Sonya Looney: World-Class Mountain Biker, Traveler

The only thing Sonya Looney racks up faster than victories on the international mountain bike circuit is frequent flier miles.

Between racing and her day job – she works in sales and marketing for Ergon, one of her cycling sponsors – Looney’s on the road two weeks out of every month, so she’s picked up her share of favorite spots across the globe. Stamps from Haiti, Nepal, Germany, Costa Rica and Brazil line the pages of her passport.

But despite visiting some of the most breathtakingly beautiful spots across the globe, it can be hard for the Topeak Ergon Racing Team rider to focus on the scenery as she’s screaming by on her Canyon mountain bike.

Although the fun-loving Looney has the effervescent air of the stereotypical girl next door, she’s an incredible competitor and a tough-as-nails athlete, as evidenced by her multiple national cycling championships and incredible racing pedigree. During the recent 10-day Yak Attack in Nepal – she won the overall race in 2012 and finished first among women in 2013 – Looney trudged through knee-deep snow up the 18,000-foot Thorong La Pass, her bike on her back. Following the oxygen-starved, three-hour trek up the mountain, she then had to descend back down the same way.

Considered the hardest mountain bike race in the world, the 160-mile La Ruta de los Conquistadores forces riders to climb more than 20,000 muddy vertical-feet over three sweltering hot days. Illness forced her to drop out after 6 miles on day two, but Looney decided to ride the 43-mile finale the next day for fun. That fun included gingerly crossing a rickety railroad trestle 200-feet over a crocodile-infested river before finishing on the gorgeous La Playa Bonita beach on the Caribbean Sea.
Looney was gracious enough to share some of her experiences with Gadling.

What’s your favorite place that you’ve visited?

My favorite country so far has been Nepal. I love the warm people, the culture, the contrast between different cities, the (mountains), great options for photography, and all the different activities. The country is a huge playground. There are also lots of opportunity to do volunteer and non-profit work. I’d love to go live there for six months doing just that!

I often have to get back pretty quickly after a stage race because I had to take time off work to go. I would love to have another week to just travel, relax and explore. I normally get two days post-race to hang out before heading home. I love to go for rides exploring the area, walking for hours, checking out the architecture, and eating all the different foods. I’ll dabble before a race, but I’m always concerned with staying healthy. I’ll go for shorter walks and be more cautious with food and drinks. After the race, it feels less stressful because the consequences of being overly tired or sick are way less severe!

I love visiting new places because it always gives me a new perspective. Of course, the more obscure the place, the more out of my comfort zone I get. Even though it’s sometimes a challenge, I love to be put into different situations. Plus, it makes traveling in the US seem so easy! I love making new friends, and seeing how other people live their lives.

What are some of the problems with flying with a bike?

If you can, weigh your bags in advance. There’s nothing worse than having to open up your bike case to take stuff out in the middle of an airport. That said, if you have extra weight leftover to bring you to 50 pounds, put a few things in the bike box.

My bike has never been damaged in transit. I use an Evoc case, and previously used cardboard boxes. I take great care to pack my bike properly. However, an airline has lost my bike before. I was going to Brazil for a stage race. The airline lost both my bike and my suitcase – as well as my teammate’s who was on a separate flight – for days, and I couldn’t start the race. It was very stressful and very disappointing. They gave me a small travel voucher, but it didn’t even come close to covering the cost and the loss of experience from their negligence.

Favorite souvenir?

I don’t really have a favorite I can recall. I like to buy local art or handmade crafts from wherever I go and decorate my house. I got a couple of really cool paintings from Haiti that are my favorites right now. I also bought a mandala from Nepal that is about to get framed that I’m pretty excited about.

Favorite foreign dish?

I really love the Pad Thai I had in Bangkok this year. I had a day there passing through and ate as much Thai food as I could. I know that sounds boring and generic, but it was really freaking good! It had these little salty, dried shrimps in it, too. I love the Pao de Queso from Brazil, too. It’s this doughy cheesy bread ball. So good! I used to love Chicken Tikka Masala until I got food poisoning (on the plane ride home) … I still can’t eat it.

Oddest thing you’ve ever eaten?

Yak cheese pizza. The smell still makes me gag! I need to spend more time in the Asian countries to get a fun answer for this one! Chilled Monkey Brains? (Like Indiana Jones! Hehe.)

You’re leaving for two weeks. What’s in your suitcase?

It just so happened I packed my suitcase for two weeks yesterday! Camera, spare memory cards, laptop, iPod, bike shoes, helmet, pedals, ride clothes for different temperatures, running shoes, bright socks, sunglasses, ball cap, skort, flip flops, Garmin, Gortex jacket, a few dresses, a pair of fun wedge shoes, my favorite T-shirts, down jacket, fun earrings, everyday clothes, race stuff if I’m racing. It really sort of depends where I’m going!

Must-have travel item?

My iPod and my camera. I love music. It also really helps me sleep in places that do not have quiet nights … think dogs barking, roosters crowing and people talking. I take tons of photos; I rarely leave home without a camera.

Best travel tip?

Frequent flier? Flying domestic? Buy the Classic Fare on Frontier. If you have a bike and a piece of luggage, it ends up being cheaper because there are no baggage fees and you get extra perks with it as well.

For international travel, I like a window seat. I can sleep if I put one foot up and I normally put it on the back of the armrest of the seat in front of me without my foot getting in the way (of the other person. I can also sleep if I slouch down and curl into a ball against the wall and turn on my iPod.

[Photos supplied by Sonya Looney]