Jessica Klodnicki’s hands keep searching for something to do as she walks through the crowd. It’s a lazy Saturday morning in the rest of Santa Cruz, but in front of Ibis Cycles there’s an audible fervor as more than 100 women from all walks of life sip coffee (or a slightly stiffer grapefruit juice) and await the start of the monthly Girls Rock ride.
You probably haven’t heard of Klodnicki even though she wears enough titles to overwhelm a librarian, including former Bell executive vice president, general manager and vice president at Vista Outdoor, and board member of PeopleForBikes and Camber Outdoors. You also don’t know the dozens of other women mingling about with checklists in their hands and grand ideas in their heads. Luckily, name recognition isn’t a prerequisite to changing the face of mountain biking across the country.
Klodnicki’s introduction to mountain biking is a familiar story. “I was taken out by a group of guys,” she says. “They gave me no advice, no coaching, put me on an ill-fitting bike, and took me on a trail that I shouldn’t have been on.” It was a classic story of good intentions gone bad, and it left Klodnicki with a single impression. “I guess I’m not a mountain biker,” she thought.
After starting at Bell in 2012, she gave mountain biking another try. This time she signed up for the Trek Dirt Series women’s clinic where she saw riders of all skill levels learning at their own pace among peers. “It was the best thing I could have ever done and it launched me into mountain biking,” Klodnicki says, “but I still didn’t have a network of people to ride with.”
A few weeks later, Klodnicki and fellow Dirt Series attendee, Juliann Klein, crossed paths at a trailhead not far from today’s gathering and began riding together. Now, the first thing to know about Klodnicki and Klein is that they are not people who see a good idea and wait for others to make it happen.
As more women joined the nascent group, they dubbed themselves the Girls Rock Ride. Soon came a logo, website, and a framework that gave women a place to start and a path for growth—a framework that drew 70 riders after only a few months. Through trial and error they found once-a-month rides were perfect and that riders enjoyed their experiences more when broken into groups so beginners aren’t intimidated by people with permanent spandex tan lines, and faster riders can push the pace to their heart’s content. The key is to gather everyone at the end for fun, general merrymaking, and light mayhem.
While at Bell, Klodnicki used the Girls Rock formula to create the foundation of Bell’s Joy Ride program, which isn’t your standard ambassadorship based around wearing sweet branded gear to hip events. Instead, the idea was to create a knowledge-sharing program (yes, with sweet branded gear) where a handful of affable women with high levels of shit-togetherness take the framework back to their hometowns while adding their own unique flair and local knowledge. Last year, more than 2,400 women attended over 50 Joy Ride events from fat bike demos to night rides.
This year, the program is doubling in size, but the metrics for success are the same as in the very beginning. Heather Cooper, Bell’s Director of Brand Marketing, who took over the Joy Ride program after Klodnicki’s promotion, explains to the ambassadors that success isn’t a metric measured in helmets sold. Instead Cooper says success is defined by asking, “Did people have a good time? Were phone numbers exchanged? And are they excited about their next ride?”
As Klodnicki watches the well-honed ride pour out in an organized stream, the emotion is tangible. After moving from the area, this is her first Girls Rock since its inception where she’s been a participant instead of an organizer. “It’s so fun and bittersweet,” she says. “I feel like a proud momma on so many fronts.” Women she met years ago as first time riders are now running the show and Joy Ride ambassador jerseys are everywhere, worn by those who just started mountain biking alongside women who have no trouble flying off jumps.
After most of the groups leave for their rides on this cool spring morning, one small pack remains in the parking lot. The four women are on borrowed bikes, have never heard of a chamois, and are equally excited and intimidated by mountain biking. These are the first-timers and their nervous laughter is familiar.
The truth is that riding a bike isn’t always as easy as riding a bike, especially when you add speed, rocks, and poison oak into the mix. Leaders Juliann Klein and Angela Jensen were first timers just a few years ago, but now they’re showing these women the ropes on everything from bike fit to descending. In just two hours, the progress is incredible.
Women who wobbled down bike paths earlier slide their butts behind the saddle to descend hills exactly zero of them thought they’d be capable of riding that morning. At the end of the ride, another group asks if this was the first-timer group. Without missing a beat, Klein responds, “Not anymore. Now they’re beginners!”
The four women are beaming—not because they heard what Klein said, but because they believed it. Nearby, two young girls and their father watch the scene of women teaching women, of women trying and failing, then trying again and succeeding.
Back at Ibis, riders share stories over beers, exchange numbers, and talk about bringing friends next time. Ladies doing tricks on pixie bikes roll next to leaders busy marking beginner-friendly routes on maps for the former first-timers. The nervous laughter so prevalent earlier is completely absent.
Now it’s just good old fashioned contagious laughter. And Klodnicki and all the other women gathered here are ensuring that it keeps on spreading.