Presenting: Kayla Brannen
Recently bikekitz sat down with one of our favorite local women riders. There are a lot of amazing women cyclists in the Upper Valley, so it was hard to choose someone to start with. But this woman stands out. She’s a local business owner who races and rides road, gravel, and mountain bikes. She’s a powerhouse and an inspiration, the kind of woman who strives and succeeds (and sometimes fails), and supports and encourages other women to strive to be their own best self.
We met at Salt Hill Pub in Hanover, and over drinks and noshes we talked about cycling, racing, bikes, teamwork, supporting women, and proudest moments.
Cyclist, Stylist, Business Owner
Kayla Brannen is the owner of Maven in Hanover, New Hampshire. Born and bred in Vermont, Kayla started riding like a lot of us – as a kid. Her first bike was a hand-me-down from her Mom’s best friend’s daughter. It was yellow with a banana seat and came from Ames. Remember Ames?
Cycling wasn’t a sport to Kayla then, it was just how you got around. There were no helmets or fancy riding clothes, just your feet on the pedals and the wind in your hair.
Then, like a lot of kids, somewhere around high school or after, Kayla stopped riding.
Cycling for Fun and Fitness
In her early twenties, Kayla started going to Spinning classes at the CCBA Witherell Recreation Center. When the weather started to get nicer as summer approached, her friend Clint, who would go on to start FullSquish Mountain Bike Suspension, encouraged her to “just buy a bike and ride outside.” Kayla bought a Giant road bike, the previous year’s model, “with a triple chain ring,” and started riding with a small group of guys. This was the beginning of riding with a well-established early morning ride from the Dirt Cowboy Café in Hanover, New Hampshire.
On those group rides, Kayla learned how to draft and how to paceline. Clint would say, “stay on my wheel or you’re going to get dropped.” She was riding more and more, and had her eye on doing The Prouty, which she accomplished for the first time in 2005 and has done many times since then.
In 2010, her good friend Don Powers invited her to join a group doing RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa). It’s a seven day ride that travels the width of Iowa, across the rolling hills of what was once tallgrass prairie. Kayla wasn’t sure she could do it, but Don encouraged her to keep coming on the group rides, telling her, “you’ll be fine.”
“I don’t think I could do it again. Because I don’t think I could ever have that much fun again.”
She had doubts about going to Iowa for a four-hundred-plus mile ride with a bunch of guys she didn’t know that well. But it was a time in her life when she said yes to everything. Case in point, she had only recently returned from a five-month stint traveling around the South Pacific.
“It’s like a pub crawl. So much fun,” Kayla remembers of the RAGBRAI experience. “You hire a company to pack and transport your stuff from point to point. They’d pack up your stuff from your tent, take down your tent, move it to the new location, set your tent back up, and put your stuff inside. They did your laundry halfway through the week. There was a semi-trailer with showers. They gave you a beer mug and it was all you can drink beer.”
“You’d ride from town to town and stop along the way. You’d stop at the VFW and have breakfast. Or go to the local fire department and they’d have a biscuits and gravy breakfast.” The ride proved doable, and she made some close friends. “I don’t think I could do it again. Because I don’t think I could ever have that much fun again.”
After the group got back, they rode together all the time. “I rode into shape that summer.”
Ride in the summer, Spinning class in the winter. For a few years, that was Kayla’s rhythm.
Kayla’s first race was trial by fire. “A friend of mine who was a big racer was like, ‘You should do the Battenkill.’ I’d never done any kind of bike race. ‘You’ll beat everybody,’ she told me. I was like, Really? You think I’m that strong? And I started that race… that first hill, which was not even that much of a hill, I got dropped. I spent the next sixty miles by myself. I was like, oh my God. Does she hate me?”
Framed Fat bike
Scott Addict Team Road Bike
Cannondale Scalpel Mountain Bike
Scott Addict Team CX Bike
And a $25 yard sale townie bike that she keeps in Hanover. “I have dreams of parking it outside the salon and cruising down to the Co-op for lunch and cruising back,” Kayla says. “But that’s just not my work day.”
As our interview progressed over the course of the evening, we noticed a trend. Whenever we asked, “What’s your favorite bike,” “Favorite place to ride,” “Favorite type of riding?” Kayla hesitated. Finally Barden noted, “She doesn’t like to pick favorites!”
That said, Kayla had a bike in fourth or fifth grade that stood out. It was a Huffy, “or maybe a Mongoose,” black with rainbow metallic stickers. Very slick.
Probably her favorite of her current bikes is her road bike, because it’s her favorite type of riding. She gets something deep out of the camaraderie of the group ride. “I love how it breaks into smaller groups. You’re experiencing something together, suffering together.”
It was clear, although she didn’t say it in so many words, that one of her favorite parts of cycling was the many interesting and special people it has brought into her life. Some have become close friends, while others are people “you wouldn’t normally seek out,” yet their presence makes life richer.
When asked, “what cycling destination would you go back to?” Kayla’s response was instantaneous. “Italy. Italy is my favorite.”
Riding with the Guys
Many women hesitate to ride with a group that is mostly guys. And while Kayla often wasn’t the only woman present, the ratio of women to men was usually pretty low. We asked what that was like.
“I always feel like I’m always the slowest. But I’m also okay with that,” Kayla said. “I know they’re going to wait for me at the top of the hill. I’ve always been comfortable in those kinds of situations because growing up my brother always had a lot of friends around.”
And while many guys are happy to have women join the ride, even encouraging the women they know to come along, not all men are that supportive. There have been a few men who have had the attitude that women don’t belong. “They’ve never said ‘This is a guy’s ride’ to my face, but it was kind of implied. And then, you know, when you’re not the one holding the group up anymore and they are, it’s like…”
And then there’s the Mansplaining. “This time in Florida I was stopped at a light and a guy pulls up in a Maserati. He’s probably eighty, never ridden a bike. He rolls up next to me and he’s like, I think your seat is a little high,” Kayla remembers. “I would have been less offended if he’d called out, ‘Nice legs!’ I was like, Dude. Don’t fucking talk to me about my seat height.”
Being a part of women’s racing teams has been the opposite experience. Kayla is a member of BikeReg / Share Coffee, a women’s amateur road cycling team. It’s a “really supportive group of women,” and Kayla loved the team tactics. “You feel like if you launched a couple attacks, and your teammate won, you helped her get there.”
Cyclocross racing doesn’t feature the same kind of strategizing, but the thing Kayla loves about it is the depths racers find in themselves. Kayla has been a member of Cowbell Racing, sponsored by Cowbell Mobile Bike Shop, for the past three years. Cross racing is “a different animal. It’s pushing yourself as hard as you can for forty-five minutes.”
Road vs Cross vs MTB
“I’m probably strongest at road riding. But because I’m comfortable mountain biking and I have pretty good technical skills, that helps cross. They all kind of play on each other. Road riding helps my cardio in cross and mountain biking. Whereas mountain biking helps my technical skills in cross. Good strong cardio helps in cyclocross.”
Leadville: The Hardest Race You’ll Ever Love
This summer, Kayla participated in one of the hardest races in the country. The Leadville 100 is a one-hundred-mile race across the Colorado Rockies. The terrain is extreme, altitude is a factor (you start at 10,000 feet), and the race is grueling. It was the hardest thing Kayla’s done, “probably more on an emotional level.” Racers who finish in under twelve hours receive a belt buckle. “We did it in twelve and a half.”
Kayla did the race with her husband Barney, also an accomplished rider. It was “the perfect example of him being the stronger rider that day. I sucked all the air out of the air room. I needed all the support.”
For a race like this, athletes need to dig deep, and it’s not pretty. “I cried four or five different times. I was like, Why are we here? I was high maintenance.”
But Barney was a rock. “He was very supportive. I’m sure it was difficult to be supportive and do that ride. We laugh about it now. He’s like, that last climb I didn’t even know how you were keeping your bike upright.”
But the thing about an accomplishment like that is that it’s seductive. You ask yourself, Could I do it better? Could I do it faster? Am I tougher than I was? “And now I want to do it again,” Kayla says.
Changing the Mental Conversation
Nobody is harder on us than we are on ourselves, and sometimes the voices in our heads are more harmful than helpful. Sometimes, it’s not so much a voice as a feeling.
“I’m racing and all these people are way faster than me. I feel like I don’t even belong here. I’m not a contender. And I think it’s subconscious. I don’t actually say to myself, ‘You don’t belong here.’ But when you say to yourself, I do belong here. I’ve done the work. It’s different than not having that conversation.”
This summer, at a Criterium series with BikeReg / Share Coffee in Chicago, Kayla put that hard-earned lesson to the test.
“I was holding on for dear life.” On the third day, the last lap, Kayla came to a tight chicane right before a little hill, and then the finish line. Kayla wanted to get through the chicane first. “I like to corner and I corner well, and if I don’t get behind people who don’t corner well I don’t have to slow down as much.”
She got through the chicane and went up the hill and looked back, only to find she was in a breakaway by herself. “I was confused because that’s never happened.” Shaking off the surprise, she told herself, “You’ve got this. Don’t blow it. Put your head down, and fucking pedal. And pedal and pedal and pedal. So I just did. And I got to the last 90-degree turn and then there’s this long straightaway to the finish. And I could just feel people chomping at my heels. I probably should have stood up and started sprinting a lot sooner than I did. I got caught by first, second, and third place. So I got fourth.”
Kayla went from thinking she couldn’t be a contender to being just one place out of podium.
Learning to Dig Deep
If there’s one thing Kayla wishes she knew at a younger age, it’s how to dig deep physically, how to really push oneself and keep going. “Because I feel like I learned that at 27,” Kayla says with a laugh. “I wouldn’t say I was really pushed in sports as a kid. I didn’t push myself but I also didn’t get pushed by adults. I would get winded and think that that hurt and stop.”
Kayla began working with Aidan Charles of Charles Coaching and Nutrition Systems about six years ago and credits him with making her a better rider. “The nicest hardass” is what she calls him. “He holds me accountable. He believes I can do it.”
“Cycling is more in your head”
Early on, he asked her a pivotal question. Did she want to just ride for fun? If so, she could easily do that without him. Or did she want to get stronger and faster?
Working with a coach means following a structured training plan designed to build an athlete’s speed, power, and endurance. “I really have enjoyed following those numbers. I love doing the ride exactly the way I’m supposed to. Sometimes it makes it not fun, too. So it’s nice to have those Saturday morning group rides when you just go out and have fun.”
Kayla remembers one particularly difficult workout that called for three-minute intervals above her maximum effort. It was tough, really tough. Kayla couldn’t do it. But it kept showing up on her schedule. For weeks. “I think cycling is a lot more in your head.” Eventually, Kayla successfully completed the workout.
A stylist with sixteen years of experience, Kayla came to feel several years ago that she was ready for the next step in her career. She had long worked at We’re Makin’ Waves, but wasn’t sure what the future held for her. After a long process of looking around for opportunities and many conversations with Lisa Purinton, owner of We’re Makin’ Waves, Kayla and Lisa eventually came to a buyout agreement that resulted in Kayla taking on ownership in July of 2017.
This summer, in recognition of her new ownership, Kayla changed the salon name to Maven. On Friday, November 2, 2018, Maven will host their Rebrand Kickoff Party with light eats, beverages, and prizes. All are welcome, and bikekitz wouldn’t miss it for the world.
“I had nooo idea what it was going to be like to run a business and manage fifteen to seventeen people. It’s really important for me to work with a bunch of women who support each other and strive to be better. I see that in the salon, as well as in riding on the road with women. I think there’s a lot of support.”
“But I would say that – and maybe it sounds cheesy — but cycling has prepared me for what I’m doing now. It takes a lot of dedication, if your goal is to improve. It doesn’t just happen overnight.”
“The same is true in running a business. It builds upon itself and builds upon itself. If it’s hard in running a business, I know I can get through it. I have to do the work to get there, and I’m not afraid to do the work. I know I can do the work.”