Strong Women Series: Keeping it in the family

This is it! What you have all been waiting for (perhaps), the next in the Strong Women series featuring a super mum-extraordinaire, ex-ironwoman, mountain biker and commuter, Robyn Low.

I met Robyn when working in Inner City Cycles back when I was young, stupid, and running about 120km+ a week, which decreased as my time in a bike shop, and hence on a bike instead, increased. Not that i'm not young and stupid now—it depends on how old you are as to whether I am 'young' anymore, and there are many people that can attest that I am still a little stupid. Or at least silly. But anyway...

Robyn was a super mum even back then, with eldest son Alex sometimes working in the shop, and two little girls running around (in fairy outfits, I remember vividly). Fast forward a few years and now with five gorgeous kids, Robyn has managed to return to riding and racing in the little bit of time she has. Plus, she's chosen to focus on the MTB racing, which sort-of evens out any super-geeky triathlon-ing she turned her hand to back in the day. Super inspiring.
Robyn's bunch!

Robyn, you work/own a super busy bike shop in Sydney and come from a triathlon background (but we won't hold that against you...). Having done the bit with having kids (Robyn has about 27 kids....ok maybe not that many but a lot of little pinners that are no doubt ripping on bikes already!) you have been getting back into some mountain biking.

Hi Anna, thank you for the questions. Ainsley and I are owners of Inner City Cycles in Glebe, Sydney. I work in our store 3–4 days per week. I am a mother to 5 children (Alex, Tahlie, Tia, Liam and Kayla) aging from 20yrs to 3yrs. Just a bit of history about my riding life. My cycling background stems from more than just Triathlon. 

MTB racing.

I first started Triathlon competitively in about 1996. Starting with sprint Triathlon and working up to Ironman in 2000. I was a high placed age grouper in most races that I competed in, often finishing in the top 3. During those years I also competed in MTB racing which used to have grades as Open then Sport, then another lower grade. I had my first MTB race as a State round in Lithgow racing Sport class in 1999. I had never raced MTB and I finished the race in second as I had no idea how to pass in single track. 

I raced several races in Sport and won every other race which led me to race in open. My fitness and skill level got me through the Sport category. I soon realised after a few Open races (not placing in the top 3,  but not coming last) that if I wanted to go further  in MTB racing I would need to focus a lot more on technique and skills. 

I raced in Kooralbyn, Canberra, Fairfield City farm, Killingworth and some other locations. I loved MTB racing back then, but did have the Ironman goal that I was focused on. 

I also raced in Xterra in the year 2000 and won my age group in these events and placed third female overall. I completed Ironman in 2001 and had a disappointing race. I continued racing half Ironman for about the next year then decided to have another baby. All of the above racing I did with 1 child. In 2002 I fell pregnant so off course training did change. 

In the last year I have competed in MTB club races and have placed 4th and second. I have also ridden some awesome trails in New Zealand and Tasmania earlier this year!

Firstly, how the heck do you find time to ride your bike and smash it at races? I have one kid and spend several days a week just doing washing (granted, most of it is made by my husband...) so with your brood you must just stand in the laundry and press buttons all day, or at least drink a thousand coffees to get everything

I find I have to really utilise my time efficiently or there is no training time. I do most of my training commuting to work. I ride 30 kms in and 30kms back twice a week, so that clocks up 120 kms just commuting. I am participating in an all ladies ride organised by LIV/Giant on saturday mornings so we do about 30kms on road bikes there. I try and run twice per week—only about 5 kms each run but I have to get up super early to fit those in. 

The rest of my time is yes, washing, cooking, cleaning, picking up toys, supervising homework, getting the kids off to school/daycare, after school activites, doing the girls hair, lunch boxes, drop offs for social activities (not my own!) teeth brushing...the list goes on. 

Ainsley my hubby is very hands on with the kids and he also does a lot of the cooking! He has 1 day per week where he has to pick everyone up, get them home, fed keeps it all real for him! I have written an analysis on riding to work on our web site that shows about kms commuted, petrol/money saved etc. As with most things when juggling family/work etc you have to work hard at making it work.

Did you ride during your pregnancies? Was getting back into the sport something you threw yourself straight into or did you out it aside for a while to focus on family?

I rode with the first pregnancy up until I was ready to have the baby. I miscarried in between 1st and 2nd child so I decided not to ride with the second child. I did continue with an exercise routine which included spin bike sessions or windtrainer, power walking, swimming, yoga. 

Riding bikes is a family affair!

Exercise is a lifestyle choice for me and always has been, so continuing to do so through pregnancy was a given. After each of the births I was straight back on the bike about a week later. Even if I only got to actually ride for half an hour at a time it was fantastic. After child 2 I played netball competitively, competed in 24 hour racing, 12 hour racing (with child 1 competing too!!) and basically did this after my babies. I competed in the Scott 24hr in a team after giving birth to baby number 4 only 6 weeks prior! As I had 4 babies in 6 years there was not a lot of time in between pregnancies to really give sport a good, go just participating really. Now I feel like I can give it a go and compete, and I do want to go as far as I can (keeping it real) with mountain bike racing. 

Your background is is Ironman triathlon, which obviously calls for some pretty different skills and training to mountain biking, do you find you use much of your experience in triathlon in your riding now?

While training for Ironman I would be training up to 25 hours per week. Most of this training was on my own as Triathlon is an individual sport and the bike leg is a draft free time trial. This type of training certainly gives you or requires a lot of self discipline, self talk so that you don’t just give up, determination, endurance physically and mentally, and commitment. Not only does this come through in any sport that I participate in, but also in everyday life as well. Weather the sport and training “gave” me these traits, or I had them and that is why I was good at the sport I am not sure. But you do need these traits in order to participate and or compete in endurance events and push your self to compete in activities that require you to work aerobically for up to 12 hours!

Robyn racing tri's, back when
salmon bikini's were hot!

Triathlon is a very popular sport in Australia, and generally has quite a high participation rate for women. What has been your experience now you've moved over to the dark (but ultimately much, much better ;) ) side of mountain biking? I find it funny that a sport with such a relaxed and inclusive atmosphere at races has generally got such a cruddy participation rate for women...

The participation rate in Triathlon is SO much higher than in mountain biking. I have not really seen a change in the participation rate of females in XC MTB racing from the late 90’s, 2000/2 to now. Much the same. I think the participation rate however in 24hr and endurance MTB for females has increased somewhat, however it is still very male dominant though.

Hopefully you manage to stay upright on the mtb a bit better than many triathletes, what has been your experience when trying to develop better skills on the mountain bike? I know for many women this is a particularly hard barrier to overcome for many reasons. Do you ride with the boys? The girls? By yourself? Undertake coaching?

I have grown up on a bike in an era when kids played outside all day and came home by dark. We were always on bikes and I always had to work hard to keep up with my older brother, or be left behind. I think my bike skills have stemmed from always being on a bike, but to be even better and progress to the next level my MTB skills would need fine tuning.

I try and get out when I can and ride places where I can try and work my MTB skills. Most of my riding is by myself, but we do get out for MTB rides with boys mostly, sometimes girls do come along. I have not participated in any type of skills workshops but would if there was one on offer locally that would suit my skills level. I have had coaching for both triathlon and MTB, basically strength and fitness.

And triathlon, will we see your name up in lights in the triathlon scene again anytime soon?

My run and bike are coming along quite strong at the moment. I haven't been swim training though so I would really need to focus on it. I would like to compete in a smaller Triathlon (probably a sprint 500m swim, 20km bike, 5km run), this summer, but I don’t think my name will be up in lights. I would just like the younger kids to see what mum used to do!

Check out Robyns AWESOME retro cool 90's get-up!

Ok, so in addition to this you have a buttload of experience in the bike retail scene, has much changed over the years in regards to women's products? Have you found that they're better in any way, or just better marketed, or neither?

I have seen a big change over the years in women's products. When I was highly competitive in Triathlon and MTB in the late 90's and early 2000’s there were not any ladies specific bikes. I had always raced on guys bikes, and being rather short, had to go to 650 c wheeled tri bike... 

There were some ladies products, a few saddles, jerseys and some clothing. Now manufacturers of bikes really focus on the female cyclist and tailor bikes to their needs. Our biggest bicycle brand Giant, have it covered for ladies from bicycle fit, bicycle functionality and they do design them to be appealing for females. They all have ladies specific saddles which is the first thing a female would change on a unisex bike. They are marketed better but they are a great product for ladies. I still have a unisex dual suspension MTB, I may get a ladies specific dually this year. My road bike is ladies specific. My commuter is unisex.

If there was one women's specific product that you would be recommending to any women out there on bikes as a 'must have' what would it be?

Definitely the saddle. If you have a ladies specific saddle that fits your anatomy correct it means you can ride the next day without saddle sore! Therefore you will ride more often and enjoy your ride experience. I have Selle Italia saddles on three of my bikes—love them!

What would your advice be for women in the market for a new bike (is it any different to advice you would give the boys?)

Every person is different. I always find out what the person wants to experience from their ride and go from there. Everyone has different reasons for riding—different distances they will be riding, events training for, commuting,  so advice is never really the same for anyone!!

Finally, we have a few quick snippets...

You finish a ride, rock up to the coffee shop and order what? I usually go straight home, but I would order toasted banana bread!
Favorite bike in the garage? Definately the Giant Anthem Advanced LE!
Best motivational quote or motto? “Never give up”
Favorite pre-race meal? Sultana bran with soy milk
Riding accessory you couldn't live without? Saddle!
If one company or product could sponsor your riding life, who/what would it be and why? Giant Bicycles; I love their bikes, designs and spec. I love what they are doing for ladies in the cycling, trying to get more ladies on bikes and creating rides for ladies.