Mary P. of Women BikeDC: From 12 Miles to an Ironman

For me and a lot of women on my team, there is a direct correlation between our development as endurance athletes—-often literally from practically nothing—-and our development as strong, independent, badass women.

I love seeing both journeys, and the interconnection between them is something that should be celebrated and promoted.

That comment comes from Mary P., cyclist and author of the blog IndyFlies. As an endurance sports enthusiast, I was eager to talk with Mary for the Women BikeDC series to learn more about her progression from recreational rider to four-time finisher of Ironmans(!).

I also wondered how her experiences as a sport and transportation rider inform her views about cycling in the D.C. area. Thank you so much, Mary, for sharing your thoughts with us today!

What word sums up your bicycling experience?


MaryP 4Tell me a little about yourself and when you started riding.

Like a lot of kids of my generation, I rode my bike all the time as a kid-– to school, to the pool, to my friend’s place. But as an adult, I discovered cars and no longer had any need for bikes as transportation. It didn’t help that I’d moved from my native New Zealand to car obsessed Southern California.

Fast forward to my mid 30s. I’d recently lost a lot of weight and realized that if I wanted to enjoy this new body, I needed to consider my heart and lungs. I started training for a triathlon.

My first formal ride was 12 miles long, and only because I got lost. I was intending to go out for eight miles and I had my partner pick me up and take me to Starbucks for a giant Frappuccino. My second ride was 17 miles, ending at– you guessed it– Starbucks and a giant Frappuccino. The third ride was 27 miles and the treat was a chocolate-covered macaroon. Over the next year, the rides got longer and the treats got smaller until eventually the ride itself was the reward.

And when I completed my first triathlon, I realized no one on a hybrid bike like mine had passed me and I knew that cycling was my favorite of the three sports.

What sorts of things do you do by bike?

Mostly, I train. I train for long distance triathlons or century rides. But it’s a lot more fun than it sounds. I travel all around the DMV (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) and spend hours happily riding up hill and down dale. I ride in rain and wind and cold, and have learned that the most miserable rides are the most memorable.

My partner and I really enjoy bike touring too, although triathlon had tended to restrict our opportunities. We’re looking forward to the FANY (Five hundred Across NY) in July 2015. This will be my first bike tour since 2008. Touring is like being on a multi-day non-chemically induced high.

I do really enjoy commuting by bike too, although I don’t do it as often as I’d like. I’ve recently discovered CaBi and absolutely love the ease of it. For someone who loves going fast, it’s such a pleasure to be forced to slow down and potter along, stopping instead of hammering to beat the light, enjoying the Mall and the Potomac. And what a joy to not have to wrestle with my lock at the end of each ride!

How has riding a bicycle influenced your life?

Probably the funniest thing is that I now think in terms of “bike units.” If we get a tax refund, I think of how many bikes I can buy with it. When my partner was knocked off his bike, we spent the equivalent of a bike on surgery and medical follow-up. That was annoying!

Seriously though, I literally feel as though I’m flying when I’m on my bike. I feel free and powerful and more than a decade after getting fit, I still feel awe of what I am able to do. My bike feels like an extension of that feeling and is the means by which I can live out my (not so) new life.

I particularly love how cycling is fast enough to get from A to B and yet slow enough to enjoy the scenery. It’s the perfect mode of transportation!

In 2014, I had the absolute pleasure of being able to take my commuter bike back home to New Zealand with me and do some riding there. It gave me an even greater appreciation of the beauty of one of the most stunning countries in the world. And because the cycling infrastructure is pretty good down there, I got to see parts of the country that you can only see by foot or by bike. Basically, cycling has completely transformed the person who left there over 20 years ago.

MaryP 1

What features do you think make a city bike-friendly and why?

An extensive bike sharing program like CaBi is hugely important in making a city bike-friendly, and more importantly, bike-safe. It’s raised the visibility of cyclists as ordinary human beings and not the loathed lycra-clad Lance wannabes that you hear complained about. Full disclosure here, I love lycra and I love going fast and you’ll find me firmly planted to my couch for hours in July watching Le Tour. Plus it’s added cycling to so many people’s potential modes of transportation and there’s nothing quite like familiarity to increase awareness and consideration.

I also appreciate the growing network of bike lanes, although which bike I’m riding influences whether I take advantage of them.

Finally, I’d say that what makes a city bike-friendly are the same characteristics that make a city friendly, period. Patience, consideration, meeting each other’s eyes, smiling, and empathy for what the other commuter is going through.

What do you like about riding in the D.C. area?

In general, the weather is wonderful for cycling around here. Aside from the hideous cold of February or the ghastly heat and humidity of August, biking is very pleasurable.

Added to that is a fantastic network of longer trails like the W&OD, Custis, Mt Vernon, Capital Crescent, C&O. Those trails make commuting so easy if you live near one of them.

And finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the scenery. I love cycling along the Potomac, seeing the first hint of pink over on Hains Point in Spring. And within a short drive are the stone fences of Virginia hunt country, the stunning views from the Catoctin hills near Frederick and the ins and outs of the Chesapeake Bay shoreline. It’s all so varied and pretty.

How could the D.C. area improve for cyclists?

In my dreams, whole north/south and east/west streets are closed off for cyclists and pedestrians. A gal can dream, can’t she?

More realistically, I’d like to see “middle mile” connections between bike lanes and major commuting routes. I mean, what the heck is up with how the 15th Street cycleway ends at the Mall? How are cyclists heading towards the 395 bridge supposed to get there without having to negotiate huge buses, food trucks and hordes of tourists (bless them!)?

I’d also like more pressure on federal agencies to consistently offer bike commuter subsidies and pressure the General Services Administration to ensure provision of racks, lockers and showers for bike commuters in both federally owned and leased buildings.

What suggestions do you have for employers who want to be bike-friendly?
  • Secure, plentiful, covered, easy-to-access bike racks
  • Clean showers
  • Set aside a certain number of lockers for permanent or occasional bike commuters so we don’t have to schlep our bathroom gear around
  • Sponsor and encourage participation in things like Capital Bikeshare, Bike to Work Day, and company teams for organized rides like Bike DC or local centuries

MaryP 3

How does it feel to be a woman who rides in an area where women are less than 26% of the riding population?

I can’t say I notice it. I don’t feel any the less a cyclist being a part of a minority and I feel camaraderie with male cyclists too. I think too that women are such a huge percentage of my triathlon team, so I don’t notice the 26% issue.

OTOH, I’ve heard a lot of stories of women feeling intimidated by wrenches or stores that don’t necessarily cater to entry level, nervous, or non-geeky cyclists. I try to support stores that make an effort to make me feel comfortable, don’t talk down to me and have a visible female presence in the mechanic’s area or on the sales floor.

MaryP 5

Tell me about your bikes.

Oh my! I’m one of those people who name everything that’s important to me. So, here goes:

Indiana (Indy) was my first road bike. I bought her in the three weeks between my first two triathlons in 2004 and after only road bikes passed me in my first event. She was a Specialized Dolce Elite and I loved her. In the nine years we were together, I often said that she took me to the moon and back. I named my blog after her – IndyFlies. After I finally replaced her, I donated her to Phoenix Bikes and I hope one day to see her flying down the MVT.

Baby is my commuter bike. She’s a grey (as in Jennifer Gray – nobody puts Baby in a corner) Cannondale with rack and pump and reflectors and disc brakes. Aside from commuting, I’ve had some great adventures on Baby. She and I rode the whole 182 miles of the C&O towpath, camping along the way. And in 2014, she travelled all the way to New Zealand and carried me on some amazing rail to trail conversions, as well as safely around the still broken roads of Christchurch.

Scarlett is my tri-bike. Scarlett is a red (natch) and black Cervelo P2. She and I have had a slightly rocky relationship. I cried the first time I took her out, expecting to be fast as the wind, only to find that the small clusters that come with tri-bikes mean that they can’t climb like my beloved road bike with a triple crank. Plus it snowed!

But, after an upgrade to a climbing cluster and a good fit, she and I have completed three Ironmans and only gotten faster each time. Including the time when her derailleur snapped 6 miles from the finish and a wonderful bike mechanic turned her into Scarlett the Single Speed for me.

Blackbird is my beloved new (well, nearly 18 mth old) road bike. I can’t tell you how much I love this bike. She’s a Specialized Amira and is my first bike with electronic shifting. I will never go back – it’s like having a fairy godmother reach down and shift for you.

She’s light and stiff and responsive – all words that I didn’t even know what they meant until I found her. It took me nearly a year of looking for the perfect bike and pretty much I knew as soon as I took off in the parking lot outside the bike store. We’ve completed the Mountains of Misery century (and will again in May!) and I’m looking forward to our first bike tour in upstate New York this summer.

What bike accessories do you consider must-haves?

Aside from the usual– helmet, shoes, lights– here are my favorites:

  • Lobster gloves for winter cycling (Best. Invention. Ever)
  • Anything wool – balaclava & undershirt to start with. Can you tell I come from a country with 60 million sheep?
  • Desoto tri shorts – I wear them for everything from commuting to centuries
  • Pretty, sexy, “does this make me look badass?” bike jerseys. It’s important to feel good while cycling!

MaryP 2

Best adventure you’ve ever had on a bike?

Do I have to chose only one?

It would have to be my first bike tour– six days in the Adirondacks where I learned to no longer fear hills, rode one loop of the Ironman Lake Placid bike course and decided I’ve NEVER do an Ironman (which is why my mantra is never say never), hit 50 mph on the downhill out of Lake Placid, ate everything and anything I wanted and pretty much felt on a high the whole time.

And I’m going to throw in a second. My third Mountains of Misery finish in 2014. I had a plan, I had an awesome bike, I had the best ride mates possible and we crushed a very difficult route. I kissed Blackbird when I packed her away that day.

What is your greatest accomplishment?

On my triathlon team, new members are often intimidated by all the Ironman/nutrition/distance talk. When I ask them what they have planned for the season, they say they’re “only” training for a sprint or a relay. I don’t believe that anyone who is out training for any distance race should use “only” to describe what they do.

The same is true of all the women in Women & Bicycles. You’re out there cycling, period. Not “only” riding a hybrid, or “only” commuting or “only” doing 20-milers on the weekend.

I’ve completed four Ironman triathlons, yet I feel my greatest accomplishment was the teeny tiny first sprint tri I did in 2004.

The measure of an accomplishment is how far you came to get there, not the distance or the speed.

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