Former pro racer, Scott Contessa team manager and one of the owners of Munich based MTB agency die rasenmäher, Karen Eller is a true icon of female mountain biking in Europe. We met the mother of two at the Scott Contessa Riding Days in the Engadin last weekend
Interview by Anna Langer, all photos by Maria Knoll
Last weekend you held this year's Scott Contessa Riding Days. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
The Contessa Riding Days is a MTB camp especially for women. We have the Contessa team there, four girls absolutely passionate about biking and excellent coaches, to give tips on riding techniques, guide the day tours through the Engadin and help the girls with difficult passages on the routes. On top of that we also have the latest Scott bikes there for the girls to test and they can check out the Contessa bike wear collection.
You also played a big part in founding the team. How did that come about?
When I stopped competing professionally, I wanted to do something for female mountain biking. I wanted to put a team together, but not a competitive team for contests, just girls who love biking and enjoy riding together, and so I approached my sponsor Scott with this idea. Right now we are four girls in the Contessa team and we represent the Scott women's bike line at tradeshows, bikefestivals, etc, go to events and coach at the camps. The team has changed a couple of times over the years, with girls going fully into competing etc, but with Annette, Kathrin, Jasmin and me the team has been pretty consistent now. The girls all have regular jobs but just love biking and with the Contessa team they get the chance to combine both.
When did you start the camps?
We have many different camps for all kind of female bikers, the Scott Contessa Camp is one camp of the rasenmäher which includes top testbikes of Scott, the whole Contessa Team and Scott clothing for testing. The Scott Contessa Riding days 2010 were the 4th year for this camp. We normally have a new location every year, but this time we came back to Pontresina once again because it was just so amazing last year. It was really great this time as well, but next year is gonna be a new one again I think.
Do you enjoy coaching?
Hm, let's say I¹ve started to enjoy it again now, especially because with the other Contessa girls we make up a really great team. I've been doing camps throught the agency I have with my partner for over 12 years now and doing the girls camps by myself was really stressful sometimes. But having the three girls and my other trainers with me makes it a lot easier, it's not just me and we're so well rehearsed together that we don't even need to discuss and talk much. One of the girls takes care of the material, the other explains stuff, and so on.
Did camps like this exist when you started?
When I stopped competing and started my women camps, I think I was pretty much the first one. There were some camps in the US and in Whistler, but nothing in Europe. But over there they are always quicker when it comes to women specific stuff, not only camps but also equipment and gear. The first women bikes here were just men's frames painted with flowers and it was a long way to have gear specifically tailored to our needs like we do now.
Do you wish there had been camps and stuff like that back then?
As there was nothing comparable back then I didn't even get the idea, I just went biking with guys. It is a lot easier though I guess, when you're able to bike with girls and learn from girls.
Does it make a difference if you learn from girls or guys?
Yes definitely. As a girl I understand what's going on in another girl's mind when she's stuck in a trail somewhere or afraid to go down something very steep. I know how her mind works, therefore I know how I can help her. Guys often simply don't understand.
Is it important to have separate camps as well?
I'm convinced of that. In mixed groups, even if a girl rides really good, she will be passed through to the back of the line because the guys always think they're faster even if it's not true. It's a completely different feeling if you're always the last one to drop into a trail behind all the guys, even if they're slower than you are. And going uphill there is a lot more pressure when you're biking with guys because you always have the feeling they're already waiting impatiently for you to finally arrive at the top and then you have to drop in again straight away. Even I really like to go riding only with girls, it's just really nice and relaxed, guys are so much more competitive.
The Contessa Team and also the camps are exactly not about the competition side of things but about the togetherness. Do you think that's a principal difference between guys and girls?
In a way yes. Of course there are very competitive girls out there, from which I don't want to count myself out of course. Even now that I haven't competed professionally in the last 5 years, if I do participate in a contest, like in Saalbach the other week, I do get ambitious and want to win. And when there's a freeride contest at an event it's often the Contessa girls who are up at the start before everyone else. Although for them it's a lot more about the fun and not necessarily winning.
What advice can you give girls who aim for a pro career in biking?
Actually, just come up to pros, talk to them and ask what you can do! I'm always happy to give tips and advice and I know a lot of other pros who are as well. Besides that, try to get on a team, that's the first step to getting a sponsor.
What plans or goals do you have for the future?
I'd like to enlarge the Contessa team so that more girls in different countries can be part and get a chance to live their passion while still having a normal job etc. And I want to change the concept of the camps around a bit. As we were the first ones doing them I have the feeling a lot of the other camps, of which there are really a lot nowadays, used us as inspiration and it feels all a bit standardised right now. So for once I'd like to do more proper freeride camps for girls, with more focus on down hill and in freeride locations like Portes de Soleil or maybe even Whistler. And then I'd also like to do something in the direction of the Freeride Transalps, starting at point A going to point B, using gondolas etc, like we're already doing with our mixed camps. Apart from that I also wrote a book while I was pregnant last year and couldn't be on the bike so much, Mountainbiking for Women, that will be published in English as well in the near future. I just really want to keep encouraging girls to get into biking and help them improve, if I see how someone like you guys from Cooler do it for the first time at my camp and simply catch fire and grow a passion for the sport, that's the very best thing that can happen.
Thanks very much for the nice chat and the amazing coaching last weekend!