CHELSEA STRATE: Finding Meaning

Chelsea Strate is an endurance mountain biker who placed third at this past year’s Marji Gesick 100 mile. Until the pandemic shook things up, Chelsea worked as the Field Marketing Coordinator for Quality Bicycle Products — an enviable job that had Chelsea traveling from her home in Minnesota to events and bike shops in Colorado, Pennsylvania, New England and Canada. Given how active Chelsea’s life was, the pandemic — along with an untimely broken collar bone — has slowed Chelsea down more than most.

I spoke with Chelsea about how she got into mountain biking and her experience as a woman competing at the Marji Gesick 100. Chelsea also shares how the pandemic has led her to reassess priorities and focus on a new, more meaningful goal.


How did you learn to mountain bike?

I started by racing cyclocross. My first cyclocross race was at a mountain bike trail, and some of the course was on single track. I mostly used my cyclocross bike for mountain biking for a few years, until I got a fat bike. I would just go out with friends when they invited me and got a lot of practice that way. I kept making progress, so I kept at it!

When did you first realize you enjoyed mountain biking?

I think I realized it right away! After dabbling in most cycling disciplines, mountain biking has been the one that’s continued to challenge me, and I find the changing terrain to be therapeutic. I also love how there are so many different kinds of trails! I’ve been traveling a lot with my mountain bike both for work and for pleasure, and just in the past year I’ve been able to ride in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Quebec, Vermont, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, California, and more, and each place offers such unique trails and experiences!

If I were a man, I’m sure that 99 times out of 100 they wouldn’t have given me that compliment. It means that I challenged what they expected a woman to be capable of, and I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand, I’m happy they noticed and I like receiving clean, encouraging compliments like that. On the other hand, I don’t like that they had low expectations.

Why did you race the Marji Gesick 100 — an extremely challenging mountain bike race — rather than a gravel race? 

I’ll be honest. I do a lot of gravel races, but I much prefer the Marji Gesick 100. During a gravel race, the challenges that I face have to do with the exposure to the elements and the amount of time riding in a single direction. If it’s windy, there is no doubt that you’ll be facing a headwind for a good chunk of the day. If it’s hot, it’s hard to hide from the sun. If the gravel is fresh and deep, you’ll be fighting through it for miles. All I seem to focus on is the suffering.

The challenges of Marji 100 are more fleeting mini-challenges, like a quick steep techy climb or decent, rocks, roots, winding trail… I find that my mind likes the pace of the quickly changing distractions. Additionally, I love the woods, and the scenery of the Marji 100 I find to be so beautiful.

Why the Marji Gesick 100 mile rather than a shorter mountain bike race?

I can’t think of a better way to spend a full day than to challenge myself on my mountain bike in the woods! Plus, you have to ride harder during a shorter race, and that hurts in a different way.

What bike maintenance skills are needed to ride an endurance mountain bike race like Marji? How did you learn them?

I’ve been so lucky these last two years of starting and finishing the Marji without any major mechanicals! With that being said, I think that the ability to fix flats with tubeless and tubed setups, replace a derailleur hanger (and other trailside derailleur troubleshooting), loosen and tighten all of the bolts on your bike (including your crank arms and brake calipers), and fix a chain with and without a quick link are all very valuable skills to have. Bonus if you can true a wheel in the case that you break a spoke.

I’ve learned all of these things over time through trial and error, YouTube, various clinics, mechanic friends, and a class I took at a local bike shop.

You were one of only 10 women at the Marji Gesick 100. What was it like to see other women on course?

I love our community! Most of the other women on course were very friendly and encouraging. Others were obviously suffering, so their silence was completely understandable. There was a good stretch of time where I didn’t see any other women, but the last leg of the race I found a gal from Toronto that I rode with for a tiny bit. It was energizing to find another similarly-paced woman out there, and I already decided I would track her down if I find myself in Toronto so she can show me her local trails.

When you ride Marji, are you thinking about the fact that you are a women and most Marji riders are men?

Most of the time my answer is no. However, I do have to say that when I ride something that a lot people are walking during Marji, I’ll get compliments from men about how they were impressed that I rode such and such feature.

If I were a man, I’m sure that 99 times out of 100 they probably wouldn’t have given me that compliment. It means that I challenged what they expected a women to be capable of, and I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand, I’m happy they noticed and I like receiving clean, encouraging compliments. On the other hand, I don’t like that they had low expectations.

Also, once in awhile I’ll notice men trying to catch back up to me to pass me if I’ve passed them, but this happens a lot less during Marji than during shorter races. It still happens though, mainly in the early part of the race. That type of competitive energy fades away towards the end of the course.

FOLLOW UP:

How have you been recently?

In early March, I broke my collarbone pretty good. I was goofing off and hit a sketchy ski jump with my fat bike and crashed. Hard. Shortly after that, a global pandemic hit that resulted in me being laid off from the job that I loved (along with almost 90 others at my company and several millions of others nationwide, as we all know), as well as the cancellation and rescheduling of several of the events and races on my calendar.

During this time of physical and mental recovery and healing, I have been able to start sorting out my priorities. Instead of traveling and racing all of the time, with my schedule mostly determined by my work travel, I now have the chance to put events on my calendar that are more meaningful.

During this time of physical and mental recovery and healing, I have been able to start sorting out my priorities… I now have the chance to put events on my calendar that are more meaningful.

What biking goal are you working towards now that races have been cancelled?

There’s this ‘enhanced’ gravel race called The Crusher up in the U.P. that had to change their format because of the ‘VID, and instead of a mass start event, you can complete the course anytime between July and October. Well, I wasn’t originally signed up for it because it conflicted with another event on my calendar, but since the timing is now flexible, my friend Jill Martindale and I decided to do the 225 mile course together.

We are aiming for the end of July, so I have a little time to get my body used to long and challenging rides, and to figure out what bike set up I want to help me through the ‘enhanced’ sections of the course. My collarbone and shoulder are finally almost back to full function again, so I’m feeling great about my ability to take on that challenge!

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