Lisa of Women BikeDC

There is a feeling you get when you are just relaxing on a ride, maybe as you sit up and glide into your destination, take a deep breath, and feel at home with yourself and the world. I’ve found that– in situations far removed from the bike, such as meetings– I can re-create that feeling and settle into the work. When there’s controversy and drama, I can summon that centered sense of self and be more effective.

Today’s Women BikeDC interview features Lisa, a sport rider and commuter from the Takoma Park area. I’ve known Lisa virtually for quite some time through the Coffeeneuring Challenge and the Errandonnee, but only recently had the pleasure of meeting in person (during this year’s Hilly Billy Roubaix, in fact).

As a woman who’s been riding for many years in BikeDC, I wanted to learn more about Lisa’s cycling story as well as her perspectives on cycling in our area. Thank you, Lisa, for being part of Women BikeDC!

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m an engineer. I recently left NASA, where I managed the Mars Program to start my own systems engineering consulting firm. I’ve been riding off and on since I was 8 years old and now commute 24 miles round trip from Takoma Park to Greenbelt and back. I often tweet about bike commuting, among other things. I have two sons (17 and 25) and am married to a very supportive, non-cyclist.

I rode some as a kid, and in high school we had cycling for physical education. I was quite proud to ride 20 miles a day. On Sundays sometimes my dad, who passed in 2012, and I would ride from our house down to Palm Beach to get breakfast. It was about a 20-mile round trip, mostly on US 1. Sometimes, my brother and I do that ride now.

After high school, I didn’t ride much until I got to grad school in 1982. It was primarily for transportation to and from my house to UVA, with the occasional ride up Afton Mountain with an ice cream sundae from the Howard Johnson’s at the top as reward. Once I started working and having kids, I pretty much stopped riding.

Eventually, I took a job at NASA Headquarters in downtown D.C. in 2002. In 2007, on a whim, I bought a hybrid for Bike to Work Day. Imagine my surprise when I found there was no “bike home from work” support!

My commitment to justify the bike was commuting one day a week in the summer. I made so many mistakes in route planning, rack and pannier set ups, everything—and yet I rode. The uphill ride home was the hardest.

I grew up in Florida, and other than that Afton Mountain phase, had always pretty much avoided any climbing. But by 2010, I was riding 2 or 3 days a week, still only in perfect weather.

NASA made it really easy for bike commuters. We had a full locker room, a locked bike cage, and even cupboards for the offices of bike commuters. I bought my first bike jersey around 2007, as well. It has a girl with pigtails riding a bike with flames and stars and says RocketGirl. She has become my alter ego.

Lisa May

Finally, in 2011, I signed on to a small group ride that went the entire 620 miles of the length of my home state, Florida, to raise funds for the American Cancer Society. My mother-in-law had just lost her battle with cancer in 2010, and the ride began the day before my 50th birthday.

It turned out we would spend the night of my 50th birthday in Cocoa Beach…what could be better for a native Floridian and NASA employee? Committed to the ride, I bought my first road bike since the 1980s in July 2011, rode my first century in September, and have never looked back.

Somewhere in that time frame, I also started biking as my primary method of commuting. And by 2012, I was even commuting through the winter.

Lisa May - Mt Wilson

What sorts of things do you do by bike?

Mostly I commute to work— I’ve even taken my bike on travel and commuted to work in California, Colorado, and Florida. I also like long tours and have ridden the length of Florida three times, done a self-supported 500-mile loop around central Florida, and the famous RAGBRAI. This summer I’m riding across the Pyrenées with some friends.

Lately I’ve started dabbling in randonneuring. I’m not sure how far I’ll increase my ride distance or participate in all the challenges the sport offers, but I’m really enjoying the relaxed self-sufficiency of randonneurs. Turns out I have a genetic predisposition towards endurance sports; my brother did some randonneuring a few years ago and loves long tours, too.

My short time in the rando community has made me more aware of my strengths and of the wide range of capabilities of other riders. It’s taught me that last year’s badass ride is a season warm-up for randonneurs. Similar to joining Women & Bicycles, joining the D.C. Randonneurs has given me an appreciation for the rich pageant of bike-riding diversity.

Lisa and brother on RAGBRAI
Lisa and brother on RAGBRAI
How has riding a bicycle influenced your life?

There is a feeling you get when you are just relaxing on a ride, maybe as you sit up and glide into your destination, take a deep breath, and feel at home with yourself and the world. I’ve found that– in situations far removed from the bike, such as meetings– I can re-create that feeling and settle into the work. When there’s controversy and drama, I can summon that centered sense of self and be more effective.

I still get nervous before some rides, especially ones with a lot of climbing or over a distance I have never done. In general, I don’t like things that scare me, but I do like to be intimidated! A good challenge is catnip for me. However, I’m also enjoying a more devil-may-care attitude lately. With experience comes self-awareness, and I know I can handle adversity and even failure with grace, resourcefulness, and resiliency.

Also, when I’m riding in the city, it requires total focus to avoid potholes, cars, pedestrians, debris, buses, taxis, other cyclists, dogs. For that brief time, I’m completely in the moment. Given my multitasking daily life, it’s such a relief.

Finally, my powers of observation have improved. Bike commuting especially requires such intense situational awareness. I see pencils and bottle caps and ducklings and snack chip bags and manholes that I would have never noticed before. And I even notice them when I’m driving, too!

Lisa May

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

The main things that make D.C. friendly for bikes are the bike laws, the infrastructure, and just having lots of cyclists.

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

I love not being trapped in a car or on the Metro. I’m not at the mercy of traffic or the dysfunctional trains. No parking woes (but I do take a second lock). I also like chatting with drivers at stoplights; most are friendly and happy to engage in a positive way. Sometimes I see the same car at different points on the route. I love it when they smile and wave.

I also love the things you see when you plan a route through a part of the city you haven’t ridden. In the past week I’ve seen the Rock Creek Church cemetery and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Glen Echo Park, and two trails I’d never tried before. Both were surprisingly scenic for being in the middle of our nation’s capital.

And, if you want to range a bit further afield, you really can go far on a bike! Get a map of the D.C. area and look at all the places that are within a 30–40-mile radius (a perfectly reasonable 60–80-mile round trip), it’s amazing how far that takes you out of the city. Poolesville for lunch? Sure why not? Annapolis for crabcakes? Yes, please.

How could the D.C. area improve for cyclists?
  • More bike lanes in the suburbs– or at least shoulders that aren’t littered with glass, debris and potholes.
  • Bike-friendly storm grates (do they exist?).
  • More bike racks. Lots more bike racks.
  • Secure bike parking. Secure bike parking and the fear of having my bike stolen are big factors in choosing where and if I stop somewhere when I’m out riding.
What suggestions do you have for employers who want to be bike-friendly?

Make sure the building has a shower and somewhere safe to store bikes during the day. My previous employer made it so easy. My current office has none of those amenities, but at least they don’t mind me having my bike in my office, so it’s secure.

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

I’m an engineer. For the past 31 years, I’ve been the only woman in the room more often than not. So, I’m the last person to notice when there aren’t a lot of women doing whatever I’m doing.

However, since I joined the Women & Bicycles group on Facebook, I’ve started noticing how many women do ride bikes. I hope my interactions with that group are helpful and encourage more women to ride.

What are the issues you deal with as a woman cyclist, or is it something you think about?

I don’t think about it that much, but I do choose my routes after dark carefully. Occasionally I’m catcalled, but not that often, and I just ignore it. People are surprisingly friendly, actually.

Then there are things like how to go to the bathroom when wearing bibs…

It sounds– from what I know of your career– that you have a job that requires you to wear suits, present to higher level management, and is a more formal business environment. How do you manage that and also ride to an from work? Has it been an issue, and if so, how?

At NASA I left several outfits, shoes, and my toiletries at work. In my current role, I’m lucky enough to have a client site to go to every day and clients who appreciate that I bike commute. But they don’t have the amenities NASA does, so I carry my clothes every day.

I do leave shoes and some toiletries, including unscented baby wipes in this client office, which makes the load a little lighter. But on travel, I have to carry everything, including a hotel towel! I just scope out what gym facilities are available and plan the extra time. There always seems to be someone wiling to store my bike or help me find my way around.

I’ve always been a gym rat, and long ago perfected going from workout to full battle dress (w make up) in about 15 minutes. The short hair is key to that whole routine. Wet it, run my fingers through it, roll on! For what it’s worth, I now truly appreciate my tiny feet and feel sorry for guys lugging size 11 dress shoes around!

Finally, I’m old enough to be a senior professional and am therefore excused many eccentricities that an early-career professional might not.

Lisa May

Tell me about your bikes.

I have three bikes I currently ride, plus the old hybrid and a vintage Fuji frame from grad school.

My daily, recreational, everything bike is my custom-built Seven Axiom S. Her name is RocketGirl (after that bike jersey above), and I’m very attached to her. She’s titanium with Di2 electronic shifting and Campagnolo wheels. She is light and responsive, but designed for the riding I do. With my kevlar tires and titanium bike, I feel like I can go anywhere. She takes gravel and potholes like a champ and yet carves turns and descends like a magic carpet.

Dolce is my back-up bike. She’s that bike I bought in 2011, a Specialized Dolce Elite. She spends most of her time on the trainer, now, and got me through rehab from my recent knee surgery. If I were to replace her, it would be with another Specialized…maybe an Amira or maybe a Seven Airheart with non-electronic shifting. Oh who am I kidding, I wouldn’t replace her. I’d just add on.

Speaking of adding on, I recently added Vanity, the purple Trek Domane that lives at my mom’s house in FL. I bought her on clearance, so I can ride with my brother when we’re both down there. Vanity is named after Prince’s protégé. My other brother, who passed in 1988, was actually friends with the singer in the 1980s, and I was feeling sentimental, since this bike lives at our childhood home. And she’s purple, so of course connected to Prince.

What bike accessories do you consider must-haves?
  • Lights! I ride with a front headlight (Serfas, though I just bought a new Cateye), a battery-powered taillight and a super bright rechargeable LED taillight.
  • Garmin Edge: it records my rides and helps me get lost far more creatively than I would on my own
  • Mission Workshop Messenger bag. My bike is lugged for racks, and I used to ride with a rack and panniers, but the messenger bag is what enables me to ride on travel. It was too cumbersome to try to take the rack and panniers on travel with me, and my old backpack wan’t waterproof. My messenger back is versatile, carries a ton of stuff including my laptop in a sleek zippered pocket in the front, and totally waterproof. I use it as briefcase, garment bag, and general carry-all.

Lisa May

What’s one of the best adventures you’ve ever had on a bike?

In November 2013, my team successfully launched the MAVEN mission to Mars from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Two days later, a friend and I set off for a 553-mile, self-supported ride around the state. We’re both native Floridians and set three requirements: it had to be over 500 miles, we had to see the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee, and we had to go to Disney World.

That adventure included a 125-mile leg in a statewide downpour, marching bands, fireworks, goats wearing t-shirts, and riding into the lobby of the Contemporary Hotel at Disney. It was 6 days of pure cycling delight, bad songs, and independence.

What question did I forget to ask you?

What are you working on?

I’m working on silencing my inner critic—the voice in my head that says I’m doing everything wrong and critiques others I see riding and gets super bent out of shape when drivers are rude.

I can’t change them, but I can change my perspective. So I’m working on enjoying every ride more and not being so hard on myself and others.

What is one word or phrase that summarizes your bicycling experience?

“If everything goes according to plan, then you have no story.” –Joe Parrish

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