Mountain of trouble
Bike trails bring veterinarian Rae Gandolf rewarding physical and mental challenges. Take a ride with her in a first-person video.
Sun-dappled leaves cast moving shadows on a ribbon of dirt that winds between trees and down a hill. A biker appears, leans into a turn, straightens and gracefully vaults off a jump. At one with her bike, she lands and disappears down the trail.
The rider is Rae Gandolf ’98 DVM of Nashport, Ohio, professional mountain biker and veterinarian.
Gandolf grew up in Connecticut and came to Columbus to study veterinary medicine at Ohio State. After graduation, she took a university job focusing on parasites at The Wilds, an Ohio conservation center that is home to the likes of greater one-horned Asian rhinos and fringe-eared oryx. About 15 years later, she departed as The Wilds’ director of conservation medicine.
During her time there, Gandolf surrounded herself with outdoor types, and while training for a triathalon, she met her future husband, mountain biker Heath Boedecker. Before long, she was riding, too, on trails she helped build on The Wilds’ property.
“I was excited to finish,” she said of her first race in 2002, “and completely dejected to find out I had to do another lap.” She came in second. And she was hooked.
Competitive by nature, Gandolf took up downhill racing a few years later. Her first competitions were out-of-control dashes down the mountain.
“I thought it was about just going fast, so I let off the brakes, held on and then crashed diabolically,” she said. “It wasn’t until I got my bike under control that I started getting decent results.”
Downhill race courses are about 2.5 miles long, offering a twisting run down a mountain littered with rocks, roots and jumps. “All the stuff you see from the ski lift that you can’t imagine skiing down — that’s where they put the bike trails.”
Races are typically weekend events. A day or two of practice is followed by a qualifying or seeding run and then the race. Riders have a single shot to make it down the mountain as fast as possible — and in one piece.
“I’ve endoed [gone end-over-end] out of the gate, so the race is over in 20 yards. I’ve had a flat at the top of the course, then it’s over.”
But she also has won — enough, in fact, to come in second in the nation in the pro women’s downhill series in 2014, just a few points off first place in a race circuit that features races around the country. In the fractions of a second between first and deep into the list of also-rans, a million things can happen.
“The whole weekend you are practicing, you are making your line choices [the line you’ll follow down the mountain]. So you are deciding, ‘Should I ride over that rock? Should I jump over this rock? Or should I just go straight through the rocks or ride around them? And which is going to be fastest?’”
Some of those decisions have to be made in seconds, some in microseconds. And, of course, physical fitness, keeping your head in the ride and the bike itself — how well it is working, how much it weighs — play a part in every result.
Gandolf finds mountain biking to be all-encompassing, both physically and mentally.
“Downhill mountain bike racing is the most physically demanding thing I can ever imagine doing in my life,” she said. Not only does it provide an aerobic and anaerobic workout, but guiding a bike down a mountain at high speeds demands arm and core strength as well. “You are calling every physiologic system into play.”
Gandolf has transformed her weekend hobby into a career that includes sponsorship by Kona Bikes and instructing new riders. She also is president of Appalachian Outdoor Adventures, the bike club that maintains trails around Zanesville, and practices veterinary medicine several days a week.