Have you had the pleasure of riding with Sheila Wilson?
If you know Sheila from visiting Higher Gear’s Highland Park location, you know she’s light-hearted, thoughtful and helpful.
What Sheila doesn’t let show – and you may only know this about her if you’ve been witness to her bruises or braces or if you’ve seen her muscling her way on the cyclocross course on her single speed – is that she is tough as nails, especially on the bike.
Sheila has been on two wheels since she was young. As a kid, she didn’t watch much TV. Instead, she was always outside. Riding a bike was part of being outdoors and experiencing that youthful freedom a bike offers. “I always liked doing stuff outside. I liked bikes.” Sheila laments, “I don’t see that many kids riding bikes. I wish more kids were back on bikes. That’s what we did.”
Her dad rode. As she tells it, her dad would let her “tag along” on his rides. On weekends, Sheila would tag along on her orange Schwinn Breeze single speed. She and her father would ride together to get breakfast and then ride back home.
It was her father who bought Sheila her first ten-speed bike. It was a steel bike that she rode all through college.
Sheila turned her love of the outdoors into her “job” when she majored in Outdoor Recreation in Fort Collins, CO. During college, she also got work mowing the lawn at a cemetery. While she claims she’s still not too caught up in cycling gear, Sheila laughs when she remembers heading out to work on her ten-speed steel bike in her “work gear” – shorts and steel-toe boots.
It was in Fort Collins, and after college living in Denver, that Sheila really got to appreciate the “ups and downs” of cycling. Sheila has fond memories of Horsetooth Reservoir (elevation 5,430 feet). “I’d go up to go down. Really, I don’t mind going up.”
While Colorado might experience more snow, the elevation meant that the streets would be clear – and ride-able – even through the winter. “I remember coming home once on my bike and having icicles hanging from every part of me that was exposed.”
To honor her steel-toed, ride up and through anything, biker self, Sheila’s college roommates had a t-shirt made for her that said “Kamikaze Biker.”
Like a kamikaze, Sheila’s never been afraid to take risks on the bike.
When she was maybe ten years old, her parents bought her a unicycle. She remembers spending a week learning to ride it, starting by holding on to the car bumper and rolling down the driveway – a little further each time. Soon comfortable on her unicycle, she would play basketball while riding it and even got good enough to take it over curbs.
Not too long ago, Sheila attempted a “giraffe,” a five-foot high unicycle. Though that was mostly for giggles. Until the day she decided to show off a little for her son’s friends. “I went farther than I normally would. It’s amazing I didn’t break anything.” She may not have broken anything but she did “ruin [my husband]’s Sunday afternoon.” A swollen ankle and missing her first ‘cross event of the season, Sheila learned her lesson.
While she still rides a (regular) unicycle, Sheila admits that she avoids curbs now. And she’s learned not to show off – that is, until she gets on a mountain bike.
Sheila first rode a mountain bike when she and her husband moved their family to Mali. While Sheila had been used to riding as transportation, in Africa, riding was more about exercise. “The roads there are awful and there are no repair shops.” Sheila needed a sturdy bike that could hold up to the abuse. But she really wasn’t quite mountain biking. Yet.
Since “mountain biking didn’t get popular ‘til maybe early to mid-90’s,” Sheila didn’t attempt any actual mountain biking until she moved back to the States. She laughs when she remembers a camping trip to upper Wisconsin. “I was riding a single track but I didn’t know that. I just thought, ‘Gee, nobody uses this trail much.’” With the spirit of the kamikaze, Sheila caps that story off with, “It was great fun.”
Sheila added cyclocross to her repertoire. “Cyclocross is such a challenge. You start and it’s an all out sprint right away.” Perhaps if she were to try it with gears, she would find the starting off a tad bit easier. But Sheila does ‘cross on her single speed. Her excuse? She doesn’t have room for another bike.
“I’ve gone from thinking one bike is always enough to… five bikes and a fat tire unicycle.”
“I like mountain biking. I love doing anything outdoors.” She adds, “If I lived closer to mountain bike trails, I’d do that.” But, really, “I’d do just about anything.” Is there anything the Kamikaze Biker wouldn’t try? “I wouldn’t do what Brandon Olson does!” She adds with a smirk, “I would like to try snowboarding.”
As Higher Gear Highland Park customers may remember, Sheila took her kamikaze spirit with her to Ray’s Indoor Mountain Bike Park last year where she received what she referred to as her “first injury.” She quickly corrected that to, “Well, the only time I’ve ever broken a bone… My first accident on a bike with injury.”
Sheila laughs, “It turns out I don’t really know what I’m doing when I’m on a mountain bike.” Her attitude is, “That looks fun. Let’s try it.” Yep, ever the kamikaze. She laughs again when she admits, “It’s best if I stay away from cement and just stick to woods [for mountain biking].”
“I’m more of an endurance person. Speed is not my strength.” Sheila’s challenged herself by doing several endurance rides. She’s done the Horribly Hilly (five times!) and the Dairyland Dare. She’s endured two 24-hour rides. The longest was 300 miles. “I figured I’d sleep, but I didn’t. I just kept riding.”
On her first two endurance rides – 100k and 200k – in the hills of Wisconsin… Rides that pride themselves on being the “toughest one-day rides in the Midwest…” Sheila rode them without a compact crank. She now knows, “A compact crank helps a lot.”
She recalls of that 200k, as she was struggling, “Going up a hill, some 20- or 30-something young man passing by yelled over to me, ‘What kind of gearing do you have on that? You know you’re not exactly young anymore.’”
“I really just biked. I didn’t know a thing.” Sheila admits this lack of knowledge carried over toward bike maintenance. That first steel ten-speed? She explains how “advanced” that bike was with “automatic transmission.” She now knows that when her bike was switching from one gear to the next and on to another, it was actually her chain slipping! Oops.
“I’m not a mechanic. But a lot of people who come in the bike shop aren’t technical.” “In the shop, we work as a team. I especially like working with families and people who are new to biking.” She adds, “Just because you ride a hybrid, or just because you’re new to cycling, doesn’t mean you’re not a cyclist or that you deserve less attention. Find a good bike shop. Make sure the people are treating you well.”
This year, Sheila will attempt to keep going…up! She’s set her sights on Wisconsin’s Triple Crown. Stage 1, Arcadia Brute, is comprised of routes that ascend 100 feet for every mile pedaled. Stage 2, the Kickapoo Kicker, ends with a “final kick,” an “extremely steep” path – at a 24% grade – where more than half of the participants will get off their bikes to walk. After “testing” her legs at those, Sheila will attempt 250k for Stage 3, the Dairyland Dare, which offers some of the most extreme hills in the Midwest.
As Sheila puts it, “I can just keep going but I’m not very fast.” Exactly how fast – or slow – does she ride? “I have speedometers on everything, but I just don’t pay attention.”
Sheila finds cycling very meditative. “Being physically active is a stress reducer… I don’t want to be anal about it… I don’t want exercise to become a stress.”
“Something like a marathon, yes, you need to follow a training program. Biking comes more naturally. If I’m not in very good shape, I just do it badly.”
Sheila sees a lot of customers who come into the shop who are transitioning from running to cycling for fitness. She encourages them with these words: “When I run I feel every one of my 53 years. But on a bike I feel like I’m about 10!”
She adds, “This kind of thinking only gets me into trouble when I subsequently decide I can still learn something like a giraffe unicycle or master the expert jump lines at Ray’s sans injury. Oh dear, oh dear!” Always the Kamikaze Biker!