Women Involved Series: Jen Herrera

Hello! My name is Jen Herrera, and by day I am a construction project manager in the Des Moines area. I grew up in southern Iowa, and I have always loved spending time outside. In high school, I was (literally) counting down the days until I could leave Iowa and move to the mountains, where I could play to my heart’s content. Clearly plans changed, and while I haven’t completely given up that dream, I have come to appreciate what Iowa has to offer. Mountain biking has been a huge part of that. Not only does it give me a reason to seek out the woods, but I have also found an incredible network of people that love being outside as much as I do.

That connection—both with nature and with people—is a big part of what I want to share with other women as an ambassador.

Tell us about your introduction to mountain biking, what about it made you say "Yes! This is for me!"
My introduction to mountain biking and the moment I fell in love with the sport are years apart. I started mountain biking to keep my husband company, and while I enjoyed parts of it I would not have chosen to go biking on my own. I took several years away from biking, and when I came back to it I was a more confident person and in much better shape physically. Both of these—and having a bike that I was comfortable on—made a huge difference. I was in the middle of a ride in 2018, not thinking about biking but just appreciating the trees and the wind in my face, when I realized that I was having a blast. That is when I decided I was going to keep biking because I wanted to.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
The biggest thing I struggled with was balance on anything other than flat trail, which affected pretty much every technical section. Luckily, the solutions are fairly simple. Keeping your speed up makes it a lot easier to balance, even if it feels counter-productive and scary at first. There are definitely still sections that I can ride at speed but would fall on if I slowed down too much. I know a lot of mountain bikers who will do track stands – ie, stop their bike on the trail and keep it still without putting a foot down – in order to get around some obstacles. I’m working on it, but I can’t quite do that yet! The second “fix” for better balance is to get out of the saddle. You can keep your body centered while the bike leans to the side, which allows for a lot better balance on sections where leaning with your bike might lead to a wipe-out.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?

Absolutely! I have been working on riding bridges and rocky/rooted climbs and descents recently. For whatever reason, I am also terrified of downhill switchbacks to the right. For that, the issue is mostly mental and I have started telling myself, “It’s only a right-hand turn,” when I know a switchback is coming up. If I am riding clipped in, I will also unclip my inside foot just to know I can put it down if needed, although I am trying to phase this out as I become more comfortable. My favorite way to approach issues that are technical rather than mental is to pick a trail that poses multiple challenges and focus on getting one each time. Once I get that new section, I give myself permission to walk or bypass anything else until the next time. If I am feeling good, I’ll usually end up getting two or three new parts, but if it is an off day then I don’t end feeling like a failure. I take a similar approach with group rides. If I am riding with a group, I try to see how the others approach the section that I am working on, but if I don’t feel confident trying it then I will make note and come back a different day. I still worry about being the person that gets injured and holds everyone up, so this helps me enjoy the camaraderie instead of being stressed out the entire time.

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 would suggest finding a riding buddy in your area and be completely honest with them about your skill level – for example, “I have never done this, I don’t know if I am going to like it, but I would appreciate it if you would show me a good beginner trail and go through it with me a couple of times.” Other female bikers can be less intimidating, but some of my best mentors have been male, so be open to who you go with! The most important thing is finding someone who is there to ride with you and help you feel comfortable, not someone who thinks you are coming along on their ride. Beyond this, I think the best way to have a positive experience is to feel good on your bike. Make sure you start on a bike that fits you, not one that is too big and will be hard to control. Consider going for a couple short rides on gravel or pavement to make sure everything feels comfortable before taking your bike on dirt trails. Lastly, don’t feel bad if you stick to the beginner trails for a while. You will progress faster on the harder trails if you are looking forward to the challenge rather than scared when you start riding them.

Photo Credit: Eric Roccasecca
What was your inspiration behind becoming a Fearless Women of Dirt Ambassador?
Quite simply, I do not want anyone to have to go through the introduction that I had to mountain biking. Over the last year, I found myself in several conversations with women who expressed all of the fears I had initially. If my husband wasn’t so involved in mountain biking, there is a good chance I would have tried it once or twice and then stopped – which would have been a very big shame, because I love it now that I feel more comfortable. Mountain biking can be a huge confidence boost. There is nothing better than nailing a section that used to be “impossible.” I would love to share that exhilaration and the feeling that you can do anything with more women.

What do you hope to accomplish as a FWD Ambassador in your area?
I hope to provide women with a beginner-friendly, no-judgement riding buddy and be someone that can provide advice and encouragement without being intimidating. I did not feel comfortable riding with anyone when I started mountain biking, but I would have benefited immensely from feedback and getting to see how more experienced riders handled the trails. I also think I would have had a lot more fun. If all I accomplish is helping women have more fun on the trail, I will consider that a complete success.

What do you love about riding your bike?

On the best days, riding my bike feels like freedom. It’s just me and the bike and the trail, and everything works together to feel like I am flying. While that doesn’t always happen, I do always love that my bike takes me out into nature and I have a chance to see things that would take much longer to reach on foot. Lastly, I love the mountain biking community. I’ve met some incredible people while biking, and it’s always great meeting up and going for a ride.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?

My mountain bike is a 2018 Specialized Chisel. It is a 29er hardtail, which works well for the trails I ride in Iowa. When I got the Chisel, I knew I would mostly be riding XC trails, meaning the lightweight frame was more important than having a full-suspension bike. It has good enough components that any restrictions can typically be attributed to my skill rather than the bike, and while I have been eyeing several other mountain bikes, I don’t plan to upgrade until this fact changes. Fun fact – my husband and I have the exact same bike, which means when we go to races we always have a backup if something goes wrong with one of them.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?

I think women are more likely to be turned away by the intimidation factor than men. The first time you ride on dirt can be scary. Rocks, drops, roots, and bridges are scary. Walking up to a boisterous group of strangers for a group ride is scary, especially if you don’t feel good enough to ride with said group. It can be easy to hold yourself back by thinking about all of the things that could go wrong, and while this is also true for men, I think it is a much bigger obstacle for women to overcome. Then there is the simple fact that most of the mountain biking community is made up of men. I’m lucky in that regard—I work in construction and am comfortable being the only woman in a given group. However, even for me it can be a bit alienating on occasion, and I think if we can help a few more women get into mountain biking, more will follow naturally.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
We need to have more women role models, and they need to be visible. Other women need to be able to see themselves in how the sport is perceived. I am starting to see more chatter about women in mountain biking, and it is extremely empowering to hear about the ladies out there doing incredible things. Locally, I would love to see a change in how women are treated at bike shops. I will be the first person to admit I don’t know every technical term, but it is very discouraging to walk into a bike shop and leave feeling like the technicians didn’t even try to listen to me. This is not something I see everywhere, but it still happens often enough to bother me. The other local change is something I am trying to help with is simple outreach: “Hey ladies, we’re riding tonight at X, I’ll be wearing a jersey with a unicorn on it and am happy to go whatever pace you are comfortable with. Come find me and let’s shred!” My goal for next year is to make this a consistent message and see where we can go from there.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?

I love getting out and riding with my female friends, and I want to see more women experience that. The camaraderie and support is incredible. In a way, my motivation is also selfish—I want to have more women to ride with. If that means bringing ladies into the sport and showing them the ropes, I am happy to do so.
Photo Credit: Eric Roccasecca

Tell us a random fact about yourself!

I spend a lot of the colder months writing fiction, and have self-published several novels under a pseudonym. It might take me away from the trails, but royalties did buy me my last bike, so it’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make.