PHOTOS: Max Houtzager

LOCATION: Northern California

“I think that the tradition of cycling being a male-centered and -dominated sport is a hurdle that’s just now being overcome.” -Sophie Ballo

As the stereotype goes, when working with the ocean-minded, it’s safe to expect some delays in communication, especially when there’s swell. Time is secondary to the ocean. What difference does a day or two make to a deadline? Things come and go, and tasks get done when they get done (unequivocally, after riding a few waves). When your route happens to pass by the sea and it happens to be the right tide and there’s a set rolling in, you tell your waiting friends there’s traffic and you jump in. Although you’ll later admit you kind of knew this would happen because you checked the forecast first thing in the morning and had it written on the back of your hand.

Meanwhile, those in the bike world respect each minute. When you give an estimated time, you’re expected on the dot, as is the understanding in Japan. When there is a destination, you can appreciate the journey but at the end of the day, you’re most likely timing the ride with your Garmin and you wouldn’t want to ruin what could be a KOM.

When you’re immersed in both worlds, the changing perceptions of time depending on the situation can be disorienting. Why can’t we mix the spontaneity of surfing with the drive of cycling? What if mainstream cycling didn’t revolve around the shortest time but revolved around something organic?

This is not to say people can’t embody elements of both. In fact, we are all the more drawn to those that do, like Sophie Ballo. She is a boss; the gears of her mind turn on another level. But you can also count on her for convincing opinions and spontaneous mellow rides (though her standard of mellow may include some insanely steep climbs).

How did you become involved in the cycling world?

I’m from Leesburg, VA, but it’s easier to say the Washington, DC, area. I also consider myself an honorary New Yorker, though New Yorkers would most likely take issue with that statement. New York City is where my family is from, both sides, and where they all still reside with the exception of my mom and sister.

I found cycling because grad school didn’t work out. I went to UNC Greensboro for my MS in Recreational Therapy, and I decided after a year that it wasn’t for me. I had just started cycling (another injured runner turns cyclist story) and organized a weekly beginner-paced ride. Out of the blue, the owner of Cycles de Oro, Dale Brown, called me up and asked if I wanted a job. Turns out, I did. It was one of the best jobs I ever had.

I worked at Dale’s shop for about one and a half years before deciding to commit to the industry. I applied for and got a job at Specialized, packed my bags, and moved west to California. There, I started getting faster and stronger from my daily participation (at least for as long as I could hang) in the infamous Specialized Lunch Ride. California’s Santa Cruz Mountains taught me how to climb and descend, though I did have to pay the price in lost skin.

I currently work at Rapha in Portland as their North American Marketing Manager. I’ve been a musical theater performer, a high school English teacher, a professional rider/trainer (of horses), a jewelry store salesperson, and, briefly, the receptionist for the Recording Industry Association of America. The cycling biz is my home, and it’s where I’ll always stay.

The #redzunow

Could you share a food story?

My dad was a gourmet chef. He loved to cater elaborate parties at our house in the countryside. He made just about everything from scratch, including pasta. He had a pasta roller bolted to the end of a huge slab of wood he used as a kitchen countertop. Usually, he took off the handle and kept it safely out of reach, but on the one day he forgot to take such precautions, I decided the pasta roller would be a perfect fit for my own culinary experiment. Using playdough, I rolled out long lines of purple, blue, and green spaghetti, which I proudly served to him upon his return home from work.

The reaction was not as I expected. My dad spent the next weekend fervently picking out all of the playdough from the roller, and I received a heated earful about not playing with grown up things. At the time, I didn’t see the huge deal, though being five gives you little perspective on any subject. I actually didn’t like it when he made pasta, as he also made meatballs with pine nuts and raisins, which my child’s palate found lacking. But he never dumbed down his food for me: I hoped for hot dogs with tater tots, he gave me beef’s tongue with buttered asparagus.

When my dad passed away several years ago, the end result of a long battle with complications from a stroke in 2004, I immediately craved those meals I knew I could never have again. I’ve come to realize that a good chef doesn’t just make a dish; he/she makes an expression of who they are as a person. All those years, he was telling me who he was and how he viewed the world. Even though I have little talent in the kitchen, my dad taught me how to appreciate food, and by extension, appreciate those who make it.

What are your thoughts on machismo in cycling?
How do you see things changing? Is it a matter of education?

The only sport I’ve been part of as a professional is the Hunter/Jumper industry. Though there are many things I don’t miss about it, the one thing I do miss is that it’s the only sport I can think of where men and women, both horses and riders, compete on equal turf. There are no Women’s classes and Men’s classes. There is a near 50/50 man/woman split of the top professionals, and prize money goes to the winner, period. I think it has to do with the tradition of horseback riding being something that both Lords and Ladies were allowed to do, albeit sidesaddle for the ladies for quite a while. Even in Downton Abbey, Lady Mary lined up right alongside all of her male suitors, and beat a good number of them, in the annual Point to Point Race.

So why did I open with horses? Because I think that the tradition of cycling being a male-centered and -dominated sport is a hurdle that’s just now being overcome. Have you seen that old poster make the rounds on the Internet about the “Dangers of Cycling” for women? Though it’s funny now, that poster was indicative of a very real and pervasive attitude cycling needed to overcome. We’re working on it, but we’re not there yet.

Cycling is tough. It hurts. It’s dangerous. There are a lot of ways in which machismo pays off, because it lowers some of those barriers. And because all those elements are things I personally love about the sport, it’s difficult for me to say they need to be taken away to “allow” more women to ride. I hate the thought that women need a watered-down version of anything.

But. There is a lot of research to support the positive effects of women’s only activities, from education to sports to the performing arts. And guys can be dicks, especially in a physically heated situation such as cycling. I think the happy middle ground is to allow both separate and combined worlds to exist. If a woman wants to join a mixed group ride, great. If she wants to join a women’s only ride, great. Mixed group rides can be friendly and women’s only rides can be sufferfests. If there is change to be made, it lies in allowing all of those possibilities without forcing it. One isn’t better than or worse than. It’s just two sides of the same coin.

Though there have been instances where an advertisement or a conversation took me slightly aback, I’ve never personally faced blatant sexism in the industry. But then again, I’ve always felt more comfortable playing with the boys, even as a little girl, so I feel my perspective is more the exception than the norm.

What’s the story behind the bike (Zunow) and what does it mean to you?

I found the bike on ebay, and it’s the second Zunow I added to my small but growing collection. It came with old Shimano 600 components, and though Dale thoroughly educated me in the awesomeness of vintage bikes (I once built myself a Cherubim with a complete Dura Ace Black groupset, right down to the hubs), I decided to update it with modern components. I moved all the parts from my carbon bike to the frame, and fell in love with it from the first ride. It’s still my favorite bike. Not my lightest or the nicest to ride, but my favorite.

I love the story and history behind the brand. I love that through serendipity, I have a personal connection to Doug Routley, the gentleman who brought the brand to the US and worked for the builder, Mr. Kageyama, briefly in Japan. I love the investment cast lugs and the crazy paintjobs and all the beauty of the different models. Level top tubes, one-inch tubing, clean lines, no bullshit. I just don’t think we make bikes that cool anymore.

What differences do you see in cycling communities centered around racing versus adventures?

I’ve only raced sporadically, so I can’t really speak to racing versus adventure cycling communities. You can’t even draw big generalizations anymore; i.e., one is based on ego and the other isn’t, since a ride doesn’t seem to count anymore unless it has its own hashtag and you post it to X number of instagram followers (of which I’m an avid participant) and put it up on Strava.

I will say, though, that you don’t need to race to be strong. And you don’t need to be strong to have an adventure. And some of my best adventures on a bike have been fast training rides. Racing is an experience, and some races are on gravel roads, and some gravel roads are adventures, etc.

Ultimately, we’re all just riding bikes.