Seeing Yourself Through Cycling: Natasha of Women BikeDC
On a bike you fully experience everything around you. You catch the small details that you would never notice zooming by in a car. All your senses are heightened. You feel the ground and the weather. You see landscapes. You see people. And you also see yourself. I’ve done some of my best thinking atop a bicycle!
The Women BikeDC series returns today and today’s interview is with Natasha, a cycling friend I met through another cycling friend. (You meet the best people through cycling! )
As Natasha and I talked about our riding after being introduced, I was intrigued when she mentioned that, not only did she ride for transportation and go bike touring, but she had also recently begun racing with a local team. I immediately wanted to know more about this multifaceted rider, and asked if she would be up for an interview.
She graciously agreed, and I’m pleased to feature her today. Thank you so much for being part of the Women BikeDC interview series, Natasha!
Tell me a little about when you began riding.
Bicycles and I actually met relatively late on in life! I grew up in Mexico City, not exactly a bike friendly environment, and in those days I was more interested in horses anyway.
When I moved to England to go to university, I got a bike mainly to be able to get quickly from one lecture to another across campus. I used to live at the top of the only “hill” in Cambridge and would huff and puff my way up there each afternoon. But that was a short-lived affair and that poor bike gradually got rustier and rustier and was eventually abandoned in a garage somewhere.
Fast forward a few years to when I was working in London. I met a guy who was passionate about cycling. We would go on dates and he’d show up on time by bike and I’d arrive late and harried on public transport. I definitely have him to thank for really introducing me to the fantastic world of cycling. He bought me my first three-speed commuter and taught me how to navigate London’s busiest traffic circles. The rest, as they say, is history!
Now I find myself living in D.C., having moved here almost four years ago to work for an international conservation non-governmental organization. My bike came with me and I have since then acquired three others. I can’t really imagine a lifestyle without them now!
What sorts of things do you do by bike?
What can you not do by bike?! Mainly I commute to work, which is a 40-minute cycle to Arlington along the Mt. Vernon trail. I love watching how the environment around you constantly changes with the seasons.
This winter was hard, and I have to admit that I found my limits once the Potomac River froze over. I had to Metro it then for a couple of weeks!
Apart from using bikes as my main means of transportation, I also do a lot of cycling for fun. I am out pretty much every weekend, doing either solo or group riding, short speedy rides through Rock Creek Park, or long weekend cycle-camping tours in West Virginia. With a bike the options are pretty much endless.
How has riding a bicycle influenced your life?
Cycling has had a huge influence in my life. Apart from being an activity I massively enjoy, it has pushed me to test my physical and mental limits in so many different ways.
It has also given me a huge appreciation of the world around me. On a bike you fully experience everything around you. You catch the small details that you would never notice zooming by in a car.
All your senses are heightened. You feel the ground and the weather. You see landscapes. You see people. And you also see yourself. I’ve done some of my best thinking atop a bicycle!
I am fascinated by your entry into bike racing. How did you become interested in it and what kind of racing have you done?
I came into road racing through triathlons. D.C. has a huge triathlete community and I thought I’d give that a shot. After a year I discovered that I really wasn’t a very good runner or swimmer, and that I just really liked the bike part of the race!
I liked the camaraderie of being part of a team, though, and supporting each other in training and races so I decided to look around for road racing teams that I could join. Bike Rack Racing caught my eye because it’s a small co-ed team dedicated to supporting female racers, and also welcomes riders of all levels.
I went on a few practice rides with them and then got invited to join. This is my first season and admittedly I haven’t raced too much yet – but I prefer the longer 38+ mile open road races to the crits, which is where you do laps round a short course (usually less than 1 mile) for 30-45 minutes.
Now that the road season is ending I may also try cyclocross. I’ve been told it’s a lot of fun, as it involves getting muddy and drinking beer simultaneously…
Once you knew you wanted to try riding competitively, how did you go about preparing yourself for it?
The main thing I had to learn was to ride at a different pace. Although my fitness levels were fine, I was used to cycling at a slower pace which I could then maintain over long distances.
With racing you’re obviously riding at a much faster pace, and often have to call upon short explosive bursts of power. I wasn’t really used to this and it took a while before my muscles got up to speed, so to speak.
I’ve also had to get a lot more comfortable riding close together in a group. During a race there is jostling and people overtaking each other. You need to learn how to communicate with the other riders around you and be confident about what you’re doing.
Was there anything that scared or intimidated you about competing/racing, and how did you address those fears?
Ha, yeah I was pretty terrified before my first race! I didn’t want to be dropped like a stone within minutes or be responsible for causing a crash. Luckily neither of these things happened.
Having encouraging teammates around you before a race is really helpful in keeping nerves at bay, but really once you’re lined up at the start line all of that disappears and you just focus on the road ahead!
What are your recommendations for someone who is a sport or recreational rider but is interested in trying racing?
I would say that if you’re already used to relatively fast group riding and feel confident doing that then just go out and try a race or two. There are several local races held throughout the summer that are easy to get to from D.C.
Joining a team is a great way to build up some technical skills and learn about racing tactics, as well as being a lot of fun and making lots of new biking buddies. Bike Rack Racing is always on the lookout for awesome female cyclists so if you’re interested to try racing out just get in touch with one of us!
You also bike tour, which is one of my favorite activities. What type of touring do you like to do , and any favorite places you’ve been?
I started touring four years ago and have only done self-supported, self-guided riding. I find that part of the adventure is planning your own route, opening Google maps and seeing where different roads lead, plotting them out, and imagining what the landscape will look like once you’re there.
I’ve done two amazing tours in the United States– the first from D.C. down to Greenville, SC through the Appalachian mountains, and the second a big loop through Colorado. We were there late autumn and it was much much colder than we were expecting, but simply breathtaking.
I also rode a solo tour in New Zealand, making the most of a stop-over after a work trip in Indonesia. I rented a bike and panniers there and cycled around the South Island for just over a week.
It rained a lot and I had wet feet the whole time but riding by myself was an amazing experience. I am now about to go touring in France for two weeks with my boyfriend, Bilal. We’re starting in Nice and will work our way down to the Pyrenees, camping along the way. I can’t wait!
What are your bike touring essentials?
Every time I go on a bike tour I try to pack less stuff than the previous time. It’s a bit of an art working out what you really need to carry with you and what you can do without!
In terms of practicalities, a good multi-tool is essential, especially if you’re out cycling in remote areas. As I am often camping while touring, I have also learnt that a travel pillow is one of my essentials. Some people can get by with stuffing their clothes in a stuff sack. Me– I like my pillow.
What is it like for you as a woman who rides in an area and in a sport where women are so underrepresented? (In the D.C. area, we are less than 26% of the riding population.)
Coming from Europe where cyclists are just part of nearly every urban streetscape, I do find cycling in D.C. and the U.S. as a whole, an often taxing experience. Not so much because there are fewer women cyclists here, but because for those of us who are out on the roads, it feels like a never-ending case of bike vs. car.
D.C. has done a lot recently to improve cycling infrastructure. Groups like the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) are actively helping to get more women on bikes, but there is more to making a city bike friendly than creating pathways.
Part of that is changing attitudes. We need to get people thinking of bikes as essential transportation for all and not just as a form of exercise or recreation.
What do you think prevents more women from riding?
Perceptions about not feeling comfortable on a bike and safety concerns are probably the biggest issues. Again, this ties to a lot of the points I raised in the previous question.
Cycling in Europe is common across all demographics. Men, women, old, and young commute regularly by bike year-round. They cycle to work, school, daycare, grocery stores, and events. Biking is just the way to go.
I hardly ever see pregnant women on bikes or with young children in D.C. Maybe once some of those barriers can be broken down we’ll start to see more women out on two wheels. That would be great.
What issues do you deal with/have you dealt with as a woman cyclist, or is it something you think about?
I’ve had a few misogynistic remarks thrown my way by male drivers in D.C., but most of the issues I have dealt with come from just being a cyclist rather than a female cyclist in particular.
Tell me about the bike you use to race, and your main touring bike.
My racing bike is a Trek Madone 4.6. I bought it for myself as a birthday present when I first moved to the U.S. It’s a carbon bike in a lovely aquamarine colour, nothing too fancy but it’s proven to be a great ride and we’ve been all over the place together.
This summer I decided to build up my own touring bike from scratch, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. To remind me a bit of home I shipped in a British Condor steel frame and then added on all the different components I wanted. Touring in France will be her maiden voyage!
Who has inspired and encouraged your cycling along the way?
I’ve received a lot of inspiration and support from so many people over the years. It’s come in the form of advice, training with teammates, sharing an adventure with someone special, tracking a stranger’s epic tour around the world, reading someone’s blog, or watching the Tour de France.
I’ve also found inspiration in my own endeavours, which have encouraged me to become a better cyclist and to share the passion I feel when I am out on a bike with others.