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Category Archives: Dirt Trails

How to Get Women to Race Dirt (And How Not To)

The Sea Otter Classic, the largest consumer bike festival in North America, is running this weekend down the coast at Laguna Seca raceway in Monterey. In addition to the large expo hosting over 450 vendors, there will be pro and amateur racing in almost every cycling discipline, from downhill mountain biking to BMX to criterium road racing to cyclocross, plus recreational events for all ages, including Gran Fondo endurance rides.

I won’t be one of the estimated 65,000 people headed down there. It’s partly because Sea Otter’s focus is on the sport side of cycling and my interest these days is more in the practical side of cycling: city and cargo cycling. But it’s more than that. I haven’t been back to Sea Otter since I stood on the podium there in 2008, which was long before I got into city cycling. It’s that my last experience there made me feel like Sea Otter isn’t really for people like me who love bikes but don’t fit into American cycling’s hardcore dude culture.

After Work Girlfriend Rides

Back in 2008 I was mountain biking regularly with the Dirt Divas, an informal group of experienced mountain bikers and road racers with a taste of dirt. Every Monday night during daylight saving time we did recovery pace after work spins, and every few weeks or so we did longer weekend rides on more challenging trails. Just as importantly, we were an online community of 200 dirt-loving women sprinkled throughout the Bay Area, offering support and advice for each other that was just as valuable as having women nearby to ride with.

With my friends from Dirt Divas and the support of the Velo Bella and Velo Girl race teams, I had raced several smaller races. We had even challenged ourselves with a 24 hour mountain bike relay on the trails at Laguna Seca. Those races were all fun, but didn’t bring out the crowds like Sea Otter. Where else can recreational riders race the same courses, on the same weekend as the pros?

The Sea Otter excitement started on the Diva email list in March: how hard it it? who’s racing this year? In no time we had set up carpools down to Laguna Seca to pre-ride the course a few weeks before the race. The course wasn’t particularly technical, but the hilly 20 mile course had proven challenging for some beginner fields, so they shortened the women’s, juniors, women’s single-speed and Clydesdale men’s (over 200 lbs) races to a nominal 10 miles. For some reason, they didn’t say it was actually over 13 miles.

Dirt Divas

The nine of us were a mix of experienced and brand new racers. A couple were new to Dirt Divas and had never ridden in an all-female group before. With only a printout from the web site for navigation, we fared well until the climbers out front missed a key turn and got lost. Afterward, it was laughing over burritos and lots of email banter: reporting trail conditions and answering questions from women who couldn’t make the pre-ride.

So when things went wrong at the race we had each other. After a good start on the paved track (picking the right wheel to draft is key) I hit the gravel in top five. I was behind my friend Holly as we picked up speed where the course descended. As we approached a left turn, I could tell Holly was aimed straight. I yelled “go left,” she did and we both hit the singletrack ahead of the main field, then up the ridge and down the long sandy descent.

On the long grind back up, my climber friend Lesley passed me and asked if I had missed the turn. That’s when I realized Holly wasn’t only one. There were many others confused about the turn, including my friend E who’s zooming downhill in this photo. Her boyfriend took the shot right after she went off course. Not easy to tell, is it?

Missed Turn

I was still grinding away uphill when I came to the turn where we lost the climbers on the pre-ride. I was moving slow enough to read the signs carefully: “XC Race 20 miles” and “MTB Tour 10 miles.” Even though I had raced the course the year before, studied the map, pre-ridden three weeks before and have the nickname “GPS Janet,” I wasn’t confident I should turn left to stay on the 10 mi XC race course. But I did, even though I could see racers going straight ahead of me, and knew that going straight would cut the course by at least a mile.

Lesley

When I finished the race they were already posting our race’s winning time at 41 minutes, an impossible time. Holly and I reported it to race officials, waited a while until it got cold and dark, then gave up and went to dinner. The next morning they posted results: I was 2nd, Holly 3rd, and Michelle 4th. On podium we didn’t recognize the winner and we didn’t see the two or three other women that I was pretty sure were ahead of me. (I found out much later that one missed the first turn and the true winner had lost her chip somewhere on the course.)

Sea Otter Podium

Back on online I shared my story and learned that three more of my Diva friends had missed the first turn and doubled back. A Velo Bella race team friend was spectating at the junction, saw the confusion and started calling out directions to racers. She confronted the course monitor about why he wasn’t doing it. He shrugged.

So I wrote my first letter of complaint ever to the race director. I let him know the impact on us as racers, but focused on what I wanted for next year: cones, course monitors, and accurately labeling the course as a 13 mile, not 10 mile course. After a long email exchange his response was that it’s the racers responsibility to stay on course and lessons were learned on both sides. He didn’t get that if that much of the field is confused, it’s the course, not the riders. And that beginners could use a little more, not less, consideration and support.

Sea Otter 2008 crop

I will agree that lessons were learned, indeed, but probably not what the race director expected:

  • Women often enter sport through men and they learn a lot from them. But there’s something special about riding with women: it’s empowering and challenging in a different way.
  • Until women ride with or race women, they don’t know really how how they stack up. Too many women who only ride with men think they’re slow when they’re not slow at all.
  • Having a social aspect makes many women more strongly engaged and loyal to the sport. Romantic relationships end, but bikes and bike friends stay.
  • If you want more new people racing, it takes group support. We hosted our own group pre-ride for women on our Dirt Diva email list. A pre-ride from the organizers with racing tips might encourage riders to try racing.
  • Community support is important both in person and online. The fewer women that ride in an geographic area, the more important online friendships are.
  • Women (especially beginner women) don’t expect to be the focus of an event. We don’t expect to race at prime time, we don’t expect our results to be listed first. But when things go wrong and we get an attitude, it’s feels deeper than “that guy is a jerk” it becomes “they don’t care about women or beginners.”
  • When you complain, adjust your argument for the personality of the official. When I advocated from the perspective of disoriented racers I got nothing. When I complained that riders might have placed ahead of me by cutting the course I got more sympathy. I needed to switch from chick talk to dude talk.

There was a silver lining to the story. One of the silent members on our Dirt Diva list was an employee of Sea Otter. She wasn’t part of the racing side, but she contacted the right people within the organization. They gave us a discount registration code for the next year’s race. That taught me my last lesson: complaining can pay off, even when you’re blown off at first. You may have allies you don’t know about that are listening.

I was touched and grateful. I know at least one woman used the discount to race the next year. Just not me.

IMG_5425

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2014 in Dirt Trails, Women & Bikes

 

Where the Paved Road Ends

There’s a place where the paved road ends,
And before the trail begins,
And there the moss grows soft and green,

Dirt Road

And there the sun glints barely seen,
And there the moist air is thick but clean,
Still fresh from the deep canyon rain.

Surveying Stevens Creek

Let us leave this place where the smog weighs black,
And the loud road climbs and bends
Past the pits where the parched creek trickles.

Dry Stevens Creek Reservoir

We shall pedal with a pedal that’s measured and slow.
And watch where the fresh tire tracks will go,
To the place where the paved road ends.

Janet Creek Crossing

Thank you, Shel Silverstein, for the inspiration.

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Posted by on February 16, 2014 in Dirt Trails

 

What Makes a Bike Shop Attractive to the Ladies

Last spring at the Women’s History Ride in San Francisco I met young woman who had worked for one of the “Big Three” bike manufacturers on their successful women’s product line. On the long train ride down the Peninsula, we chatted about how, why and when women buy bicycles and gear, based on her experience and her company’s extensive research on how to reach this huge, largely untapped market.

Part of her job as a product marketing manager meant visiting retailers and training them on best practices for selling to women. As surprising as it may sound, some of her company’s dealers were able to do over half their business selling to women. Their key strategies included hiring women to work in their shops, offering repair classes for women, organizing women’s group rides, and hosting “ladies nights” at their shops.

She found it frustrating that many dealers weren’t receptive. Maybe they didn’t think there was much demand out there. Maybe it was too big a shift from the status quo. Maybe they didn’t know how to take that first step.

Lots of Bikes

But some shops do get it right, like Passion Trail Bikes in Belmont. That’s remarkable since Passion Trail focuses on mountain biking, a market that in our area is even more overwhelmingly male than road cycling. Even more remarkable is that it focuses on high-end bikes that are more commonly purchased by men.

Passion Trail’s founders started off building community by setting aside a beer and root beer lounge area for customers and by hosting “Wednesday Wrides” with post-ride BBQs that regularly draw over 50 riders. Then they went one step further by reaching out specifically to women, starting with founder Patty teaching new mostly female riders in small groups as a part of the Wednesday Wrides, and expanding to host monthly “Female Fridays” where dozens of women gather to ride together and are given the royal treatment.

This crowd was just the middle group. The chill and fast pace groups were elsewhere in the park.

All rides leave from the shop and roll a couple of miles across town to Water Dog Lake, a small city-owned open space that’s is known for challenging trails, most built by experienced mountain bikers, including founders and staff from Passion Trails. Water Dog is all about skinny singletrack carved into sides of steep canyons and tight turns and narrow wooden bridges. More technical than most local parks, it can be intimidating for less skilled riders. Many have been bitten by the ‘dog and have limped home with severe sprains or broken bones.

So how does a shop selling high-end mountain bikes entice women to a group ride on technical trails? They started by recruiting a few female customers with experience as ride leaders that also had female riding buddies. Then they recruited men as BBQ chefs and bartenders (that part was pretty easy). They promoted the event in the shop’s weekly newsletter, on their Facebook page and asked their ride leaders to promote it too.

Start by recruiting friendly, fun and experienced ride leaders.

At the event, the ride leaders helped the women divide into groups: a “chill” group taking a slower pace on less technical trails; a faster-pace group with fewer regroups for riders wanting a workout; and a large middle group that wanted to do the same technical trails as the fast group but at a more casual pace.

After the ride, the shop hosted a party with a gourmet dinner and cocktails prepared by the guys. I can’t tell you how much the women appreciated being served and how proud the men were to show off their culinary skill. The shop was also open for minor bike repairs and shopping for that next pair of favorite shorts or a new cute new jersey. Having other women around for gear advice and to help with important decisions like jersey color choice made shopping not only more efficient but a lot more fun too.

Jersey Shopping

I’m sure my friends can add more, but here’s my advice for bike shops who want to sell more to women:

  • Host a women’s ride. If you don’t have enough women on your staff or among your loyal customers to host one, take a hard look at how inviting your shop is to the average woman who walks in off the street.
  • Offer bike repair classes for women. But avoid implying that riders “should” be able to do much more than pump their tires and fix a flat. Many women do want to learn how to repair their bikes, but not all. Don’t assume one way or the other, just ask: “Do you want me to show you how to do this?”
  • Don’t call mellow, less technical trails “beginner” trails. Many riders who prefer gentler trails (or roads) have been riding for years, they just may not be looking for technical or physical challenges when they ride. Don’t imply they should be advancing their skills or strength.
  • Put some women specific items out front. When women walk into a store and see items designed for women they get the message that they belong, even if the bike or jersey isn’t their style. Don’t worry, the guys will find mens clothing. Most are probably paying more attention to the bikes and gear anyway.

Women Specific Gear Wide

What’s in it for retailers? Women’s products currently only account for 14% of sales in bike industry, but they account for 34% in snow sports and a whopping 46% in running. I’d say there’s a huge opportunity knocking.

Women, does your local bike shop do anything special that you like? Are there things they could do that might make you a more loyal customer? Are there things you wish they would quit doing?

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Posted by on September 26, 2013 in Dirt Trails, Women & Bikes

 

Hitting the Trails for First Time Mountain Bikers

Portions of this story first appeared online in Bike Fun in the Mountain View Voice on August 27, 2013.

When I bought my first adult bicycle back in 1994, I had a hard time deciding what to buy. A co-worker offered to sell me his old road bike, but I wanted to ride the gravel levee trails along the bay. I ended up going for comfort and bought an entry-level, fully rigid mountain bike that I rode around town and on the bay.

I had no intention of actually mountain biking until my friend Steph convinced me to ride some real dirt trails in the nearby hills. It was 10 miles of hard work and more climbing than I wanted, but I was hooked.

To me, mountain biking is a lot like hiking. You get out of the city and feel like you’re far away from it all, even when you’re only a few miles away. I’m always surprised how much wildlife there is so close to town, from deer to wild turkeys to coyotes to gopher snakes. If you’re lucky, you might spot a rattlesnake, bobcat or tarantula. I’ve seen all that and more, especially since I cover a lot more distance on a bike than on foot.

Dick & Gopher Snake

If you’ve only ridden on pavement before, there are some things you should know before hitting the dirt that will make your first ride a lot easier. Riding dirt isn’t hard if you make a few simple adjustments. And if you’re experienced at mountain biking and plan to take first timers out, reading the tips can help you remember all those skills you’ve learned that you now do by second nature.

First, on the trail there are a few new rules of the road. As a mountain biker you need to yield to hikers and horses, as well as uphill riders. In particular, be aware that you and your bike can make horses nervous because you look too much like predator. As you approach horses, slow down to crawl, call out “hello” as soon as you’re within voice range, and ask the horseback riders how to proceed. Sometimes they will want you to stop and let them pass, other times they’d rather pull off the trail and let you pass. It’s all about communication. The same advice works for hikers. Be polite, communicate with them and don’t buzz by.

As for your bike, any bike with knobby tires works and some people can rock the dirt on slick tires too. Having a fork with front suspension smooths out the trail, but isn’t necessary for the moderate trails I’ve listed below. To set up your bike before your first dirt ride, all you’ll probably need to do is pump up the tires and go. But not too much. Lower pressure in your tires gives better traction on loose dirt and gravel. I set mine at 35-40 psi, which is the far low end of what my tires recommend.

Skinny Knobby Tires

If your attitude about shifting gears is “set it and forget it” on the streets, you’ll need to review shifting. Most trails in our area have steep sections so you’ll want to use your gears. In particular, the wide gravel roads that may look easier than the narrow trails also tend to suddenly get steep. Unlike the narrow trails, they were built for farm trucks with engines, not people on foot or on bikes.

After that, it’s all about the ride. Here are some basic techniques that can help you feel more comfortable and stable riding dirt trails.

Ready position
The ready position is used when you’re rolling down a trail like my friend Cindy is in the photo below, or rolling over obstacles like ruts or roots. First, put your feet in the pedals level at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions in a wide stance, then lift your rear out of the saddle, bend your elbows wide and look straight ahead down the trail. The goal is to stay balanced as the bike moves underneath you, like an English-style equestrian, where your legs are shock absorbers and you move forward and back and side to side as needed to stay balanced. Put one or two fingers lightly over each brake lever, place your palms lightly on grips and you’re ready to go.

Long Ridge - Trailhead

Roots, rocks and ruts
You’ll need the ready position to roll over obstacles like ruts, roots and rocks. The other key is to brake as you approach the obstacle, then let go of the brakes and let your bike roll over the obstacle. For obstacles too big to roll over, look where you want to go to roll around it. Stare at that big rock and you’ll hit it for sure.

Climbing
Mountain biking gets its name because most trails are hilly, at least in our area. The good news is mountain bikes have lower gears than road bikes. Use them! Downshift to your small chainring (left hand shifter) before the hill and then use the gears in your cassette (right hand shifter) to find the right gear. On really steep hills, the tendency is either for your rear wheel to slide out or your front wheel to pop up. The trick to staying balanced is to stay in saddle, slide forward on the saddle and lower your chest toward the handlebars. And there’s no shame in walking up the hill if it’s too steep.

Descending
Descending starts with the ready position described above with your rear out of the saddle. As the trail gets steeper, move your body further back behind the saddle. Moving your body back means you can brake with both your front and rear brakes together without flying over the handlebars.

Arastradero - The Bowl

Tight turning
Tight turns in trails, also known as switchbacks, can be challenging and rewarding when you learn to ride them. The best line to take is to go wide before the turn, look down at the apex to turn sharply and as soon as your front wheel gets close to the apex, look far down the trail. And keep pedaling, especially as you exit the turn when the tendency is to coast. Don’t feel bad if you can’t make the turn. It takes practice and some are hard to clear for experienced riders.

Walking the bike
In mountain biking everyone walks the bike sometimes. The easiest was to push your bike is to stand on left side of it so you can avoid bumping the chainring. Put both hands on the handlebars. If you’re walking the bike downhill, feather the rear brake (right hand) to control your speed. On super steep uphills, you can brake hard and use bike as a cane to help balance as you walk up.

Finally, as trite as it sounds, relax. If the trail feels too intense or you find yourself tensing your body or squeezing the hand grips tight, slow down and or stop for a bit. A stiff body makes everything harder. Take a breath, enjoy the scenery, walk it off if you need to and then roll again.

Arastradero - Fireroad

For those living on or visiting the San Francisco Peninsula, here are two of my favorite local parks with trails that are great for first-time mountain bikers.

Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto
Arastradero Preserve offers rolling grassy hills with wide gravel roads and narrower smooth dirt trails very close to town. The park is small, but with proper planning, you can ride a dozen or more miles without too much repeating, and you can reverse direction for a new experience. I’ve marked an easier first-timer’s loop on the map in pink, plus a bonus loop in purple. The blue loop is where my friends and I ride after work, which is a good time to visit since the park has very little shade. Here’s a map with my favorite easy loops marked.

Long Ridge Open Space Preserve on Skyline Boulevard
Long Ridge offers smooth and shady trails along Peter’s Creek and great views from the ridge along Skyline Boulevard. My favorite starting location is Grizzly Flat, which is 3.1 miles south of Page Mill Road or 3.3 miles north of Highway 9. Watch your odometer to find the trailhead at the unmarked roadside parking. Trail map.

Long Ride - Peters Creek Trail

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2013 in Dirt Trails

 

Taking Liberty on a Busy Weekend

The weekend started with a flurry of activities: a haircut and wedding gift to buy on Saturday morning, which led to an afternoon of clothes shopping (successful!), followed by a rolicking night out with the girls. I woke up late the next day and wanted to go for a ride–a real ride, not an around town shopping kind of ride. But I also wanted to buy a gift for friends with a new baby, deliver it and take time to hold the little guy. And I needed groceries.

But I really really wanted to get out to the trails now that they’re finally lush and green after the winter rains.

Arastradero View with Bike

On days I do long road or trail rides, it’s hard to do errands too. Once I get home all tired and sweaty the last thing I want to do is hop on another bike for a grocery run, especially after I’ve relaxed in the shower. The only thing less appealing is driving my car to the trailhead or ride start just so I can do errands on the way home.

To get it all done in an afternoon I turned to Liberty, my cyclocross bike turned off-road touring machine. She has knobby tires and low gears for trails in the foothills, a road bike geometry for efficient cross-town riding and a lightweight rack and small panniers for shopping. Liberty gives me freedom to do it all.

A gift was bought, a baby was held, and groceries was checked off my list. In between it all was a refreshing 27 mile road + trail ride with views across the bay on a clear spring-like day. I love having Liberty.

When you’re pinched for time, how do you squeeze in time for a good long ride AND get your errands done?

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Posted by on February 24, 2013 in Around Town, Dirt Trails

 

Olympic Bronze for Jill Kintner, BMX Victory for Me

Back in 2008, while Jill Kintner was flying toward Bronze in BMX at the Olympics, I was barely edging out the 5-year olds at Calabazas Park. I stumbled upon this post I wrote for my friend Bev’s blog back then, long before I dreamed I would have my own blog. So long ago, but nothing’s really changed. My friends still push me.

Occasionally, I let my curiosity trump my dignity. When I told Beverly and my buddy Jill that yes, I’d try this pump track thing, it seemed like a good idea. So I threw my flat pedals on my mountain bike, grabbed my skate shoes and drove down to Calabazas Park, feeling confident ’cause I knew my friends would be there.

But when I rolled up to the BMX area, filled with guys of all ages and sizes, flying across the jumps and doing acrobatic moves, I almost said it out loud: “There’s NO WAY I’m going in there.” I felt conspicuous enough just riding down the sidewalk looking for the Strong Light and Beautiful (SLaB) gals.

BMX Chicks

I found Beverly and her friend Cindy with the camera. The Channel 11 news truck was just leaving and the young BMXers were out in force, checking out the media attention and checking out the “old ladies” who ventured near their play zone. Before long, Jill and Elizabeth showed up, as did a few other SLaB women. Two saw the scene and immediately turned tail, claiming to be on their way to Fremont Older. But Joann, a 50+ beginner, pushed herself out of her comfort zone and stayed for the ride. You go girl!

After Bev’s friend Shane from Evolution Bike Shop arrived, it was time to ENTER THE PEN. Elizabeth suggested we get away from the crowd and warm up on the berms on the other end of the park. So we rode past the youthful eyes, attempting to find some privacy. We didn’t expect the boys would follow us to watch.

Dropping In

Despite the unwanted attention, the berms were great. You’d come down a tabletop, swoop one way then the other in a series of links. Shane had some suggestions: bend your elbows more, put your weight here, push here, lift there, but I was content just to see if I could get through the series without pedaling too much or having to brake. A good start.

Then it was time to go back to the main area for the rollers. More instruction: bend your arms on the upside, push down with your legs on the backside. Or was it something else? I forget. The idea was to pedal as little as possible, but I was once again content just to not stall out on top of the rollers.

We played until it started to get dark, and then talked until it got really dark. Oh, and we took a photo with all the BMXers for Jill Kintner. I’m sure the good vibes we sent helped her in the race.

Go Jill Go Group

What impressed me most about the BMX park was the healthy, safe environment it provides for the risk-taking that comes with youth (and for some doesn’t end at youth). Every neighborhood should have such a place.

So while I’m not going to buy a BMX bike anytime soon, or seek out time at a pump track, in the end I was glad I came. I got to try something new, I got to support an American female athlete in a sport dominated by males, and I got to visit a new bicycling culture.

Go Jill Kintner. Go BMX. Go Olympics for recognizing this sport. Go Bev and SLaB for organizing a great event.

How do you push yourself outside of your comfort zone? Does it come from within or do you need a nudge?

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Note: Photos in this post courtesy of SLaB.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2013 in Dirt Trails

 

Riding the Magical Forest at UC Santa Cruz

I had a co-worker who told me he chose Purdue University not just because of its outstanding engineering program, but because there was nothing to do in small town Indiana. He said if he went to school somewhere like University of California Santa Barbara, he’d spend all his time at the beach instead of studying.

He’d probably say the same thing about UC Santa Cruz, which has awesome surfing just minutes south of campus and amazing mountain bike trails just minutes north of campus. He’d probably never make it to class.

Log Roll 2

The trails on university and state property just uphill from UCSC campus are among the best in the region, in the region where mountain biking was born. Find a local to show you around, perhaps someone who works at Santa Cruz Bicycles or at Giro. It’s a favorite morning or lunchtime ride spot for those lucky folks.

You’ll want a local because the best trails may be named, but they’re not marked. With trails this good you don’t want to advertise them to the teeming masses. I’d offer to show you myself, but I have no clue where we rode. All I can say is that it’s an amazing, magical forest. And it’s a good thing I don’t have to study or work nearby.

Do you have a special riding place in your area that locals keep under wraps? How did you learn about it?

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For more information: Trail maps are here. Organized rides available through Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz.

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2013 in Dirt Trails

 
 
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