Mountain bike racing has included women at the highest levels since the inception of the sport. Such was not the case, however, with BMX. During its heyday in the early 1980s, women competed in the Powder Puff class - a derogatory term borrowed from motorcycle competition, where women's races were staged as a sort of half-time entertainment while sausage-bearing speedsters prepared for their main events.
BMX feigned encouragement for female racers by allowing them to compete all the way up to the Nationals, but federations did not include them in their national points ranking systems, nor did they offer a pro class for women. Think about that for a moment.
I met Debbi Kalsow at a NICA cross-country race in Prescott, Arizona, where Kalsow was busy preparing for the onslaught of high-school athletes who stop by the Pivot Cycles Chill Zone after crossing the finish line for food, refreshments and to trade stories. NICA events are staffed almost entirely by volunteers (Pivot founder Chris Cocalis "volunteered" me to ride sweep for the Freshman and Junior Varsity races), so it would be easy to assume that this kind-hearted 52-year-old with a youthful smile was a race-mom who was doing her part for the cause.
She is all of that, but not by textbook definitions. Five years ago, Kalsow founded the Tuff Girlz BMX
team, which sponsors over a hundred young women in four countries. Those are her kids now. And, there's a good chance that she'd still be here supporting NICA's high-school league XC races even if she weren't paid to do so as a member of Pivot's marketing department. Racing is in her blood, I would soon discover, and this was all about giving back.
Debbi announced to her parents that she wanted to race BMX alongside her brother when she was ten years old. At the time, her father, Dennis Kalsow, was a member of the NBL (a prominent BMX
federation in the Eastern USA) who built the first BMX track in Lansing, Michigan, so he couldn't refuse. Debbi turned out to be a natural, eventually becoming one of the top Powder Puff competitors in the country. By 1980, the Kalsows had moved to Arizona, where the family built a four-track BMX empire in the Phoenix area. Dad prepared the tracks and did the announcing. Mom ran the concession stands, and Debbi raced.
Google Debbi Kalsow and you'll discover that she won all the big races that were available to women and wore the number one plate for all four of the BMX federations in the USA during a meteoric career that ended abruptly in 1985. She was inducted
into the National BMX Hall of Fame in 2018. Watch the induction video and you'll learn that Debbi argued successfully with the federations to establish a national points series and a number one plate for female competitors - things previously reserved for men only. Search further and you might find an entry that reads: "Professional - No professional career."
Kalsow doesn't dwell in the past, so it took a while to learn the back story. "We could race the Nationals and Grand Nationals, but there were no points - no number one plate for girls." says Kalsow. "The points series was for the boys only. That's how you got the plate. I could complain all I wanted, but I was just a teenage girl. Nobody was going to care what I had to say."
BMX at the time, didn't even bother to segregate female competitors beyond age groups. Boys could graduate to the expert class and eventually turn pro. Girls were, um, girls. Debbi's knight in shining armor was her dad, then a key member of the ABA. Dennis marched Debbi's demands for fair and equal treatment to the BMX federations, and in 1982, the ABA was the first to expand their series to include women. Kalsow won it and went on to earn the coveted number plate from the NBA, NBL and USBA as the remaining federations followed suit. On the heels of her success, "Powder Puff" disappeared from official nomenclature.
Debbi Kalsow's last entry in the record books is the 1984 7UP 15 and over Girls World Champion. Not officially recognized by the UCI (which waited until 1996
to grant BMX the rainbow jersey), the rebadged Jag BMX World Championships was the last prestigious title that Kalsow earned before she smashed head first into her sport's glass ceiling. There was no turning pro for women. The unspoken truth was that Kalsow could hover in the amateur division indefinitely, or she could seek employment elsewhere.
Kalsow left that final battle for other female racers to fight, and in 1985, the promising 17-year old walked away from the sport at the top of her game, got a job, found a husband, raised two children, and didn't look back for over 30 years.
"An old friend of mine from the racing days found me on Facebook," said Kalsow. "He insisted that BMX had changed for the better. He said the tracks in San Diego had classes for adults and kept urging me to try at least one race. He wouldn't take 'no' for an answer and vowed to send me a cruiser class race bike - which he did..."
The ploy was successful. Kalsow returned from the track supercharged, and immediately sketched out a plan to encourage more young women to come to the party, Within a year, her Tuff Girlz BMX team was raging and not too long after, Kalsow was searching the web for a job in the bicycle industry.
Kalsow paused for a panorama of the NICA race, which was now in full swing. Prescott's largest outdoor sports facility was overflowing with tents, Sprinter vans and RV's. Hundreds of teenage competitors from all walks of life were either huffing their bikes around the course or shoulder to shoulder, cheering their contemporaries onwards. Everyone here was family or friend - just like the early days of BMX, I imagined.
There were many more questions, but Pivot's NICA sanctuary is adult free. Shouts and bells announced the first wave of Varsity girls were screaming past the finish line and I, along with the younger men occupying the shade, were quickly ushered out of the Chill Zone. Debbi's kids had arrived.