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Perhaps it was the thrill of speed. Perhaps it was her love for the outdoors. Or maybe it was just her inability to sit still, but Kelly Valyou has loved bikes for as long as she can remember.
“Some girls got excited about dolls and I just got overly excited about bikes,” Valyou told Ella CyclingTips. “It is something that I just gravitated toward.”
And before long, her childhood obsession would lead to a career.
“My mom thought I was crazy. I remember when I was 15, I had like $1,600 in my bank account and I said, ‘I’m going to take all this money and get a name-brand bicycle’,” recalled Valyou. “I bought it and kept coming back to the shop. So one day, one of the guys was like, ‘Kelly, you are in here all the time, why don’t you get a job?’”
Twenty years on, you can still find Valyou in shops. From a sales floor in New York to wrenching in Texas, Valyou has done it all. And until a month ago, she thought that she may have seen it all, too. But when Trek invited her to guest-wrench for the Drops Cycling Team at the Women’s Tour of California, a whole new world opened up.
Discovering a hidden talent
After 10 years of sales and shop management, Valyou was starting to get bored.
“It wasn’t new or intriguing anymore and I just couldn’t do it anymore,” Valyou explained. “But when you have surrounded your entire life around bikes, you get a little scared. I mean [bikes] are my passion, it’s all I’ve done and I don’t have a college education, but I also knew I didn’t want to do sales anymore … so now what?”
Fortunately for Valyou, she had a very supportive manager at the time who allowed her to dabble in the service side, building bikes and dabbling in mechanics.
“At the time, we had a master mechanic and my bench was right next to his and I absorbed everything I could,” said Valyou. “Came to find out, I actually have a really good knack for it! I just didn’t realise [that talent] had been there.”
Nowadays, you can find Valyou at Bicycle Sport Shop in Austin, Texas – a big shop with 10 mechanics in the back and five additional service writers around them.
“I have so many mechanics from so many different backgrounds, which means I have Wikipedia all around me,” Valyou joked.
Her day-to-day sees her grabbing tickets and servicing everything from hybrids and commuters to mountain bikes and race bikes.
“I love the problem solving, and that you get to use your brain and your hands,” said Valyou.
“I am so glad that I found [mechanics] and focussed on it. It just makes you think differently in all other aspects of life, too, you know, like pulling apart a car or installing a window regulator. You just think differently. You look at something and say, I got that. I can figure that out.”
Being a woman wrencher
But while it’s given her a fulfilling and successful career these past 10 years, it certainly hasn’t been easy.
“Being a woman in sales wasn’t nearly as hard as being a woman in service. I went from being able to get a [sales] job quite easily, to having to prove myself, still, as a mechanic,” said Valyou.
“Still to this day, customers or even other mechanics that don’t know me, will look at me differently because I am a woman. And the thing is, you don’t have your resume written all over you. They don’t know I have been a mechanic for 10 years and so they don’t immediately trust your opinion. It’s just the stereotype that men are more mechanically inclined … it’s a constant battle to prove yourself over and over.”
When asked why women should consider a career in service, Valyou struggled to find an answer.
“I don’t know if they should,” she said with a laugh. “Because you’re never going to make a lot of money, and you’re going to constantly have to fight.”
“But I also think we need more women in the industry for the culture to change and to empower more women to ride bikes. Plus, [as a mechanic] you get to be around bikes all day, work with your hands and solve puzzles.”
With that said, in the past two decades, Valyou has seen some change.
“There seem to be more opportunities for women now … finally,” she exclaimed.
These opportunities come in the form of programs, clinics and classes to get more women onto bikes and into mechanics.
Last fall, Valyou was the recipient of a woman’s scholarship to attend Trek’s advanced certified service course, from which she graduated last November.
So when the Trek-sponsored Drops Cycling crossed the pond for the WorldTour event, Trek reached out to their graduate and invited Valyou along as an extra set of hands for the team and a new opportunity for her.
As the only UCI Women’s WorldTour event in the United States, the Amgen Breakaway from Heart Disease Women’s Race empowered by SRAM is not only a great showcase for the sport, it’s also a huge opportunity for sponsor publicity, industry networking and young riders to prove themselves.
For Valyou, it became a crash course in WorldTour mechanics and everything that comes with it. “Being in the industry, you pick up some things but to be in the middle of it all was pretty incredible,” said Valyou. “It was a completely new experience. Very intriguing. It’s put a different taste in my mouth. I hadn’t thought about it before.”
Female bicycle mechanics aren’t a common sight to begin with, and female team mechanics are nothing short of a rarity.
In fact, in joining the wrenching staff in California, Valyou was one of only two female mechanics around, with Andi Smith of Team Colavita being the only other female wrencher.
Jumping in head first was a bit of a culture shock, Valyou admitted, though it had little to do with her gender.
“As a rider, I am a big time mountain biker so coming into the road scene like that was kind of mind blowing and intimidating,” shared Valyou.
“The mountain bike scene is definitely different. Everyone is a bit more relaxed, drinking beer and doesn’t take things so seriously, so the WorldTour was definitely an eye opener. But it was really intense and amazing to be part of it.”
Being part of the travelling circus was a lot different than her day-to-day, Valyou said. Most notably, how little work there was.
“There wasn’t a lot for me to do. Which, of course, for the team is a good thing. You don’t want to have to jump out of the car because someone has a mechanical,” she said.
“The team didn’t have any technical issues so I kind of felt like a glorified bike washer. There was a lot of sitting around, which for me is a hard thing to do as I’m a busy person. It’s not until you’re back home, after the race, that the work begins – when you basically do a full work-over of the bikes.”
Still, Valyou said that the experience opened her eyes to what other opportunities are out there and where bike mechanics could potentially take her.
“I’m kind of in limbo right now because it definitely intrigued me to be part of a team like that,” said Valyou. “And from a mechanic’s standpoint, to work with the same equipment over and over – repetition is a beautiful thing. I can see that being something that I would enjoy.”
So who knows, maybe in 2018, we’ll be seeing two female mechanics on the professional scene!
Ella: When it comes to bicycle mechanics what should every woman know?
Valyou: One of the most empowering things to learn is how to change a flat. For a lot of women, it’s embarrassing to not feel confident. There are women who won’t ride certain places because they’re afraid of a mechanical. Flat repairs are something so simple but super nerve-wracking for many women, especially now with thru-axles and tubeless. It’s a major disadvantage, not knowing how to fix a flat, but easy to learn.
Ella: What is the hardest part of a bicycle to work on?
Valyou: “For me right now it’s suspension because it changes all the time.”
Ella: What is one thing you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started cycling?
Valyou: “Being a mountain biker, understanding tyre pressure and suspension better and how it affects your ride. So many people don’t run the right pressure and are bouncing around or don’t play with rebound.”