LINCOLN — Alison Zimmer doesn’t get much rest these days. Between her fulltime job as a physical therapist, raising her 10-year-old daughter, and competing nationally — and now globally — as an independent professional mountain biker her schedule does not leave much room for downtime.
“I don’t ever rest in the sense of real rest, (like) sitting on the couch. But after a big weekend I definitely take two days where I don’t go for a run, I don’t go for a ride,” the 33-year-old Lincoln resident said.
Yet sitting down for a cup of coffee two days after taking first place in three events at a regional Eastern Cup event in Plattekill, N.Y., Zimmer talked enthusiastically about mountain biking, and was quick to laugh about the toll the sport takes on her body.
“It can be kind of a gnarly sport … I have a lot of bruises right now from the weekend, I have gashes on each of my sides, but that’s just part of it, and that’s OK with me,” she said. Her slight, 5-foot-4-inch frame and cheery personality can hide the intensity with which she approaches mountain biking.
This coming weekend, for example, she will head to Colorado for the North American leg of the Enduro World Series, which will comprise five stages of endurance riding over three days showcasing the best overall mountain bikers in the world.
Furthermore, in early July, she placed second at the Windham U.S. National Mountain Bike Race in New York, qualifying her to try out in August for the 2013 UCI (International Cycling Union) Mountain Bike World Cup in Mont-Saint-Anne, Quebec, Canada with the most elite pro downhill mountain bikers in the world.
Zimmer has accomplished all of this without belonging to a sponsored team, which is very rare among pro mountain bikers. Instead, she has used a “grassroots” approach by seeking out sponsors herself that have offered support in the form of financial backing, free mechanical help and complimentary equipment and products (a July 3 article in the Independent erroneously stated Zimmer had no sponsors).
Some of the sponsors are makers of bikes and gear, like G-Form Protection (knee and elbow pads), Loeka Clothing Co., Smith Optics (biking goggles) and Xprezo Cycles, a Quebec company that has given Zimmer two of its handmade bikes, including the Super D bike she will race with in Colorado this weekend. Other sponsors are Vermont companies more widely known around here, including Champlain Valley Apiary, the Alchemist Brewery, TreTap Beverages, Green Mountain Bikes, Sugarbush Resort, Middlebury Bike Center and Mountain Bike Vermont.
She also has received support from two mountain bike teams: Shine Riders, a women’s team based on the West Coast, and Voncooper, a regional men’s team.
Zimmer is not officially on a team yet mostly because she has not had enough time to prove herself to the mountain biking world. In fact, this is her first full year of competition.
“This year I am kind of learning the ropes of what to do,” she said.
She first started racing at the end of the 2011 season, and did well enough to successfully petition USA Cycling to let her race professionally after only one season. But on a practice ride before her first professional downhill race at the beginning of the 2012 season Zimmer fell and fractured both of her arms. She was able to come back to race at the end of the season, but missed the chance to catch the attention of teams. However, so far this year she has placed either first or second in all five of the regional and national races she has competed in against other pro bikers — many a full decade younger than her.
A MENTAL SPORT
Competitive mountain biking is divided into four categories: downhill (or gravity), cross country, Super D (a blend of downhill and cross country) and endurance.
While Zimmer has done all four, she competes in downhill and endurance. Both races are structured using time trials, similar to alpine skiing, in which the racers complete the course one at a time. She says that despite the various terrain and technical challenges on a course, a biker’s biggest challenge lies between his or her ears.
“There certainly is a huge physical component … but your mental outlook is huge, just being able to focus,” she said. “I just want to flow and be smooth. I don’t think about going fast because when I think about going fast I usually go too fast and blow up.”
While downhill races only last three to five minutes, endurance races can require two to three hours of biking in the woods, most of which is spent riding between the different stages. The timed stages themselves take Zimmer around 18 minutes.
She said her time racing in the woods sometimes verges on the spiritual.
“(Mountain biking) is an amazing form of moving meditation for me … you are connecting with the bike, and from the bike to the earth and the rocks … and you become so in tune with how your bike is moving, how your body is feeling, that you (become) detached from the human world and all the cares that we have,” she said. “It’s a really nice, free place to be.”
A COMPETITIVE STREAK
Zimmer has had a competitive streak since she started Nordic skiing as a child growing up in Morrisville.
“No one in my family skied, but at a really young age I was drawn to skiing, I just had to ski and I loved it. And I did really well,” she said, noting she made it to the New England Championships but became ill and could not compete.
Zimmer’s second passion was horseback riding, something else she found on her own. She got a horse when she was 8 years old, which she rode until leaving home to attend the University of Vermont.
At UVM, she started running 50 or 60 miles a week, and completed a marathon at the end of college.
While training for the marathon, she frequently ran on trails around Stowe, many of which were used for mountain biking.
“I was watching these bikers (thinking), ‘Wow, that looks like a crazy sport,’” she said. “I just made a commitment to myself that I am going to try that when I’ve done this marathon.”
The summer after graduating, she bought a K2 Attack, and started riding every day, entering a subculture of hardcore mountain bikers in Stowe.
“(They) had this unique style of riding: They stood and pedaled, they were strong, they went over crazy cliffs and jumps. And that’s kind of how I learned,” said Zimmer.
One of these Stowe riders, Dan Zimmer, caught her eye. They ended up marrying.
“He is an amazing rider. He’s been certainly my greatest teacher as far as riding goes,” she said.
Now they live in a woodstove-heated cabin in Lincoln with their daughter, Hannah, who has started biking herself.
While Zimmer says that Vermont’s mountain biking scene is “on fire right now” with more and more trails being built and people from around the world coming to the region to bike, she acknowledges it can be a challenge to get women involved in the male-dominated sport.
“The kind of women (who) like to do their nails and get their hair done — it’s not for them,” she said with a smile. Zimmer also has first-hand experience with the challenge of participating in such a dangerous sport with a job to hold down (she’s a physical therapist at Porter Hospital and at an outpatient rehabilitation clinic at Bristol Internal Medicine) and a child to raise.
Her husband, Dan, understands this too.
“It’s demanding, it’s dangerous, especially the downhill aspect of it,” he said. “It makes me nervous.”
But Alison Zimmer maintains that every woman she knows who has tried it has stuck with it.
“I feel like more and more women are getting involved, and there is a really great group of women that ride,” she said. Before this year, Zimmer mentored girls in a program called Little Bellas created by Vermont Olympic biker Leah Davidson to get more girls interested in the sport.
Zimmer says mountain biking can be a very empowering experience for her as a woman.
“As a small woman I love going out there and being like, ‘Huh, this guy thinks he is great. Let’s change that a little bit,” she said. “(I like) to show them that women can ride too, and that we can ride well, and that we can do huge jumps, and that we can do big drops.”
She has emphatically proven this point in the past two years. While women’s downhill times are always significantly higher than men’s, Zimmer has noticed her endurance times would be in the middle of the field if she were competing with men. And, she says, the guys notice.
“Pretty much every race (men) will come up to me and be like, ‘You are really fast,’ or ‘You are an amazing rider’ … which is super awesome,” she said.
While Zimmer is already surprising people on the mountain, it seems her career is just getting off the ground. Depending on how she does at the Enduro World Series this weekend and the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in August, she is hopeful that teams will begin to take a serious interest in her for next season.
But joining a team would change her commitment to the sport, leading to some tough decisions. While she loves her current sponsors, the resources and financial support of a team, even a small local one, would be very helpful to her. Thinking even bigger, things get even more complicated.
“If I was going to do things like world events and start traveling to Europe then I would need a bigger team, a bigger sponsor,” she said. “Is that possible? I don’t know. Do I want that and would it fit in my life? I don’t know.”
Whatever happens her daughter Hannah and husband Dan will be behind her.
“She is getting started late, but it is not slowing her down at all,” Dan said.