Getting Into MTB Racing: Sarah Boylan, Novice Q&A

Sarah Boylan races at Mohican State Park in 2013

Sarah Boylan races in a downpour at Mohican State Park in 2013.
Photo by Cindy Gay

I met Sarah Boylan, when she started showing up at OMBC races with Chris Knapp – my sworn racing nemesis!  …and a nice guy who I’ve also carpooled with to several races. 🙂

Sarah was new to the sport of mountain biking.  She seemed interested in racing, but a little apprehensive about signing up for her first event (and her second event, and her third event…)  Eventually though, she had done so many races that she had enough points to win the OMBC Women’s Novice division for 2013!

She is a great example of someone who had the guts to show up and register, and as a result, has developed a passion for a new sport that she can do for the rest of her life.  I thought her story was motivating for those people who are thinking about giving it a shot, but are worried about how they will perform.

My suggestion to those on the fence is …do it!  Sign up and come race with us.  It’s a great way to meet people and stay in shape.  The folks that come out to mountain bike races are fun people who want to have a good time on the trail and have a beer with you afterwards.  You just focus on finishing the first time you see a trail and you can worry about getting faster when you see the same course 12 months later.

I decided to put Boylan in the spotlight to give some insight to new riders about how her laid back approach has led to a satisfying start to her racing career.  She is currently riding for Team Jeni’s Cycling and has a new bike that she bought at roll:.  It will be fun to see how she progresses this season.

Sarah's boyfriend Chris Knapp introduced her to the sport of mountain biking in 2012.

Sarah’s boyfriend, Chris Knapp, helped introduce her to the sport of mountain biking in 2012. Unfortunately, his face is permanently frozen like that. He eats a lot of bugs on the trail.

Last year was your first year racing your mountain bike, was it your first year riding a mountain bike as well?  What made you decide to race?

I started mountain biking in the fall of 2012, probably in about August or September, since I remember doing quite a few rides on P1 that fall when it was very leaf covered, which as a beginner, I found a little unsettling. I think I started back up again last Spring and Lake Hope [OMBC race at Lake Hope State Park] was my first race. 

Having a boyfriend and several friends who race, I started wondering what racing would be like. Chris always seemed to enjoy it, as did my other friends, so I thought I’d try it out and see if I liked it. I picked Lake Hope as my first race since, it’s very non-technical and I figured I wouldn’t be worried about not being able to traverse obstacles, but just focus on riding and seeing how I did. 

Sarah Boylan is not afraid to walk her bike through hairier sections of the course.

Sarah Boylan is not afraid to walk her bike through hairier sections of the course. This conservative approach is good for novices who are seeing the trails for the first time.

Tell us a little about your first race.  What about that first race, made you think about doing another one?

As I mentioned above, Lake Hope was my first race. I was a little nervous at the start, but the Novice women are always a super laid back lot, so I started talking with another girl who happened to have the same bike as me. Of course, she promptly informed me that she hated both the bike and had also had the same mountain biking shoes and happened to hate those too. It kind of made me laugh at the time, and then especially a week later when I went to the the Slatyfork Women’s weekend and Meredith Erlewine also had the same bike and informed me how much she loved it! 

Anyway, I digress, back to the race. As you know Lake Hope starts off up that long gravel climb. I’m not so stellar off the start, I’m not a sprinter and it takes me a bit to get warmed up, so I was 2nd to last into the woods, but another girl was just ahead of me and she managed to get started in the wrong direction so I passed her just as we got to the start of the trail. I didn’t see many other people after that until I got to the end of my race. That’s when some of the Master’s riders started to pass me. Thank goodness I had been given some good advice by Chris about what to do and how to let people pass me. His advice, “Don’t stop, just move as far out of the way as you can, or let them know you know they’re back there and you’ll move as soon as you can.” was invaluable. Had he not said that I think I would have stopped every time I heard someone coming. There was only one area where I had to make someone wait until I cleared a difficult section before they could pass, but they were very cool about it. (The only race I really hate having people pass me on is Alum Creek, the trail just isn’t really wide enough in places.) I must have passed one other girl somewhere along the way, I don’t remember, but I do know I ended up 3 out of 6., which I felt was pretty great for my first race.

Everything was so laid back, everyone was super friendly and I had fun, so I figured I’d do a few more.

Sarah Boylan placed first in Novice Women's category in the OMBC race at Mohican Cabins in 2013.

Sarah Boylan placed first in Novice Women’s category in the OMBC race at Mohican Cabins in 2013.

What kind of training did you do to prepare for that first race?  Has your training or plans to train, changed since then?

I don’t know that I’d call my preparation for the first race “training”. I basically was just riding on weekends and a day or two during the week when I could squeeze it in. I certainly didn’t have a training plan and I was just trying to get used to my bike and get more comfortable with different obstacles and terrain.

For this year, I still don’t know that I have “training plans”. My job can be a little stressful and I don’t want to make riding stressful by creating some plan that I may or may not be able to stick to with work, the weather, etc. For me right now, mountain biking is more about getting out, enjoying the ride, and trying to challenge myself to try something I haven’t before. Last year, each time I rode a trail I’d try to make sure that I’d try an obstacle that I’d walked over or had difficulty with the last time I was out. I don’t want to do too much at once and get discouraged and being a little older I’m a little bit more conscious of the fact that I could get hurt, so sometimes I’m overly cautious. 

Sarah Boylan likes to ride her bike.You recently got a new bike.  What kind?  What were you riding on before and what was the reason for the upgrade?

I did recently get a new bike. 🙂 I switched from a hardtail  15″ Trek Women’s XCal 29er to a  full suspension XS Giant Lust 27.5″. All you have to do is look at a couple of pictures of me on the Trek and you can tell it was a lot of bike for a little person. I’m only 5′ 0″, so the 29er was just BIG. The more petite women I ran into, the more everyone suggested I should ride a smaller wheel size. I went to several demos and fell in LOVE with the Giant’s. The 27.5″ is much easier to handle for me the 29er and the XS is the perfect size. The Trek was never really meant to be THE bike, I had gotten it used off Craigslist (along with a new mountain biking friend) and it was a little on the big side to start, but it was great for making sure I liked mountain biking before getting THE bike for me. (It’s hard to find affordable used tiny women’s bikes.)

What motivates you to ride your bike?

Above all, I love to exercise and stay fit. I might be slightly obsessed with making sure I work out ~6days/week. However, the thing I like about cycling is that it is often a group activity and I’ve met some awesome people through biking. Plus I love being outside and some of the mountain biking trails are really very pretty.

Sarah Boylan rides a road bike.

What are your mountain biking goals for 2014?  Are there any big events that you are looking forward to?  Will we see you racing sport distances this year?

I don’t know that I have a specific goal, more of a generalized goal. I’d like to ride many of the same races that I did last year, but feel more confident in my riding. For a few of the races last year, I’d never seen the course before, so it was always a little nerve wracking when the race began. Being a new rider I’d always have a nagging fear that we’d come across something that I couldn’t ride and then what would I do – the answer is walk the obstacle and it’s not so bad – but this year I should have a better idea of what’s to come and I want to try to improve my times on those trails and just generally increase my skill level.

Strangely, I’m looking forward to going back to Dillon. I got horribly off course there last year, fell off a bridge, and basically rode the sport distance, but until I got off course (and fell off the bridge) I was really enjoying the trail. I’m also hoping to do the Midwest Women’s Clinic at Brown County if I can get in (they are only 80 spots).

Ah, and the BIG question. I did win the Novice division last year, but that was really due to points, and not because I was the best woman out there. I was the only Novice who rode 5 races plus the championship so I won because I was dedicated and came to races. Sure, it is an achievement to be the most dedicated, but does that mean I’m ready to move up to Sport? If you really look at where I placed, I think it’s obvious that I’m a Novice racer and I’d like to stay Novice for one more season to get a little more experience. I don’t want to be forced to move up and then get discouraged when I’m struggling to finish the distances or finishing really far behind everyone, to me that wouldn’t be so fun.

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See you on the trail,


3 thoughts on “Getting Into MTB Racing: Sarah Boylan, Novice Q&A

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