Paula Zibasa, spent her childhood BMX racing in Latvia, where she is originally from until a move to Innsbruck converted her to mountain biking and she has never looked back. Interview by Hannah Bailey.
Paula Zibasa started racing in the World Cup when she was 16, but in 2019 decided to quit the tour to slow down and get back to why she loved biking. Now she spends her time supporting the scene, bike packing and heading out on long rides. She recently became an MTB ambassador for Patagonia, and also rides for Oakley Bikes, Mons Royale, and POW Austria.
Interview by Hannah Bailey
Can you tell us a bit about how you started mountain biking and formed a passion for it?
Paula Zibasa: “My mum put me on a bike when I was three years old, like all kids learn to ride. In Latvia, where I am from originally, BMX racing was quite popular, so somehow I stumbled into it all. My parents brought me to the local tracks and training. By the time I was four, I was racing! As a kid I was dreamy, and always somewhere else in my head, so I wasn’t taking it seriously. I didn’t know what a competition was, I was just riding on a bike.
“In 2012, my family moved to Innsbruck and there weren’t BMX race tracks nearby so I started mountain biking – because it was the alternative. It wasn’t love at first sight. I hated pedalling up! That’s probably why I was really into downhill. As soon as the lifts were open, you never saw me pedalling up. I was doing laps all day long, and that was it.
“When I got to 16 or 17, it got a bit more serious and I started racing World Cups. I never planned on doing it, it just happened. I honestly don’t know why mountain biking and why I kept doing it even when I didn’t love it so much. But recently I realised it was probably the connection to nature I got to have with riding, plus this feeling I have after riding. When I am riding my bike I am in this state of mind where I am on another level, another planet, another world, it is similar to meditation. You are riding the moment!”
When did you think you could make a career out of mountain biking?
“When I started, if you wanted to make a name for yourself in mountain biking you had to go race World Cups. But I wouldn’t say I am making a career out of mountain biking, I am just doing things I love. Racing was a part of it, and somehow I developed the mindset of a racer and I liked the community. When I got properly into it, I realised it wasn’t what I imagined.
“I was travelling to places that I never got to really see as I was just there for the track and the race. Then when you are done, you are off to the next venue – you never get to explore. That is the life you are living. Training all the time – sleeping, eating and riding your bike. I wanted more. I saw people in Innsbruck going climbing and skiing, which I didn’t have the time to do. So I thought I needed a break, but I couldn’t find the courage to stop.
“When the team fell apart in 2019 that was the turning point for me. I decided to stop racing World Cups. I could have looked for a new team or sponsors – but it felt wrong for me to go there without even knowing what I wanted.”
Since that happened, where has your motivation with riding shifted to?
“It is cool that I can decide now if I want to ride my bike. When I was racing I had to go mountain biking, I had to progress. Now I am free to do it whenever I want. I am motivated to feel good and be connected to nature so I spend a lot of time bike packing and heading out on long trail rides. As a racer, you do ride of course, but you have to go fast and there is no time to learn tricks or just go slow and enjoy nature. So this is my motivation at the moment!”
Where do you call home and your local trail? And what is it like?
“My favourite trails are just behind my house. Innsbruck is crowded with mountain bikers at the moment as it has got so popular. We have legal trails but there are just too few. I understand that people get mad because there are some mountain bikers who are not polite and hikers can’t tell how good a biker you are. It is getting better – hikers and bikers are starting to share the trails a bit more, but there is still a lot of work to do.
“On a good afternoon we will have 30 to 40 people up there, waiting to drop in. That is crazy. In 2016, it was so intimate, just a few people, with a few trails, and you knew the community. Everyone had respect for the forest, trails and other people. The bigger the community, the more problems we have. The newcomers might not know the rules in the community and the respect element. It doesn’t make it easier, as the city won’t make more legal trails.”
How did you come to be working with Patagonia?
“In 2018, I met a lot of skiers who were wearing Patagonia, and I liked the gear. I got interested in finding out more about the brand. I read some stories and watched some movies and I was stoked about what Patagonia was doing – that there were people trying to take care of the planet.
“I wasn’t thinking a lot about that when I was racing, I didn’t know about the climate crisis, but through skiing, and Patagonia, I got really into it. Compared to mountain biking, when you are skiing you see more effects of the climate crisis up close. I liked the mindset of the brand and it felt similar to mine, and where I want to go.”
What is it about Patagonia’s values that resonates with you?
“As a mountain biker, I spend a lot of time in the forests so I want to learn more about them and how to protect them. The issue of deforestation – and the effect this has on CO2 emissions – contributes massively to the poisoning of the planet. I am really interested in this. I also want to be conscious of all those little things I can do – using the car less and jumping on the train, for example. But also to speak up and talk with people about the wider issues, especially in the mountain bike community – it is so important right now. We need to care more about environmental protection and climate change in the community. Our understanding needs to change from the root, by the companies, and those who are building the trails, then the community will follow. We have to stand up for change. It will not be easy, but we have to be more responsible if we want to keep this whole world going! I am looking forward to sharing these messages with the mountain bike community and helping them understand how important it is.”
A growing concern is the lack of diversity in the outdoors space. How do you think we can make mountain biking more inclusive to everyone?
“I think it is really important that everyone in the mountain bike scene; the companies and the community, are open to it being something for everyone and they give this representation. Also, I think if we want more diversity in mountain biking, we need to start teaching young kids in school that they are welcome to do it. The MTB and downhill club in Innsbruck is doing a great job of that. We as mountain bikers have to be kind and helpful to new people to help them realise it is open for everyone to join.”
What are you planning at the moment?
“I would love to spend time educating the community in Innsbruck about personal and collective responsibility and respect for the trails. I would like to help share the message that everyone needs to talk to others about climate change. I would also like to motivate people to go explore the mountains, to take trips and to spend more time outside. If people do it, they understand nature better and they get grounded and connected to care more for it.”