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My mom gets rad

Gisele Pansze is a self-described normal mom of three. She’s caring, proud of her children, and quick to redirect conversation to their accomplishments. She’s the sort of person who handles the day-to-day chaos of normal family life with inner calm, letting the small challenges float by while tackling the bigger ones with the strength and protectiveness of a mother bear.

It takes less than a few minutes in Gisele’s presence to see through her façade. Despite what she would let you believe, she’s not a normal mom at all but an extraordinary one, and mountain biking has something to do with that. Today, she’s an absolute shredder on the trail, but a couple of years ago she was unnerved by the whole idea of serious trail-riding.

Her journey to becoming an accomplished mountain biker began with a moment of clarity, when she recognized that within the training to become a more confident rider lay an opportunity to foster a closer relationship with her kids.

In 2014, when her son Derek was 16, Gisele enrolled in a Trek Dirt Series camp, an instructional mountain bike program that helps riders of all abilities improve, connect, and build practical skills for enjoying the experience of trail-riding. She set out to be a better rider, but for Gisele, Dirt Series came to mean much more than technical instruction—it was a way to learn lessons that would translate to all aspects of her life.

“You can't learn how to mountain bike without making mistakes,” she says, “just like you can't be a parent without making mistakes. It's how you approach those inevitable mistakes that’s important. Rather than being defeatist, my attitude is more like, Next time, I'll try to do that better."

She credits her Dirt Series instructor, the Durango community, her son, and other female riders for her progress. “So much of the messaging we give ourselves is that we can’t,” she says. “What Dirt Series teaches is that any trail is technically possible, it’s just a matter of what you’re willing to overcome to ride it.”

The lessons from her first Dirt Series camp were so valuable that she enrolled in a second camp that summer. Whereas the idea of cleaning expert lines had once been unfathomable, Gisele now spends an hour and a half most days on the trail, riding at least every couple weeks with her son. And this, for Gisele, is the most precious part of it all.

“I think riding with Derek is about connection,” she says. “It's a way to interact with him in a way that feels important, though it’s hard to articulate exactly what that means. The gift that the coaches at clinics like the Dirt Series have given me is the confidence to seize the opportunity to connect with my family on a whole new level, to see and be seen more fully as people with unique attributes. Mountain biking just serves as one mode for helping us make those connections.”

Derek has spent nearly a decade of his 17 years in mountain bike classes through DEVO, Durango’s non-profit mountain bike program for kids. For his part, he’s remarkably encouraging of his mother, so much so that it’s easy to be awed by his patience, kindheartedness, and wisdom, especially because these qualities are so foreign to most teenagers.

To see these two on the trail is to bear witness to something special. There’s a touching mutual admiration, fueled perhaps by their shared passion and an understanding of the strength of character it takes to set your mind on a goal and accomplish it. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell where the love ends and the friendship begins, except maybe in the car, where Gisele is motherly through and through—always slightly, sweetly, unnerved and quick to point out when he’s driving too fast.

They ride throughout Durango, but often at Overend Mountain Park, which is directly behind their neighborhood. At the bottom of a particularly challenging section called Star Wars, Gisele flies by and shouts, “This is progress you can measure!” And she’s right. A year ago, she simply didn’t have the skills or the courage to tackle this section. Now, she sessions it over and over again as Derek looks on, and with each run, as the sun dips lower in the big blue Colorado sky, Gisele rides with a little more flair and a slightly wider smile.

Still, there’s a canyon between their abilities, and this is particularly evident at the Dump Jumps, a network of trails named for its proximity to Durango’s Recycling Plant, where Derek shows his mom the new places he and his friends from DEVO and Animas High School have been digging. Throughout the spattering of gnarled pines sweeping across the hill’s gray face are a staggering number of launches, landings, and obstacles shaped into piles of flaky shale. It is the culmination of years of work by Derek and others in the community, who abide by the unwritten “no dig, no ride” rule of mountain biking. With gaps as wide as 30 feet or more, this terrain is not for inexperienced or even most advanced mountain bikers.

Derek is enthusiastic to show his mom the progress, and his enthusiasm is met only with encouragement and hint of what Gisele calls “breath-holding for safe landings.” When asked if she worries about Derek, she replies coolly that she has confidence in his skills, and that she knows he’s not reckless. “It’s just great to see your kids doing something they love.”

The most menacing section of trail is at the bottom of the Dump Jumps near the parking lot. It sends the rider careening through the air in a long, stories-high arch. Gisele sits this one out, watching from the top of the hill as Derek picks up speed and soars off the launch, dropping his hands from the bars mid-air with pure style.

He smiles as he pushes his bike back up the hill, and his impressed and relieved mom calls out, “I bet it won’t take much convincing to have you do that again.”

“I’ll do it again,” he says coyly, “if you ask really nicely.”

As he looks up toward his mom, his eyes are bright behind the lens of his goggles. He lines up to hit the jump again, and then turns back toward his mom and smirks before setting his focus on the launch and dropping in.

Gisele sets her hand on her heart and whispers, to no one in particular, “That smile.” This is a relationship carved by a shared love, nurtured by an extraordinary woman who challenged herself to be a better mother and a better rider, improved, learned about herself, and overcame fears in order to fill her life with tender moments like this one.

Today, Derek and Gisele are shredding the trails in Durango on their annual Mother’s Day ride. Derek—kindhearted, humble, astonishingly talented—is no doubt waiting for his mom to catch up every half-mile or so. Gisele is cleaning lines she never thought possible, grinning, gazing down the trail proudly.

Mother’s Day is a time to show our gratitude for the extraordinary women in our lives. Imagine Gisele, heart racing, white-knuckling the handlebars a year ago and thinking, “I can do this, I can do this, I can do this…” Today, think deeply about the battles your mom has won on your behalf. Feel the full weight of the fears she’s overcome. Today, and every day, let her know you appreciate it.

Thank you, Gisele, and thank you to all moms who have helped us become the best versions of ourselves.

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