredibly competitive space.

What have you enjoyed most about working in the cycling industry?
I have always been someone that needs to feel connected to the work that I’m doing. I think ultimately, what I love about working in the cycling industry is the passion of pretty much everyone that I work with. We all love the sport so much – because believe me, we aren’t getting rich working in it. Hah. It’s about this shared love of the sport itself, and about making the best product that we possibly can. There is something so damn satisfying when I see someone out on a product that I worked on…knowing that something I had a part in creating is bringing joy to someone else’s life and opening up that ‘cycling’ door for someone.
As hard as this business is sometimes (because don’t ever forget…it’s a business!), we get to talk about and work on bikes. I try not to ever forget that, and to try and not forget how fortunate I am to have the career that I do. I remember on my second day of work at Specialized, I was on a plane to Taiwan to visit one of our assemblers and to get a better idea of that side of our business. I was like a kid that got to go to Santa’s Workshop….hah…I was pinching myself trying to believe that this was where I was. It was incredible…and I don’t ever want to lose that ‘awe’ and so far (for the most part) I haven’t...even if I've moved on from Specialized.

Were there challenges being the only woman involved in a product management position or has it been positive because it brings another view to the table?
Overall, I only have mostly positive things to say about being a woman in this industry. I have learned and grown so much in my time at Specialized. I think in some ways, it’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes, I get experiences/opportunities BECAUSE I’m a woman/someone in the minority. At the same time, I do believe it caused me to have to prove myself more (although, I think some of that was also to do with the fact that I didn’t come from inside the industry…I was working at a non-profit before going to Specialized). So, I think I got tested by a lot of my colleagues early on, as they didn’t fully trust that I knew what I was doing/talking about. I definitely have seen the atmosphere change at Specialized, and the dynamics on my team change, and I do think I have had some contribution to that. I brought a VERY different POV than almost anyone there – more of a beginner mindset – which in many ways was helpful. I also learned (and continue) to learn a lot from my more experienced colleagues. It takes all sorts of perspectives to ensure a diverse approach, and I brought something that they didn’t have at the company at the time. Since my start, so many other strong and amazing women have joined the company and we’re becoming a force for change.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved (in biking and/or the industry)?
I think that a lot of the changes we need to see are already in motion. Truthfully, simply having representation in the industry – particularly in positions of leadership – are a truly important part of making change. We need a top-down approach just as much as we need a bottom-up approach. Women in leadership in this industry will help drive change at the highest levels and ensure that company priorities include reaching out to women (and other marginalized communities – POC, LGBTQIA, etc.). You can’t be what you can’t see…so without diverse leadership, how could anyone assume that this industry and sport is for them.

We also cannot continue to speak to the same community/groups and expect our sport to grow. We also need to re-envision what cycling means for various people and communities. It’s not all lycra-clad racers…it’s such a vibrant and diverse community and we need to embrace that more. We need to tell more stories and share more stories of people who are already out there doing incredible things to encourage participation for diverse groups of people. They just need an outlet to help amplify their work/voice.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
Knowing how impactful it’s been in my life is what inspires me to want to share that with others. I have had such a broad range of experiences – cycling for necessity in the Peace Corps, for transportation in NYC, for sport in NYC/California, etc. I don’t want to pigeon-hole anyone into any particular experience – the bike can enhance so many facets of your life and I want everyone to get to experience that.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
My husband, Mike, and I have spent 4+ years (25%) living apart in our 16-year dating/married history. 2 years of me in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso (that was 2 years into our relationship) and 2+ years of me in California and him in NYC during my first 2 years at Specialized. Absence makes the heart grow fonder??? Hah!