Interview: Rae Gandolf, Pro Downhiller
I’m trying to think if I know of any other Ohioian who has raced a World Cup qualifier, and apart from Rae Gandolf, I can’t. If you consider downhilling a niche sport, then women’s downhill is an even more exclusive niche. Indeed, God has wired very, very few women to go fast down mountains on bikes. Rae is one of the few.
How did an outdoor enthusiast like yourself land in Zanesville, Ohio?
Vet school brought me to Ohio, then I did a residency at the Wilds. During the residency, I got into mountain biking and met local MTB sensei Heath Boedeker out on the Wilds trails.
What’s your day job?
I work as a contract veterinarian, currently at an animal shelter and periodically doing odd jobs in zoo and wildlife medicine.
How long have you been riding? How did you get into downhill?
I started actually mountain biking in 2001. Heath brought me to Snowshoe to check out the last NORBA race there in 2005, since a friend was riding short track. We happened to catch the pro women DH and I was blown away. The seed of addiction had been officially planted, and I talked Heath into trying DH with me in 2006. I got my first DH specific bike in 2009.
The ratio of male to female humans is something like 51:49. But in downhill it’s about 99:1. Do you think it takes a special kind of…rare…woman to enjoy this sport?
I think it just takes the desire to do it and that little bit of unique crazy that we all share in common. Maybe the little bit of crazy is more common in men, but I constantly hear men call women crazy, so that can’t be it! I suppose that female fear suppressing adrenaline junkies who don’t mind sweating and bruising and occasionally breaking aren’t super common.
In your career you’ve had to overcome some pretty tough injuries, but you seem to come back stronger. Can you tell us about that?
In retrospect, I realize that I was pushing to get better too hard and too fast to make up for lost time since I found the sport relatively late in life. In doing so, I actually delayed my progress by being injured probably at least half the time I’ve been downhilling! But each injury made me more determined to do whatever I could during that time to be ready to come back- ie when it was a broken knee (that was the worst), I worked on my upper body strength. I learned a lot about injuries, surgery, physical therapy, and recovery, and I think my medical background helped me to get through it quite a bit. That said, it took the whole 2009 season to recover from 2008. It was mentally pretty tough at times and I’d just about had it when finally I started to see some months of being injury free.
What do you consider your greatest biking accomplishments?
I’d say completing La Ruta (a nearly 300 mile in 3 days race across Costa Rica) was a big one, particularly since I hadn’t even been riding for 2 years. For downhill, my biggest accomplishment was probably the participating in the Windham World Cup this year. I figured I’d be sh*tting myself practicing with those guys, but I actually had big fun and conquered a 30 foot double and felt like I sort of belonged there- even though I had back luck for my qualifying run and didn’t make the main race.
This year you took a shot at your first World Cup. What’s the difference competing at that level?
The most notable differences to me were that firstly, all the lines wearing in were good ones! Secondly, there were some big features, and you are pretty much expected to hit them. Other than that, it really wasn’t that much different from the Pro GRTs I’ve done or Nationals in Sol Vista- since in those I’m practicing with some of the best riders around. It’s both intimidating and inspiring at the same time. There was actually more time to practice at the world cup and I when I asked someone if I could follow them through something, I could do so with more confidence that they weren’t gonna lead me to disaster! (I made the mistake of following someone random before at the US Open!).
You’ve ridden all around the world, what has been your best riding experience?
This is tough. My initial reaction is the Big Mtn Adventures tour we took in Europe this year- that one wins for incredibly scenic and fun trails in amazing countries. For overall experience, I have to say the SantaCruz Hellride back in 2006 where I did an insanely tough ride following Marla Streb all around Downieville California and won a Nomad for finishing. Although the ride was largely grueling, SantaCruz Bikes made me feel like a superstar and Marla commented on my ability to ride downhill and encouraged me. The Nomad was the bike that got me into downhill. For super warm and awesome bike fuzzies, I have to say that some of the riding I’ve done at Ray’s in our very own Cleveland Ohio is on top!- Namely those couple times of year when I get to ride in a lady train with a bunch of chicks who shred. It’s crazy how we feed off each other and do some of our best riding that way.
I always like to ask the people I interview what ideas they have to improve and grow the sport in our area. What are your thoughts?
I think that Shaums March has the right idea with the International Mountain Bike Instruction Certification (IMIC). Using what I’ve learned though clinics I’ve taken and now the instruction certification I received has been so rewarding. I think that if more and more people start to see MTB instruction as a mainstay, like it is in tennis and other sports, it would help it to expand the sport everywhere. Riders come out of lessons inspired and motivated. It’s also a great way to help spread the word about how and why to get involved with local trails and clubs. We also need more beginner trails- thats what I hear from people all the time. The problem is that those of us most excited about mountain biking want to build trails that excite us. Perhaps that’s a place to get our park partners more involved in helping to build, since those trails are easier to create.
UPDATE: We forgot to add that Rae now offers a coaching clinic, check it out at: www.ridewithrae.com
What do you think would attract more women to mountain biking? Any advice to give to the fairer sex?
Personally, I had something inside compelling me to mountain bike before I even knew what it was about. For people who don’t have that, I think more miles of beginner friendly trails would attract more women- where they can check it out without worrying that they won’t make it through the trail and they can enjoy being outside and riding without worrying about the terrain every second. My advice would be #1- Don’t feel bad to walk your bike, everyone does it! #2 Don’t be afraid to fall- everyone falls! And often it doesn’t even hurt-it’s just fun and funny and makes you feel like a kid again, so laugh and hope that someone else saw it so they can get a good chuckle, too. #3 Stick with it for a few month and even if you can just ride every 2 weeks you will improve exponentially and it will be a lot more fun.
Finally, most of the downhill world got to experience Heath’s marriage proposal to you, can you tell us that story? And what was running through you mind at the time!
I’ll start by saying that Heath isn’t very good at surprising me but he sure got me on this one! I thought we were going to watch the men’s qualifying at the Windam World Cup but for some reason Heath was walking me toward this Waffle Hut. I got annoyed because he wouldn’t tell me what he was doing. Then I got really annoyed when he told me he got me an interview with Rob Warner- it was my immediate reaction because I wasn’t prepared at all for it and I didn’t want to sounds like an idiot! So I almost refused, but then quickly realized it was such a lucky opportunity I couldn’t possibly pass up. They beckoned us into the hut and Rob Warner asked my name, immediately breaking the ice with his response “Like the wizard!” Then he asked some questions and I’m pretty sure I sounded like an idiot. But next, he held the mic over to Heath – that’s when my mind started spinning- Heath sweetly pointed out that I threatened to leave him if I ever got faster than him and that I was gaining on him so he decided to propose. I’ve never been so dumbfounded and speechless and I think most people who heard it remember only the first part of my response, which was “You’ve got to be sh*tting me!.” Rob and his crew seemed to like that response a great deal. If you keep listening, you hear me say “Yah”(as in yes!). Then there’s the ring and people from across the world are blowing up our phones and facebook! Crazy! Just like I imagined when I was a little girl.
And here’s some space to give a shout out to your sponsors. (Authors note: I’d personally like to thank Sierra Nevada since I have more than once partaken in their generous support!)
Yah, we’ve much appreciated their support for our local MTB team for several years now. It’s fun to be able to promote and share such a great company and beer with people who appreciate it. I can’t say enough good things about KENDA, either. Their tires hold up and have treated me really well. I’ve been a Nevegal fan for years and my trial with the King of Traction mud tires ignited a passion when they made the sloppy conditions at Blue Mountain super fun!
Last but most, I wouldn’t have made it this far without HWB Cycling. I’ve been lucky to have a gifted mechanic (and MTB dealer) and skilled, supportive rider at my side.