Mountain Biking Pioneer, Entrepreneur And Fierce Advocate: Meet Ashley Korenblat

Korenblat in action at the Outerbike demo event


In 1998, I was the associate editor for Bike Magazine. One of my early assignments was to write blurbs for a piece about the most influential women in the sport at that moment. One of those was about Ashley Korenblat, who’d been the CEO of Merlin Metalworks, one of the early manufacturers of titanium bike frames, and who had recently moved to Moab, Utah, to lead Western Spirit Cycling Adventures, one of the first mountain bike outfitters. This wasn’t an interview. I just wrote the piece based on what had previously been published about her.

Cut to the fall of 2021. My phone rings. It’s a familiar 435 Utah area code. I answer it. “Hey Rob, this is Ashley.”

“Ashley…Korenblat?” I respond.

“Yep. Hey, I want to get your accommodations squared away for Outerbike.”

I would have been less surprised or impressed if Kamala Harris was on the other end of the line. Because Madam Vice President Harris may be the first woman, the first African American, and the first South Asian American elected to the office, but Ashley Korenblat has had a huge impact on my lifelong passion of mountain biking. Not only were we speaking on the phone, but I’d soon go to Moab, Utah, for the Outerbike Demo event, where we’d finally get to meet. And we’d follow this up with a proper interview to get her full story as a pioneer, entrepreneur, CEO, advocate and—if you weren’t aware—legend of this sport.

The Outerbike Moab venue doesn’t lack for scenery


Rob Reed (RR): Let’s start in the present. What is Outerbike and how did it get started?

Ashley Korenblat (AK): So Outerbike is a consumer demo bike event where you get to test bikes on real trails for real rides. We have chosen locations that have great riding right from the venue, and it allows you to run different bikes on a real trail and really start to understand what is going to work best for you.

The way we started it; I have been in the bike business forever. Back in the day it was all about the Interbike trade show. You had to kind of kill yourself to build a demo fleet in time for the show. You would pull it all together and take it to Las Vegas and then that would be it. You were done for the winter. You just had this shiny new fleet and nowhere else to go with it. So, I thought it would be great to invite everyone over to Moab. So back when Interbike was happening, I talked 20 brands into coming over to the first Outerbike and letting consumers ride the bikes.

RR: What year was that, 2010?

AK: 2010, I think so, 2010. It must have been 2010.

RR: Interbike was more for industry folks and bike shop people—not so much of a consumer show. But it sounds like with with Outerbike anyone can sign up, yes?

AK: Sure, I wanted to make it basically a VIP tent for anyone that wants to test bikes. We have food there, that is part of the event, and shuttles to different trail systems. There are all kinds of non-bike exhibitors like camping gear and other outdoor stuff that is really fun to check out. It really matters if you get to see and touch something and figure out what is best for you. I think a lot of people sort of buy whatever bike their buddy told them to buy, especially with people who are just getting into it. But that really isn’t the best choice for them. So, it is really important for people to ride bikes on a real trail and make their own choice.

RR: The manufacturers in recent years have built demo fleets with demo trucks that are traveling all the time. Whether it is to bike shops or events. Did that happen first, and then Outerbike?

AK: Well, I think it had been discovered by several brands as a technique and a tactic to get the word out and to build loyalty for their brand and have folks from the brand actually meeting the consumer and getting to know them a little bit and getting that feedback directly from the consumer and to support their dealers. I mean part of it is bringing these fleets to different dealers. There is much of that. It is tricky because having the chance to ride two bikes back-to-back on the same trail is pretty rare, and you can really start to tell the difference and see what makes more sense for you. Everyone’s body is little bit different and so I find that if you just buy the bike your friend bought, you might not be getting what is best for you.

Merlin Titanium crew, circa 1990

Ashley Korenblat

RR: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you first become interested in mountain biking?

AK I went to Dartmouth and ski raced. I was really lucky because they had a big program and they had to spend as much money on women as they did on the men. So even though I am from Arkansas, I got taken under their wing and had a bunch of mentors and really got to learn how to ski. There were a bunch of people from the US Ski Team there. It was a great experience for me.

I left Dartmouth and went to business school there and then after business school went to Wall Street. I had to spend every weekend dragging my road bike or my mountain bike or my skis out of the city. It became clear that this probably was not the best spot for me, and one thing led to another. So I got a job running a factory that made woman’s belts in Concorde, Massachusetts. I was the assistant manager. The couple that started it, started it around their kitchen table—they were both teachers and they got $25 million in sales, 250 employees. They said, “We are going to hire an MBA, and if you do not want the job, we are going to start interviewing your friends.” I saw it as a way to sort of get out of New York and the bonds market, which I was always more of an entrepreneur than a bond trader. 

I learned about manufacturing which turned out to be really important because then I met the guy who founded Merlin [Metalworks], and he was looking for someone to run it. I remember the first day when I started to take inventory, how much tubing we had. We had about four employees and I was walking around with this piece of paper, writing down how much tubing we had. One of them said, “Oh, are you going to Dunkin’ Donuts? I will have a coffee and a…”

RR: So, you joined Merlin in ‘89, was it?

AK: Yes, that is right.

RR: You joined as CEO?

AK: I joined as CEO

RR: That was your first job at Merlin was CEO.

AK: Well the founder, he didn’t know this was really gonna go anywhere, and his wife is getting a PHD and he had promised he would help with the kids. He was overcommitted and he was like, “Here is the 40 percent of the company, do not lose money and good luck.” It was a pretty wild ride, because I remember when Eddie B called and wanted bikes and I am like, “What is your last name?” And he was like, “Nobody asks my last name.” But we became good friends and we worked so hard to get the bikes they needed. Lance [Armstrong] was on the team at that point. I remember driving around in this giant Chevy van that said Subaru all over it for the Subaru Montgomery team and going to some of those races and at the same time I was racing, mountain biking in the New England series with [John] Tomac. And my claim-to-fame was that I beat Missy Giove in a dual slalom race once.

RR: That is awesome.

AK: At the height of my racing.

RR:  That is worth mentioning for sure.

AK: I was really fun. Yes, there we go, to this audience because they know who she is.

RR: The industry, the mountain bike business, it was just nascent at that point. What was it like, did you have a sense for the moment in history you were experiencing, before it was history?

AK: Yes, in some ways, yes. Because there were some races where there were 600 people racing and it was really just taking off. There were many weeks when we got three times as many orders as we could ship. We were interviewing welders—like, we wouldn’t even ask their name and would be like, “Hired.” Okay next. Or when one was good it was, “Okay, now what is your name?” It was crazy and we made bikes for Greg LeMond’s team, as well, and all kinds of crazy things happened.

RR: I have said this a number of times that the period from 1990 to 1994 was the heyday of mountain biking. Do you feel the same thing during that time?

AK: It definitely was really special, and my goal was not to get lapped in a criterium by Sara Ballantyne right? Then I got to do a camp one time with Susan DeMattei, it was amazing. We were coaching together and had so much fun. It definitely felt like that, I definitely know what you mean. But I have to say, right now, what is happening in Utah is amazing. When I moved to Utah after that whole time period and came out here, I was kind of a freak, as mountain biker. There were mountain bikers in Moab, but we were freaks, right? But you should see these races today. There are six or seven high schools in Utah that have over 200 kids on their mountain bike racing team.

For me, pulling mountain biking into the mainstream for these rural communities, and how it is bringing all this revenue to them. The fact that so many cities and towns now know about it. If you were the mayor before, you were in charge of police and fire and water. And now you are in charge of police, fire, water and trails. All these cities and towns are all about building trails. So, I do look back at that whole time period fondly and it is kind of weird all the strange changes that have happened. But this moment we are in now, so many high school mountain bikers has really, really been fun.

Photo op with presidential candidate Bill Clinton in the fall of 1992

Ashley Korenblat

RR: It is interesting how you instinctively put your advocacy hat on, which is a perfect segue to my next question. There is an iconic photo of you riding with Bill Clinton, which I believe was during the 1992 Presidential campaign. What is the story behind that moment?

AK: I am from Arkansas, and it is a very small state. I had known both Bill Clinton and Hillary growing up. So, when Clinton announced he was running for President, I called Little Rock and said, “What can I do to help?” And they said, “Raise $1,000 by Friday.” I was like, okay, and I got 10 people to give me $100 bucks. I went to this event and Clinton was there, and he was like, “You are Art Korenblat’s daughter from Little Rock, what are you doing in Boston?” And I said, “I am running this little bike factory, and we are making bikes.” And he was like, “That is great!” Either Bill or Hillary came to Boston every three weeks starting in ‘91 right up to the election in ‘92, basically for fundraising.

We had this huge event right before the election, and I had been at the Interbike show, which would have been in Anaheim, [California]. So, I flew back to Boston on the red eye, and I don’t really sleep on the plane. I’m just reading or doing stuff or whatever.

So, we had this huge fundraiser, and they had oversold it. We were cramming people into it, and I was in charge of logistics. So I was supposed to turn the tables from 10 people to 12, and there was a big cocktail party before and there were people lined up all the way around the block and Clinton, of course, arrived early and I looked up and he was there and I said, “Oh my gosh you are early, you never come early!” This is terrible, but we managed to get more volunteers so we could process the people who are trying to donate and we got them all in and then we went over to the building where the dinner was.

But before this is when Congressman Kennedy, who was really the bike champion in Congress at that time. His office had contacted me and said, “Can you help us organize a bike ride for Governor Clinton when he is here?” And I said, “Sure, you know, whatever, whenever.” I did not really think it was going to happen. And then I hadn’t heard from them and then I heard it was cancelled.

So, when I was running around dealing with the dinner, I was kind of relieved because there were so many other problems that had to be solved. Then we finally get everyone into the room, it is overflowing. Then I get this message that the bike ride is on, that they want us to meet at 6:30 in the morning and I need to bring six bikes for the Secret Service, plus a bike for Robert Kennedy, a bike Clinton and a bike for me.

I have been awake for almost three days at this point, and so at the end of this huge fundraiser, everyone was so excited we raised all this money. They are like, “We are going partying,” and I was afraid if I went home, I would sit down and be asleep and really mess everything up. So, I had to started calling all the welders and everyone who worked at Merlin because we did not have a big stash of built bikes. I had to use employee bikes, so I got a bunch of employees to meet me at 6:00am at the hotel where Clinton was and we scrambled around to get the right bikes for the right people. When I met Clinton he said, “Ashley, I don’t have any bike riding clothes” and I am like “It’s okay. You can go in jeans and sneakers; it will be fine.” Of course, the bike that fit him had toe clips. He looked at the pedal and he was like, “What do I do with that thing?” And I was like, “Oh, just ignore it.” And so I was worried that every pedal stroke it was going to scrape on the pavement, right? So, all this cramming around and all of a sudden, we are out there riding along. It is a beautiful sunrise. No one’s around, they closed the streets. The Secret Service is in front of us and behind us and Clinton says, “Wow, what a nice way to start the day.”

Korenblat riding her local Moab trails with snow-capped La Sal Mountains in the background

Western Spirit Cycling

RR: This seems to kind of dovetail with you getting more into the advocacy aspect of mountain biking and your career. Was this also right around the time where you started to get involved with the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA)?

AK: Sure, I served as the chairman, but during those years, IMBA had very little money in the bank. When we tried to hire Tim Blumenthal as executive director, he found out we only had $16,000 in the bank, so he didn’t accept initially because he had the dream job at Bicycling Magazine. Eventually, though, he became the first executive director of IMBA. That was great because IMBA grew really, really quickly from there.

It was really important to see how mountain biking was community driven. You had these motivated clubs that had great leadership that were working with local land managers to show that mountain biking would be an asset. And really, you know, sometimes people get a little confused, they think we have to fight for our rights. And the problem is that there is no right to ride your bike on any piece of public land, anywhere anytime. I have checked, it is not in the Constitution.

So instead, we have had to prove the value of our constituency, having mountain bikers as part of your visitors. Any piece of public land, whether it’s state, county, federal or whatever, is a good thing. And that is really how we have won.

RR: So what were some of the big wins back at that time?

AK: I think the two most important moments—one of them was when we started really fundraising. Linda DuPriest and I terrorized everyone at the bike show. We need to get serious and get organized about how we’re protecting the trails and building more. And people would be like, “Well, how about we give you a few cases of water bottles?” And we were like, “No. Cold hard cash is what we are going to need.”

So that was really important. I remember we got a really big donation from RockShox. They said, “How much? What is the most anyone’s ever given in one check?” I was racking my brain to figure out how big a number, and I think I said $50,000. And they said, “Okay, we will get you $50,000.” And I couldn’t dial the phone fast enough to tell Tim Blumenthal that I got this huge donation.

So, there were lots of really important moments with the industry and then the Bureau of Land Management. There was a really important person at the BLM, Bob Moore, and others who saw that this was a great user group. That this was going to bring more people to public lands and really change the public land equation.

Public Land was mostly for resource extraction. We took trees off the forest and we took oil and gas off the BLM lands and run cows out there, and that was what it was for. So, the idea that you could make a living off the land had a new meaning—that mountain bikers would build trails and bring people to communities and bring money to those communities. The idea that land in its natural state is an economic driver was a pretty new concept, and there were some key people at the BLM who saw that and eventually the Forest Service, as well. But that was a really important turning point. The trees are worth more standing up than they would be laying down, right? And the idea that you should keep them up. And that’s going to be the future of your community was relatively new, and mountain biking really helped with that. And when you see what communities are doing now to bring quality of life to their community, it’s all about building trails. And that, combined with the growth in remote working is really going to change the prospects of a lot of the rural West and other parts of the country.

Bike touring in Moab, Utah

Western Spirit Cycling

RR: Let’s talk about Western Spirit and the transition from being CEO of Merlin and deciding, “You know what, I am going to go to Moab and start a mountain bike outfitter.” Connect those dots for me.

AK: Well, when I first came to Moab, my parents were like, “We don’t know what she is doing, we think she’s on sabbatical.” They could not figure it out, and I really was not sure either. I talked to lots of folks about working at different companies and came out here and met the founder of Western Spirit. And for him a day in the office was a bad day, and so he was not interested in the business aspect of it. I met all the guides and was looking at different things. But with outfitting, you get to spend a lot of time camping and riding. There’s really no job that is going to be that, and so I was able to buy the company, and I met my husband around that time, and we spent a lot of time working on new trips. We had a lot of customers that were coming on a trip and then coming the next year to a different place.

We rode in every National Forest almost in the West. I mean, there is really only two or three that we have not been in. We were working on five-day trips and when I would call my parents, my mom would say, “Are you sleeping on the ground again?” Then I was like, “Yes, yes, we are, it is fine.” That was really fun, and the Western Spirit customers are amazing. They arrive, sort of a little nervous like what they got into. There is always that worry in our sport, like, am I going too slow? Am I going too fast? Do I have to wait for everyone, how is it going to work out?

Sunset on Outerbike Moab 2021


But by the second day of the trip, no one really cares about that anymore. You are just riding as a group and if someone is usually off the front, that’s fine. You have that camaraderie that comes with riding and by the time they come back from the trip, they’re pretty much glowing. It’s not just the dirt or the sunburn, they actually have gone to check out. And now, more than ever, it is so great to be on a trip and not have to think or answer any email. You kind of forget about your phone by the middle of the second day.

So that is a real gift to be able to have that time. Where you are not connected, you’re living in the moment, and you do it in a beautiful place.

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