Women on Bikes Day 14: Heather Jackson

Women on Bikes Day 14: Heather Jackson

If I didn’t know her parents well, I would put Heather Jackson on top of a podium so tall that it would be hard for her to climb down.

(That’s not a dig at her height, by the way. There’s no one as mighty — she probably gets that from her mother, too.)

Her mom, Diane, raised three incredible children, and is a SPOKESwoman and force to be reckoned with herself. It’s no surprise that her 2 daughters grew into her likeness, and in true Jackson form and fashion, are part of a family legacy that will leave our world much better than it was when they found it.

We ride for the next generation. We ride to save the world.

A public school teacher and triathlete herself from the small state of New Hampshire, Diane Jackson (and her husband Chris, a retired State Trooper, pistachio and mudpie lover, and gentle adventurer at heart) raised her children using a formula that she’s proven has a 100% rate of success.

Heather and Diane Jackson

And things have come full circle because there’s no better role model for young girls and women like me than Diane’s daughter, Heather. Little girls with dreams become strong female visionaries. The ones who give the boys a run for their money, who don’t take no for an answer, who aren’t afraid to work hard and often, and who use their influence, no matter how big or small, to encourage and elevate other women who are trying to find their way are the ones who keep us inspired and believing that we can do anything. Not in spite of the fact, but rather because we are WOMEN. 

I’ve spent the last two weeks talking with and about Women on Bikes who have important lessons to teach us by sharing the experiences and realities that are unique to them. It’s the diversity and variety that female ridership provides to American bike culture that we celebrate today, on the inaugural Women’s Cycling Day.

Recognition requires representation, and the bicycle is a great equalizer that, with someone in its saddle, can become a catalyst for change. 

The bike doesn’t care how it’s ridden. And at Bike Law, neither do we. Over the last two weeks I’ve featured 15 women whose wisdom, advocacy, and ridership define what it means to be a SPOKESwoman. Their stories are very different. But the morals of each are the same: 

We ride for our health. For freedom and for joy. We ride to sweat and to see things more clearly. We ride for ourselves and for others. We ride for equality and love. We ride because we can. And as women, we ride because we know that everything worth doing and saving asks us to give of ourselves in ways only we can give. 

We ride for the next generation. We ride to save the world.

“Don’t let winning go to your heads, and don’t allow losing to consume your hearts.”

I am constantly telling my young school-aged boys to stay humble: “Don’t let winning go to your heads, and don’t allow losing to consume your hearts.” I want them to be brave and determined, to build confidence and embrace every success. But there is no quantifiable value in winning without an appreciation for discomfort and adversity; without knowing what it’s like to struggle and fail and to know those things well, with composure and grace. I encourage them to remember that who they are IS where they came from and where they end up is entirely up to them. To understand that managing all of this will be easier for them than it was for me and roughly half of the world’s population; that they were born on 3rd base just because they are boys.

I want them to be comfortable and happy to step aside when a woman can do it better. Women’s Cycling Day is as much about educating and encouraging our male counterparts to see us clearly- as equals and at times, superior- as it is about championing all women on bikes.

And it’s always easier to influence others (and stop the mansplaining) when you have more credibility than they do. That’s why identifying women who have a revered presence and expansive reach who are willing to use their power and platform for good is so special.

Heather Jackson’s Roots

Heather Jackson lives at the top. Of the podium. Of the peloton. Of the hills and mountains she climbs to earn her title as the fastest woman to complete a North American Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run) in a blazing time of 8:39, and 4x top 5 Professional Ironman World Championship competitor who is seemingly just getting started.

Heather, at 36 with all of her impressive and jaw-dropping success, is still Diane’s little girl who realized at a very early age that no one could take away her power as long as she knew she had it. 

Heather played competitive ice hockey with her brother and the boys from the age of 6 through her early adult life. She went to the Exeter Academy, then on to Princeton University where she played D1 for 4 years while also spending her summers in Lake Placid with the US National Team. You shouldn’t be surprised that she’s as smart as she is fast and strong. 

And even before picking up a hockey stick or lacing up her skates, she was in the saddle (a favorite Jackson family past time), on two wheels, without any intention of returning to the bike for her life’s work as a change-maker, and one of the most accomplished and down to earth professional triathletes of all time and in the entire world.

“I learned to ride in our backyard. I was on a bike super, super young just toddling around,” she says.

Heather Jackson kid on bike

One might assume that when you can ride a century plus at ~ 25mph, you no longer want to take it slow. Turns out that isn’t so. 

“My Relationship With All My Bikes Is One of Love”

Heather Jackson explains, “I love how fast you can go on a bike and that speed is a direct correlation of the power you, personally, put into the pedals (unless of course you are just descending a massive mountain). But I am spoiled…I have more than one bike. I feel a different way about each of them [said with her distinct Heather Jackson giggle]! One is more for pushing my limits and my body. One is for exploring and enjoying the ride, and sitting more upright to take in the world and everything around me.  But my relationship with all my bikes is one of love.”

“Cycling lets me explore new places in nature that I couldn’t see if I just went out on a run. In two hours I can be up an entire mountain and I earn that view/experience/journey by pushing the pedals on my bike. It’s this rewarding process every ride in so many different ways.”

Pedaling for (and Achieving) Equality

Yes, her job is to go fast. It’s how she makes a living. But she took the time to talk to me and wasn’t in any rush. And while I can’t even imagine what it’s like to pick up a hockey stick while atop two metal blades on ice, or qualify for and win my age group at the Ironman World Championships during my first season racing triathlon, I do understand that sometimes the greatest blessings are the ones that are unexpected. Heather did not “toddle around” on her kiddie-bike in her backyard with any inkling she’d be the best American professional female triathlete and an icon for the sport that got me in the saddle and made me fall in love with cycling. She had other plans. But aspiring to be an Ice Hockey Olympian or agent in the FBI (I hope she doesn’t kill me for sharing) would not have provided her with the platform she has today. And it’s that platform and her “since she can remember” love for the bike  that continues to send ripples through our multisport and bicycle communities.

“When I got into actual bike racing, the biggest thing that stuck out to me was that the female races weren’t as long, or weren’t as many laps, because of course females can’t handle the same distance a MAN can handle… we definitely couldn’t handle a 21day stage race like the Tour de France. I think it’s the long-ingrained culture that cycling is a man’s sport and women aren’t as strong or as savvy or as technically capable (mtb), and so that trickles down in everything. For instance, how a mechanic or guy at a bike shop might talk to a female who is interested in buying a bike…. or the ongoing side of racing that I mentioned earlier that women can’t go as long or as far or do the same races. It also hasn’t been as popular for as long with females as males, and so it’s delayed at the highest levels (not equal racing or equal prize money) and that goes down to the youngest girls who might aspire to be the next Yolanda Neff or Kate Courtney or Kristin Armstrong.”

Or the next HJ. 

Heather Jackson Peace Out
Heather Jackson Women's Cycling Day

Encouraging Other Women to Ride

Our lives are fluid, and unlike any other period of time that I can recall, all of us are forced to face, manage, and adapt to challenges and uphill climbs that don’t appear to have an end in sight. Heather thrives there. Steady, and planted in the saddle, she’s always been able to push and put her head down until she gets to the top. 

And Heather Jackson doesn’t miss a thing.

“We can change these things by continuing to fight for equality in all aspects of cycling and triathlon, in both racing and pay. More women holding roles that are traditionally male — like working at bike shops and showing that females can also change tires and tune bikes will help. Women holding high up positions at bike companies or cycling related places and industries will help.” 

“But our biggest challenges continue to be our roads/city or town layouts making it dangerous or not ideal to commute via bike or to ride through for the everyday or elite athlete. When cities engineer  their roads and infrastructure, they don’t think like Europe does to make biking a part of it. Some places have shifted to include things like more and protected bike lanes but that’s not enough. Entire communities need to change their thinking about bikes…. our schools could educate at a much younger age and teach the benefits of bike commuting vs driving- not just the health reasons but for environmental benefits, less gas emissions, etc. We should be starting them young and making biking a prioritized part of our culture. A further challenge with that, however, is the act of getting bikes to young kids across our country with the cost burden and not everyone able to afford a bike for their kid(s). Maybe we can get some Federal funding for bikes for all kids!” [said enthusiastically with that same recognizable HJ giggle]

“If we can get more women on board, loving bikes and cycling then they will pitch it to their friends and children. There’s a whole part of our population that hasn’t been introduced to biking and I think women are more likely to bring more friends into it — even if they’re just like, ‘let’s ride our bikes to brunch instead of drive …’”

Heather Jackson’s job puts her in the saddle whether she wants to be, whether it’s safe to be, or not. And unlike other iconic athletes like Michael Jordan, Cal Ripken, or Tom Brady (take the last one up with the New England Patriots loving Jacksons), Heather rides and races on the same roads and courses as me. She takes on the same risks, exposed to the same crazed and entitled motorists, and makes all of us safer when WE ride because she is brave enough to keep doing it herself. Her road to representation amongst the world’s most elite competitive endurance athletes tells the kind of story that will continue opening doors for others to try something new; something that they never thought they’d want to; something that they might have been told they shouldn’t or couldn’t just because they’re girls.

Heather Jackson and Bike Law

Ride Like A Girl!

I think we overcomplicate most things that are best in their simplest form. Somehow basic became bad. If one is good, two must be better (N+1 is the exception. You can never have too many bikes.). We supersize everything — from french fries to pick up trucks- and we measure our self worth by the number of likes, comments, and followers we collect by sharing our most intimate and irrelevant thoughts with other people who don’t want or need to know.

Heather Jackson Triathlete

And men have given the phrase “Like a girl” an undeserving negative connotation that Heather is re-defining with every win, podium and record-setting performance, and autograph she signs.

Run like a girl. Cry like one. Love like one. 

There is no greater myth than the MAN-made one in which we’re discouraged or excluded from participating in any of life’s arenas at the highest levels simply because they’re afraid of being outdone by a woman. Heather’s secured her place at the top by proving her worth and undoing this fake news for women like me and every little girl with a dream and misplaced self-doubt and insecurity.  

So the next time some dude who can’t handle getting chick’d says you “ride like a girl,” think of Heather Jackson, and snap back:

If you were stronger, faster, and smarter … maybe you could too.