How One Engineer is Re-Tooling the Status Quo

Sarah Wood found bliss by riding bikes—then joining the male-dominated ranks of their builders.

Everything we are destined to become is often spelled out in our teenage years—if we only know how to read the clues. That was true for Sarah Wood, a mountain biker who recently ditched her executive director position with the successful 5Point Film Festival to become a wheel-building newbie at Industry Nine, North Carolina makers of (among other components) famously loud freehubs. Such a career re-invention might seem cavalier for a 35-year-old but Wood’s teenage self would definitely approve.

Wood’s affinity for two wheels began at an early age | Photo: Mary Beth Wood

As a kid growing up on a southern Indiana farm, Wood didn’t know a single cyclist, and trails were scarce. Yet she yearned to ride a mountain bike, so she worked a lot of hours at the local ice cream shop in order to buy a Trek 820 hardtail. Defying her parents’ decree, Wood rode it 16 miles to school—where, tragically, the bike was stolen. “But I loved every minute of that ride,” Wood recalls. “I had a car that I could drive to get places, but as all riders know, the feeling of freedom that you get on a bike is pretty unique.” The urge to ride seemed to be coded in her DNA.

So did her knack for mechanics. Her grandfather was a machinist in the Air Force and later at Cummins, the engine manufacturer for which her father also worked as an engineer. Wood inherited their aptitude for assembly. “I don’t need to see an image or hold an object in my hand to understand it,” Wood explains. “I can visualize 3-D objects in my brain.” She didn’t know it at the time, but her background and unique skill set would set her off on an unlikely path for a girl from rural Indiana.

Even now, only eight percent of mechanical engineers are women.

Sarah eventually attended the University of Kentucky studying mechanical engineering, proving herself a wiz at AutoCAD design software. She saw few other females among her fellow students or teachers. Even now, only eight percent of mechanical engineers are women.

Being a minority wasn’t what eventually deterred her, though–it was the button-down drudgery of the corporate work world that turned her off to engineering at first. So Wood caught a more promising wave—beginning a pattern that would define the next 15 years of her life.

She transferred to Tennessee’s Belmont University where she earned a degree in marketing and eventually worked in Nashville’s music industry for six years. But after realizing that the bar scene appealed to her a lot less than the outdoor crowd she mingled with while kayaking Tennessee’s Ocoee River and rock climbing at Tennessee Wall or Obed, Wood resolved to make yet another change. So she moved to Colorado in 2009, took a job with the American Alpine Club, and eventually transitioned to the 5Point Film Festival in 2012. It was in Carbondale, where 5Point is headquartered, that she rediscovered her passion for mountain biking.

“I finally got fitted onto a proper bike and realized this is what I want to spend most of my time doing,” she says. Wood bikepacked from Durango to Moab, rode Utah slickrock, and spent her lunch hours cranking up the mesas surrounding Carbondale, where trails remain dry for eight months of the year. “I loved that I could get out by myself, which wasn’t true for climbing or kayaking,” she explains. “A solo day on my bike is one of my favorite things.”

Wood gets sendy in Moab | Photo: Jennifer Eckardt

But it was a group ride in Moab that opened the door to Wood’s future at I9. Pedaling Porcupine Rim with a group of machinists from I9 (a 5Point sponsor), including the company’s owner, Clint Spiegel, she felt her passion for mountain biking converge with her long-lost love and aptitude for machinery. “I think I’m going to ask you for a job in two years,” Wood joked to Spiegel. But he accelerated the timeline: Discovering that Wood had aborted a career in engineering, Spiegel started emailing her homework problems to see how much of her facility remained. “I’d stay up until 2 am, re-learning algebra and physics and pulling stuff way out of the cobwebs,” Wood recalls. “But I felt elated. I couldn’t believe how much energy I had to do this.”

Then the job offer came. Spiegel proposed to mentor Wood and bring her up to speed. “I had all kinds of excuses as to why I shouldn’t jump ship,” she says. But the marriage of mountain biking and machinery seemed like the perfect combination—something she’d been seeking since she was 16 years old.

Sometimes, being the sole woman in a male-dominated scene—be it music or biking or mechanics—motivated Wood to prove herself and make a statement about the potential for all women to do stereotypically male stuff.

Now, as an apprentice engineer at I9 in Asheville, North Carolina, Wood enjoys the magic of creation every day. “I’m not a religious person,” she says. “But when you make something from a hunk of metal, something that you have conceived, planned, and coded, and then it’s in your hand and it’s something you can use—it’s so satisfying. You’ve created something out of nothing. It’s like God.”

Shifting from end-user to manufacturer has also lifted the veil on everything that goes into bike design. “I’m much more appreciative of the work and the thought that’s behind some of the simplest parts on my bike,” she explains. Then there’s the fun factor. “One of our mottoes at I9 is ‘work hard, ride harder.’” Wood explains. “We ride a lot, and do a couple of night rides per week, and I get a lot out of that, recreationally. But also, being out there with my work colleagues–it’s the best way to live.”

Wood samples some of the world-class slab riding on a trip to Squamish, BC | Photo: Luke Demoe

In the bike industry at large, though, Wood is generally outnumbered by male peers and colleagues. Sometimes, being one of just a few women—be it in music or biking or mechanics—motivated Wood to prove herself and make a statement about the potential for all women to do stereotypically male stuff. Mostly, though, she simply followed her internal compass. “I’m not here to necessarily be an advocate,” Wood says. “But if what I’m doing can inspire other women to take that step or feel confident in their abilities, then great. It’s always helpful, whether you’re a man or a woman, to see examples of someone accomplishing what you hope to accomplish.”

What’s been key, for Wood, is the way her jobs have blurred the line between work and play. From the music industry to outdoor film, her jobs have never required her to leave her life’s passions at the door. Joining the team at I9 not only tapped into Wood’s interests and talents, but it placed her within a community of like-minded builder-bikers. Says Wood, “Life, work, and play all flow into one experience.”

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