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A Conversation with Jacquie Phelan

JPJacquie Phelan calls it like she sees it. And, as one of the most important trailblazers for women in mountain biking, she’s seen a lot.

A commuter turned racer, Phelan took the male-dominated mountain world by storm in the 1980s. “For more than five years, she went unbeaten, and easily bested 90 percent of the men, as the pack was unsegregated in those early years,” the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame raves. Phelan was also the founder of National Off Road Bicycling Association in 1982, keynote speaker of the inaugural IMBA meeting in 1987, created the Women’s Mountain Bike & Tea Society (WOMBATS) in 1987, and raced on four world championship teams from 1990-1993 during her “second wind.”

In just a couple of months, the mountain bike legend and outspoken advocate for gender equity and industry reform will join us at the National Women’s Bicycling Forum. To learn a little bit more about Jacquie, I interviewed her Esquire-style (ironic, right?), asking her to finish the bolded sentences below. As always, Phelan didn’t disappoint…

My love affair with bikes started late. I learned at nine, under harsh conditions. For me it was a sentence: Mom refused to drive any of the six Phelans. In Los Angeles, that’s child abuse. Or at least we thought so. We were obliged to ride.

What got me interested in riding competitively was two movies, and one sentence from a fellow commuter in San Francisco in 1980. Breaking Away and Chariots of Fire got me all dreamy and some guy said he’d taken a half-hour to catch me on the hilly San Francisco streets.

For me, mountain biking is an industry that has lost its way. It was supposed to be about sustainable fun, repairable machines, durable equipment. I mean…really durable. Thanks to most other mainstream bike companies, things must be thrown away regularly, under the guise of newer and better.

I created WOMBATs because the bicycle world is a patriarchal world. Sports is a surprisingly conformist, gender-role rigid milieu, and athletes are rewarded for ability to conform and not question. To something as huge and impossible to battle as ‘patriarchy’ my only response was: make a funny retort, and doll it up with tea and pearls, because it would remind me of my truly radical ‘moms’ in the 1860s, 70s, 80s, 90s — the ones chaining themselves to 1600 Penn Ave. and getting beaten by cops, etc. They were rich white women, by the way. But not considered ‘persons’ in a legal sense.

Some of my proudest moments were when I was included in a museum display at the San Francisco International airport. Joe Breeze curated the exhibit, entitled “Repack to Rwanda.” My bike’s in it, and Charlie’s first bike is in it, and in the context of those late-70s bikes — all modelled after the 30′s Schwinn boy’s bike — Charlie’s aluminum slope-tube, superlightweight, drop-bar, correct-frame geometry (now industry standard) looks absolutely visionary. Here’s a story I wrote about it. That’s a vicarious buzz. For me, my proud moments are when someone includes me in an event. Once, the promoter of TransPortugal flew me over to de-segregate his race (only men had raced this most rigorous of ultra-endurance races). Another time, the organizers of the reunion of the first-ever world championship — it happened in France three years before the Americans had their mis-named first ever world championship in Durango — had me over this past June for the 25th reunion. As a genuine old Bat, I enjoyed swanning around Villard de Lans and even ‘racing’ the old course. Beat a very jet lagged Joe Breeze, until I got off course and finished a bit early. See? Racers —always competing.


I’ll never forget Brian Stickel yanking me off the start line at Mt Snow, or Tom Spiegle booing me on the podium at the race the day before. Or Charlie Cunningham [my husband] momentarily forgetting his party-phobia, and pedaling up Mount Tamalpais on a full-moon night, to meet me at the top (I’d come up from the other side) and escort me down the moonlit dirt roads. Or my first speaking gig down at UC Riverside: An avid rider in the local club flew me down, because he thought the locals would enjoy a wild storyteller. It was the first time I got to travel without having to race also. It was magic.

I almost gave up when… I never almost gave up! Even when I can’t find sponsors for my activities (I’m paid directly by my victims, er, students), I can still ride, have opinions, have small impact, say the truth as I see it. Oh wait, both Charlie [my husband] and I almost gave up when the company he founded, Wilderness Trail Bikes, was taken from him after 25 years of giving his life and creativity to it. Which was also timed with my breast cancer diagnosis.

What sets me apart from the crowd is I am more of a social animal, with a super well-developed Play Ethic. So it’s natural I never really got with the Sponsor Is The Boss program. Especially, especially, when SUV companies used mountain biking as a platform for their uniquely planet-destroying vehicles! And ALL the teams had an SUV company. That’s when I really think the sustainability aim of bicycles, biking, commuting, and advocacy went off the rails. The bicycle had been shoved into the background of the story.

Some of my strongest allies and inspirations are Frances Willard, Kay Ryan, Anais Nin, Charlie Cunningham, Major Taylor, Talia Lempert, Wilma Subra, John Stilgoe and the great Sheldon Brown.

My biggest challenge as a woman in the sport is being taken seriously about stuff like race course safety (hello Bill Cockcroft!) and equal prize lists. This still hasn’t been worked out. Women don’t get to compete equally in the Olympics on bikes, the field is always half the men’s field.

I always tell women in my workshops that it’s ok to be afraid. I’m always a little scared.

If women are to gain equal footing with men in the bike movement we have to have our own magazines, our own companies, our own rich sponsors.

The most exciting thing I’m working on right now is learning to write, and maybe getting my first real job.

Register now for the National Women’s Bicycling Forum!


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