Women Bike PHL
How a bicycle can take you around the world
Nancy Leon splits her time between Philadelphia and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She rides here, there, and all over the world.
Did you grow up riding a bike?
I think I’ve always had a bike. Growing up, I had a bunch of friends who were guys, and we all had a bike. In grade school, I had a stingray, then got my first ten-speed – a French Peugeot. Thanks to one of my friends, I learned to take it apart, put it back together, grease it up down to the bearings, and take the chain off. I lived four blocks from school, and I would always ride my bike to school and to friends’ homes.
When I went to the University of Denver, l took my bike with me. I commuted to classes and the NPR radio station where I worked part time. When I went to France for a study abroad program, the first thing I did was to borrow a friend’s car and drive to Italy to buy a bike, because I wanted to get an Italian bike (Campognolo was the “best” in those days). I spent what for me was a lot of money, and I got this great bike…I lived in the French countryside with a family, and I commuted 13 Kilometers into Aix-en-Provence each way on my bike.
When I moved back to the States, then to the French Alps, and eventually to Australia, I took my bike with me everywhere. 18 years later, I moved to the Silicon Valley. Of course in California, there was tons of mountain biking and road riding, and I hooked up with some work friends and just started riding regularly ( 2-3 days/week), longer distances and weekend tours. Five years ago, I moved to Jackson Hole, got re-married and so now I ride in the summers mostly in Jackson, and in the spring and fall in Philadelphia.
How does riding in Sydney or France or Jackson Hole compare to riding in Philly?
Around the country it blows me away how in the last five years cycling has really gone mainstream in the over-50 bracket. To me it’s really exciting how biking has become something more user-friendly, and people who are not your typical cyclists are buying bikes. It’s a great trend to see happening. People are moving into it as they get older. Biking is a great social thing as well. To me it’s such an easy fun way to get out, get exercise, and see the countryside. As for places I enjoy riding, I prefer the open country roads to urban roads. In Sydney, the roads are narrow and traffic is intense – not bike friendly. We used to get out and ride from 6-9am on weekends to beat the traffic. Jackson Hole has fantastic bike paths around the valley and in Grand Teton National Park. The Jackson Hole Valley is relatively flat and easy for cyclists of all abilities, with mountain passes and side valleys that have plenty of climbing options. Here in the Philadelphia region, I really enjoy Chester and Bucks counties. There are world class country roads, very few cars, scenic routes – reminds me of the back roads of France and Italy.
Have you done any bike tourism, any touring?
When I was in college in Europe, a friend of mine from the States flew over and the two of us just put our bikes on the train to the Loire Valley and rode our bikes through the Loire Valley for six days. No one was organizing it; we just went from place to place and visited the chateaus. I did a short four-day trip organized with friends last June. I am looking to do more – it’s so easy when it’s all organized, and the best cycling routes are mapped out – in interesting places. Vietnam, Spain, and Argentina are on the list.
What are your rules of thumb when buying a bike?
Lightness is key. I figure, why push a heavier bike uphill? Then you’re much more agile. I would really encourage people who are looking at bikes to take a friend who knows bikes, but also to ride the bikes. Even when I was getting this last bike that I have now, which is a Giant Carbon TCR from Breakaway, I tried probably a dozen different bikes. When you get on a bike there’s so much difference from one model to the next, even within the same brand.
Anything else you would you recommend to people who are just getting into the sport?
I would certainly encourage people, particularly women, to take a bike maintenance class. To me, it’s really important that everyone knows how to change a tire, how to put their chain back on, how to clean their chain, adjust their seat, just some really basic things. It’s not hard and you really want to have a sense of self-reliance. The other thing that I would really recommend obviously is a helmet. I’ve fallen off a lot, even riding in Jackson Hole where there’s not a lot of traffic. I was riding on a bike path and I hit a little bump in the road and I fell and cracked my helmet. I didn’t even know, and I got up and rode ten miles to go home and realized that I had scraped my elbow and shoulder and my helmet was cracked. So I would really encourage people always to wear a helmet.
A lot of people who cycle may be starting as adults, and may be bike commuting or leisure riding as a start, and increasing to touring and road riding. How do you make that transition?
The key is to have a bunch of friends. If you don’t have friends to ride with, I would suggest joining one of the clubs, like Sturdy Girls or BCP. You tend to ride better and further with friends. The other fun thing I like to do is that whenever I travel, I always try to rent a bike. The picture of me in Beijing, that was hilarious. I was on a business trip, and I was staying at the Grand Hyatt hotel, and they happened to have these three-speed Raleigh bikes in their concierge, and I said, oh, can I borrow it? I rode to the Forbidden City and to the Summer Palace and then turned around and rode back.
How do you go about fueling for longer rides?
I like to wear a camelback, because it gives me water that I can drink more easily than taking off a bottle, and if I’m going on a longer ride I’ll do a water bottle and a camelback. And I pack a PB&J – I try to eat really healthy. I usually wear bike shirts with pockets, I’m big on dried fruits, and I have nuts, dried ginger, mangos, figs, dates, etc. I stuff them in my pocket in a Ziploc so while I’m riding I can just pull that out and grab something.
Do you have any other gear that you really like?
I have an odometer, because it’s just nice to know what your speed is, your distances, what your max speed is, what your average is. I have a really simple one because they break really often. I have an iPhone, so I use some of the apps. Strava is my favorite, or just a GPS one if you want to map your ride.
Even though you don’t compete in official events, do you get competitive with yourself?
I have friends who are really competitive, but I try not to do that. I like to know how far I’ve gone, and I have girlfriends who love to know how many calories they’ve burned, so they wear the heart monitor and they have the calorie thing. I am a believer that I don’t want to spend too much time getting too consumed with that, I’d rather just be on the bike.
You mentioned riding with girlfriends and groups of women. Have you found that there’s a difference between riding with women and riding with men?
To me it’s more about finding the right mix of people who are available who want to ride, and ride at a similar pace. In California it was great, we had our Friday beverage ride. A group of us were all working full time, and we’d all try to leave the office at 4:30 with our mountain bikes and meet at the edge of Silicon Valley on these hills. There was this one place had a really great mountain bike ride, pretty steep, and we’d ride for an hour and a half and come back and have a tailgate. We’d all bring different beers and have them in a cooler with some chips and salsa, and then we’d go home and have dinner with our spouses.
How do you see cycling continuing to fit into your life in the next 20, 30 years?
I am a really committed skier, that’s why I moved to Jackson Hole. I skied over 100 days this year, and that freedom that you get when you ski, that flow on the ski, and the wind in your hair, you can get that same feeling with biking. My dream would really be to go and do some nice extended trips on bikes, and maybe go across China. I want to go back to some places I’ve been, like Vietnam, and maybe go to the Himalayas. I’ve hiked in the Himalayas but I’d love to mountain bike. The thing that’s great about biking is that travel is slow, so you see the people, the countryside, and you’re at your own pace, using your own energy. You’re part of the scene as opposed to being detached in a vehicle. That’s one thing I really enjoy, traveling like a local as much as you can.
Any other thoughts on women and cycling?
I was invited through a friend to join the USA Cycling Board, the United States’ governing board for all the cycling racing in the country. USAC has a women’s committee, and what’s really interesting is that only 13% of all the members are women. One of the things that we’re going to start looking at is how to remove the barriers. We want to make cycling easier, to make it fun across the levels, whether it’s the young people who want to get to the Olympics, people who want to race in their own hometown, people who want to do master’s racing… I think encouraging women to cycle for fun, commuting, exercise, socializing, travel or competition – it’s all good!
Interview by Claudia Setubal