Bicycle Kitty - Interview with Maria
Don't let the cute name fool you. Maria, the illustrious woman behind the Bicycle Kitty blog, is one hell of a cyclist (and, I might add, a talented craftswoman).
Don't let the cute name fool you. Maria, or 'Bicycle Kitty'... is one hell of a cyclist.
From commuting in Chicago to working as a bike messenger in San Francisco to being on the board of the Portland Society (which she describes as "a ladies' bikey network group"), Maria has made cycling central to her life. She currently does marketing for Islabikes, a children's bicycle manufacturer, and has taken up cyclocross racing. Maria's dream is "to continue to challenge myself, to do every sort of riding on every sort of terrain available!"
Where are you from, Maria?
I was born near Rochester, New York, and slowly made my way west to finally live in Portland, Oregon, which is a mecca for bicycle lovers.
What kind of bike do you ride?
I have ten bikes.
Oh my gosh! Okay... which one do you ride the most?
My main bike is a SOMA Smoothie ES, which I purchased new in 2007. It has almost 39,000 miles on it. I love how it’s kind of unremarkable looking. I also love how comfortable and reliable it is. If there’s a ride that scares me for any reason, I grab the SOMA.
"My main bike... has almost 39,000 miles on it. I love how it's kind of unremarkable looking."
What role does your bicycle play in your life?
The bicycle is central to my life - my social life, fitness, recreation, vacations, adventures, transportation, and even how I make my living. I look to the bike for every realm of my well-being, and it’s never disappointed me.
What’s your love story with cycling? How did your passion start?
I used to ride to work and school when I lived in Chicago. It just seemed normal to me. I would not have called myself a bicyclist back then. After graduation, I moved to San Francisco, and a few months later, I found myself at the first ever Critical Mass. I had never experienced anything like it. Taking the streets, riding shoulder to shoulder with other cyclists while not being bothered by motor vehicles, was FUN. And empowering. I came alive that night, and I knew even then that everything had changed for me.
Where did your blog name “Bicycle Kitty” come from?
My cat likes to sniff and lick and generally hang about whichever bike came in the house last. It seemed a natural name, and I had no idea when I chose it how far it would spread. Many people know me only by this moniker!
How long have you been competing in Cyclocross races?
I’ve just competed for two seasons now, although “compete” is a strong word for riding the course with a bib number on! I have asphalt in my DNA, so riding off-road, no matter how experienced I get at it, is always outside of my comfort zone. And I love being outside of my comfort zone.
What do you love about competition vs daily commuting?
Like many, I race when I commute. Cat Six. There’s one particular section of my commute that I think of as the “sprint section”. Seriously, competition gets my blood pumping. It feels good to push hard, and I know I’m pushing harder in competition than when I’m alone.
"Riding off road, no matter how experienced I get at it, is always outside my comfort zone.
And I love being outside my comfort zone."
What excites you about bike culture in Portland?
The first thing that excited me about bike culture in Portland was Pedalpalooza, although they called it “Bike Summer” the first year I experienced it (2002). Pedalpalooza rides are fun and social, short or long, easy or hard, and often themed. Anyone can lead one, and I’ve led a pool hop ride called the Swim Across Portland for many years.
How does cycling alone compare to riding with others?
I value both so much. Riding with others definitely improves my performance and the distance I’d like to go. Riding solo helps my soul grow and lets me see myself more deeply.
"The first thing that excited me about bike culture in Portland was Pedalpalooza."
What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done, that involved a bicycle?
It’s funny, but I think it was quitting my cushy office job in San Francisco and becoming a bike messenger. I knew that was how I wanted to spend my days, but I was nervous that it’d be scary and the money would be poor. Boy was I wrong! It was fun and lucrative, and has informed my urban riding style even today.
Have you inspired other women to ride bicycles?
I’ve had several ladies tell me they’ve been inspired to ride because of a story I told about bike adventures. One of my favorites is my good friend Linda. Linda is an experienced cyclist, but was (wisely!) intimidated about riding the Oregon Outback route. This is a 365 mile off road odyssey across the entire state of Oregon, and it can be quite challenging and take you to remote areas. I talked Linda into doing it, mostly by telling her about every detail of the ride and how I handled it the year before. It was a huge thrill to ride into the Columbia River canyon with her in the home stretch, whooping and hollering and feeling victorious together.
"I’ve had several ladies tell me they’ve been inspired to ride because of a story I told."
Have you done other bike tours?
Many, many times. When I first started doing it, we used to call it bike camping. We’d ride from San Francisco into Sonoma and to the Russian River to camp for a couple of nights. It was about 80 miles.
I toured in Oregon before I lived here – riding from Eugene to the coast and back, which is about 90 miles each way.
Then I co-led a tour called the Columbia Gorge Explorer, which is a four day tour starting in Vancouver, Washington and heading east for two days along the Columbia River, returning west on the Oregon side. It’s about 65 miles per day and is just gorgeous. When I started co-leading it, there were only a dozen of us. I liked the feeling of freedom and exploring, and the satisfying feeling of setting up a campsite that I’d carried with me all day. I especially enjoyed the friends I’d meet on tour. The tour is still going strong today and usually has a strong showing of 50 riders.
Since then, I’ve ridden the Oregon Outback a few times, and in 2016, I did a race around Oregon called the Steens Mazama 1000. Although these events were unsupported races, they felt like tours to me, or “hard vacations”.
I learned from your blog that you had a craft booth at the 2017 Bike Craft in Portland. I’d love to hear the story of how your passions for cycling and crafting combined!
My favorite craft is scrapbooking. I like to collect pictures, spoke cards and other mementos of bike trips and put them together in a scrapbook.
"I like to collect pictures, spoke cards, and other mementos of bike trips and put them together in a scrapbook."
I really enjoy “pre-scrapbooking”, which is the way I prepare for big bike challenges. I make notes on colorful papers, mark routes on maps and create detailed plans for how I’ll survive the adventure. It definitely helps.
What are some of your favorite BikeCraft products?
I “invented” the BumEase butt pillow when I was a bike messenger. My dispatcher would tell me to stand by, and ten minutes, or an hour, could pass before I’d hear from him again. In the meanwhile, there was nowhere to sit. The sidewalk was cold and dirty, and often wet. So, I made a pillow with a vinyl bottom and a cloth top and carried it in my messenger bag. It had the added benefit of padding my back from the heavy deliveries I was making, and the tools I carried in my bag.
"I 'invented' the BumEase butt pillow when I was a bike messenger. "
I’ll never forget when one of the cooler more experienced messengers saw me sitting on it and said “real messengers don’t need pillows”. One by one, messengers started to ask me to make them one. By the time I left San Francisco a few years later, the BumEase was standard equipment for messengers, and I had sold over 150 of them.
I also sold buddy flap fender extenders with reflective accents, and embellished presta and schraeder valve caps.
What advice would you offer to a woman who wants to bike more, but is afraid to do so?
I encourage all riders to respect their fear. If your alarm bells are going off, listen to them! I’d also encourage riders to identify exactly what their fear is. For example, is it a fear of traffic and cars? To cope with that, choose low traffic routes or even car-free bike paths. Or, wear all the reflective, high-visibility safety gear you can muster.
"Wear all the reflective, high-visibility safety gear you can muster."
What activity, besides cycling, helps you be a better cyclist?
I participate in a twice-weekly small group weight training with a group of ultra-endurance runners. That keeps me honest, protects my back from injury, and has helped me build a pretty deep muscle awareness so if something hurts on a ride, I can try to switch gears and use something else.
I’m curious about that basket on your bike... Tell us about it.
It’s a little white plastic basket mounted to the handlebars, like you’d see on a child’s bike. I’ve ridden with one since I was a messenger, and I have one on every single bike. It’s a very useful accessory – lightweight and stable, it holds a waterproof bag I made which carries my toolbag, wallet and snacks. A cue sheet or map tucks in the top to be visible while riding. It’s become my trademark, and I can’t imagine riding without one.
"[My basket] has become my trademark, and I can’t imagine riding without one."
What’s your vision for bicycle culture in the next 20 years?
My ideal vision is that single-user motor vehicles become outlawed. It’s amazing that they’re so mainstream. They create toxicity on so many levels – isolation from other humans and road users, deaths caused by distracted or negligent driving, pollution, road wear and tear, isolation of communities due to large highways and freeways, I could go on and on. I feel cynical in that no matter how much cycling and pedestrian and multi-modal infrastructure exists, as long as motor vehicles rule the road, we’re all in danger.
In the meanwhile, I will continue to avoid car use and hope to set an example that living an active life keeps people connected to each other, their communities and to nature, while not endangering other road users or polluting our pretty blue planet.
"I hope to set an example that living an active life keeps people connected to each other, their communities and to nature."