Welcome to ‘Interesting Interview’ No: 5 with some passionate and transparent words and thoughts of THE mountain biking legend, Jacquie Phelan.
Our cycling and MTB industry continues to develop technologically and culturally at pace, and it is really important to understand where it all came from, and particularly from the pioneers that kicked it off. For me, it is also critically important to illustrate the diversity and inclusion that we have in our cycling world, which whilst might not be perfect, is better than it was 30 years ago.
As an early mountain bike rider and racer, Jacquie illustrated her own journey with forty big 3-ring binders showing her clippings, the newsletters she produced and authored, and the letters she wrote on behalf of the ignored riders she represented in her club, WOMBATS (WOmen’s Mountain Bike & Tea Society). She remains current, as most of the issues she has tackled still dog the world of bicycles, owing to the fact that it continues to be run by an in-club of white men.
Interestingly, it is written exactly as she says it. Read on and enjoy!
Q: If you were interviewing a mountain biking legend, what would be the first question you would ask?
A: “Describe your favourite ride”
Q: Describe your favourite ride.
A: The answer is usually ‘whichever ride I’m on, or just finished’. However, I don’t want to be an ass and deprive you of place names, so I do love the road ride in Sonoma County called the ‘Kings Ridge’. Off-road, it will always be ‘Pine Mountain Loop’. This was my first, although I’d been up Mount Tam’s Railroad Grade on a road bike many times prior to the 1980 Thanksgiving Day that changed my life. My “whip” was a bike I named Victoria, a mid-1960’s mint condition forest green girl’s Raleigh 5 speed Sprite. It was complete with that iconic wicker basket, elegant chain guard, rack and highly desirable Brooks saddle, but please don’t ask which model. It had about four circular bends at the back to hang your tool kit from. Victoria weighed a ton, but withstood being run over by a car and assorted insults I visited upon her, and she also had toe clips fitted to her (by another legend, Darryl Skrabak who founded the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition).
Darryl fixed buckwheat flapjacks for me at 5am that auspicious morning and we pedaled the 25 miles from San Francisco to Fairfax across the Bold & Great Bridge.
We scoffed at the other fifty riders putting their klunkers into the back of a big pink truck to go up the hill. We thought, why put your bikes in a truck? But Darryl insisted that I run around and introduce myself. You can imagine the effect, if you remember that I’m wearing a helmet (no one else but Darryl did) which sported a toy duck glued on top, and I am pushing a skinny tyre bike with an old-lady basket on it. I got a lot of quizzical looks, but learned the names of Erik Koski, Charlie Kelly and Gary Fisher. So, while they faffed, we continued up the 2-mile hill to the point where the bikes would get off-loaded.
This was not a race, but let me assure you though, people naturally raced, and I am ashamed to say that I dropped my friend utterly. I didn’t see him until the next day, having survived the 21 mile very hilly, rocky loop with its myriad of gut-busting climbs and scary descents (I would be among the first to the top, and thank you toe-clips and 25 year old legs) and then waited for nearly everyone to come by. This was because I noticed that the back end of the bike skidded madly, and I didn’t want to be in anyone’s line. There’s a big hang-out called Smoker’s Knoll, and it’s enshrined in a photo, I’m there pushing Victoria up the grassy hill and the guys are staring pointedly at me and the bike, except one person. One of the observers turned out to be my future partner, well, actually two because Mr. Too Cool was a very brief liaison. Anyway, Charlie Cunningham told me years later that he spied my toeclip hanging by its strap, having lost a bolt on the arduous climbs, and fixed it because he always carried wire, and tiny custom tools. I don’t actually recall this kind gesture. I mostly remember singing at the top of my lungs as I pointed the bike down the hills to keep brave. When I got to Fairfax and needed food, I mooched dinner rolls from some people in a café. Only 25 miles back to the city, where I polished off the remains of my then boyfriend’s family turkey.
Q: What’s the most punk rock gesture you’ve ever done?
A: Doffing my clothes. I did it at the Bike Messenger Worlds in San Francisco in 1996.
Prior to that it was just the run-of-the-mill peel off shirt a few miles before the finish line so the twelve spectators (in the 1980’s, there were about ten times as many racers on the line as spectators behind the plastic fence) could ascertain that I was a woman. Even so, it wasn’t easy to tell, or so I heard.
Between those days and the present, mountain biking became Olympic and hence corporately-administered, with the riders just being replaceable units.
I guess single speed racing brought the fun back for me (there really weren’t rules other than ‘Don’t Have Gears’), so between 2004 and 2012 I did everything in my power to attend them, and always made a costume relating to the country, like a page in the book of Kells when it was in Ireland, or a bottle of “L&P” soda in New Zealand. It’s a little-known soft drink, but huge down there. The riders were very interesting, with one rider (legendary artist Damian Auton) even dragging a sound system in a small trailer behind him. It was very homespun, reflecting the unique qualities of the organizers. The Single Speed World Championship (SSWC) was/is what mountain biking was before the suits took over, which happened when the audience got big enough. Any pastime, no matter how small and strange it is, if it grows in participation, it becomes Olympic fodder, and there goes THAT neighbourhood. Olympic sports aren’t done as pastimes, they’re jobs. Often dangerous ones, and the athletes of course have no health insurance because the country I live in (USA) doesn’t provide basic rights like health care or universal voting. Sorry, and moving on……
…..The bike. I have to put in a plug for the Rough Stuff Fellowship (link at bottom of page) here. Darryl signed me up in 1981 for a couple years. The reports were chatty and the drawings wonderful and they really hated the mountain bikes! The argument was; if you can ride up as well as down, when do you look at the magnificent views? You would miss the countryside around you! Gnashing of teeth, beating of breast. Nowadays, it’s easy to grasp what they were doing and why they were doing it that way☺. Can I apologize for smirking back then?
Q: Your last name of Phelan is Irish and means wolf, so what would say to all of the wolves out there?
A: “Hello, sisters and brothers”. I had quite violent parents and five ‘accidents’ that came after me as the first born which deeply inconvenienced my parents. One can draw on one’s fury and it’s impossible to be easy-going if you’ve survived a nasty childhood to win races. This is common with a lot of champions: scratch the surface of them, you’ll find trauma. So, to all the Wolves out there, I would just say ‘I’ll meet you at the races’. My 14-year race career was psychotherapy. Cyclo-therapy. Thanks to my Cunningham bike (and ol’ Vic) I’ve spared the world an angry and bitter person. A little.
Q: What are you most proud of?
A: Well winning races for five or six years was fine, but creating a safe space (to quote a cliché) for women to enjoy cycling as a past-time is my lasting contribution. Dreaming up, and decorating that safe space for WOMBATS (WOmen’s Mountain Bikes & Tea Society). A lot of clubs were/are set up to exclude, rather than embrace. Hence: if you are fast enough, you can join the club. WOMBATS was geared to the novice. Nearly all the members knew nothing of my racing (that is good, because it’s easy to be intimidated by …er…well, it’s easy to find reasons not to ride with someone you’re scared of). I really do take a thermos, cups etc and the gang will pack along some food. We had Teddy Bear style picnics out in the woods. Magazines like Vogue, Oprah, Elle, Glamour sent writers to my camps. When I tried (often unsuccessfully) to get the attention of the bicycle media, these giant women’s magazines were happy to cover such a quirky club.
Q: WOMBATS? Is it a global club and brand?
A: It used to be both, but it is moribund, for now. Come to think of it there are a couple women in the US Mid-West stirring things up, but there are dozens of great women’s mountain bike clubs now. I don’t have to run a ‘WOMBATS’ scene. There once were chapters of WOMBATS in Australia, there were Vixens in the UK, GO-annas in Oz; I smile to think that one thing that seems to have stuck is the fun name of the club. WOMBATS had a 27-year heyday. I wrote, produced, and mailed the newsletters to about 900 members through the 90’s.
Other pioneering stuff includes producing the first bike swaps in California: “Saint Packrat’s Day”. It was great for alchemizing all the dusty, unsellable “prizes” that I used to win, into good travel money. Really popular they were indeed. It’s where I got other geek’s fine, shrunken woolies as well. I also designed skills games and taught camps, which were the first ever to focus on learning how to ride a bike. I was asked by ‘Outside Magazine’, why camps just for women? Answer: “Men have a club of their own. It’s called The World”. Plus, there’s a totally different ambiance when its just us. Since there are so many ‘No Women’ golf courses and stage races, why not have something specifically FOR us eh?
Long ago, Marie Autry wrote a story for the WOMBATS newsletter about what it was like going into a bike shop after transitioning to womanhood. The treatment she got was completely different, and dismissive to boot. I do think things have progressed, but we have a lot further to go.
About the word ‘tea’ in the WOMBATS acronym: it’s like spraying “boy-proof” all over. In the USA, it’s un-manly to drink tea. I kid you not (well, this too, has changed. 1984 was a lot different). I could count on the men to stay away and ‘leave us ladies to it’. However, if you mention the word ‘tea’ in the UK, you have a stampede of men! especially on a rainy day! Keep in mind, in the 1980s, nearly no women were off roading, So there’s my legacy.
Q: If you were standing on a stage talking to a room of women cyclists, what would be your key messages and what would they walk away with and remember?
A: Respect your inner chicken. Give her some room. I would let them know that it is OK to admit fear. If one is really scared of a certain drop-off, or rock problem, if they have tried it already a few times and failed, give up! There is no law stating ‘Thou Shalt Always Remain Mounted’. How many times was I booed for hopping off and running with my bike? Lots. The take-away is that bikes teach the biker, and you learn from your machine, which wants to just roll. If you let it, you will learn.
Q: What were the origins of NORBA & IMBA?
A: NORBA (National Off-Road Bicycle Association) was created by Marin bikers led by Joe Breeze and his then partner Barbara Edelston. He was frustrated by the lack of interest in working out compromises for sharing the vast public lands in our County, and where bikes were in the process of being banned. He made a letterhead and met with land managers and even folks in Washington DC to lend credibility to our motely membership.
After about a year, it was sold/given to Glenn Odell who fashioned the first-ever governing body for racing, as WELL as digging into the politics of bicycle use and exclusion. He burnt out after 2 or 3 yrs and sold it to an Arizona outfit that already handled BMX. Because they were only interested in the bottom line, race entry fees and juggling advertising sponsorships was the emphasis, with no advocacy and definitely no support of women riders, there only being a mere handful, and therefore being swept under the rug
Thus, in a single year, WOMBATS and IMBA took official form to remedy the setbacks.
IMBA (International Mountain Biking Association) was meant to represent responsible riders and their wish to contribute to the trail user family, rather than being a pariah. I gave the key-note speech at the first meeting in Bishop, California. It was very weak, had only a few die-hard members and maybe one staff person/owner, but I did try to follow Joe Breeze’s goal of getting access to trails .
Q: What was the toughest race you ever did?
A: Portugal, period! In 2004, a promoter (Antonio Malvar) flew me out to compete at his second-ever Supertravessia. Since it was in its first year, and no women came, he figured that I could represent women and perhaps lure more in. We rode from Braganca to Sagres along the whole country, over a 12 day stretch, and with no rest days. Out of 20 riders I came 7th. This has been the only time I’d ever been invited to compete as a guest in a race, though I have many times been invited to participate in bike festivals. One memorable day after an eight hour ride, I put on a swimsuit (very rare, I usually swim in birthday suit) to swim half a mile across a slow river because Spain was on the opposite bank. I had never touched Spain before, but hope to again sometime. Soon!
Q: How much riding do you do now?
A: I go a couple, maybe three times a week. Once, solo, and the other times hauling Charlie on the tandem. My three Cunningham bikes are tops. I’ve only temporarily owned a singlespeed (by the great Mike DeSalvo) but I have recently bought a randonneuse bike by builder Brian Chapman, who’s a bit like a younger version of Charlie. Very inventive and he made the brakes ‘a la’ the Cunningham lever-link, and fabb’d the cranks!! Korrrr! I do my errands on a bike. We have a car, but, I feel so sorry for the planet as I purr along, or as is usual in Marin, idle pointlessly in the traffic jam.
Q: What is the difference between today’s MTB culture and those early days?
A: Well, in two decades fat-tire cycling went from ‘world’s smallest’ to an Olympic event. That’s pretty huge, and reflects the energy behind..um…capitalism’s grasp of the Grand Spectacle. Access-wise, we’ve come a long way too, with purpose-made bike routes and even one (ugh!) flow trail….
Q: Did you always want to race?
A: No. From age 9, I wanted to get an M.D. and FOR ALL THE WRONG REASONS. Status, prestige, whatever. It shows what an idiot I was throughout my early formation. Back then, far fewer women were doctors (except in the USSR, where they were ALL doctors), so I just wanted to kick THAT door down, and luckily for humanity, I was stopped by a demonstrable lack of talent in key subjects: calculus, chemistry and physics, so I just kept trying to finish those subjects and failing when until January 1980, a catastrophe sundered the Phelan-wolf family and I steered away from that ill-conceived daydream. After the family crisis, I took to the hills on my bike and never looked back.
It isn’t a bad thing to have a bit of the curious child inside one’s self. Having grown up in Los Angeles in the 1980s where status, power and commercialism is everything, I rode that track for a dozen years. If I were ever to sit down long enough to write a book, it would feature heaps of love and lame attempts at humour. I read tons of memoirs, and really feel as though I must put mine together, but I do have a giant inner block (for such an exhibitionist, I can’t fathom it).
Who are my musical inspirations? Glad you asked. I’m into folk music from around the world, first British (I think Steeleye Span and John Renbourn, Five Hand Reel, Planxty) and then Swedish, Finnish, Catalan, Sardinian, er…Balkan, and naturally American old-time string-bands. Philosophy-wise I’ve always been inspired by John Lennon, right down to the Jesus quote. Please listen to ‘I met the Walrus’ (link below) and you’ll see what a Toronto teenager pulled out of him in the 1960’s and you will understand what I mean by philosophy.
Q: Did winning races impact your life?
A: Sure. It got attention, even in the world’s smallest sport. We all raced together, unsegregated in those days. A race was more of a gathering of the tribe, a stampede of guys and gals, with a beer keg under the finish banner. Results would usually be mailed to you if the promoter was thorough, or you just got notice if you were first through to third in your category. I wasn’t a jock, though. Cycling was an expression of my joy in strong legs, and my superb bicycle which truly was like the lower half of me. You remember the Greek Centaur?
Riding was fun, and not really my job, although yes, I put that on my resume. It took 5 years before I got beaten by a very determined Cindy Whitehead. Winning is a strange, agonistic concept. It almost includes the idea of losing, because if you win, someone else has to necessarily lose. I would sometimes wait for the number 2 to come along so we could cross together. I wanted always to be the Encouraging Big Sister, and most of the women I met in racing understood it perfectly but the men, less so. I decided that for men, racing is a war, and for women, it has the air of a party. Needless to say, the war-like aspect did come to dominate in women’s racing, and by that time I was finishing in fifth, eighth, ninth place as a thirty five year old bat. I enjoyed that just as much because by the 1990’s, I had lots of French, German and Italian sisters to compete with, and it was a great opportunity to put that wizard language skill to use. By that time, we were fully segregated and usually raced well after the men’s (primary!) event was through.
But formal competition wasn’t everything. I reveled in dreaming up skills games, tutoring and generally hanging with self-identified non-athletic women. To some, winning is to glorify the sponsor. Think of all those last minute jersey zip-ups at the Tour de France as the rider cruises under the banner. However, for me it is more about the recognition of what I have done for women’s cycling, and I still have a lot more to offer as an ambassador for women in cycling.
Q: Tell me about the naked mud pictures?
A: The wife of the RockShox suspension company owner had seen an art exhibition with loads of naked people covered in mud, and she’d said, ‘let’s get our sponsored rider, Julie Furtado to do that’, but she said no. I was looking for racing sponsorship and was trying to get some support. I actually raced with a PowerBar hanging in front of my nose and dangling from a tube attached to my helmet to convince the company that I would be a great influencer. I ended up getting the naked-mud-gig instead. I had an afternoon in a studio to cover myself in mud and choose how I wanted to be photographed. I chose the ‘Afternoon of a faun’ pose from Nijinsky and they even let me choose which of the photos to put in the advert. Bizarrely, Mountain Biking Action magazine would not publish the advert as it claimed it was ‘too Pagan’.
Q: Have you ever ridden motorcycles on or off road?
A: No. I have been on the back of a motorcycle and when I was 15, and there were free lessons available for kids but I never got as far as attending them. I’m also now too chicken to start. However, an electric bicycle is the way I will go. Charlie watches MotoGP and I really respect what people like Marc Marquez can do on a motorcycle.
Q: If you and I were in a bar and you asked me what I wanted to drink and I said ‘the same as you’, what would you choose?
A: A nice hoppy-flavoured beer.
Q: Who is the most special person you have ever met and why is he/she special?
A: My husband Charlie, because he was a loved child and demonstrates that in his respect for women. Also, if you have one crazy person like me in the pair, the survival rate is a lot higher if you can find a mate that is super stable. Charlie couldn’t wait to introduce me to his parents, who were equally thrilled to have me as well. He’s organized, can fix anything and made me the bike that I won races my on.
Q: What’s on your to-do list this year and next year?
A: One of my big bucket-list items is to take our collapsible tandem, a credit card and a raincoat to Europe and ride with Charlie from the Nordics ride down to Greece, and not be under any time pressure to do it.
Q: Why a fretless banjo? Is it the Irish link? Do you play it with a slide?
A: The banjo goes back to the African instruments that were made from gourds and it is a bit like a single speed bike: it is just simple. The fretless banjo requires a level of accuracy of touch and hearing to get the right notes. I do play fretted banjos more than a fretless one. It all started when I realized that my racing career was over and that I needed, in middle age, to learn something new. Learning a musical instrument at this life stage means that you really want to practice and not to force it. There are also music camps run by people with equally grey hair who have played the banjo all their lives and who are only too happy to teach you to play it. I actually ended up being fairly competent after a couple of years.
Q: What other instruments do you play?
A: None really, but I do sing. I have fiddled around with the guitar, and I have a guitar, but never mastered it.
Q: Have you ever played a gig with Charlie Kelly?
A: Yes. I met Charlie’s band and we played a gig in Sacramento. I was the singer and we did ‘Go ask Alice’ by Jefferson Airplane. I had a friend who did make-up and she made me up with thick foundation, massive eyelashes, and a wig so I looked like a hyper-female. I would love to sing more with him.
Q: If you could only have one bike out of all of the bikes that you have owned and ridden, which one would you keep?
A: I would keep my Cunningham cross bike, which is now a brand new category (well, a few years old actually) known as a gravel bike! We get lots of fire storms in this area and if one hit the house, we would take the bikes that go well on and off road like this one.
Q: Which countries have you most enjoyed riding in, and why?
A: Probably Portugal. However, I am crazy about the UK landscape and Scotland. Cycling around the UK would be part of our bucket-list fantasy trip.
Q: What is the best bike ride snack you’ve ever had or made?
A: Peanut butter, Havarti cheese with dill in it, a little hot sauce in bread and squished together into a plastic bag, or waxed wrapped as we are now being more environmentally correct, then jammed in a bum bag, ridden hard for three hours so it is all nice and soft and warm. That is my favourite snack.
Q: Favourite food that somebody else makes for you?
A: Anything. I am fond of pasta with any great sauce on it.
Q: Favourite food that you make for yourself?
A: A good sandwich, tuna and mayo, roast chicken and mayo, mayo and mayo. Roasted vegetables, big soups made from great stocks. Since 2000, we have been living almost exclusivelys off ‘what’s behind the grocery store’. There is as much food in the tip as there is at the front of the store, except one gets sold and the other thrown away. This food has been there in the past and will be in the future until we change our food policies, so we enjoy the Perfectly Good stuff back there. I consider it a rescue mission.
Authors note: An estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted globally each year, which is one third of all food produced for human consumption according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Something we should be really ashamed about☹️.
Q: Do you grow your own food as well?
A: Errrrr no, as the dumpsters supply us with most of our provender, but we do grow some food, like chard, parsley, nettles, some leeks, potatoes that spring up in the compost heap and onions. I plant the tops of the onions in the ground and then you get great second generation onions.
Q: You are an iconic MTB dresser, have you ever designed clothes?
A: Yes, but I mostly ‘un-make’ clothes. You can cut the sleeves off a jersey and then you get a really great vest (tank top) and two arm warmers. I used to take these woolen arm warmers to the races and try and sell them, but would end up giving them away. People would be shivering on the start line and I would say ‘why aren’t you wearing wool?’ I go to the thrift store to get stuff and re-engineer it, like a Harris Tweed jacket that fits me perfectly and then I add lace that flows out of the sleeves.
At the moment, I’m reading a book called ‘How to read a dress’, which is a technical book that covers the history of fashion. Fashion is a great way that I have found to express myself, and particularly when I have rescued a perfectly made garment that would just go to landfill.
Q: Do you knit as well then?
A: No. I did when I was a kid, but not very well.
Q: If/when you do a tour of Europe and the UK and I wanted to buy the JP gig t-shirt, what would be printed on it?
A: It would have the mud picture of me and the words ‘Mud Life Crisis? I Think Not!’ There used to be a British band called Mud Life Crisis, but they’ve dis-banded and I’ve been using it as a great phrase.
Q: What has been/is, you favourite piece of cycling clothing?
A: I’m actually very partial to fine Swiss woolen undershirts that I found when I was there. The Swiss used to have a day a month where people would just put out unwanted stuff at their gate or driveway and if it hadn’t been taken by somebody by the morning, the authorities took it away for charities or re-cycling. You could get some really great stuff that way by wandering around on the night that stuff was put out. The last time I was there I got some really nice, V-neck, lace edged, long sleeved woolen tops and they were amazing on the bike. I am crazy about soft wool undershirts next to my skin.
Q: What else do you want to achieve in the world of cycling?
A: I want to be included in the bicycle world, the races and stuff. It is almost like trying constantly crash into a boy’s club party all the time. I’d heard that in the registration for a race in Sweden, they had put something like ‘what would Jacquie Phelan wear?’ I couldn’t believe it, but also recognize the inclusiveness of the Swedish. I speak Swedish as I was a Nanny there back in 1976.
Q: Are you good at picking up new languages?
A: Yes. It is just a natural thing for me. I can get by in German, Italian, Spanish too. Japanese is a major challenge but I’m slogging away at that one. I wanted to be conversant in time for Koh Kitazawa’s SSWC 2015 in Hakuba, but I didn’t quite make it, because unfortunately, that’s when Charlie’s brain bleed happened.
Q: Of the current racers who inspires you the most?
A: Lael Wilcox is an ultra-long distance rider who would be on my list, and probably the top one is an unknown German gal’ a bit younger than me, Margit Pirsch, who with her boyfriend James Pollack travel the world under the name Velovagabonds. They’re part of the cycling community called Warm Showers (link at bottom of page), which is a global network supporting touring cyclists with a place to camp in the yard, and have a warm shower, not beds, or food, though sometimes they’re also offered. What a great way to experience the world, huh?
Q: What message would you want to give to all the women in the world that are starting to see cycling as a way to keep fit and achieve great cycling sports results?
A: All I tell everyone is ‘an hour on the bike is an hour of perfect balance’.
Q: How do you keep re-energising yourself?
A: I ask other people to do it. I get a lot of energy from interacting with other people. It really does top-up my battery. I hope I give energy to other people as well. I do know that I can’t maintain a shitty mood on a bike.
Q: And finally, what song from the 1980s reminds you of pioneer MTB racing?
A: ‘Ain’t no sunshine’ by Bill Withers.
Q: Why does that song remind you of that pioneering age?
A: Actually, that is more of my racing song. I don’t really have one song that represents that pioneering time as there was just a lot of music around.
Q: What last question and answer would you like to sign off with?
A: Did I give Guy enough space to say anything about himself in this interview, and was he happy with it?
Guy’s response to the question above: Absolutely, on both questions.
Note from Guy: If there’s a woman or girl in your household or sphere of friends who might want to start cycling, share this interview with her.
Note to the cycling industry and governing bodies from Guy: If you have a strategy to develop inclusiveness in your brand or organisation and need an honest and very cool ambassador for women on bikes, waste no time in connecting with Jacquie.
👍Warm showers link https://www.warmshowers.org/
👍The John Lennon ‘I met the Walrus’ interview Link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmR0V6s3NKk
👍The Rough Stuff Fellowship link https://www.rsf.org.uk/
All photos courtesy of Jacquie Phelan & the ‘banjo photos’ taken by Anne Cutler