Colorado Native Cyclist in Kazakhstan

Editor's Preface: This interview will only make sense if I explain that I'm interviewing my older sister, Lynette. She claims that she's the taller, faster, smarter version of me. A. She's only about an inch taller at this point in our lives (thank you yoga), B. This summer's rematch up Lookout will determine who's faster once and for all, and C. She's a Petroleum Engineer from The School of Mines and an I'll give her that one. One thing is for certain, she is much more adventurous than I am and infinitely more brave.

[303Cycling]: First of all, tell our readers how a Colorado Native end up in Kazakhstan?
Lynette: Long story short – I married an engineer. We started our journey together at the Colorado School of Mines (Go Orediggers!) and made the overseas move shortly before the birth of our second daughter. We spent nearly five years in Miri, Malaysia on the island of Borneo before moving to Atyrau, Kazakhstan in the summer of 2011.

[303Cycling]: You and your husband have been cyclists since forever. How did you get your start?
Lynette: Well, the roots of my riding go back to living 9 miles out of town (four on gravel and five on highway) and you and I wanting to be able to go to the swimming pool like the "town kids" during the summer. The swimming pool was open from 2-5 p.m. So, with our swimsuits on, tennis shoes (no socks), and a towel around our neck we’d start out on our bikes right after lunch. Thankfully, Colorado summer days go on forever so we’d make it home in time for chores with no one being the wiser (well, I’m guessing maybe Mom knew).

I dropped the bike shortly into high school when driving the 9 miles seemed cooler. Starting in college, I picked up the bike again when I realized that I could bike to work and classes faster than driving and parking. So I started commuting by bike. Working in New Orleans after graduation, I’d race the streetcar to work. So early on, I learned the utility and freedom that riding a bicycle can give you but I’d never approached it from a sport perspective.

In 2002, we moved back to Colorado and I heard about the Ride the Rockies Tour – we got a spot, bought our first official "road bikes", and off we went. Looking back, we were dreadfully under-prepared for the week but we made it without problem (showing you how wonderfully supported that tour is!) and we were hooked with not only using our bikes in an everyday fashion but also for sport and holiday.

[303Cycling]: When did you first decide to break your kids into the scene?
Lynette: We started biking as a family when our oldest daughter was 6 months old. It was just part of our family at that point. Our fleet of bikes has grown and changed along with our children. We started with one Burley trailer, then 2 trailers for an additional child or touring gear, then the Bakfiets, next a family touring package from Boulder-builder Mosaic with coupled bikes and tag-a-longs, then a Babboe Bakfiets, a Surly Big Dummy, and finally a father-daughter tandem from Davinci Designs.

It’s been an evolving process. We've done a lot of things well but generally only after lessons learned from some pretty horrible rides. We've done unsupported family touring through Australia, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, Italy and our favorite, New Zealand - three times in the winter!

[303Cycling]: What is it like biking in Kazakhstan with your kids? How do you do it? What are the temps?
Lynette:It’s like Cyclo-cross with kids, without the cowbells or hand-ups. Well, maybe not quite like that but there seems to be lots of similarities in riding styles. Infrastructure is minimal. Our regular daily ride takes us through a dirt lot, over a frozen river, down a set of stairs, over several 2-foot curbs, into heavy traffic, over cobblestones and ice. And this is with the kids.

Kazakhstan people can seem very cold, but we find that biking with kids generally brings out the best in people and opens people up a bit. When I’m riding with the girls with me, strangers (who I’m certain wouldn't have normally paid me any attention) watch for us on the path, at the market, and on the street. It’s a great way for the kids to see the city and its people.

Bikes and Gear. I've come to love my Surly Big Dummy that we bought from Salvagetti. It gets prime space inside our living quarters each night. There were giggles and guffaws when we put a front shock and studded tires on it--but it's served us well. I use this bike for nearly all my city rides--by myself and with our kids.

The winters are brutal. We just finished a January filled with days of wind chills in the -30s and base temps in the –teens and -20s. Back to back to back. We know Polar Vortex’s Kazakh cousin and we embrace her. Otherwise it would be a very long winter. Of prime concern is keeping all of us dressed warm enough so that if we have to walk, we can do it without worry of exposed skin. So we have the girls in full snowsuits for most of the winter, closed helmets, balaclavas, goggles, heavy mittens, and heavy boots. And, on the coldest days, even pulling a heavy load doesn't keep me toasty so I toss in chemical warmers for gloves and we've invested in rechargeable insoles for our boots.

It seems like a LOT of gear but really, if you ski, you already have most of it and here in Kazakhstan we aren't allowed to drive so it's a bit of a necessity for maintaining some personal freedom. And, again, it’s a very long and dark winter.

[303Cycling]: What is it like biking in Kazakh as a woman?
Lynette: Riding as a woman is unusual and draws attention to yourself - when you read guides about living in foreign environments, these two things are generally on the “DON’T” list. So, as a woman in a foreign environment, I am much more concerned with my personal safety when I ride here. I don’t ride alone outside of the city. I pick familiar routes through town and have ‘safe stops’ throughout where I've met someone or know someone in case I have problems. I text someone when I leave and when I arrive. I've learned a few relevant phrases in Russian to help me with police and security.

Kazakhstan President Nazerbayev was visiting Atyrau one day while I was out riding through the city. I didn't know this and got a bit anxious when all of a sudden I saw armed patrol dotting my path every 20 feet. I got particularly anxious when they stopped me. It ended up requiring 3 different men with guns to ‘talk’ with me before they let me continue on my way – mostly it was out of curiosity as they were interested in the brakes I had on the bike but it was a bit nerve-wracking. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and I like to share my love of all things bike – but I am vigilant about following best practices, personal safety, and polite behavior while I’m on the bike. It’s a hard balance.

[303Cycling]: What is the social aspect of biking like there and how does this change throughout the year?
Lynette: We have a great cycling club with A, B, and C rides out to the Kazakh Steppe that is incredibly active year-round. The numbers swell after the spring thaw and taper off as the winter approaches but there’s a core group that rides year round. The men that ride the frozen river on the weekend for sport and fun are amazing.

We do an early morning quick city ride here that I like to refer to our Hogan’s Heroes ride (complete with scurrying security guards, German Shepherds and searchlights, (see for yourself: Hogan's Hero's intro") – generally starting before the sun rises through the nearly empty city streets. It’s one of the few times that you might pull out a road bike as you have pavement conditions that allow some speed. It’s a lovely way to see the city as it awakes along with some of the livestock from the Steppe that came to town to feed during the night. It’s pretty cool to be riding through dark city streets with horses clip-clopping alongside you.

One of the things that I am most proud of here is our “Ladies Ride KZ” group that does weekday rides to the Steppe. When I first arrived there was one other woman who rode with the men’s groups on the weekend and she worked. So during the weekdays, I was by myself and had to curtail my riding to the city. But as I rode more with the weekend group, I learned the routes and it wasn't too long before I convinced another woman to join me on a weekday ride out of town. Fast forward 2 more seasons and we can have a group of 7-8 women show for a sporty ride to the Steppe during the week. It’s a definite NO-DROP ride as we look to continue to encourage more women to ride and build our group.

[303Cycling]: What are some similarities between CO and Kazakhstan?
Lynette: Geography. We joke that our part of Kazakhstan is just an extension of the pastures of Eastern Colorado but flatter. It is stark. It is dry. It is windy. It is dusty. It is hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. The people get grouchy based upon the weather. Just like home.

Community. Another similarity is the bike community. As diverse as our backgrounds are, the common desire to ride our bikes and enjoy a coffee or beer afterwards unites us. We share advice, tools, tires, and wheels, even bikes when things get tough. I’d trust these people with my children. And I’m so glad to have found this community here.

[303Cycling]: Big differences?
Lynette:There is SO much we didn't know about Russia and its rule over Kazakhstan. An independent Kazakhstan is a relatively new thing and traces of Russian rule are still present. The language is difficult for me – no sugar coating that. The ideas about restricted personal movement still guide much of our days. We have a lot more interactions with security personnel and police on this issue than I’d have imagined. Maybe if I improved my language skills that would be less taxing.

[303Cycling]: Worst debacle-ride with kids.
Lynette: Oh, there have been many but the greatest had to be our second tour through New Zealand where we overloaded my trailer and the sun set with at least an hour more to go on empty roads before the next town or our camp spot. A friendly farmer came upon our foursome and offered us an overnight in a vacant farmhand’s house. I’m certain the house doubled as a meth lab but we were so happy to have shelter that night (and a large tarp upon which to camp inside) and hospitality that we didn't even mind the burn spot on the brown shag rug. We dumped the camping gear the next day. And, that was the end of our tent camping while touring with kids adventures.

[303Cycling]: Most amazing ride with kids.
Lynette: Again, so many. But one of the most memorable was rolling up to a small airfield in New Zealand along one of our routes one day and meeting two pilots. They saw us taking a picnic break while they were working on a project at the airfield’s museum and came out to visit with us. They thought we might enjoy going up in the air with them in their planes.

They were 2-seaters so we each took a 20-minute turn getting to see our route from the mountains to the coast from the air. The girls who were 3 and 5 at the time got to ‘land’ the planes nearly side by side – just a girl with the pilot in each plane. It was amazing. I think the greatest success of our biking with the kids is the connections we've made with people throughout the world.

[303Cycling]:Tell us about "Garbage Cow".
Lynette: Every now and then we get an out-of-town visitor that joins us for a ride to the Steppe. On one such day, we were taking our time and getting pictures of things along our ride that have become commonplace for us but through the eyes of a visitor are unique. Sheep and goats with their bells ringing through the streets. A local woman hanging her ornate rugs out in the sun. School children running alongside us as we ride. It was that day that I spotted Garbage Cow – a local cow with her head in shoulder deep foraging in a city dumpster in an empty lot behind a school. I captured her image and thanks to the miracle of social media – Garbage Cow was born. [Editor's note: this is particularly funny for us as we were raised on a Dairy Farm. We'll now say, "C'mon, Garbage Cow. You're better than that," anytime we want to spur each other on to greatness.]

[303Cycling]: Where will you go next?
Lynette: Right now, I’m hoping somewhere where we can just walk out the door, hop on our bikes and ride…a long way. And maybe someplace a bit milder in weather swings. Colorado sounds good, yes? [Editor's note: YES. That sounds nice. Because I miss you, but every year you are away you shrink an inch, so feel free to finish out this post.]

[303Cycling]: Have you finally learned to spell Kazakhstan without spell check and do you think I ever will?
Lynette: Of course, I have and no, you won’t.

She's right. I won't. Thanks, Lynette for the interview and the inspiration (the continual slap in the face when I wonder if it's "too cold to ride my bike" here). Be adventurous, be brave and say 'hello' to Garbage Cow for me.

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