Cyclin' Superhero - Interview with Sarah

When I try to imagine Sarah Griffith's life in Charlotte, North Carolina, I keep picturing her as a superhero.  Sarah, an unassuming history professor, suddenly sprints into a storage closet and emerges moments later clad in spandex, hefting her trusty bike onto her shoulder, popping gum and ready to win the next mountain bike or cyclocross race. But Sarah is more than an academic and a competitive racer: She's a bike advocate and an adventurer, too.  

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Have you always lived in Charlotte?

No, I was born in a little logging town on the Oregon Coast named Coos Bay.  Little logging towns can make a person want to see the world.  Over the last twenty years I've lived all over the country and abroad.  I've called Charlotte, NC home since 2011.  

That’s a big change from a little logging town to the city!

I've always loved the outdoors, but I also love the heartbeat of cities.  Charlotte's a nice mix of both--I can take in music, the arts, and education but can also get out of town to the mountains and forests in no time.  

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" I was born in Coos Bay.  Little logging towns can make a person want to see the world."

How did you fall in love with cycling?

I didn’t know that I was falling in love with cycling, but from a very young age being on a bike gave me a sense of freedom.  As a teenager my folks didn’t have the money to buy us kids cars, so they bought us bikes.  That was in 1993 and I remember how exciting it was to be able to take off with friends and not have to rely on anyone to get me where I was going.  

I had this same sense of freedom when I began touring in the mid-2000s. I was living in Santa Barbara for grad school and didn’t really know anyone that was into camping like I was.  Rather than wait around, I just loaded up my panniers and took off.  I remember riding out of town along the Pacific Ocean thinking “this is the most brilliant thing ever!”   

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 "I remember riding out of town... thinking, 'this is the most brilliant thing ever!'" 

What is your day job?

I’m a professor of modern US and East Asian history at Queens University in Charlotte, NC.  Being a professor is great because it allows me to engage with my love of learning and share space with really creative people.  At the same time, it’s demanding in a way that drives me crazy.   During the school year I work 7-days a week teaching, doing service, grading, publishing, and applying for grants and fellowships.  The summers slow down, sorta, but I still end up travelling a ton to get research done, present at conferences, and finish projects that got pushed aside in the rush of the academic year.

Wow! How do you find time for bicycling?

I can get pretty inwardly focused and I’m OCD about work so riding bikes is my saving grace.  Whether that’s getting my head right on my commute in to work or having the trails waiting for me at the end of a long day, I look forward to being on my bike. All my friends ride bikes, too, so it offers a great and easy way to socialize with people and put the work aside, at least for a few hours!

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"My friends ride bikes, too, so it offers a great and easy way to socialize."

What kinds of bicycle competition do you participate in?

I started racing mountain bikes in 2015 in the sport women’s class and now race in the Pro/Cat 1 category.  I compete primarily in cross country races but over the last month have started to dabble in cyclo-cross.  I also compete in co-ed races like 6 Hours of Warrior Creek and the Southern Endurance Series and race the winter short track series here in Charlotte.  It’s all a ton of fun!

What draws you to competition vs commuting?

I’ve thought a lot about this question.  I commute because I hate relying on cars to get around.  It relaxes me and is the best way I can think to start and end a day.  Commuting allows me to also see the world around me at a more civilized pace.

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"I don’t see myself as a deeply competitive person — I don’t attack every time, I don’t “dig deep” just to win, I don’t particularly like being chased..."

As for racing,  I honestly don’t see myself as a deeply competitive person in the traditional sense—I don’t train in any systematic way, I don’t attack every time I should, I don’t “dig deep” just to win a race, I don’t particularly like being chased.  In some ways, I think this approach to racing can be useful -- I tend to go into events more relaxed than I would be if I were taking the “competition-with-others” part too seriously. Having said that, I DO enjoy the particular kind of pain that only racing offers.  Competitive cycling allows me to test my physical strength, my technical skills, and my mental acumen.

Summer bike safari Mt. St. Helens tried to eat my leg.jpg

"Having said that, I DO enjoy the particular kind of pain that only racing offers."

What are some of the barriers for women who are new to cycling?

I talk with a lot of women who want to ride but don't know how to start. I usually start by offering to take the person out for an easy ride--maybe a greenway crawl or a less technical trail near to town.  I think taking the mystery out of things helps a lot, whether it be, “how do I find where to go?” or, “what if I"m ‘too slow’ to keep up?” or, “what if I get lost/have a flat/go into seizures?”

How do you help women overcome the emotional barriers?

I try to dispel the myths women tell themselves.  You don't need special clothes to ride a bike, you don't need a fancy bike, you don't need to be able to rip it or jump over boulders.  I try to remind them that biking really only requires two functional wheels, a helmet, and the interest.  Most women who want to ride already have all of these basics so I just try to find ways to encourage them to lift off!

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"I talk with a lot of women who want to ride but don't know how to start."

What about helping women who are interested in bicycle touring (long distance travel)?

Touring is a little different since you do kinda need some gear for this type of riding. I was recently riding with some other female mountain bikers--strong, brave, talented women cyclists who spent as much time on the bike as I do.  I was surprised when they told me they wanted to tour but were "worried" about the weight of the bike and bags, what to bring and where to rest their heads, and where to ride to.

I assured them that while you do need some gear, it doesn't need to be a lot, especially for shorter overnight trips where you'll be passing through towns on the way. I told them about some great state parks that have showers, and grills, and even shelters. And, of course, I offered to take them out on a trip when the weather was fair  (there's no better way to turn a person off from touring than taking them out in shitty weather!)

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"While you do need some gear, it doesn't need to be a lot, especially for shorter overnight trips."

My shop mates at The Spoke Easy bike shop in Charlotte took us on an AMAZING weekend tour that i think will be perfect for these gals.  I hope they'll join us for the annual pilgrimage this coming summer!

What activity, besides cycling, helps you be a better cyclist?

After herniating two disks in my lower back in the fall of 2016 I began getting serious about incorporating stretching, rest days, massage, and cross training into my life.  I do yoga a couple times a week and stretch for 15 minutes every morning.  I swim and run at least a  couple times a week. I hate gyms but do try to do strength and weight training a couple times a week as well.  I also visit my massage therapist  -- Fauna Moore/Fauna Massage  --- every 8 weeks or so.  She sends me on these vision-quest-like sessions every time I visit her!

What are some things that help you feel more comfortable as a cyclist?

I can talk all day about the hang ups people have around cycling, but I have my own, as well! I pretty much can't ride without gum, headphones (like, not even with music, just the headphones in my ear), and glasses. I also have this weird thing with my neck.  If it's cold, the rest of me is cold. So i usually need to wear some sort of neck warmer or scarf when winter riding.

Mountain roads Morganton NC 2017.jpg

"I pretty much can't ride without gum, headphones , and glasses. I also have this weird thing with my neck:  If it's cold, the rest of me is cold."

Where do you see bicycle culture heading in the next 20 years?

God willing, America’s attitudes and government investment in cycling will improve over the next 10-20 years.  I feel like a lot of people have this negative (and somewhat bizarre) image of cyclists--like we're somehow trying to destroy democracy by riding bikes. I think this has gotten even worse in the current political climate we're living in.

I hope that more people get on bikes, or have family members who want to bike. When you know someone who practices a way of life different than your own it can make the thing more sensible to you--even if it's just riding a bike!

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"People have this negative (and somewhat bizarre) image of cyclists - like we're somehow trying to destroy democracy by riding bikes."

How’s the bike advocacy scene in Charlotte?

It’s really important to advocate for bikes and it seems, at least in Charlotte, that the community of activists is growing faster than ever.  This is great to see!   The ad-hoc crew who organizes, the folks at Sustain Charlotte, and the many breweries and bike shops that support cycling are all powerful sources for change.

Individuals like Pam Murray and Bethanie Johnson have worked at the grassroots level to establish cycling programs for children and adults alike and work with local businesses to build the Bike Benefits program.  

A vocal and engaged cycling community is essential and I see this community only growing over the coming years.

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"A vocal and engaged cycling community is essential."

Any projects/dreams for the future?

There's many, but over the last couple years I've gotten really interested in starting a company that would connect former refugees with job opportunities that fit their existing skills.  

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