Cycling a life changer for Bloomington woman

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Crystal rides her beargrease through the snow as often year-round as possible. One of her favorite places to cycle is at Yellow River State Forest in Harpers Ferry, Iowa.

Crystal Kovacs is pictured with her sons, Dan and Brett, three years ago in 2015 and again on Mother’s Day 2018. Not only has she lost 70 pounds and changed her borderline diabetic, high blood pressure and COPD diagnoses, but she has also gained a stronger bond with her family.

Crystal doesn't let the elements phase her any time of the year. She is pictured here at Yellow River State Forest on her Salsa Beargrease.

Crystal is pictured on a Salsa Cutthroat bike, grinding along on the Dirty Kanza course in Kansas.

Crystal Kovacs was selected by Salsa Cycles as one of 16 sponsored athletes around the world to represent their brand.

By Correne Martin

Crystal Kovacs is living proof that you can be bold, even when you don’t fit the mold of a 20-something fitness trainer. 

At the age of 45, with her children nearly raised, Crystal has lost 70 pounds, reversed several health prognoses and propelled her way into an elite class of Salsa Cycles internationally-sponsored athletes who are powering through life’s adventures on the seat of a bicycle. 

“Every person has an athlete inside of them who wants out,” the Bloomington resident professed. 

It all began about three years ago when her husband, Nick—who’s lost 110 pounds since—wanted to buy a bike. Neither of them knew the first thing about them, having not ridden since their teenage years.

“We went to a bike store and couldn’t answer any of the questions. ‘What do you wanna do? Where do you wanna go?’” Crystal remembered.

They ended up purchasing a couple cycles, which they later exchanged for styles more suited to their type of riding around the countryside. Crystal said they later found a love of the fat tire (4-5-inch), that is perfect for trudging through sand or extending the riding season into the snow, and the single track, or mountain bike, that they love riding on gravel and forest service paths. 

“We enjoy cycling at Yellow River State Forest (near Harpers Ferry, Iowa) year-round,” she shared. 

The satisfaction from this new pursuit has brought the whole family together. Crystal and Nick, along with sons Dan, 17, and Brett, 16, (who’s also a runner) have challenged themselves to more than leisure riding. Crystal and her sons have now trained for and competed in quite a few gravel endurance races across the country. They’ve surmounted hills in North Dakota, Kansas, Minnesota and are setting their sights on Oklahoma and beyond. 

“Anytime you can put your cell phone down and go out with your kids is a time you’ll never regret,” Crystal said. “[The boys are] faster than me, but they want to see me succeed. When they’ve seen mom cry and puke instead of sitting on the sidelines cheering them on, it changes your relationship.”

When Crystal first began cycling, she said, five miles felt like she’d gone to Mexico and back. 

“The first year, I was confined to the valley in Bloomington because I was so scared of the hills,” she confessed. “But the second year, I rode a little further and it got a little easier as I became more confident.”

She also credits a family diet makeover for her improvement.

Three years later, Crystal loves cycling more than her old self could have ever imagined. If she’s having a bad day in her home photography office at True Lives Studio (with Nick), she can hardly wait to get out on her bike.

“It’s so beautiful, so freeing,” she explained. “People should try it. There’s a pride of accomplishment that comes with pushing yourself beyond what you believe you can do.”

As Crystal has found new limits on the bike path, her children and husband have been right alongside her, pushing her and supporting her.

“I’ve gotten to hang the moon, but they’ve held the ladder,” she said, through a teary smile.

Recognizing her own inspiring and atypical journey, Crystal has grown passionate about motivating others, especially other middle-aged women. So she reached out to Minnesota-based Salsa Cycles, her chosen brand of bicycle, with the desire to become an ambassador for the company. It took some persistence, but she persuaded them to select her as one of 16 sponsored athletes worldwide. 

“I want to be able to open some doors for others like me,” she stated. “They’re diversifying their marketing and I’m a friendly, approachable face to the brand.”

Her responsibilities as a sponsored athlete include promoting Salsa both locally and nationally. Every time she rides, she will wear the brand’s cycling kit.

Crystal has three bikes, all Salsas, of course. They are a bikepacking Cutthroat named “Sam,” a Beargrease fat tire called “Greasy” and a Spearfish racing bike labeled “Merle.” 

The next grinders for her will be the April 20 Dairy Roubaix at Wyalusing State Park and the June 1 Dirty Kanza in Kansas. And, Crystal has some unfinished business to tend at the latter location.

“I had to DNF (do not finish) at that one,” Crystal said. “There’s no greater rocket fuel for determination than failure.”

As a self-proclaimed back-of-the-pack cyclist, she knows that some the coolest stories come out of the last third of each race. That’s where the cheering gets louder too. 

Before those upcoming conquests though, Crystal has some big plans for other cyclists of the area, both proficient and beginner. Starting in March, she’s organizing a social bike club for riders of all ages and experiences, which, she said, will most likely meet in the Bagley area. 

“There’s some gravel roads there that are hard-packed and not heavily used,” she said. “I’ve got about 40 people interested so far.”

The club will meet a couple times per month and begin by cycling for no more than one hour. Rides will follow the pace of the slowest, least-experienced rider; no one will be left behind. But the club is intended to push participants beyond their limits.

“Dust your bike off in the garage and come on out. Don’t worry about your clothes or your gear, just wear a helmet,” she added. 

In June or July, Crystal hopes to plan a club camping trip to Yellow River State Forest for families.

Anyone interested is asked to contact Crystal by email at truelivesstudio@icloud.com.

The club is the only one of its kind in the area, she noted. She’s excited about this opportunity for people to get outdoors and enjoy themselves.

“Cycling has given me the ability to open doors for myself and others that I could never have done any other way,” she said.

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