Working in the Cycling Industry: Rachel Gitajn
Sometimes we don't know where the trail ends, and there in lies the adventure. Whether it's our work, our social network, or a literal trail in the woods. Sometimes the best path is the one you least expect. We sat down to chat with Rachel Gitajn, lead engineer at All City Cycles. Her studies would lead her to a tenure at Burton, but a chance encounter with a second hand bike would lead her to a second dream job. From off-road riding to an in-depth discussion of Women's Specific Design, Rachel shares with us what its like to work at All-City, one of the most inclusive, fun, and adventurous cycling brands out there.
All-City is such a unique cycling brand. Was it always on your radar as a place you’d like to work?
I’d never heard of All-City until I stumbled upon one of our bikes about 3 years ago at Old Spokes Home, my favorite bike shop back in Burlington, Vermont. I’d been riding a steel track bike for a number of years, but I knew I wanted a more versatile geared road bike. I stopped by the shop, not really expecting to see anything I wanted, but the All-City Space Horse caught my eye right away. I love classic lugged details, and was immediately drawn to the lugged crown fork and beautiful internal cable routing bosses. It was kind of love at first sight.
After I bought that bike, I checked out the All-City website, and connected to the general aesthetic and vibe of what the team here was doing. It wasn’t really on my radar to work here until I saw a job posting a few years later. That was when I was like, wow, yeah, that’s it. That’d be amazing.
Although cycling has always been a big part of your life, it looks like the cycling industry is the second act in your career. Can you tell us a little about your work before bikes?
For sure. The first part of my career, and my first dream job (because this is definitely my second!) was in the snowboard industry. Let’s rewind back to the winter of 2004/2005. I was a junior in college, studying mechanical engineering and product design at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. The mountains of Southern Vermont were a short drive away, and my friends and I all had seasons passes to snowboard at Stratton and Okemo. We spent every weekend in the mountains, and drove up mornings before classes when we could. So when a representative from Burton Snowboards came to our career fair looking for engineering interns, I was ecstatic. I ended up getting hired on as an intern summer ’05, and then getting hired full time the following spring when I graduated. I started in a pretty entry level role, but quickly worked my way into a design engineering role on the snowboard bindings team. (Quick lesson for those that don’t snowboard – bindings are the part that connects your boots to your board. See some awesome ones here). I spent the next 9 years at Burton, gaining experience, developing amazing product, and cutting my teeth as product design engineer in the outdoor industry. As one of only two design engineers on the Bindings team, I’ve worked on every single model in the Burton line – from the bindings worn by Olympians like Kelly Clark and Shaun White, all the way down to Burton’s awesome kid’s product for 2 and 3 year old shredders.
It really seems like you have done every type of riding one can possibly do on a bike, is there anything you haven’t done and have your eye on next?
I’ve ridden all sort of bikes, but there’s a ton more that I still want to do. My entry point to bikes was for transportation. My car died in the process of moving to Vermont after college, so I started commuting on an old rigid mountain bike (a 13th birthday present from my dad). A few months later, I bought my first fixed gear from a friend, and quickly fell in love with the simplicity. I biked to work along the Lake Champlain bike path, biked to meet my friends out for drinks, and got to know the ins and outs of my city in a way you only can by bike. Bikes are a big way I connected with all my closest friends, and how I tapped into the community in Burlington. I started playing bike polo, raced my first alleycat, and threw my energy into organizing bike events. City riding and track bikes were my gateway drug to the rest of the world of cycling, and over the years I’ve done road centuries, bike camping trips, and fell in love with mountain biking. Mountain biking is really the only thing that gets me out of the city in the warmer months. Dirt trails are where I battle the most with fear, frustration and self-doubt, but it’s also where I get the most giddy-grin exhilaration, and blissed-out sense of accomplishment.
And here’s a little guilty pleasure that I’m going to share – I also teach indoor cycling classes and freaking love it. I love riding bikes outdoors as much as anyone and I totally get all the judgments people might pass on spin classes and studios. But the music-driven element really does it for me and makes me push myself so much harder than I ever do on my own out on the streets or the trails. I was a college radio DJ for over 10 years, and have recently been dabbling in DJing parties and such, so music, especially music that makes you move, is a huge passion. Indoor cycling lets me bring my love for all sorts of things together – amazing music, bikes, high energy positivity, and a kickass workout.
What’s next? All sorts of things. I think I set a goal every single year to improve my mountain bike skills and I feel good about the baby steps in progress I’ve been making this summer. I also plan to try my hand at a cross race or two next fall. I’ve always enjoyed riding for fun, not speed, but I got a taste of the cross culture last year as a spectator, and new challenges are always worth trying. I also really want to learn a proper cross mount and dismount, because those just look pretty cool :)
You are the lead engineer at All City. Can you explain a little about your job?
As the lead (and only) engineer on the All-City team, the heart of my job is simply to bring our bikes from a dream to the real thing. I absolutely love it. Making bikes that we can all be excited to ride, sell, and put out there in the world is pretty fun.
At the beginning of a project, I ask our team the hard questions and help focus the dream idea into something that speaks to the details. What rider is this for? What’s their body position on the bike? What kind of terrain are they riding? What size range to do we want to fit? I also get into some of the nitty gritty details. What’s the max tire clearance and drivetrain requirements? How do we want the bike to handle at slow and fast speeds? Is it super responsive on the steep climbs or super supple on the gravel descents? I take all this information and translate it into a computer models of the final bicycle, defining the fit range, handling geometry, material choice, and tube thicknesses.
In addition to the standard engineering needs like strength and geometry, I also get to use my art and product design background to develop the physical aesthetics of our bikes. I’m responsible for everything you can see on the bike before it’s painted – the sculptural design of our dropouts, the shape of our seat stays, and the overall look and stance of our frames and forks.
After the bike is designed, I also work closely with our partner factories in Taiwan, coordinate with our Art Director, and follow the project through testing, ride samples, and final consumer launch. In short, I’m involved from start to finish.
Engineering and Cycling have been traditionally male dominated fields but both are changing. Is there anything cycling can pull from engineering to make the industry more accessible to women?
That’s a really good question. They are really different fields, with some really unique challenges and approaches, but there are also some issues that are shared. I’m really committed to getting more women into both cycling and engineering, but I’ve definitely spent significant time focusing on women in engineering.
In the engineering field, there’s a lot of ongoing research and investment in recruitment, often focused on attracting and empowering young girls to consider engineering careers and courses of study. The two big things I’ve learned through my involvement with youth engineering outreach are 1) the importance of role models and 2) the need to focus on positive messaging that resonates with your audience. You can see me in an engineering role model video here. This was made to inspire high school girls to become engineers. I think there are a lot of groups addressing both role models and messaging really powerfully in cycling, and Pretty.Damned.Fast is one of them – I love seeing the rider profiles, photos, and journalistic voices that I know I can relate to. I also love seeing organizations springing up to engage young girls in cycling, like the Little Bellas, which holds girls mountain bike programs in over 15 locations each year.
Recruitment into specific companies is a bit different than recruitment as a participant in the sport. Here, I learned equally as much from my experience at Burton Snowboards as I did from the engineering organizations that I volunteer with. One of the biggest things I learned at Burton is that active recruitment works, is important, and can be extremely effective, especially at the internship level. As many companies in our space are well aware, we’re lucky if a job posting gets even a few women for every hundred applicants. I’ve seen some success in posting to women’s career sites, like the Outdoor Industry Women’s Coalition, or the Society of Women Engineers, but our industry has a pipeline issue that self-perpetuates. Many positions in the bike industry require industry experience, which has a way of reinforcing existing inequities in representation. I’ve found that internships are one way to reach and actively recruit a more diverse group of people. I’ve been involved in establishing women’s-specific internships both at Burton and here at QBP, where we just said goodbye to our first group of 5 women* interns for summer 2016 (*our QBP internship program is trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming inclusive). Internships are a beautiful entry point to our industry and our companies. While they aren’t perfect, internships do open the candidate pool to a much broader audience, where we can give a first industry experience to the most qualified, stellar, passionate students that apply. In addition to establishing a more equal playing field at the entry-level, students are also much easier to actively recruit through university contacts, department heads, and professors.
Retention of women in the industry is equally important. I don’t want to go too deeply into the all the factors that play a role in why women leave shops, companies and professions, but some key ones that come to mind are workplace culture, the lack of peers, and a lack of mentors. Creating work environments that support diversity is critical, and everything from language, facilities, benefits, peer groups, and an individual’s ability to influence change all play a strong role.
What is it like to work at Quality Bicycle Products? (the parent company of All-City)
QBP is a phenomenal place to work. I mean, I did move halfway across the country for this job. One of the things I love, being a part of the All-City brand, is that I get to work with a really small passion-driven brand team, while also having the broader support network and expertise of a much larger organization. We also have an amazing community, down to earth people, and we share a common understanding that making time to bike and play outside is equally as important as kicking ass at your job.
After spending your life on the east coast, what was it like relocating to Minneapolis?
The move to Minneapolis has been amazing. From my first visit here, I was struck by how strong and welcoming the bike community is, and also how stellar the bicycle infrastructure is. Back in Vermont, I was really involved in bicycle advocacy, and it felt like an uphill battle trying to get even a single safe bicycle lane on the most traveled city thoroughfares. Coming to Minneapolis was a breath of fresh air because it’s all already here. We have the best network of bike paths, greenways, and bike boulevards, arguably in all of North America. It’s nice to not have to fight for it. Cycling for transportation and recreation is just a given here.
What bikes are you riding these days?
My go-to bikes are my All-City Space Horse and Big Block. I ride the Big Block around town, but end up spending the most time on my Space Horse. It’s my road bike, commuter rig, bike-camping go-to, and grocery-getter. For trail riding, I ride the All-City Log Lady a bit, but I’ve got a soft spot for full squish. I’ve been taking advantage of our sister brands, riding the Salsa Pony Rustler pretty regularly. That bike is a blast. You can usually find me testing prototypes too, but those are super top secret :)
You’ve spent a ton of time in industries where ‘women's specific product’ is being produced. Do you see a big future for that? Could you imagine a gender neutral future for bikes?
What a great, but also loaded question. In my early days in the snowboard industry, I had to regularly remind colleagues that being a woman did not make me an expert-of-all-things-women’s-specific. I was hired as an engineer, not as token-female, and I wanted to focus on engineering great product for everyone. As I’ve grown up in the outdoor industry, I’ve developed stronger opinions on the topic, and have some thoughts I can share on what does and doesn’t matter.
If we’re speaking purely about the engineered physical elements of a product, my first observation is this: the existence of product that fits your body size, no matter what gender you are, matters. This is one of those “duh” observations, but it is relevant to the conversation because of the deep history in outdoor sporting goods, where performance gear was always tailored around an average American or European male body size. A lot of the earliest gear, designated as women’s-specific, was simply smaller versions of the “unisex” or men’s product. It’s easy to critique that approach, but my critique lies in calling it “women’s”, instead of just smaller. Either way, the existence of a size that fits you definitely matters.
My second observation is this: the more intimate you are with a product, the more a focus on gender specific body differences can matter. This is especially true in areas where body differences differentiate in a way that isn’t simply larger or smaller (for example, very tightly fitted clothes, or anything that doesn’t work for people-with-breasts). Conversely, the less intimately your body is touching the product, the less it matters, to the point where it doesn’t matter at all (like bike frames and wheels/tires, but we’ll get there later). There’s a lot of grey area in between, and I don’t have a strong opinion on whether product like shoes or helmets (or even snowboard bindings, which I designed at Burton for over 9 years) require a ground-up women’s-focused technologically unique approach to perform amazingly for women. But there are many other really valuable reasons why brands choose to differentiate men’s and women’s product.
I’m going to take my engineering hat off for a moment and talk about some of these non-engineered elements. There’s a strong socialization element at play – and this influences both buying habits and the styling/colors people are drawn to. As humans who are generally-not-naked, clothing is something we probably have the most experience shopping for. And especially with clothing, we, as women, have been raised to look for, desire, and choose gendered product. Our buying habits may have formed with clothing choices, but this socialization has influenced and limited our known comfort-zones in all retail environments. We have become consciously or subconsciously wired to look for the women’s section, or to focus in on anything that says it is marketed or designed for women. So my third main observation is this: designating product as ‘”women’s-specific” can make the shopping process feel easier, and can give women confidence that they made the right choice. And that matters.
Other things that really matter when we want to reach the women’s market include branding, events, messaging, and community building. I personally LOVE women’s-only mountain bike clinics, messaging that highlights community and personal joy over competition, and seeing photographs and videos of badass women in advertising. And although I don’t represent all women, I also know that I’m not alone. This is where lines get blurry. Many brands don’t feel like they can do justice to women’s marketing, community-building, messaging and events without also having a women’s-specific product story to accompany it.
Now let’s get back to bikes. Do I think bike frames and forks need to be gender-specific? No. Do I think they need to fit a wide array of people, including shorter and/or lighter people, some of which are women? Hell yeah. But are there benefits to companies and brands choosing to differentiate women’s specific product for other non-technical reasons? Yeah, and that’s for each brand to decide its own path.
You asked if I see a gender-neutral future for bikes, and the answer is I do see it clearly. But instead of gender-neutral, I’d prefer to say gender-inclusive. If we, as brands, choose not to separate product into a women’s-specific version, gender-neutrality isn’t enough. Gender-neutral, or unisex product, has historically always implied men’s, with an “and yeah, sure, women can ride it too, if they’re tall” approach. Being explicitly gender-inclusive is not just about the bike itself, but also about intentionally showing various genders in photo and video assets, sponsoring riders of all genders, and making it clear in messaging that men are not the default.
Here at All-City, my team is working to live up to that standard of explicit gender-inclusivity. We just introduced our first bike with a broader size range that should fit riders as short as 5’0” and as tall as 6’3” (the Space Horse Disc!), and we’ve made a dedicated commitment to showing gender diversity in our photo and video assets. We still have a lot work to do though. And by no means is this the only “right” way to approach bikes and brand choices for the women’s market. But it is our way and it feels authentic to who we are. We see All-City as a brand that speaks to badass people in general– women, men, trans, queer, non-binary. Our riders live, work, play and explore on their bikes. They’re drawn to classic details and aesthetics, but as riders, they’re a little rough around the edges, a little fierce, and a lot awesome. Thanks for reading and see you out there!