Deep in the wilds of suburban Fairfield County, Connecticut, yes, Connecticut, Heather LaPalme and Cat Murphy Iacaponi are busy on Sunday mornings, riding mountain bikes and launching off ten foot rocks. While most of Fairfield County is highly developed, being a short train ride away from New York City, it is blessed with many local parks and with topography shaped by the retreating glaciers eons ago. The ledges and boulders are ideal for free riding. This is the land of roots and rocks. For mountain bikers, the local parks are a retreat from the fast paced life and an ongoing challenge to hone technical riding skills.
No, Connecticut does not have the huge mountain ranges of the west, but do not be fooled into thinking that it is a tame place to ride, and do not be fooled into thinking the two 40-something, “chicks in full face helmets” that you will see on Sunday mornings are out for a casual ride. Heather and Cat’s lives are busy with children and family and community, but find the time to follow their passion.
I first met Heather at Trout Brook Land Trust in Easton, CT. She was riding an ancient fully rigid steel bike, but seemed to be navigating the double tracks without much difficulty. Riding the old clunker was no problem, but figuring out to get a sip of water from her camelback was. Turns out, the reservoir was upside down.
Heather began riding as mountain biking burst on the scene in the early nineties. Marriage and children and relocation followed not long after. About 7 or 8 years ago, she pulled the old mountain bike out of the garage. At the time, she had three children at home. Now two are in middle school and one is in elementary school. Finding time to ride has always been a challenge for Heather, but she approaches her scheduling in the same organized and analytical manner that she approaches a big drop.
Petite, blond, and soft-spoken, Heather says, “I always look at the baby steps needed to work up to a big feature. I enjoy figuring out the line and speed, understanding the take-off, and hopefully landing smooth. I am happy when I land drops like the Red Bull Drop and Road to Nowhere at Mountain Creek Resort in New Jersey.”
She owns three bikes, a 45 lb. Canfield Jedi for downhilling and dropping, a Knolly with 6?” travel for technical riding at local parks, and an Ibis for trail riding. She is also a fan of Avalanche suspension products tuned for her ride style.
Her children ride bikes in the yard, but they also have other athletic interests and Heather does not push them to participate in mountain biking. She prefers to help them follow their own passions.
Heather’s advice for women getting into the sport is, “Find a group that rides how you want to ride. It’s helpful when advanced riders show you how to do something new. I always ask questions and watch how other riders approach features.” It’s also important to find other women to support you. “Cat has hung out with me for hours while I try things over and over. So many times I see women come out once or twice and then leave the sport. Don’t be afraid to practice until you get it right!”
In contrast to Heather, Cat is outspoken with a quick wit and dark, curly hair. I first met Cat through Heather, and didn’t realize until later that Cat has five children, aged 7 to 15-years-old. Often there is a cousin or neighbour in tow also. All five ride. Every summer, Cat travels out west with her children. 20 to 40 mile rides on rail trails are a big part of their adventure. An avid hiker, skier, rock climber, equestrian and mountain biker, Cat is quite the athlete. She also works as a swim instructor.
So often other women will say that,” I have to get in shape first before I can ride.” Cat’s advice, “Just ride. Believe me, I was there. I felt I wasn’t good enough. But you have to start somewhere. Make it a priority.” Between working, shuttling her children to various activities and taking her son Paolo to the walk -in clinic for a broken bone or two, Cat is lucky to have a two hour window to ride her bike.
Cat does not ride for exercise. Her goal is not physical fitness. “I enjoy the mental aspects of free riding. I can blank out daily life and enjoy the woods.” While she had ridden a road bike for many years, and when younger dated a guy who rode BMX bikes, mountain biking was new to her. A friend lent her a bike, and Cat fell in love with the sport on her first time out. “I was to borrow a bike. It wasn’t the best bike, but I was out in the woods and that made up for the crappy bike. Many women ride on old beat up bikes that don’t fit them well. Get yourself a good entry level bike.” Her riding stable includes a Pivot Mach 5.7 and a Santa Cruz Bullit. “The bikes sit in the shed and don’t require the constant attention that horses do. Much easier than horses!”
Both women feel very lucky to have four or five great spots to ride so close to home and to have a close knit group of riders to hang with on Sunday mornings. There advice for those getting into the world of freeriding, “Just get out there, the rest will work itself out!”
Paula Burton is an avid mountain biker and trail builder who lives in Newtown, CT. She is active with the local chapter of New England Mountain Biking Association, and travels around New England riding and teaching trail building. She just bought a new fat bike, and when she is not riding a bike or skiing, she teaches math at Seymour High School.