Editor’s note: This Colleen Corcoran interview of Jacquie Phelan first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #127, published in April 2007. Illustration by Damara Kaminecki.
Founder of WOMBATS—Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society—Jacquie Phelan (alter ego: Alice B. Toeclips) sleeps beneath an electric blanket in a treehouse named Offhand Manor at the foot of Mount Tam. Her father: a prominent psychotherapist in L.A. Her mother: a soap opera suicide. Her brother: in prison. Jacquie: three-time national mountain biking champion and NORBA co-founder, undefeated in the United States between 1981 and 1986.
Her racing kit was polka-dot tights, pigtails and a Bell helmet with a rubber duck glued on top. She reads and speaks German, French, Italian, Swedish, Spanish and a little Dutch. Around her neck hangs a silver fish riding a bicycle—a reference to the feminist slogan, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” She has been called “the outlaw queen of mountain biking.” Sometimes, she plays the banjo. What follows are Phelan’s responses to questions asked over pasta and a pale ale at her Northern California home.
I’ve been playing on my mountain bike for about 25 years and I never treated it as a job. As the sport evolved, it became more and more like a job to the newer adherents, and now you hear people talk strictly in terms of a job. To me, that seems sort of sad to turn play into work. It’s not play anymore. And ask any rock ‘n roller who signs any contract. They might not love what they do anymore. It can squelch the burning love you have for the scene. To me, the whole essence of bicycling is a manifestation of joy and celebrating freedom … I have two ways of looking at it—one is pathological and one is a play on words. And the pathological one is I feel like I’m allergic to work. And the pun one is just having a play ethic as opposed to a work ethic … Specifically, the people who were doing it when I was doing it were goofing off. The change has been enormous—from bicycling as sort of a frivolous fun and “Gee I wonder who else wants to do this?” to “I’m selling cars.”
In 1981 or so the word got out that the ban on women racing bicycles in the Olympics had been lifted, and I went, oh my god, I could be in the Olympics. That eclipsed data entry. A few years after, I saw “Breaking Away,” and I was pretty convinced that racing was going to be my thing. I was telling people I was a racer even before I started. I was a liar. And mountain biking was in the corner of my eye just at the time my boyfriend, Gary Fisher, was sort of mentoring me in racing. My main event was road racing. In the first part of my road racing career, people hated my guts because I was so strong and kind of a sketchy bike handler, because I was still getting into it. They tried to vote me off the island. Mountain biking came along so I just elected to leave the island. I was a terrible criterion racer. You have to be pretty good at elbow-to-elbow action and cornering and crashes. Every weekend was a road race and then a crit the next, so I’d win the road race and then do okay in the crit. One weekend, there were two crits and Gary said, “let’s go do a mountain bike race,” and I won that race—first woman. Fisher won, then five other guys, and then me. The Whiskeytown Downhill in Redding.
I wore a Bell biking helmet and it looked like a mixing bowl on your head, and on top of that mixing bowl was a toy duck. People were like, “Oh, are you planning on crashing?” And I was like, “No, I’m protecting my college education.” That one mountain bike race made me realize that this bunch of people is really more fun. At the countdown to the start, I developed a flat tire and said, “Wait a minute; wait a minute. I’ve got a flat.” And the announcer said, “Wait a minute. Can we wait?” And that was unlike the roadies who were sort of cold.
I kept gunning for the Olympics and totally didn’t make it, but I went to the national time trials. I had the memory of this amazing mountain bike group, and then it was clear that I wasn’t going to be selected for any kind of road team. And there’s a little politics of who likes you and what coaches are you gonna sleep with, and with mountain biking there was an absence of that cigar smoking … I was 25 when I started bike racing. I was older. The talent was in the early 20s and more malleable with the coaches, who were sometimes in need of a blowjob or two, ‘cause that’s the other game, at least on the women’s side. There’s sexual politics. There’s political politics. There’s money politics, probably geopolitics too. Disgusting.
Getting away from my parents in college at Middlebury was really, really good. I came from a chaotic family, and that’s where actually a lot of athletes come from. They pound their rage into the racquetball or whatever. It was a tiny, tiny campus back then. It was kind of an unheard of place—small classes, great teachers, decent skiing, Eric Clapton and Grateful Dead out of every window. It was kind of the world’s longest slumber party. I was no longer the bored kid in the back of the class and was busting my butt to maybe get Cs. I didn’t know how I was gonna get there from Burlington. I hitchhiked. I barely went home. I was just kind of there hanging by a thread.
When I moved to San Francisco after college, I crashed at my friend’s house and got work at a vet clinic where you didn’t have to change your clothes. I didn’t have a clue that I could’ve started working at an ad agency, but you had to dress a certain way. And this primitive part of me didn’t want to wear clothes to coordinate and wear makeup and nylons, and because I had an idea that I wanted to go to vet school. I took an easy job. You didn’t have to look a certain way. I had a night watchwoman job, and so I had all afternoon to make up all kinds of mischief. And in the late ‘70s in San Francisco, there was folk music and great theaters. Basically, it was like being on a smorgasbord. And to cover the rent I was a nanny since I’d nannied in Europe. So that meant the money I earned would cover food and whatever, and I owned my time.
I was going to City College too, because the hours of working at the vet hospital were nine in the morning until noon, then all afternoon off, then go back to work at seven at night and stay the night. So that meant the whole afternoon was mine to sign up for botany, singing, chemistry—I kept tackling chemistry and physics for years—so I call this second helpings, because I got my Bachelor of Arts in French at Middlebury. And then like this City College was free—literally free back then, and I love school. I never did master physics, but I kept bashing my head against the wall thinking, well, maybe a different teacher. Then I met Fisher, moved from the city to Marin, tried to stay in the county after we broke up, was a nanny in Mill Valley. That didn’t work, and me being 26—really lonely. And they were not my breed anyhow. They were just these yups with sports cars and back and forth to the city for something. And then hanging out at the bars at night, and I’m not a bar person. So back to the city. And then I did gardening in exchange for a room because I was still allergic to paying rent. So I gardened right next door to City College. Then the bike thing came along, and I won enough to get 100 bucks here, 100 bucks there. It was a tiny little bit. Right then the magazines—you read those things and you go, you know, anybody could do better than that. And guess what, anybody can. So I just started writing for California Bicyclist and Cyclist. So then I’d get the 500 dollar check, or for Cyclist I’d get the 1000 dollar check, and I could live a year on 2000 bucks. Since then, a couple straight jobs—teaching inner-city kids in Oakland.
My college magazine wrote a cover story about me: “But can she get a job?” It’s a long long, long, long pathetic story. You know what he asked when he took the picture? He was like way far away when he took the picture, and he goes, “So what went through your head when the doctor told you that you had cancer?” And I just thought, that was a low blow, waiting for that flash across my face. Being so far away he was just being disingenuous … I didn’t think the article was that good. It has that queen for a day kind of sob thing.
The thing is I’ve never had a straight job, except for maybe that vet job. I’ve had just a very few run-of-the-mill paycheck kind of jobs. I can’t believe how much energy you spend … Your time card—like half your job is tending your fucking time card. And I can’t believe that. It’s like, oh shit, they don’t keep track of it so I have to keep track of it? Then I not only have to keep track of it, but I have to submit it, make sure they get it, justify it with the paycheck I get. Then I go, well, okay, I’m gonna bill them for the time I’m babying this because I didn’t plan on having to follow the little chit that tells what school I work at and the hours and all that. It’s bizarre.
Tons of browbeating from the parents. In fact, middle of college when I declared a French major, they kind of withdrew check writing privileges. I certainly wasn’t going to get work. I guess you could get a loan, but I don’t think I was even sophisticated enough to do that. With AP classes, I only had to stay there a few years, and that was enough for Middlebury to give me a diploma.
I was from an extremely fucked-up family. I was on my own when I got to college. I was definitely on my own when I stopped premed. And then being in the city doing the nanny thing saved me a shitload of money. I was at work when Harvey Milk and Moscone were shot, and I was at work when it happened. And I thought, oh my god, this is the wild west. And I was around when JFK was assassinated. My mom actually shot my dad. I decided I didn’t want to be a part of the sick culture that breeds insanity, greed, jealousy, drug use, domestic abuse, murder. I wanted out. And also when John Lennon was shot … those things really hit home.
I’ve kept a journal since I was a very young kid, mostly as evidence against my parents. They’re a mixed up bunch … My Dartmouth brother’s in prison—troubled alcoholic, drug addict. There’s something about the mental hospitals closing in the ‘70s, and now it’s prisons where people go. In 1968 when Ronald Reagan was governor of California, he did something because on a certain day the nuts were let loose. And that was like the day that homelessness was invented.
I know that if I had been a doctor, I’d be the most miserable person on the planet. It was a big expectation … I think the doctorly thing I do is honoring the Hippocratic Oath. First, do no harm. Although I do play banjo—in some circles, that’s considered a deep insult.
It always seemed like on a bike you just don’t do any harm. On a bike, it’s the ultimate peace-mobile. When everything is going whack, just get on a bike. Until I got a bike, I was using Muni transfers. What a low life. Eventually I got a bike. Then I was even more on time. It was during the biking in San Francisco that someone said, “You should race.” And ever since then I’ve used that same line whenever I see a girl on a bike. I say, “Have you ever thought of a career in racing?” At least one person told them.
WOMBATS came about because of the absence of any kind of voice for women in mountain biking. I wish that I’d been squawking earlier for the years I’d been winning all the races. Prizes for me didn’t even come close to what the tenth place guy got. Why not? Besides, we’re post Title 9. It would be nice if we could sort of climb out of bed on the right side. The guys were like, “What do you mean? You’re like one of the only women doing it. You’d be taking all the spoils.” So since I can’t change guys’ minds—I thought, well, why not create a women’s scene that’s not competitive and sort of nurture the novice. I never really knew if it was because of the video images, the media impressions, the macho lexicon, the fact that they’re not taken seriously in a bike shop—why women are not as interested or are intimidated by it. That’s why WOMBATS endeavors to show a pudgy, slow-moving animal as its mascot, because it’s actually a lot safer than it’s made out to be.
One of my minors was women’s studies in college. And I thought, this is a great place to do something for women and make up the rules. And I would never say “women only” because to me it brings back the 1950s Jim Crow laws. So I made up a funny acronym—something that would make people laugh. And the tea … A century prior to the women’s lib movement, the bicycle was one of the tools for women getting out of the house and away from the patriarchy. Anything that any woman does as a conscientious feminist is standing on at least three generations, and this generation is kind of in denial for any kind of action because supposedly we got it all. Because we didn’t.
For my clinics, I’ll get between three and eight people, and I have everyone tell me one thing they want to know how to do. And I teach ‘em how to do a trackstand, which is just standing on your bike without putting your foot down. That pretty much covers the 110 bucks. You start by cheating, leaning the front wheel against something, and you kind of get used to the wiggle waggle as the bike kind of jitters. You jitter too. It’s always been women, but ever since Sunset ran a story on me doing this, I’ve had guys. It’s great. Guys are great to teach. In the early days, they wouldn’t pay me for anything.
If I passed a fellow in a race and he figured out that it was a woman that went by, they might kill themselves trying to get by you—but we all started together. We didn’t have a women’s category and a men’s, so it was mixed up. I rode drop bars, so the bike stuck out. I probably have a fairly feminine ass. I ride like a guy, but my legs were as fast as all but a few of the guys. And if the guy ahead of me didn’t want to be passed, he might go so fast that he would go faster than he was able and get hurt. Well, I can easily tell by the way their shoulders are moving or whatever and the way the bike is starting to misbehave, they’re in over their head simply because they’re going too fast. So back off, let the accident happen, and go around, and apologize. Because people will go faster than they ought to when they have issues, whatever the issue is. And guys do it with each other. That’s why guys come back all bloody from a fun ride.
The great thing has been getting to own my time from post-college to the present. Thirty years of not having to get up early, put on makeup, put on nylons, race out the door, be in a car, think about a mortgage, hate my thighs, hate my job, hate my boss, wait for that two-week vacation. I’m not a drug addict. I’m not in prison. I’m making individuals just love riding their bikes because they know they can wear dumpy-looking clothes. They can get off when they want. It’s not about the latest bike. It’s about whether they like riding, whether it’s safe to ride. And it’s OK not to wear toe clips, because there’s this unbelievable peer pressure to just laugh at each others’ stuff. And I think women do it differently. We seem to embrace a broader expression of individuality.
I’m the queen of making lemonade out of lemons. And, you know, there’s an awful lot of lemons, and lemonade is pretty damn good. And then if you get sick of that, there’s lemon curd, lemon pie, lemon tart, lemon sorbet…
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