When doing a SheCycles post about a historic figure, such as Annie Kopchovsky, I only have what is written about her to go on. When writing about someone now, I have the benefit of asking questions, and mostly, I’ll ask exactly the same questions of these inspiring women.
Some women, like Naomi, will have had phenomenal athletic success, but – however impressive that may be – I don’t want to focus on that. Instead, I want us to focus on the person, the human being. We live in a male-dominated world, and my SheCycles articles are designed to look at what it means today, in their own words, to be a woman and a cyclist.
Unless you’re into mountain bike racing, you might not have heard of Naomi Freireich – do click the link to visit her blog, and if you’re on Instagram, follow her – she’s there as Frikfrak74. If you have heard of her, you may be thinking of her in terms of her astounding success in 24-hour endurance MTB racing, where she became both the UK and European champion. Naomi is also on Twitter, and you definitely follow her on there.
Utterly impressive as Naomi’s racing achievements may be, they don’t do Naomi justice, and there’s far more to her than just being a cycling champion. When reading her blog (which I strongly suggest you do) you’ll see Naomi also champions mental health, and far more.
Especially given her phenomenal successes as an endurance athlete, it’s easy to look at someone like Naomi as just an athlete. and if we did that, we’d be doing her, and other athletes, a huge disservice.
I’ll stop here, and let you read about Naomi, in her own words.
What does it mean to you, as a woman, to also be a cyclist, and how (if at all) do you feel it’s different from what men experience?
I don’t think I ever view myself as a female cyclist. I’m a cyclist who happens to be female. I do think that it gives me a more androgynous sense of self, and stops me from placing limitations on myself because of my gender, but I appreciate that from the outside that’s not the perception.
Do you feel women are treated as equals in the world of cycling, and if not, what can be done about it?
I’m going to sit on the fence and say in some circumstances. I think in the world of endurance cycling it is far better and more commonly appreciated that there is less of a physical difference over distance. But there is still a massive disparity in other disciplines.
I think it has to start from the organising bodies being firm and making rules about equal prize money. The trouble is that we are still in the minority gender-wise in the sport and so there isn’t the same variety of kit available to us as a result and I don’t know how that gets fixed. It’s all supply and demand.
What got you into cycling?
A very enthusiastic Canadian is the short answer. The long answer is this. I started cycling after a very traumatic relationship breakup. I’d been living with coercive control for almost 10 years, which ended ultimately in violence. By the time I left I was barely recognisable as the person I am today.
By chance I met a girl in the work changing rooms who had just taken up mountain biking and was full of enthusiasm for getting more women involved. She was like a little guiding light of hope. I started to ride with her, and a group from my work who she introduced me to, and that started my recovery.
The outdoors helped me deal with the massive damage this relationship had done to my mental wellbeing, but it also nurtured the side of me that had been eroded and allowed me to return to the strong independent women I had been before. Without cycling, I’m not sure I would have recovered the way I have or been able to look back on that period of my past as being just that; over.
To you, what’s the best thing about cycling? And the worst?
For me, the best thing about cycling is simply how it makes me feel. I feel strong and independent. I feel like cares melt away and I can be worry free for a while. It’s down time from life.
Tell us some of your cycling dreams and aspirations?
I’ve been racing 24 hour mountain biking for a few years now, and I’m trying to push further and race some iconic ultra endurance races. I also have this little secret plan that I’ve been working on for a couple of years now, which, COVID permitting I’d like to attempt in the next year or so.
As a woman, what can you do to make cycling more normal, and more inclusive?
And what are the biggest obstacles in your way?
I think more ‘normal’ role models would really help. When women look at social media for female
cyclists, the ones with the biggest following are either the professional athletes racing UCI-level events, or crazy downhill and jumps, or they are professional adventure athletes, doing long distances or remote riding. A lot of women will look at that and simply not be able to relate.
That’s why I tried on International Women’s Day to highlight ‘ordinary’ women doing extraordinary things. If the media figure is more relatable, a women is far more likely to feel that they are also able to do those things. We’re a more cautious beast than men in general. Of course I generalise, but I do think that you don’t have to be winning races or setting world records to inspire women to have a go.
Tell us about you what motivates you, what scares you, and what makes you happy?
I’m motivated by improvement. If I can get better at something I will push myself to try.
I’m scared of failing my children. I scared of the world that we have created for them and I try every day to make it a better place.
Being outside makes me happy. Whether it’s a walk with the dogs or a 600km bike ride, I always get a lift from being outside.
What was the biggest challenge or obstacle you’ve had to face?
The year I was going to start racing I had a climbing accident and broke my foot. I ended up with an undiagnosed Lisfranc Dislocation Fracture which, when eventually discovered, had been left too late to fix fully. It stopped me riding for most of that year and getting my fitness back was a challenge.
Then 2 years later I broke my ankle in the same leg. Sadly my foot is deteriorating. So far I’ve had two operations on my foot to insert some metal work and a synthetic ligament, but it is now riddled with arthritis and quite disformed. I know I’m going to need another operation soon, and this one will take me off my feet for at least 6 months. It’s a game of seeing when the effort of managing the pain outweighs the massive downtime I’ll have.
So far, I’m going for managing!
Is there an achievement or contribution that you are most proud of?
The same year I broke my ankle I went on to win both the UK and European 24 hour MTB championships. In and of itself this was a mammoth effort, but add that to the fact that they were two weeks apart and I consider this to be my greatest achievement.
Now, if we’re talking about contribution, then I have recently started volunteering as a coach for a local kids cycle club. The feeling of giving back and encouraging kids to enjoy time on two wheels is amazing.
How did cycling change you?
Cycling gave me back my life. I don’t mean this metaphorically. I had really lost my sense of self through years of abuse. Cycling empowered me. It gave me back decision making, personal development without guilt and a real feeling of strength. I still gravitate towards my bike when I’m feeling depressed or dealing with a difficult situation as a means to work things out.
How has your cycling impacted on your family life, and your life overall?
I try my utmost to train when it least affects my family, but there are obviously times when this is not possible. In fact, my first UK championship win was on my daughter’s birthday weekend. My kids are proud of what I do. Zac jokes that I have more followers on Instagram than he does and his friends all know what I’m doing. Amelia thinks I’m ‘famous’ and I think that’s really sweet. Her friends all call me ‘FrikFrak’, my Instagram handle.
They definitely see how much cycling has given me and know the importance of it for my mental wellbeing. I think having something that I enjoy and that I can aim for mastery in outside my job keeps me balanced, and that seems rare but beneficial right now especially.
What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you?
Ever? I met my husband on Tinder. That in and of itself is pretty funny, however, that’s not the best bit. My sister, who lives in Glasgow, was also on Tinder at the time. She came through to visit me one weekend and her search radius changed.
Soon she was chatting with a few new people. Sat together showing each other photos of who we were talking to (yes, isn’t Tinder shallow), we soon worked out that we were both speaking to Charlie at the same time. It could have been awkward but proximity won (he was also in Edinburgh) and thankfully we laugh about it now.
Where would you most like to go cycling? Why there?
I’d love to cycle Te Araroa in New Zealand. My sister lives in Wellington and I fell in love with the country when I visited a few years ago. I’ve seen some photos from Instagram friends who have ridden some or all of it and it is breathtaking. Or (and!) the Great Trail across Canada. Actually, the list is pretty much endless, but these two really stand out for me.
If you could change ONE thing about cycling, what would that be?
This is tough, there are so many things we can do with the sport. But I think to help cyclists as a whole I’d introduce mandatory cycle training within the driving license process. I think that the more people who are educated in riding bikes and the dangers it entails with the way roads are right now, the safer roads will become.
What bike do you ride? What made you choose that one? If you have multiple bikes, which is your favourite, and why?
I have a shameful number of bikes, but the bikes I ride the most are my Scott Spark WC and my Mason Bokeh. My Scott is such a glorious race machine, and great for long days of XC riding in my local hills. If I want to ride farther or go on adventures, I have my Mason Bokeh, which is such a capable bike and makes riding on or off road a pleasure.
What advice would you offer to women who are thinking of starting to cycle, or are new cyclists?
Everyone is a beginner at the start. Don’t be put off by drawing comparisons with people on social media. Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable or to look silly. Most of that is in your head anyway. Laugh about it and keep trying! Find friends who want to do it too.
Is there anything else you would like to share with me?
I really love talking about bikes and helping people get into cycling. I’d just encourage people to message me if they have a question. I will always try to respond.
Is there any question I should I have asked you, but did not?
I feel like you missed out on asking about my guilty pleasure. It’s crisps. I love them. I can eat an entire family bag. Mmmm…. crisps