Serena Bishop Gordon races mountain and cyclocross professionally. “I like doing anything that has dirt in it,” explains the short-haired racer from Bend, Oregon.. “Mountain biking, cyclocross even road races with dirt… I love them all.” With a handful of strong regional results, Serena joined the LIV-Giant team in Jan 2015. This year she’ll race her first full national cyclocross calendar. “My passion for playing outdoors and my competitive drive motivate me to ride, train and race at the highest level,” says Serena. “With mountain biking and cyclocross, I can push my limits physically and mentally.” Racing is one of Serena’s passions—conservation is the other. She is Program Director for The Conservation Alliance, which connects outdoor industry businesses with non-profit organizations working to conserve North America’s wild places and the recreational opportunities they offer.
“I started my career at Enron,” recounts Serena. “I was a trader on the California Energy Desk the year before they went bankrupt. I learned so much about all things bad in business. I thought I wanted to go to Wall Street and do mergers and acquisitions. But my time at Enron cured me of that desire.”
Instead, she pursued a career in the outdoor industry, first as a comptroller at Adidas, then as manager at a Portland, Oregon Patagonia store. “I was exposed to how the other half lives…the smarter half, the half with less money, more flannel, and brighter spirits,” remembers Serena. “I wanted to be part of that half.” So Serena hit pause and hatched a plan with her boyfriend-now-husband, Ben, to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). She quit her job, sold her house and holed up for the winter with Ben and his work mate at the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center in a off-the-grid mining town a 15-mile snowshoe from the nearest road. “My mom thought I was insane,” says Serena.
But she was happy. In April, Serena and Ben set off to hike from Mexico to Canada. “I had never done anything like that before,” she recounts. “My backpacking resume consisted of one overnight. It blew my mind to see how little we needed to survive.” When Serena and Ben started their hike, they had heavy packs. By the end of the trip, they had pared down to bare essentials. “Even the stove went,” says Serena. “I learned the value of living simply, and of quality versus quantity.” On the PCT, Serena honed in on her passion for conservation. “The trail goes through National Parks, Wilderness, BLM land and National Recreation Areas,” says Serena. “I saw the differences between protected lands and unprotected lands. We’d walk beautiful and pristine stretches of trail, then we’d have to climb over fallen timber and negotiate slippery tracts of mud where the forest had been logged. The PCT corridor is protected, but there are industrial buildings, extractive activities, and McMansion subdivisions all along it. I learned that just because an area is federal land doesn’t mean that it’s protected.” On the PCT, Serena was mulling over her professional path, while she and Ben scoped out a future home. “We had no idea where would live when we were done hiking,” says Serena. “Along the way, we stopped in many mountain towns, considering each one as a possible place to settle. A friend of friend picked us up for a rest day in Bend, Oregon. We spent 18 hours there—and we both knew that was home. Back on the trail, I asked Ben if he’d consider living in Bend. He didn’t even pause before he said, ‘Yeah lets move there.’ So we did.” Done with the trail and relocated to Bend, Serena started mountain biking and her search for fulfilling work that would also pay the bills. “I was intrigued with intersection of outdoor business and conservation—and I wanted to be part of it,” recalls Serena. Ben, a guitarist, met the mandolin-playing Executive Director of the Conservation Alliance, John Sterling, at a jam. John was looking for a program director. Serena was in his office to apply the next day.
“The Conservation Alliance provides an amazing outlet for organizations that want to invest in conservation and recreation,” explains Serena. “It provides an avenue for people who are in the outdoor industry to effectively give to protect places we love. And there is 100% pass through. If you give me $500, all that money goes to a non-profit. It feels good, clean, real.”
Like training for racing, being Conservation Alliance’s Program Director is work, but with rewards. “Even though I can get bogged down in the grind of desk jockeying, I am also continuously reminded how my work is impacting the world. I go to Backyard Collectives, where company employees spend a day getting dirty with grantees at a project site, and it reminds me how fortunate I am to do what I do.” A year and a half ago, Serena cut back to half time so that she could focus on racing bikes. It was a scary but “radical” move according to Serena. “I love it,” she says. “At first the transition was challenging. John and I had worked together for four years, and it was just the two of us. We did everything. Handing over the job I built to a new person was a good ego check. But now that we’re all settled into our roles, I feel so freaking fortunate that I get to do both things that I love. If I just raced I’d be off balance--bike racing is selfish. But through my work with Conservation Alliance, I feel like I am giving something back.” Serena plans to race for a few more years, but she’s already thinking about her next steps. She’s looking for ways to bring her two passions—conservation and cycling together. “I have a lot of ideas—big picture ideas—that I want to pursue,” says Serena. “I always want to be a part of the cycling community and the conservation community.” And she is excited for adventures with Ben when her racing and training subsides. Serena strives for the simplicity of the PCT every day, and does what she can to keep her life simple and her possessions to a minimum. “When you’re long distance hiking, all you have to do is walk,” she says. “If you have one good pair of shoes, one good pair of rain pants, one good pair of gloves—you have all you need. It’s a good reminder to buy the one thing that’s good, that you can trust. Buy one really good pair of winter riding pants, you don’t need three okay,” Serena insists. “Enough is better than a lot.” This winter, Serena is kitted in Velocio. “It’s simple, beautiful and I don’t feel like a billboard,” she says. “Velocio caters to women, they’re leading with women’s product, but it’s not a women’s brand. There is something very appealing about that. The quality of the fabric, the detailing and fit--it works.”
In keeping with the example set by Serena, Velocio is proud to join The Conservation Alliance, a collection of Outdoor Industry partners committed to protecting wild places. Thanks to writer and rider, Berne Broudy, who wrote this profile, lives in Vermont and has pedaled from the heights of Nepal to the wilds of the American West.