Working in the Cycling Industry: Tara Seplavy
Interviewed by Anna Maria Wolf
You might not know Tara Seplavy, but I can promise you that when you meet, you’re going to end up being friends. She and I first met at my shop Sun and Air at a yearly WTF meet up called Pretty Damned Social. Tara had come to present about her work at GT and her racing on Foxy Moxy. This yearly meet up takes place to foster connections across the industry, community and sport. When Tara had finished presenting, there wasn’t a person in the room that didn’t want to jump on a bike and play in the dirt!
Tara’s megawatt energy lights up the room, and her kindness and generosity are instantly apparent. She is funny, and she shows how much fun bikes can be. In a sport/community where people can be a little cliquish, Tara rolls out the red carpet to anyone interested in coming along for the ride.
In continuation of the “Meet” series, where we interview women in the cycling industry, we get to know Tara a little more. Balancing advocacy, work, racing and family life, Tara shows how bikes can be #srslyfun!
1) You’ve had such a long and varied career in the bicycle industry. What have been some of your favorite jobs?
When I look back at my career highlights, like on my LinkedIn or something, I often pause and question, “Did all of this stuff actually happen?” It’s sorta in that Talking Heads sense of “and you may ask yourself, well how did I get here?” I have had a lot of lucky breaks in my career and was given some excellent opportunities early on.
If I had to pick a single favorite; it would probably be the opportunity to develop product with some of mountain biking’s top athletes. Working with the likes of Rachel Atherton, Sam Hill, Sabrina Jonnier, Stevie Smith, Hans Rey; those are iconic names and personalities of the sport. To have even played the tiniest role in their careers and success on the bike is humbling. I am extremely gratefully for that opportunity.
A couple of managers had the trust (guts? stupidity?) to metaphorically toss me the keys to a sports car and say, “Don’t crash it, kid!” I was running product development for Iron Horse basically all by myself when I in my mid-twenties. Then, a few years later, I was hired to head up all of mountain bike product management for GT. Perhaps this is why I so often like to give folks opportunities to go big?
I had success developing product by working hands-on at events but also by being involved in the onset of the online bike world, in old forums and message boards. I didn’t shy away from asking for input from consumers, listening to feedback from racers, and following up on tech or set-up questions.
There are certainly times though when I remember washing boats and sanding teak at a boat yard, or tuning up Schwinn Varsities as a bike mechanic to pay for entry fees or for gas to races.
2) It looks like you’re starting a new chapter at Dorel/GT. Can you tell us a little more about what you’re going to be doing? (Also is this a newly created position, or a role that others have occupied in the past)
I have been with GT (CSG/Dorel Sports) since mid-2009, mainly in product management positions; first as Senior Product Manager and then as Global Director of Product Management. As of March 2018, I stepped into the newly created role of Director of Brand Advocacy for GT Bicycles.
Under this new Brand Advocacy title, I am tasked with developing and implementing advocacy strategy that will open cycling to new communities of riders, break down barriers of entry to the sport, and help introduce new riders to cycling and to the GT brand. GT has a long history in the sport, from our roots in BMX to being a globally renown mountain bike innovator. We want to remain true to that heritage by getting more people out onto the trail, BMX track, street, bike parks, or pretty much anywhere that our bikes can be ridden.
In addition to this, I also serve as the liaison between the product and engineering teams and the GT Factory Racing program. This allows me to get back to my own roots in the industry by working more hands-on with the professional mountain bike riders that we support.
I am super excited about this new role as it allows me to give back to cycling in an all new way! It is imperative that our industry do a better job of reaching out to new communities of riders, to new demographics, and to emerging markets if we want to grow the sport as well as the business. Transitioning over to this side of the industry allows me to help grow cycling, the business, and myself professionally.
3) Some of your work in the past has involved a lot of travel. Was that something you enjoyed? Or was it really hard?
There have been years when I was traveling 25-plus weeks a year for work; so I guess that qualifies as “a lot of travel”. 😉
I would be lying if I said that I haven’t enjoyed a vast majority of the travel that I have done for my job. What other job could have allowed me to ride bikes on almost every continent, ride some of the best trails in the world, or attend dozens of World Cups and World Champs over the past two decades?
Through my job I have met and worked with so many amazing and talented people all over the world. I have experienced other cultures, I have seen how bikes are used and loved, and I have made lifelong friends in every corner of the earth.
I would also be lying if I said it wasn’t, at times, really hard and exhaustive on my mental and physical health, as well as on my relationships with family and friends. There were many long days spent at factories in Taiwan, flying in row 65 of a 777 on a 16-hour flight to HKG, or dinner parties where you are up well past your bedtime in whatever time zone you are in.
The toll that it took on me was rather unhealthy because I didn’t properly balance my life. I gained a lot of weight, became really out of shape, and slid into deep depression. I also did not get to spend as much time with my kids when they were little as I should have; that is pretty much the only part about travel that I absolutely regret.
4) It seems like racing is a really big part of your life right now. Is it a struggle to balance it with work? How does your training and racing benefit your life holistically?
About three years ago I stepped onto a scale, saw a scary big number, and decided to take action. I became a vegetarian, cut way back on alcohol and processed foods, and dropped a bunch of weight. Along with that I started really throwing myself into bike riding again.
I set a goal of completing the 2017 Trans-Provence, the legendary 6-day mountain bike enduro in Southern France. When I hit some training snags in late 2016 I called up my old friend, former professional rider and owner of Cycle-Smart, Adam Myerson for some help. We have been working together since then, and it has had a very positive effect on my fitness and mental health.
From 1998 until 2008 I raced a lot of downhill and dual slalom. It was very intertwined with my job and most of my social life. Separating any of them was pretty much impossible. Before 2017, I hadn’t seriously raced bikes in about a decade, even though I was pretty involved in racing from a product development and sponsorship perspective. On top of that, I hadn’t really raced much road or cyclocross since about 1997. But nonetheless, I fully threw myself into it.
Jumping back into road and cyclocross was a bit of me going back to my own beginning in racing to rediscover riding and racing for my own physical and psychological benefit, not only as something tied to my career. Getting into the NECX (New England Cyclocross) scene was particularly validating for me. Having a community of WTFs (Women, Trans, and Femmes) who were so welcoming, supportive, and who cheered for me at every race really helped me to accomplish some of my personal objectives on the bike.
I have decided to personally focus on cyclocross and criterium racing for a little bit. I find that they are both really accessible forms of racing and fit best into my life right now. Cross and crits also suit my strengths on the bike better than road racing or cross country. Being a larger women, living at sea level, and who pushes big watts, I am not really a naturally gifted climber. I prefer technical tracks and wet conditions where I can get off the brakes and use my bike handling skills. As anyone who has ridden behind me can attest; you can take the woman out of downhill but you can't take the downhiller out of the woman
Balancing racing with work and family hasn’t exactly been easy, but it’s a work in progress, and I am learning what works and what doesn’t. As weird as it may sound to some people, I need racing from a mental health perspective in my life right now. It is my outlet for depression and anxiety. I am extremely lucky to have a supportive employer and a fair amount of time off that I’ve accrued that allows me to spend much needed time with my children as well as race.
5) There are some cute dogs and kiddos in your social feed. Do you get active as a family? Are those trail dogs?
I have two kids, Abigail and Connor, and one crazy Brittany Spaniel named Jasper. They live with their other mom on Long Island, and I go to visit them most weekends. My daughter plays soccer and is very artistic. My son’s life is consumed by everything baseball, but he also rides bikes some and is a big fan of World Cup Downhill racing.
As a cyclist, I got both of my children onto bikes pretty much from the time they could walk. I admittedly probably forced the issue of us riding mountain bikes and racing BMX as a family a bit too much when they were younger. Now I have backed off; I want them to find a love for bikes on their own terms and in their own ways.
Connor and I have ridden at Whistler Bike Park each of the past five-years. We have also made a couple of family trips to Whistler, Mont Sainte Anne, and Kingdom Trails. Those are some great memories that I hold dear.
As far as Jasper being a trail doggo; well, perhaps one day but he’s going to need some training! He might be too consumed chasing squirrels and birds and wind up getting lost in the woods. He’s also probably too fast for me, and I don’t want to do every ride at threshold pace. 😊
6) The bike business is tough. What has kept you engaged and helped you avoid burning out?
Quite frankly, I did burn out! I failed to keep a proper balance between my work life, my physical health, and my mental health. I am getting that balance back now through riding, therapy, and a supportive network of friends and family. I am very fortunate to have these outlets and resources.
7) You race for a team that has athletes all over the country. What is training like when your teammates aren’t your closest neighbors?
Foxy Moxy is a “team” in a rather loose sense of the term. We are much more a community, a social network, a support group, and advocates for teammates and fellow athletes. We have an active team-only Facebook group that allows us to share info, ask questions, and help one another. I have made some great friends over the past two seasons with this team!
Personally, I often prefer training alone. That allows me to fit training into family time or around my work obligations. I also like training solo because that is my personal time, my escape. I can focus of riding and not on other stuff and that is important to me.
However, I do love racing with other Foxy Moxy riders. My best friend, Morgan Styer, also races for the team, and we race together at some road and cyclocross races. We have a great energy together and are like sisters to each other.
8) Your team is about racing bikes, but it’s also about advocacy. Can you tell us a little more about what you team does? Also, can folks buy/wear your kit if they aren’t on your team?
“Foxy Moxy is a cycling club and race team radically focused on promoting trans and gender non-conforming inclusive sport through positive and unapologetic visibility in competitive cycling.” I copied and pasted that directly from the team’s mission statement because it very succinctly says who we are, what we do, and why we are doing it.
While Foxy Moxy started as a race focused team, we have really morphed over the past 9-months into much more of a club with some members who race. We now have riders in the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK; many of whom don’t race a lot but are very active in their riding communities in other ways.
We proudly and vocally stand up for the right for trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming riders to participate in cycling as a sport, but also as a culture. This representation is not only limited to our own team members, but it also extends to advocating for all riders to participate in the sport.
Membership to Foxy Moxy is rather open: be a good person, be passionate, buy a kit, and participate. We welcome interested riders or sponsors to reach out to us if they are interested in joining.
You can support the team by following us on social media (@foxymoxyracing), cheering for us at races, or buying a water bottle or two from our website. We are currently working on offering a “supporter kit” for non-team members who wish to support our cause and ride in our fabulously hot kits.
9) What are your race/athletic goals for this year?
In no particular order:…
Drop some weight
Podium at Cross Nats in Masters 40-44
Bunnyhop barriers at a Vittoria Series race
Win a crit as a Cat 3
Get a Cat 2 upgrade in cross
Smash the patriarchy!
10) What are your immediate goals for your new gig? And where might we see you this year? (Interbike, New England CX races, Crits etc)
Work-wise, my main objectives for this summer are getting to know the scale and scope of what we can do. It’s identifying objectives, sketching out a framework, meeting lots of new people, and planning budgets. For events, catch me at Crankworx Whistler, Interbike, and hopefully at some more local group rides and get-togethers.
You can also expect to see me racing at NYC area races, Intelligentsia Cup, NECX races, and Cross Nats. Of course, you can always find me in my native habitat on Twitter, Instagram, or the roads and trails of Fairfield County, Connecticut or Suffolk County, Long Island.