International Women’s day is celebrated in March every year and to commemorate this special occasion (in our March-April Volume 20) we thought we would meet with three women - some of the most feared and respected in cycling - to see what their journey has been like.
In this feature we have Noraidillina Adilla - best known as Malaysia’s up and coming track cyclist, Siti Hajar Abu Bakar, a mountain biker with nerves of steel and Mariana Mohammad - known to be one of the fastest female road cyclists Malaysia has ever produced.
This is the first of these features - Siti Hajar Abu Bakar.
Recognised as one of the best skilled community based mountain bikers around, Hajar is most famous for her work on women’s community mountain biking.
Operating under her club name Doowaroda, many women mountain bikers are on the trail these days thanks to her initiative. Hajar also has a very colourful and easygoing personality which is what attracts people to her in the first place.
Can you remember the first time you ever encountered a bicycle and was it love at first sight?
Not sure if it was love at first sight but my entire family always rode bikes. I took off my training wheels at age 5. My siblings and I would ride around in a pack like a gang, sometimes my dad would join us with my youngest sister sitting on the back as passenger.
Getting a bicycle was the biggest present one could get. The first bike I really remembered being in love with was, the bike my parents bought me for doing well in my exams in Standard 3. A blue BMX with cream coloured wheels.
What is it about cycling that you love?
Just that feeling of motion powered by your own energy and the good memories from my childhood. Also, the interesting and amazing people you meet through it.
When did you realise you were actually good at cycling and what made you want to proceed further in it?
I wouldn't say I am particularly good or talented at cycling and I couldn't pick a single defining point. I cycled on and off throughout my childhood and had a bike to occasionally ride around on when I was a university student.
It's always been a part of my life in varying degrees. If I could pick an event that really got me to take up cycling regularly, was moving for work to Brisbane city in 2007. I decided that I wanted to commute to work by bike in 2007, which led me to getting to know a bunch of mountain bikers.
Since I started consistently biking again it's just been a continuous journey with more to learn and more adventures to have.
You started cycle commuting, then got introduced to MTB. Can you tell us more about how this happened?
I worked in Brisbane city at the time & my office had a large bike parking facility which had safe bike parking, lockers and shower facilities. The area could get pretty social, with staff from all levels mixing together, with one thing in common-riding bikes to work.
Some colleagues noted that I rode a mountain bike to commute and asked if I wanted to join them mountain biking. I did and never looked back! I had done some accidental mountain biking before that, just taking short cuts on off road routes when I was at university and an earlier workplace, but I didn't know that was "mountain biking". I just rode my bike everywhere.
So my first official "mountain bike" ride was actually not too scary!
What made you fall in love with downhill MTB specifically?
I would not say the discipline of downhill is my most favourite. I also don't really like looking at bike riding in terms of discipline, as discipline is more important for race categorizations and competition. I DO enjoy the gravity aspect of MTB and the challenge of riding more technical trails. I would say my main love is riding single tracks, which are full of features (rock rolls, some roots, obstacles). If it's in a beautiful place or leads me to a beautiful place, even better!
I like the riding to be interesting, as it keeps me engaged, same way I prefer hiking to running on a treadmill. There is a sense of achievement with every obstacle overcome. I also love going down because, well it's human I guess. I like descents, like most human beings I suppose! It's the sensation of going with gravity.
Can you tell us a little bit about your upbringing?
I went to school in PJ, SRK and SMK Assunta. I am very proud of my alma mater and my school alumni. I always feel privileged to have gone there and felt that the unique culture did have a role in how I think.
I came from, by modern standards, I guess a big family. We are five siblings, four girls and a boy. We spent a lot of time hanging out together; we shared books, listened to music, watched movies together, played our LEGO toys and yes, rode bikes too.
We didn't have toys or entertainment that were just for the girls or my brother. Full credit to my parents for creating such a stimulating home environment for us.
I do have a lot of funny stories but they are simultaneously embarrassing I think.
Do you have a job to help supplement the cycling?
I work full time as an engineer for a multi national consulting firm. My cycling does not pay the bills, but it feeds my soul (corny, I know) and keeps me sane.
What do your family members think you do in cycling? What do you think your friends think you do in cycling? What is it actually do you do when you are cycling?
My mother would probably prefer that I quit, due to the perceived risk of mountain biking. The rest of my family and non-cycling friends are supportive, but I am not sure if they really understand what I do. They do remind me when I neglect them a little too much, so I've made more effort to have more balance. I’m now trying to get my dad back into cycling, so wish me luck!
Who do you look up to in the cycling world?
I don't think I look up to one particular person in the cycling world. I do follow cyclists on social media, including grassroots riders.
I tend to look up to people who are not rigid, enjoy different disciplines and are able to have fun on the bike. Look me up on instagram @doowaroda and check who I follow there!
What is your greatest achievement? In cycling and life?
I've had a lot of adventures in life through cycling. I entered quite a few races and achieved a few skill sets I am proud of. I think my answer would be a hit two birds with one stone kind of answer.
I would not be exaggerating if I said that cycling has changed my life. Mountain biking has made me a more confident person in the workplace, in social situations and allowed me to acquire skills I can apply in other aspects of my life. I've met many amazing people thanks to cycling. People I would not meet otherwise.
I have to say that I met my husband thanks to a mutual love of bikes and am truly fortunate for that. As someone who also struggled a bit at making friends, post student life, cycling has truly changed that, having made some of my best friends through it.
What do you think Malaysia needs more of to help promote cycling?
I think there could be a book on this. I think most importantly we need our governing bodies to start engaging with grassroots communities, recognise the local scene and understand what is going on globally.
How do you think we can get more women to cycle?
We could go on forever I suppose, but I think the better question is how can we get more people into cycling. I won't comment on road biking, but with mountain biking, I think it is mostly a lack of exposure to what it actually entails.
Second, is the big skill gap between mountain biking within the jamboree scene and the gravity or enduro or even international level cross country. It's just a bit harder for not just women but for many people to decide one day, I want to mountain bike.
I think empowering the mountain biking community, giving us more exposure would be a great help. More support means more trails, trails with progression catering for the beginner all the way to the advanced riders.
More trails, more recognition, more education would bring more riders which means women too and girls too.
I think culturally as well here, we like to scare women or put a lot of fear in them. It's too dangerous. Mountain biking is a sport that requires confidence, self reliance and a willingness to persevere.
What we don't tell people often enough, is that it is also something you can learn. Nobody flies off a 20ft drop on your first day. You can overcome fear by practicing. You can remove danger by learning the right skills and from gained experience. We need to share how fun it is and how it can better your life.
If you had any advice for women on how to pick up cycling or move forward with it, what would it be?
Don't be shy and don't cancel on people who do offer to help you get into it. Also do lots of your own research, read up on bikes, the sport, events around the world.
If you could choose only one cycling discipline (MTB or otherwise) what would it be and why?
This is an evil question. MTB will always be my first love. You can ride a mountain bike on and off-road. But my dream will always be being able to ride my bike to everything I need (shops, work, facilities) and then ride to a nice trail. I would choose a cycling lifestyle over a cycling discipline.
Do you think you will ever stop cycling?
This is my goal - to cycle through my old age. I never want to stop cycling. My riding style and limits might change, but I hope I can cycle until I die.