Bike racers on dirt track

Gravel Goddess: Q&A with Competitive Bike Racer, Susan Robinson

She may look like the girl next door, but Susan Robinson is a serious badass when it comes to mountain biking. With more than 20 years of bike racing under her belt, the Montana native is known to leave competitors – both male and female – in the dust.

Always up for a challenge, Susan recently completed the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder, a grueling, five-day gravel road stage race covering 400 miles and 28,500 vertical feet. In June, she took home top honors in the women’s 50-plus category in the 55-mile Idaho State Road Race Championships, shaving 45 minutes off her time on a longer course than the previous year. Earlier in the month, she finished third in her age group in the Lost & Found Gravel Grinder 106-mile race.

A certified Level 1 Professional Mountain Biking Instructor, Susan shares her knowledge and love of the sport as a guide and instructor for Sturtevants Sun Valley Mountain Guides and through private group clinics for women and girls.

We caught up with Susan to learn more about how she got into competitive mountain biking along with her race strategies and top tips:

Z: How and when did you develop a passion for mountain biking?

SR: It started when I asked for a mountain bike as my high school graduation present, which was a bit odd at the time. I started riding on dirt roads and was then convinced by a former boyfriend to try single track my sophomore year of college. I crashed pretty hard that first ride but I was

Z: What do you love about competing?

SR: I love pushing myself to my limit as well as meeting others who share the same passion and excitement. I’ve made some great friends and traveled to some pretty special places as a result of cycling. While winning an event is always awesome, I’ve also learned to accept defeat and poor results, and congratulate those who did well. Nobody likes a sore loser, and there’s no reason to be a jerk about it.

Z: How do you deal with pre-race jitters?

SR: Over the years, I’ve learned over the years to be focused and try to not let others distract me from what I need to take care of for myself. I’ve also learned to have realistic expectations–i.e., I know if I’ve put in the proper amount of training and prep, I should do well. That said, there are variables you can’t control such as crashes, mechanicals, or weather/ride conditions. I do my best to control what I can and not sweat the things I can’t.

Z: Favorite trail to ride for a grind?

SR: Cold Springs to Warm Springs is always a good grind for me. The climb up Cold Springs is never easy and I always feel terrible on the lower section regardless of fitness. Descending down Warm Springs definitely keeps me on my game between the pedaling sections and trying to not fly off the trail on the loose corners

Z: How do you train off the bike?

SR: In the winter, I teach a couple spin classes at Zenergy just to keep the cycling-specific muscle memory. But I love alpine skiing and backcountry ski touring and I’ll throw a little Nordic skiing into the mix as well. I also try to work on weight training during the off season, however I failed to do that this past winter.

Z: Favorite gear, gadget or technology to help with your training?

SR: I’m a nerd. I love to keep track of my rides and activities on my Garmin computer and Garmin Fenix 5. I can track workouts, sleep, heart rate, calories burned, etc.

Z: How do you fuel before a race?

SR: Great question. For me, it’s dependent upon start time and event distance, so if I have an early morning start, say, 6 a.m. for something that lasts four hours, I will have something that’s around 200 calories with protein, carbs and a bit of sodium, some coffee and start my hydration with electrolytes all about 90 minutes before. I stop drinking fluids about 45 minutes before start to try to limit trips to the portos. About 15 minutes prior, I will eat some sort of sport-specific gel or blocks and start hyrdrating again. My main goal is to take a drink every 15 minutes and take in around 150 to 200 calories every 45 to 60 minutes throughout an endurance event

Z: Are you currently training for a race? If so, what?

SR: I am! I have a race on June 1 in Portola, Calif., called the Lost & Found Gravel Ride. This year, I’ve stacked a few gravel events on my calendar but this one is an “A” event for me – 102 miles. I did it last year and bonked with 20 miles to go. I’m seeking redemption in that I’m better trained this year, planning to stick to my fuel program as much as possible and pace myself throughout the race. It can’t be won in the first 10 miles, but can certainly be lost. I am hoping for a top 5 result in my category.

Z: What’s your #1 form tip?

SR: Work on your pedal stroke. You want a round motion when pedaling; don’t stomp or mash on the pedals. Focus on having a flat foot along the bottom of your pedal stroke and that means not dipping your toes or dropping your heel. Also, engage your hamstring/glute muscles to ‘pull’ your foot up from that flat foot position to the top of your stroke – nice and round, like the second hand on a clock.

Z: What’s your advice to women and girls interested in taking up mountain biking?

SR: First, try on a bike that’s your size. Don’t try to ride on your significant other’s, brother’s, friend’s or neighbor’s bike. Spend the money to demo a bike. Plus, the shop will be able to set it up properly for you. Second, take a lesson! There are many instructors/ guides that can teach and give tips. It’s important to know body position on the bike for climbing, descending and just riding along, proper braking technique (especially descending), and how and when to shift gears. Third, when you decide to purchase your own bike, test ride different models to find the best one that suits you and your riding style. Then, have the bike shop help you fit it correctly. You can make some easy and inexpensive adjustments that customize your bike to you and make for an enjoyable ride experience.

Photo Credit: Derek Svennungsen