Smashing Barriers and Building a Women's Freeride Community with Kaia Jensen
Words by Alex Showerman / Photos by Emily Taylor + Katie Lozancich
I first heard about Kaia Jensen when I was looking for beta on freeride lines in Utah and found this post of her absolutely sending the Semenuk drop, a massive Rampage style drop deep in the Utah desert. You can hear the chorus of ecstatic “OHHHHHHHHHHSSS!” from her supportive group of friends and absolute strangers as she hits the landing and rides off with ease.
“The OHHHH moment is my favorite,” Kaia quipped in a recent interview. “An ‘oh moment’ is when people have a preconceived notion of what we are capable of, then we drop in and blow their minds.” At the ripe old age of 21, her bike career is already full of them. Beyond the big sends, Kaia is committed to uplifting her fellow riders.
The Early Influences
Born and raised in Sun Valley, Idaho (technically Hailey), Kaia hated riding bikes as a kid.
“I would break down and cry, and my parents would have to bribe me with ice cream. Now I can’t even eat ice cream - well, the normal kind!”
It wasn’t until high school when she connected with other riders her age via NICA racing that she caught the bug and quickly excelled. She started coaching at 13, wrenching on bikes at 14, raced her first enduro the summer after her Junior year of high school, and found success winning the national championships in 2019, then qualified for the Enduro World Series later that year.
“Enduros introduced me to roots, rocks and bigger features and I fell in love pretty quick. It was the only way for me to have access to that stuff, and the only time I could train for enduros was by racing them. So imagine what I went through when I discovered DH and freeride!” Jensen reflected. “Whistler in 2019 was rough. The first time I had ever encountered anything like a lot of the features on course was racing them.”
This grit and determination translates to pretty much everything she does, from committing to tackling new features in new places, to her approach to being a professional mountain biker.
In order to progress her riding, Kaia moves around a lot, living in places like Moab, Angel Fire, Durango and more recently, the Highland Bike Park. To fund her racing and training, she works as a shop employee, mechanic and coach.
“As a rider, I absolutely love bike shops but I hate how intimidating they can be. They should be a place where the community comes together. If I walk into a new shop in a new town - even as a mechanic - I feel like I have to walk in like a queen bee to avoid being treated like a clueless girl,” she explains. “I wanted to work as a mechanic so that I could help provide a welcoming and supportive atmosphere for women and teach them to do a lot of the work on their own if bike shops hadn’t been a good experience for them.
Overcoming Barriers and Discovering Freeride
Both wrenching and racing have not come without barriers. Despite having the skills as a mechanic, one shop she worked at refused to take her off the sales floor and as she quit, the owner explained “they needed her ‘pretty face’ behind the register and didn’t want to hide her in the back.” Overcoming these instances of misogyny have been a big motivating factor for Kaia. “I don’t want another girl to have to wait as long as I did (until I was 20) to realize that they have space here; that we have a spot waiting for them.”
In 2019, Red Bull Formation inspired Kaia to start to focus her efforts on freeride mountain biking. She qualified to race for USA’s U21 team at the EWS Trophy of Nations in Finale Ligure, but couldn’t go due to a lack of funds. Her frustration quickly turned to inspiration as she watched the women of the inaugural Formation event throw down in the desert of Utah.
While living in Moab in the fall of 2020, she met a group (of mostly boys) in the desert, riding and digging, and jumped at the opportunity to make desert life her whole life. She joined the In the Hills Gang, traded her Subaru Outback for a first-generation Tacoma, acquired a downhill bike and transferred from Middlebury College to Fort Lewis College. She now spends all of her days riding, digging and living with an inseparable group of friends and says she couldn’t have a better crew surrounding her.
With the return of Red Bull Formation in 2021, she knew she had to be there. “The second the list came out, I called every single person I knew in the circle. I was like ‘holy shit, I need to be part of this event’ and did everything I could to get in.” She ultimately landed an invite to dig and chose to be on Chelsea Kimball’s dig crew. The drive for Chelsea’s line was centered around building their own new features and Kaia was stoked to shape her iconic Canyon gap feature.
What struck her most from digging at the event was the commitment to building community and features over individual ego and achievement. “Formation solidified for me that the vibe and work you put out means so much more. Being supportive and helping everyone around you does so much more for the sport and your own progression than the alternative ever could.”
Coming out of Formation, she committed in a big way to freeride by moving across the country for the summer to coach and train at Highland Bike Park, one of the most iconic and progressive bike parks in North America instead of her original plans to race EWS’s in Italy.
An injury took some big events off the schedule for this fall, but in just a few short years, Kaia has found her place and purpose in the often male-dominated spaces of bike shops, enduro races, and freeride, all while cementing herself as an up-and-coming rider to watch at the forefront of the freeride movement.
From Inspiration to Reality
On her resume, she can now add “inspirer-of-product” to her list, as she was a driving force behind the new Freyah Pant. Kaia’s on-bike fashion is as steezy as her in-air style, so when she saw a need for women’s specific riding pants, she pitched Wild Rye founder, Cassie Abel, on the idea.
“I wanted these pants so badly. A couple years ago, I asked Cassie for two pairs of Freels (shorts) so I could sew them together to make my own pair of pants. She thought I was crazy but it definitely helped open her mind to the idea of how important it was. Pants solve so many problems; everything from protecting more skin when you crash, getting rid of the kneepad-to-shorts gap issue and carrying more things in your pockets. Plus, they add so much comfort and confidence. It seemed like such a need from our community that wasn’t being met.”
Kaia’s feedback, combined with feedback from several other passionate pro team members, helped the Freyah bike pants become a reality. Here’s what inspired some of the pants key features:
A High Waist: “A high waist was really important to me as I didn’t need anymore of my butt showing than I wanted while I was riding. It’s also important for added confidence for women who want that additional coverage and support around the waist.”
Pocket Placement: “I love the placement of the pockets on the Freel shorts so extra pockets on the thigh were also super important. Fellow Wild Rye badass Lucy and I wanted a place to stash our pass, wallet and phone without having to worry about losing all of them when you grab one.”
Durable Fabric: “We thought a waterproof or resistant fabric on the butt and the shins would be super sick. A lot of people use their riding pants for downhill parks, digging and winter riding, and that would come in clutch for all!!”
These pants represent so much more than just a product; it’s one of the first steps towards the bike industry listening to our needs as athletes and creating space for us. In a way, these pants are core to Kaia’s mission as an athlete, prioritizing creating opportunity for her fellow women in freeride.
Closing Thoughts: Building a Movement
“If you’re wondering how to help women and under-represented folx in freeride, just giving space, time and support to those who are doing it right is a good start. There are so many amazing women out there doing what needs to happen. On the bigger scale, paying women fairly (or at all in some cases) for their time, skills and expertise needs to become commonplace. It is crazy that top athletes in freeride all have to work second and third jobs on the side to support the shredding you see. It holds our whole sport back when we aren’t paid for our work and have to find work elsewhere to progress, train, put out media and participate in events.”
On what’s next after her collarbone heals, Kaia’s just stoked to live by her personal creed - Progress over Ego - and be a part of building the future of women’s freeride mountain biking. “We’re all pioneers and that’s so cool. We have the opportunity to build on those who came before us, and those rising with us, and continue to make this sport what we want it to be. Freeride is really just about that, riding freely and for the love of the sport.”
Follow Kaia on Instagram at @Kaia.Jensen and pre-order the Freyah pants here.