Even though she had lived and commuted by bike in several cities all around the world, Nona Varnado experienced major anxiety over bike commuting when she first moved to LA in 2012. As a seasoned biker, she knew that if she had these fears, so did a lot of people.
Varnado’s love affair with biking began in the early 2000s in NYC when she “accidentally” entered a competitive bike race, won the female division and left a good chunk of the male competitors in the dust. Nona thinks many women share a similar path to their relationship with cycling. “They’re not sure what they’re getting into, they accidentally win a race and then it’s love at first sight.”
"I loved design and product management but my biggest goal was to get people on bikes." ― Nona Varnado
Before coming to LA, Varnado started a women’s bike commuting apparel line in NYC and inspired a community of female cyclists with her blog The Bird Wheel. “There simply wasn’t enough women who cared about transportation cycling for me to sustain a company so I cultivated a women’s cycling community to encourage more people to get on bikes.”
Her passion for wanting to get more people on bikes was the catalyst for her next endeavor of opening a bike-centric art gallery, conquering her LA bike commuting fears by starting LA Bike Trains and most recently, heading up the Los Angeles Bicycle Festival, a carnival-like celebration for those curious about living life by bike.
What inspired you to start your own women’s cycling apparel line?
I was bike commuting to my tech job in NYC and felt like I was living a double life. I remember it was a snowy day and it was super slushy outside. I had to hide in the bathroom to change into my management clothes. I had an accounting intern that saw me take a spill and boasted, “Haha, I saw Nona wearing spandex!” There was all kinds of great clothing coming out for men but there was nothing for women. One day I got laid off and I thought I should give it a try.
Your blog, The Bird Wheel, evolved into an event hub and a community for cyclists. How did that shape your trajectory?
It originally started out as a marketing push for my clothing company. It really helped me identify where my passion was. At the end of the day I loved design and product management but my biggest goal was to get people on bikes. This marketing aspect became the most important aspect, more so than trying to run the company and that was inherently a non-profit mission. I started the Bicycle Culture Institute in LA to be a catch all. Not only for the work that I’ve been doing, but for others as well.
Even as an experienced bike commuter, you found LA’s streets to be intimidating. What got you over that fear and led you to start the LA Bike Train?
I was working with a lot of great people and one of my friends, Iggy Cortes, who now owns a messenger and courier business, held my hand and rode with me all over LA and taught me how to merge with traffic, how to get through intersections, etc. I thought if I needed that kind of handholding, then everybody does. Bike train projects had been happening in different cities all over the world, but it was never very organized and I wanted to make the LA Bike Train like a bus service. Through trial and error, and a lot of media exposure, we grew, and received a few grants and became a non-profit.
Can you explain how the LA Bike Train operates?
To cut the edge off of the commute, LA Bike Train pairs an experienced urban cyclist, titled “the Conductor” with a group of wanna-be commuters to educate, and create the safety of a group all while making it a fun and social experience. It’s still growing to this day. For Bike Week in LA we’re announcing Bike Trains 2.0 with smartphone based routes and something called, ‘Bike Tutor.’
And most importantly, tell us about LA Bike Fest!
We had an LA Bike Fest in 2014 that was focused on transportation biking. It drew an amazing crowd of people, from families in mini vans to retirees and everyone in between. It was really something special.
For the 2016 LA Bike Fest, we wanted to throw an event that would appeal to everyone. It was organized like a theme park. Just like Disneyland's Adventureland and Fantasyland, LA Bike Fest is both Road-Land and Urban-Land. We also had all kinds of bikes and new companies to check out, art, workshops for bike education and rides. It’s like speed dating for bike people. You find something that you like and there’s your people. The music is always amazing, plus some of LA's best food trucks were on site along with New Belgium and Angel City Brewery there with lots of beer. We can't wait to see what next year brings!
"For the 2016 LA Bike Fest, we wanted to throw an event that would appeal to everyone." ― Nona Varnado