Through June, we are featuring our cycling athletes in our “strong legs” series. This week, meet Stephanie Kaplan, New Yorker, bike commuter, racer on Asphalt Green cycling team, and one of five women selected nationally for the Specialized women’s cycling ambassador program.
How did you get into cycling?
I rode around when I was a kid, and commuted a bit when I moved to New York, but it wasn’t until 2006 when I left New York for the Peace Corps that I really fell in love with cycling. When I got to Burkina Faso, which is in West Africa, the first thing they do is give us each a mountain bike for transit. I used it to get everywhere – literacy classes, I put a box on it and rode into town or to cart around my stuff.
In Burkina Faso, people don’t run for fun, but biking is big. One day they had a bike race in my town – The entire village and surrounding villages came to watch, and I’d never seen anything like it. They paraded around the winners…it was a huge deal.
So you brought the love of bikes back with you from Africa?
Yes, when I got back to the city, I knew I wanted to get a bike, and bring some of the ‘Peace Corps’ lifestyle back with me. I bought a Specialized Dolce and joined the New York Cycle Club. I signed up for their SIG program.
SIG teaches you everything: How to clip in, how grab your water bottle while riding, how to ride in a group. I’d never ridden over the bridge before, but with SIG I gained great skills and confidence. The fact that the program is free is amazing. It takes your entire day – but it’s pretty awesome.
I got into triathlons from there, but eventually fell in with Asphalt Green and started doing road races, and dabbled in cyclocross. I would love to mountain bike in New York, but for now it seems like road racing is simplest! I also commute to work by bike.
What races have you done this year?
I just did the White Plains Crit, I’m doing the Harlem Crit this weekend. This year has been more local races – CRCA open races, club races. The Prospect Park women’s races have been really neat this year – but I’ve also traveled to St. Louis for the MO-PRO Crit Series and plan on heading there again for Gateway Cup…I love riding/racing in new places!
What is your first bike memory?
I grew up in Alabama. When I was young, my brother and I used to convince my mom to let us ride our bikes to lunch by ourselves. It was some Chinese buffet restaurant, but we thought we were so grown up. Honestly, I don’t know now why we wanted to go there, but I remember it was really fun.
What advice do you offer to people who want to start bike racing?
The NYCC SIG program is really good. No matter your skill level, there is a SIG for you. Racing is so much fun, but because of the high speeds and risk involved it’s not always the best environment to learn in – especially since often the beginner women are racing with the experienced and higher category riders, so SIG is a good place to grow, and there are also development programs popping up, such as the one at Asphalt Green.
Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to other riders. People think, “Oh, you’re so fast, you probably won’t want to ride with me” – they think that because we’re racers we only go Mach 5. I like to go fast – but I also like to ride to get coffee and eat muffins. [Laughs] And when I’m commuting, I don’t bike to work fast, I just bike to work!
I encourage people to just get out there and get over the fear that you’re going to be slow or that you don’t know what you’re doing. Introduce yourself to others riders. If you don’t put yourself out there, you’re never going to get better.
That’s another reason the women’s ride series is so important. Riding doesn’t always have to be competitive; it can be fun and social. Races are competitive, but clinics and groups are nice ways to learn and get involved.
You are an ambassador for Specialized women’s cycling program. What is your vision for women’s cycling in NYC?
I see a huge number of women rallying together and wanting to create a community just for us. Velojoy, WeBike, CRCA – I see women starting to be united across all styles of cycling to create a women’s community and create a voice for us. It’s nice to see bike companies jumping on board too, like Specialized, to create some truly amazing products made just for us…they passion they have for getting women on bikes is pretty amazing.
In New York City overall, I’m excited to see more cyclists and that cycling is growing as a genuine mode of transportation. People will respect the bike lane when there are more people in the lanes and more riders out there, and more women will feel empowered to get on a bike when they see other women doing the same. The growth is promising for a stronger, safer community.
Why do you ride?
I ride for the freedom of it. The riding I’ve done, the places it’s taken me – especially riding in New York City…it’s given me so much courage and confidence. You get to see things you’d never have seen: parks, farms, new communities. The places your bike can take you and the people you meet is awesome.
As for why do I race, I like racing because you can be competitive no matter what level you ride. If you do well, you can move up a category, or ride a different race. In my former running days, usually the strongest person always wins. But bike racing takes as much strategy as strength.
I also ride for the friends. The girls I ride with have become my best friends. Even the people we compete against, we know we have a common thread. Like we all got the memo, we know about this fun sport and how great it is.
The ultimate question: How many bikes do you have?
[Laughs] Well, right now I have three, but my husband is trying to get me to cut back to two bikes. I have my commuter bike, a Specialized Crux, my new road bike, a Specialized Amira, and my old road training bike. I love my Amira! It’s a crotch rocket!
If you could ride anywhere in the NYC area, where would you ride?
I really want to get into mountain biking again!
Stephanie lives in New York City and is the communications director for African Services Committee in Harlem. She invites women to join her for the women’s summer ride series, at 6am on rotating Friday mornings at Central and Prospect Parks.