NCNCA Women’s Series Q & A with Safety Committee Chair Marissa Axell: How to Ride Like a Rockstar… Safely

Recently, we sat down with Marissa Axell, who’s a Cat 1 road racer for JL Velo Cycling Team and serves as an NCNCA board member. This year she also heads up the safety committee. “One great things about the NCNCA is its ability to directly impact and give back to the cycling community,” Marissa said. If you want to do more and become a member of the NCNCA, let us know about it!

NCNCA​: As someone with a lot of experience racing, what was the major motivator for you to become a member of our Safety Committee?

Axell:​ Crashes! They happen, and they always suck! One of the biggest reasons people leave our beautiful sport is a perceived lack of rider safety, which manifests, namely, in crashes.

NCNCA:​ What’s the best way for riders to keep themselves safe in a race, especially one that includes riders with diverse ability levels?

Axell:​ I could wax poetic for at least 48 hours on that topic (hello Facebook NCNCA group), but honestly, it boils down to the following fundamentals:

  • Be predictable;
  • Be assertive;
  • Protect your front wheel;
  • Use your peripheral vision, and;
  • Communicate.

NCNCA:​ Those points are great advice for new and seasoned racers alike. Can you go into more detail about each fundamental idea?

Axell​: Sure! Ultimately, it’s best to ride predictably​! If you follow the wheel in front of you, you’ll generally ride in a straight line/lane (especially around corners) and minimize any lateral movement. That way, you’re going to minimize causing or reacting to crashes.

NCNCA:​ Yikes! What else can a rider do to stay clear of someone’s blind spot and avoid “touching wheels”?

Axell:​ Use your peripheral vision!​ Before making any lateral moves, scan to your left and right, look and notice what is going on either side of you. Make sure there’s room before moving to the left or the right. But, don’t look all the way behind you, the race is up the road and the riders behind you should be focused on what is in front of them—in this case, that’s you!

NCNCA:​ Any other pointers for staying safe in a race?

Axell:​ Be sure to communicate with your fellow riders! It’s okay to talk to people while you’re racing.

NCNCA:​ These are great insights; thanks for sharing. Since the JL Velo Giro di San Francisco is coming up soon, can you share any insider details on what riders can expect from this unique race course?

Axell:​ This L-shaped criterium in downtown San Francisco has several distinctive features that riders should keep in mind as they had out to race. First, the Giro has eight corners and an uphill/downhill section. For this course, it would be safest to follow the wheel in front of you as you round each corner. You will want to enter the corner wide, cut through the apex near the inside of the corner, and exit wide out of the corner.

So for example, corner one (which is a left-hand corner,) ideally a rider would swing towards the right side of the course as they approach the left corner, and then navigate to the inside of the left hand turn (the apex) and then exit relatively wide out of that corner. After you’ve cleared the turn, keep your head up and make sure you are not moving laterally. Riders will start moving left to position themselves for corner two, which comes quickly after corner one. Entering and exiting corners in this manner allows you to maintain speed without slamming on the brakes which will make for a much safer race.

NCNCA:​ What other details should riders be aware of who are interested in competing in the Giro di San Francisco?

Axell:​ This course historically features bumpy bad pavement and train tracks, so do yourself and everyone a favor and arrive at least 2 hours early before your race, get onto your bike between races, and check the course at least one time all the way through. Look at the pavement, find the potholes, orient yourself and know how to safely avoid them without resulting to sudden, lateral moves.

Also, you should be aware of, not afraid of, the train tracks. They appear on the inside of the course after the first turn, and are not (generally) where you would be riding your bike.

NCNCA:​ This is awesome insight, Marissa! Thank you! Do you have anything else to add?

Axell​: Let’s go out, ride hard, have fun this labor day weekend at the JL Velo Giro di SF! Also, if anyone is interested in becoming a part of the NCNCA, please run for the board or join a committee!

NCNCA Womens Series Podcast: Our Work Works

Our Work Works is a podcast made possible by the NCNCA, The NCNCA Womens Series and KGPC-LP, Peralta Community Radio.

OWW is hosted by Amy Moor. Kathryn Styer is the executive producer and engineer. OWW is produced and recorded at the KGPC-LP studios in Oakland, California.

You can now find us on Stitcher as well!

Season Two! // Episode 4: HER(story) with Laurie Furman
We are super duper excited to bring you a fourth episode of the ONLY podcast dedicated to women bike racers. Laurie Furman discusses how she got her start racing crits in San Diego to returning to her hometown of San Jose, California, and all the triumphs and challenges of being a bike racer. We recommend you listen to this podcast and share it with your friends. 100%.

Laurie mentions:
The Early Bird Clinics
San Jose Bike Club

Music by Blue Dot Sessions, Daniel Birch, Forget the Whale, Komiku, luc électrique, Necro Polo and Ryan Andersen.

Episode 3: The Future of Pro Cycling, with Melanie Wong

UPDATE: Melanie finally shared with the world that she is racing for Twenty20 Professional Racing. You can follow her adventures here and here, and read this great article about her here:

Melanie Wong sat down to chat with us back in October about her greased lightening shot from new racer to nouveau pro. This episode not only imparts wisdom from Melanie but explores important topics in the 2018 bike racing world. Please enjoy this final episode of season one. We had a ton of fun making them. If you have questions, comments or would like to see this podcast continue, please email your thoughts to women [at] ncnca [dot] org.

Episode 2: Adventures In Cycling With New Racer, Claire Porter

We focus on the experience of newish racer, Claire Porter. Sit in with us and hear her perspectives on training, racing and having fun on the bike.

Episode 1: The History Of Womens Road Racing In The NCNCA with Meredith Nielsen

In this episode we explore the roots of womens road racing in Northern California and answer questions you might have jumping in to the sport.

Music by Tzara.

NCNCA Women’s Series Q & A with Coach Sofia Marin

Recently, the NCNCA sat down with Coach Sofia Marin, a competitive NCNCA racer, coach, nutritionist and all-around-awesome person, to get the scoop on how she got into racing, her tips and tactics for those of us who are new to the road scene, and fodder for thought for us veterans on important topics like “how not to get burned out on the bike.” She also offers training and fueling advice, and how to keep training in the off season. Most importantly, though, she reminds us: “bike racing is very challenging, but also incredibly rewarding.”

Check out our conversation with Sofi, below.


NCNCA: How did you get into competitive cycling?

Sofi: My cycling career started with simple commuting around town while living in Philadelphia. I loved the freedom of the bike and began exploring the country via bike touring and fun adventure rides. It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco that I was exposed to bike racing. In late 2009, a friend suggested I join a “ride” in Golden Gate Park and after doing some basic research, I realized the “ride” was in fact a cyclocross race the following day (Bay Area Super Prestige Cyclocross Race, Golden Gate Park). That night I decided to teach myself how to mount & dismount. Of course, I was insanely intimidated so I decided to go to the race as a spectator to see what it was all about. However, once I arrived and felt the electric energy of the race, I mustered the courage to sign up and throw myself in there.

I raced my first bike race on a touring bike with cage pedals and was completely destroyed. It was incredibly empowering and silly and challenging, which of course made me fall madly in love with the sport. I had grown up as a gymnast and it had been years since I had been passionate about a sport. It was a beautiful reunion with the athletic part of myself. I jumped into racing cyclocross and realized I actually had some raw talent in me. The following year, I bought my first cross bike AND a proper road bike. In a couple of years, I moved through the ranks of the local cross scene and decided to pursue road cycling as my next challenge. I really appreciated that to be a good road racer, you have to be both smart and strong. As time passed, I kept surpassing my own expectations of what I was capable of accomplishing and had the common bike-racer experience of wondering, How far can I take this? After achieving a lot of success as a Cat 1 racer, shifting my career to become a cycling coach with AchievePTC was a natural progression for me. I love sharing the wisdom I’ve learned along the way with fellow cyclists.

NCNCA: What was your first NCNCA race? What can you remember from that day? What advice would you give to other women toeing the line of their first crit or road race?

Sofi: My first NCNCA race was Memorial Day Crit. Honestly, people were pretty catty to me and exclusive. It was off putting, but I stuck it out anyway. It can be a tough crowd, but if you find a few racers you like it can make all the difference. My piece of advice is to remember that every single person who toes the line was once a beginner just like you! They were all nervous and scared and intimidated. It’s okay to try something new and see what happens. Bike racing is very challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. 🙂

NCNCA: What is your typical pre-race ritual?

Sofi: Having a pre-race routine is very important to me and helps my body and brain calmly prepare for the demands ahead. I always suggest to my athletes that they have a clear pre-race schedule, give themselves ample time to warm up, pre-ride the course, and meditate or visualize their race performance. Keeping things consistent from race to race can really help athletes reach their peak performance.

NCNCA: What can you tell us about your training? What works the best for you?

Sofi: The style of training that has worked best for me and for the athletes I coach is a polarized training approach which takes a comprehensive look at all the factors that play into being a great athlete.  As a coach, I also take advantage of block training. This means an athlete trains 2 or 3 days in a row, pushing their limits and over-reaching, followed by 1 or 2 days of complete rest to allow for their body to super-compensate and come back stronger. Again, I’ve seen huge gains both personally and with my athletes. I often see bike racers make the mistake of underestimating the power of rest and recovery, suffering burn out or plateau. Done right, hard training combined with serious rest is a great recipe for massive fitness gains. Lastly, there’s a lot more to being a great athlete than simply fitness. Nutrition, psychology, life-balance, race tactics and bike handling are all just as important as fitness.

NCNCA: How do you “recover” after a really hard workout or race? What advice would you offer to athletes who are new to the sport in regards to recovery?

Sofi: Recovery is key! The amount of attention and dedication we apply to training/riding should also be applied to recovery. As a coach and certified sports nutritionist, attention to recovery is often where I see the biggest gains for athletes. Immediately following a hard workout or race, athletes should immediately replenish lost glycogen (or stored sugars) via eating simple sugars like honey or juicy fruits. Next they should hydrate with water and electrolytes, followed by a carbohydrate and protein shake with at least 20-30g protein. I’m a vegan athlete and prefer plant-based proteins like hemp and pea that are easily assimilated and don’t increase inflammation.

Apart from nutrition, resting your legs and sitting/lying down for at least an hour is ideal. I like to do brief, dynamic stretches and foam rolling as a part of my recovery routine.  It’s also important to remember that recovery starts on the bike – that means you end the ride fully hydrated with electrolytes and with sufficient calorie intake. All these things together allow your body to super-compensate, get stronger, and reap the maximum benefits from the hard work you’ve just done!

NCNCA: We’re really curious what you do when the race season ends.  Does your routine change in the off-season? If so, what changes? What should a cyclist focus on in the winter months?

Sofi: It’s really important to me that cycling continues to be fun and sustainable for myself and for my athletes. Winter is a great time to focus on fun activities, pursue other aerobic sports like skiing or running, and build overall functional movement and strength via weight training… and for taking a break from the bike! My athletes spend about 2 months during the winter in the gym correcting imbalances, building full-body strength and power, and improving flexibility and mobility.

NCNCA: You mentioned you started off Cyclocross racing.  How has that helped you in road cycling?

Sofi: I started my career racing cyclocross. When I was racing, I was one of the best bike-handlers and descenders in the peloton. I completely attribute that skill to my time spent riding and racing cross.  I highly encourage all racers, new and old, to spend time riding the dirt. One thing I like about cyclocross is that during a race, you are completely on the rivet and oxygen deprived, yet you still have to execute tricky technical terrain. It’s a game changer.

NCNCA: As a Coach, what do you often see with female cyclists who are trying to develop themselves and move up in categories? Would you offer any advice to someone who is, say, a Cat 4 and determined to make it to Cat 2?

Sofi: My advice to new racers is to go at your own pace and don’t rush the upgrade. What is your goal? Do you want to be the best possible bike racer you can be? If so, it’s essential that you master your category before upgrading to the next level. As a coach, I want you to become a student of the sport and learn how to become a winner. Learn how to win from every possible race scenario. Learn how to move through the pack expending the least amount of energy possible. Learn how to position yourself for a sprint finish. Learn how to initiate or get into a break. Learn how to win a climbing race as a sprinter.

If you can master your category, you will build confidence that is imperative once you move up to the harder P1/2 races. When you experience success in the lower categories, it ingrains the mindset of “I am a winner” early on. This means that when you show up as a new Cat 2 and get shelled, you can take it less personally and remind yourself: “I know I have what it takes, I know I am a winner.” If you’ve never experienced success in the lower categories, it can be extremely demoralizing to enter the P1/2 field. Like I said, I want the sport to be sustainable for women and something you can do for a very long time! This requires patience and a commitment to learning.

NCNCA: What is your favorite NCNCA event and why?

Sofi: It’s hard to choose. I love the bigger races with huge local crowds like San Rafael Twilight or Nevada City Classic. But Cat’s Hill is 100% my all-time favorite race on the calendar. It’s one of the few courses that is perfectly suited to my skill set as a puncheur – I love extremely steep power climbs and technical courses! I still remember the feeling of winning this race, crossing the line with a huge smile on my face. (I also love Giro di San Francisco – it’s a race of firsts for me. It’s the first time I ever got dropped; but, it’s also the first race I ever won; and it’s the first P1/2 breakaway I had ever successfully gotten into that stayed away.)

NCNCA: If you could offer your reader any advice unrelated to the questions above, what would it be?

Sofi: Cycling is a really difficult sport. My advice to aspiring cyclists and bike racers is to focus on your little successes along the way. Give yourself credit for the courage, dedication and persistence it takes to pursue cycling day after day. It’s easy to focus on where you aren’t yet, rather than focus on how far you’ve come. What is your definition of success? Focus on your personal progress rather than results alone. It’s easy to compare ourselves to others or allow our cycling experiences to define who we are, however it’s essential to remember that self-worth is built from within. Praise yourself frequently, learn to love yourself from the inside out, rather than through your external accomplishments. Recognize that failure is a normal part of every sport and is not personal. Build a strong support network of friends, family, mentors, and coaches to keep you grounded and happy doing what you love.



Sofia Marin is a USAC cycling coach with Achieve Training & Coaching, Certified Sports Nutritionist and successful Cat 1 road cyclist. Coach Sofi has a rich background in the cycling industry, including working closely with UCI Team TIBCO-SVB professional women’s team, administering VO2 metabolic testing, leading cycling tactics and skills clinics, as well as working as Director Sportif for Team Mike’s Bikes Devo and SheSpoke Racing. Coach Sofi is passionate about coaching both cycling and nutrition. She finds the coach-athlete relationship to be quite special and rewarding, finding fulfillment in witnessing athletes achieve their goals and surpass their own expectations of what they once thought to be impossible.

You can reach Coach Sofi at: coachsofi[at] or visit