the ümabomber

MAKING AWESOME HAPPEN ONE BIKE RIDE AT A TIME

What Women Want

I’ve been sitting quietly at Interbike, deliberating over whether or not I should say anything about #sockgate. Personally I think Jules has said it best, and has offered all too familiar and awful examples of WHY the sock debacle is a problem. Ditto Katherine Fuller’s piece in Dirt Rag.

Many—if not most— of my riding buddies are men and some think #sockgate is funny and say we should lighten up or “get a sense of humor”. I do stand up comedy in my spare time. My sense of humor is intact and pretty broad… and frankly, a bit crass at times. I’ve been a tomboy my entire life, mixing it up with rowdy boys and dirt baggers. And I’m realizing how so much of the bike industry—nay, THE WORLD— is full of men who just don’t want to grow up. That’s the only possible explanation for the continued imBROsition of such childish antics in a professional milieu.

Riding bikes has been a top priority in my life. When I moved to Bend, Oregon in 2011 friends assumed I was moving because I fell in love. I had fallen in love…with the trail access! Bend offers hundreds of miles of twisty singletrack right out the back door. There was no guy in the picture, my bike made me do it! I’ve also taken jobs in the industry—chosen passion over profit—when I could have worked in another industry entirely for much more money.

Most of the women who work in the bike industry tend to do so for the same reasons so many men do: because we love bikes. We love riding. And we love sharing our love of bikes with others.

When we are systematically and routinely depreciated because of our gender, it hurts in too many ways to list. We can’t just “lighten up” or “get over it” because this isn’t an isolated instance. It’s never an isolated instance, anymore. This treatment is endemic in the bike industry.

So many men I spoke with about the sexist double standards women face in the bike industry don’t “get it”. They don’t have to. That’s the benefit of male privilege. What disturbs me more is they don’t CARE to. At least not until they have daughters, or a woman they love and respect faces this sort of bullshit and they realize not caring is the root of the problem.

I’m not a militant feminist, or a man hater, or any of the other things I’m likely to be called by posting this piece. Jules’ and Fullers’ pieces paint the picture better than I am. If you want to understand why women don’t find things like sockgate funny, read their stories. I don’t have a solution to bridging the gender gap, but I do believe greater empathy and knowledge will be a good start.

Also… Dudes. Be excellent.

That is all.

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Building Skills One Grain of Salt At a Time

Dear Umabomber:

I recently started to get into mountain biking with my BF. He’s really good at it. He works in a bike shop and has been riding bikes his whole life and he used to race BMX style when he was a kid. I want to get better so I started going to the Burlington bike park to learn how to do basic things. Sometimes there is an instructor but most of the time it is just me and my BF and his friends. They are all really good bikers. But they try to tell me what to do so much that I get confused. They all have different directions for me to do the same skill. I feel really frustrated. I try to do what they are saying but it’s too confusing and it’s starting to be not fun. And I think I fall more when I do what they say anyway. I want to get better but I’m losing my patience. I’ve been following your IG posts at the Lumberyard and I thought to myself WWUD (What Would Umabomber Do?)

—Seattle Sara

umabomber jump post canyon

Dear Sara:

There are a couple of different things going on with the situation you describe that may actually be making it harder for you to progress.

First off, you should know, never compare yourself to guys who were skinning their knees and casing jumps as kids. They are at a level of riding it takes years to arrive at except for a select few. The muscle memory alone takes years to acquire.

Most mortals need regular practice at anything to progress—whether it’s mountain biking, BMX, playing classical piano, golfing, or painting. Comparing your riding skills to your boyfriend’s is like comparing Oprah to Einstein. Wait? What?!? Exactly!

The fact that you’re a woman who wants to ride a bike makes you a rarity in this culture and country. The fact that you want to ride bikes on dirty, nasty, rough trails makes you an even bigger anomaly. And the fact that you want to learn to do it better, so you can get even more skilled and rowdy with your bike puts you in a tiny percentage of the billions of female human beings on this planet. You are a rarity among rarities.

As you pointed out, I’ve been going to The Lumberyard to work on bike handling skills twice a week since January. Every Thursday night they have Ladies’ Night, with special pricing for women and free coaching. The two lead instructors‚ Shelby and Levi, both have a ton of professional experience as BMX racers and I’ve learned a bunch from their tips and advice. I am a fan of pro level instruction for just about any sport, hobby, interest or career development a person can do.

Like you, I become overwhelmed when I have to process too much new information all at once. I start over thinking and can’t feel what’s supposed to happen in my body. No surprise that’s when I start falling more. I learn best when I work on one new thing at a time. So I’ll get a pro tip from either Shelby or Levi, then go work on it for a week, and then I might ask the other one what their approach is for the same problem. Often they have very different ways of teaching the same skill.

Every so often a well-meaning park rider will offer advice to help me do better, which I don’t pay much attention to. Just because someone has radical skill on their bike doesn’t mean they can explain even the most basic maneuver. For example, probably one of the things I do best in this world is nap. I am a PRO level napper. I should be sponsored by Eagle’s Nest Hammocks, because I’m that serious about my naps. But I’ve met people who say they can’t nap or don’t know how to nap, and I can’t help them! Even when I SHOW THEM how to nap, they can’t do it!

So my advice to you is to decide how much you want to let in, the next time your boyfriend and his friends offer free advice. Politely thank them all for their input and tell them to give you some space. Be honest with them. They probably just want to be be helpful, and don’t realize they are confusing you by offering up TMI.

Bottom line? Take free advice with a grain of salt…including mine. Except this particular piece of advice which is always true, no matter who you are…

RIDE MORE.

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Send me your burning questions about bikes, business, riding, life, love, and the pursuit of pedal-powered pleasure. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I definitely know how squeeze the crap out of the questions and make them squeal. Send me an email using this secure and anonymous email form, here.

Photo taken at Post Canyon, Hood River, OR, courtesy Kevin William Bailey.

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MTB Rx: Ride Goofy

Dear Umabomber:

I read your story about being struck by a car while riding and how that changed you from a hard core roadie to a mountain biker not because of a fear of traffic, but because mountain biking hurts less (I’m paraphrasing). I find your story very resonant. Last year I crashed out in a criterium and damaged my lumbar spine (soft tissue damage to the ligaments and tendons in my right hip) and I haven’t been able to resume road cycling the way I have enjoyed for the past 15 years. Unlike you, I’ve been a mountain biker most of my life, but it was second to road riding and racing. My weekends used to be characterized by 60-100 mile road ride or race on one day, and a mountain bike ride with a regular group of guys on the other. Now, I can only do short road rides before my back starts seizing up and I definitely can’t race. I can ride my MTB all day, though. What gives? Why does one form of cycling cause pain and the other—the supposedly ‘harder’ kind—doesn’t? Any suggestions for how to get back to doing road rides longer than 40 miles? I look forward to your response.

—Crashed Out in Cali

Dear Crash:

I’m sorry to hear about your ongoing struggle to find your way back to what you love. I’m pretty sure I’ve never said mountain biking hurts less. I mean, I’ve fallen down plenty over the past few years…enough to know that there is plenty of hurt mountain biking. And yet, just the act of pedaling hurts more on the road bike more than it does on the mountain bike—particularly after a significant trauma.

You have a leg up on me because you already mountain bike. I have a theory as to why MTB is easier on the body than road riding—at least for certain conditions and injuries.

If you visualize what your skeletal bones are doing when you are riding your road bike, most of the time you are seated in a fixed position, with your femurs moving up and down repeatedly about 4000 times an hour, give or take, depending on cadence. This femoral movement tracks more or less in a straight line. Remember basic anatomy: the muscles that lift your knee up on the upstroke actually attach to your lower back, and pushing down on the pedals involves not just quads but also the gluteal muscles. So from an kinesthetic viewpoint if we’re talking about the movement of the femurs, we’re also talking about hips and lower back.

With road riding, rarely do you get out of the saddle unless you’re sprinting, climbing, or working on specific out-of-saddle drills. Maybe now and then you might stand up just to stretch out the legs, but it’s very natural for many people to just sit and spin. A road racer is more likely to be out of their saddle than a recreational rider—for sudden accelerations— but on the whole, most roadies’ sit bones are firmly planted on their saddle more concretely and longer than their mountain biking counterparts.

sandy ridge ride trail

Even the mellowest mountain biking is much more dynamic. The rider is constantly shifting weight—forward and back, and side to side, to navigate terrain that requires a different form of bike handling. These tiny balancing movements challenge your core on a low level and necessarily engage core muscles more. Mountain biking tends to rely not just on leg strength, but is more of a whole body engagement.

In both forms of riding, the repetitive stresses of pedaling for hours pull on the major joints of the hips and spine; if core strength is lacking, imbalances and overuse can end up placing stressing nerves or compressing lumbar disks, either of which may cause pain.

My first recommendation is to do some focused core work to to to strengthen and stabilize your lower lack and lower abdominals. Planks, sit ups, crunches, and TRX-type workouts work well for this. You should also make sure you’re pedaling in circles, still. Sometimes, after injury, our pedal stroke takes a hit and we favor our good side, creating even more imbalance. Spend some time revisiting pedal stroke drills to be sure you’re not pedaling squares with one leg or both.

You also might have to reexamine your bike fit on your road bike—what used to be perfect might not work any longer. I had several professional bike fits done after my accident, all using different methods to arrive at “the ideal fit” for my situation, but the absolute best fit was one done by Bill Larson over at Cyclepath in Portland. Bill uses the Retul method to measure imbalances in pedal stroke efficiency (and it’s a super cool, nerdy, data-driven method). After making a few adjustments here and there, I hit the trail and was a much happier camper. In fact, the fit felt so good I set up the rest of my bikes to match—including my road bike—and was able to extend my time on the road bike significantly.

There’s a therapeutic section in the BikeYoga book which focuses on addressing many of these issues you mention. More physical therapy than stereotypical “yoga”, this sequence works on three levels: by strengthening core muscles and lateral hip stabilizers, loosening hips and lower back muscles, and relieving stress from upper back and shoulders. It takes about 15 minutes to do all the movements and poses in the therapeutic sequence. I’d recommend giving it a try—daily—after a ride, or as a stand alone therapy on days you don’t ride. I sometimes do it as quick morning “wake up” routine while the coffee’s brewing.

There’s also a few “trailside stretches” that can be performed to relieve stress during a ride, at a rest stop. These aren’t deep stretches, just a few simple movements to help release accumulated tension in key areas—hips, low back and neck and shoulders. On anything longer than 50 miles I must stop and do a bit of stretching. I just need a minute or three and then I’m good to go another 20. Maybe these sort of structured breaks on the road bike will help you as well.

Often, I end this column with the pithy advice to RIDE MORE. In your case, I’d say SPIN MORE (mash less) to reduce strain on back muscles and do some focused training to strengthen your core.

One last consideration for someone like yourself with asymmetrical soft tissue damage: As mountain bikers we tend to ride with our dominant foot forward, putting uneven strain on the pelvis and lumbar spine. Practice switching your dominant foot back when coasting or descending. Off the bike, do more lunges with your non-dominant foot forward. These simple tweaks will help balance out the innate imbalances that start to add up over time for almost all riders, not just those of us who’ve had a bad crash.

In the martial arts classic, The Book of Five Rings, master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi offers up some sound advice that benefits mountain bikers as well. In talking about balanced efforts, Musashi suggests the samurai should be “neither right nor left footed”. Remember this on your next few trail rides and practice switching foot position to balance yourself out. It feels weird and awkward, but it’s essential to correct muskuloskeletal imbalances on the bike.

In other words, RIDE GOOFY.

 

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Send me your burning questions about bikes, business, riding, life, love, and the pursuit of pedal-powered pleasure. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I definitely know how squeeze the crap out of the questions and make them squeal. Send me an email using this secure and anonymous email form, here.

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Better Mountain Biking Through Neuroplasticity

Dear Ümabomber:

I recently moved across the country, and from one particular kind of mountain biking to another. Back home, I was a fairly accomplished rider and racer. In my new home, things are so different that I’m flailing, a beginner again. The trails are different, they require different equipment and skills, and I don’t know anybody here. It’s been hard to start over, and the enjoyment I’m used to feeling on the bike is much harder to find here. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’ve gained weight (in the move, and due to the complications of life). I feel like I’m starting over. It’s frustrating. How can I find the fun again?
—Frustrated and Flailing

Dear Flailing:

Starting over in a new place is hard on so many levels. Even if the reasons for moving are positive, change is often difficult, uncomfortable and frustrating. Making new social connections can be hard. And having to learn a new riding style can be downright maddening. Navigating all of those challenges at once is like turning your stress levels to 11. Here’s a bit of friendly perspective to help you enjoy the ride again.

Find your local trail advocacy groups and get involved.

...and the light came streaming through the temple

Advocacy, trail building and group rides go hand in hand. You’ll make a new social network, learn some new trails, and ride with people who know the area—which give you a good wheel to follow to learn how to ride better. If there isn’t a local IMBA chapter or similar organization, try a meet-up group or go and talk to the bike shops cater to mountain bikers. The important thing is to find connection. Even the most rugged individualists among us need to feel they belong. Having a good social network will help offset some of the stresses you are describing. You’ve not the only one trying to lose weight, or feel like they aren’t a great rider. There is strength in numbers.

Adjust your expectations.

I feel your pain about going from being an adequate or even strong rider to being out of your element. To be sure, mountain biking is kinda supposed to be kinda hard, but in some parts of the world, it’s harder than others. Learning a new way of riding can be exhilarating or horrifying depending on your frame of mind.

Are you a perfectionist? If you’re a perfectionist it’s even harder. That little voice that tells you your *should* be better, that this *shouldn’t* be so hard? Not helpful! You need to have a nice little chat with your inner perfectionist and tell it to STFU. Because odds are your stress over feeling inadequate or clumsy is causing you to tense up on the bike. You’ve got to recalibrate your expectations and more than anything relax into it.

It might be helpful to remember there are four basic levels of learning:

  1. Unconscious incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious competence
  4. Unconscious competence

Most of the guys and some of the women I ride with have been mountain biking 2-3 times longer than I have been. They are at that level of unconscious competence. That’s why following a really skilled wheel is so critical to learning to ride better. Comparing yourself to them, however, when you’re lower on the learning curve is not helpful. It’s also true that many people who do ride at that level absolutely suck at teaching; they can show you how they do it, but good luck understanding what they mean when they tell you “Dude, you just have to corkscrew down”.

I know you feel discouraged, but you’re really not quite back at square one. You are back at the conscious incompetent stage. That’s not a bad place to be. The tension arises when your residual self image—the image you have of yourself and how proficient you used to be—is stronger than your present moment awareness. In other words, your past is actually interfering with your present.

Zen Mind, Neuroplastic Brain

I’m sure if you remember back to when you first started riding “back home” there were challenges then too. Obviously you didn’t let frustration with your progress stop you then as you went on to become proficient. I suggest actively trying a few different things to help you tap into the power of neuroplasticity. It doesn’t have to be related to riding. Just go be an awkward, clumsy beginner at something.

Neuroplasticity is the thing we’re actively stimulating with new practices. The gains we make by learning something new cross over into other areas. For example, learning rock climbing can help you on the bike even though physically there’s little in common between the two activities. There’s a direct correlation in terms of mental gains in the areas of expectation management, focus and attention, and confidence. In other words, train your mind and your body will follow.

Embrace Beginner’s Mind

You have to find a way back to what the Zen buddhists call “beginner’s mind”—the place where possibilities are endless, but expectations are held in check.

My advice to you? Pad up so you feel you have protection against the consequences and then go session the crap out of those areas that are intimidating. Or take up a different sport just to get your brain focused on learning instead of comparing/remembering and judging. Take up dirt jumping at your local indoor bike park, or yoga, or stand-up paddling—anything to help you cultivate beginner mind. If you can get there on your mountain bike, that would be best—and at some point you just need to saddle up and get after it—but it might help to think of conscious competence less as a destination and more as a journey.

P.S. RIDE MORE.

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Send me your burning questions about bikes, business, riding, life, love, and the pursuit of pedal-powered pleasure. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I definitely know how squeeze the crap out of the questions and make them squeal. Send me an email using this secure and anonymous email form, here.

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Fat Bikes or Fad Bikes?

Dear Umabomber:

I fancy myself an avid cyclist. I enjoy both road and mountain biking. I’ve got 4 bikes right now—a hardtail mountain bike, a full suspension bike, a 10 year old road racing bike that I now use for recreational and fitness rides, and a cross bike I use mostly for commuting. I’ve been thinking about getting a bike to do more comfortable off-road-but-not-quite-single track bike trekking adventures. I’ve been looking into gravel bikes for this purpose, but lately I see more people getting fat bikes and using them in the same way. Which—if either—is better? Should I just modify my cross bike to be able to tour on it? Aren’t gravel grinders just another industry niche product manufacturers are using to sell more specialty bikes? Are fat bikes really just fad bikes?
—Don’t Wanna Fad Away

 

Dear Don’t:

In a way you’re asking the wrong person, but in a way you’re asking the right person. I’m the wrong person to answer this due to the fact that I have neither fat nor fad bike. I have limited exposure to both gravel and fat bikes, so it’s hard to share from direct experience. I’m the right person to answer your questions because I am weighing those options as well.

Innovation for the sake of innovation is called “marketing” and really doesn’t offer great gains to consumers. But if there are real gains to be had through innovation, I’m all for it. Those gains should be both quantifiable and qualifiable.

Personally, I’m all about the right tool for the job. That being said, I’m also known as something of a pro-level MacGuyverer. Innovation starts when the current resources fail. And I’m a long time proponent of N+1 being the correct number of bikes. But whether something is a fad or not, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass.

The differences between a “gravel bike” and a strait up cross bike arenÆt huge—bigger tire clearance, better stability, slightly more relaxed geometry and a more relaxed riding position—and sometimes it’s not even that. Can you do light touring on a cross bike? Absolutely! You’ll probably need to swap out parts to make it more comfortable for longer distances, but many people do it successfully.

Fat bikes on the other hand, are completely unlike anything else you’ll ride. They are heavier and much slower handling than their skinny counterparts. The extra wide balloon-like tires are perfect for rolling over shifty surfaces like sand or snow, but on firm ground that cushiness becomes horribly inefficient.

For gravel or dirt road touring, my advice is to go with a cross or touring bike with fat, smooth tires. Even a 29er mountain bike with slicks would work fine.

But don’t just take my word for it. I asked the boys at Limberlost—a Portland-based adventure touring outfit—about their preferences to get a second opinion. Here’s what co-owner Gabriel had to say:

Fat bikes are gobs of fun on sand dunes or snowmobile trails but you don’t need that much cushion for exploring dirt roads. Using them for most bikepacking trips is going to be overkill. While it might be FUN overkill, it won’t be efficient and efficiency is definitely a factor in bikepacking. I used my Surly Krampus on the Oregon Outback because it’s what I had. And I put the lightest, narrowest, smoothest tires I could find on it: Schwalbe’s 2.5″ Super Motos.

Coming back to the right-tool-for-the-job ethos, a fat bike is the right bike if you’re touring the Sahara or Gobi deserts or riding around Nome, Alaska in January. Otherwise, go gravel grinder (if you must).

Is it a fad? If it is, it’s one of the most well-adopted, quasi-mainstream fads in the history of the bike industry. According to a recent article in Alaska Dispatch News, the fat bike-to-skier ratio around Anchorage is 10 to 1. And new crops of Fat Bike races continue to pop up all over the country every winter.

A year in Alaska has been on my bucket list of life experiences for many years now. Until I head north for that adventure, I’ve decided I’ll probably get a gravel bike for off-road touring or throw gears and skinny tires on my singlespeed 29er. But you can bet your ass the moment I have a chance to ride and race in snow… I’m getting a fat bike. Fad or not.

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Send me your burning questions about bikes, business, riding, life, love, and the pursuit of pedal-powered pleasure. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I definitely know how squeeze the crap out of the questions and make them squeal. Send me an email using this secure and anonymous email form, here.

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