Ganzar strives to make communities healthier, children happier

Texas resident's research aims to increase active commuting amongst students

7 months ago by Kit Nicholson

We’re all learning very quickly that there’s a lot more to cycling, and to life than racing bikes. But the lifestyle of cycling and its benefits to personal and public health is something that is forefront in the minds of many, including Rally Cycling rider, Leigh Ann Ganzar.

Ganzar hails from Texas, and when she’s not training or racing on the world stage, she works at the Michael and Susan Dell Center of Healthy Living, a research center within the University of Texas. “When I’m home, I normally work 20-25 hours per week coordinating data collection and going into elementary schools to measure kids’ physical activity and active commuting-to-school behavior,” Ganzar says. “When I’m on the road for racing, I normally work 10-15 hours per week coordinating and writing research articles.”

Busy she certainly is, but it’s actually one less job than she had last year when, during her first year as a professional cyclist, Ganzar was also in the last year of her PhD and working as a research assistant.

“My degree was in public health and my research focuses a lot on physical activity promotion, especially around kids, so I’ve always felt like my research helps me be a better bike racer, and being a bike racer helps me be a better researcher.”

Leigh Ann Ganzar is crowned the most combative rider on Stage 3 of the 2020 Santos Women’s Tour Down Under.

It is no coincidence that her two professions have to do with cycling and physical activity. Ganzar grew up playing soccer and then started running in high school, finding herself really drawn to the endurance aspect of running. After running cross country and track throughout college at Baylor University, Ganzar says she left the sport with a bit of a chip on her shoulder having experienced so much injury. But before long, she was looking for new athletic outlets.

“I took a much-needed break after college and moved to Brazil for a year, and then when I came back, I was ready to get the competitive juices flowing again.”

Inspired by her boyfriend, Ganzar got her first road bike – a Felt, which she’s glad to be back riding with Rally Cycling – and, in her own words, she fell in love. “I loved that cycling was more of a team sport, more social than running is, and it’s more than just who’s the strongest, it’s also who’s the smartest.”

Ganzar racing in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the team’s final race before the season was postponed ahead of Strade Bianchi.

It was an interesting transition for Ganzar, coming to cycling from a running background at the age of twenty-five. “I had a solid aerobic base from running, but I’ve wished many times that I’d started riding my bike when I was younger and had learned the skills and some of that fearlessness before my brain was fully developed.”

In her career as a professional bike racer, most recently back from the team’s curtailed Europe trip with visits to Belgium and Italy, her cycling has taken on additional meaning.

“There’s a Safe Routes to School program in Austin and they’ve been putting a lot of money into building infrastructure in the local area. So, we’re doing an evaluation to see whether better sidewalks and bike lanes actually do increase the number of kids walking and biking to school.”

Ganzar wasn’t originally interested in this area of research – she had experience of working on chronic disease prevention and physical activity – but she found that her own experiences on and off the bike steered her to this field.

Physically and mentally spent, Ganzar recovers from her award-winning attack Down Under.

I’d always been interested in physical activity because I knew what a difference running made in my own life. Then, once I got into public health, I realized the potential impact that it can have on everyone’s physical, mental and social health. It really struck me. I noticed that there aren’t a lot of opportunities for kids to be active anymore, so building it into a means of travel can set them up for a lifetime of healthy habits.”

There’s a clear safety issue that Ganzar has experience of too. “As a professional cyclist, I’m used to being around cars and in traffic, but from the eyes of a child, it’s a very different perspective. I feel like cities, especially in the US, can do a better job of making it easier for kids.”

This is where Ganzar’s career in professional cycling really comes into play.

Getting to travel the world through cycling, it’s been interesting to see different countries and the types of infrastructure and physical activity that they have there. Being in Belgium and the Netherlands, you can really see why such a high percentage of the population ride bikes there. It’s easy and they feel safe. Then I come home to Austin and even I don’t feel safe, so you know a kid won’t. I think that’s been the driving factor of why I’ve continued to pursue this research, even as I’ve gone deeper into the professional racing world.”

Ganzar with teammates Sara Poidevin and Megan Jastrab at the 2020 Team Launch in Minneapolis, MN.

Ganzar’s international racing calendar has become a kind of field research that directly influences what happens back at home, bringing a whole range of different approaches to bear on her research.

The next step in her research is to go into schools to talk to students and parents about what they think would make things safer. And it’s interesting, says Ganzar, to see the differences in perspective: “some of the risks that the parents see are very different from what the kids see.”

Having just done surveys up to this point, this semester, Ganzar and her fellow researchers will be asking much more open-ended questions in interviews.

“Sometimes we ask the kids if they feel safe riding bikes in their neighborhoods, and there are some kids who are like, ‘Oh yeah, of course!’ and others who’ll say, ‘I would never ride a bike!’ Unfortunately, sometimes it has to do with the level of socioeconomic status in their neighborhoods. I’m interested in making those kinds of equitable changes in cities so that everyone has access to safe opportunities to be physically active.”

In the long term, Ganzar hopes to stay in the same field, “Ideally, I would like to work with a foundation or a non-profit that continues to advocate for walking and biking infrastructure, or work for a foundation that provides grants or assistance to cities to try to make equitable and healthy changes.”

Ganzar (front right) trains with Sara Poidevin, Heidi Franz, and Krista Doebel-Hickok in Malibu, CA (Jan 2020).

But for the time being, she continues to combine her interests in her day-to-day life as a researcher and rider – two professions that are more similar than we might think.

“I think what motivates me is being on a team. In my professional and research life, I have a really great team of professors, research staff, and community partners. Even the wider population of Austin motivates me to continue doing this research, giving me a purpose in promoting a healthy lifestyle and physical activity as a lifetime habit. And in cycling, it’s the same thing. Having a team to work for, even now when we don’t know when we’ll be racing next. I think it’s easy knowing that the next time we race, whenever that will be, my teammates will be depending on me. And the wider Rally Cycling team, too: they put so much into us as riders so being able to honor their commitment is what drives me.

“Being a part of a team sponsored by Rally Health has been really cool for me personally because it’s another intersection of my cycling and professional life. Rally as an organization is all about wellness and preventative health, so it’s been really cool to be able to promote their brand because it’s something that I’m really passionate about. It’s been a really encouraging and energizing sponsor relationship for me.”