XX or XY? Bikes don’t care.

May 19, 2012 at 18:28
by Pip Gardiner  

Reading ‘Why no y’ by Mitchell Scott the other day made me open up the computer and write this response. Not that there was anything new or exciting in the article to respond to – point raised could be applied to any sport out there with a skewed male-female ratio. Luckily, things are happening in our sport right now that mean more and more people of both sexes are getting involved. Lamenting the lack of ladies in MTB won’t change a damn thing - we need to study the success stories if we care about where our sport is going. I am female and have been riding DH and XC for more than 10 years. I have had the chance to ride bikes and meet people from a number of mountain biking communities, and have observed what works – and what doesn’t - when it comes to encouraging new riders.

Whistler is indeed a ‘special node’ where ‘you can see girls shred’. I confess that on my first day at the Whistler Blackcomb bike park I nearly popped with excitement at seeing so many female riders on big rigs. To be fair, Whistler is a destination for riders from all over the world so you would expect to see more good riders of any sex here. But a good number of those girls are local – so what makes this place work?

For a start – the bike park. Whistler Blackcomb offers a lift accessed terrain that enables riders to hone their skills lap after lap. The park also offers skills training for all levels including Women’s Nights, where women ride with mountain guides, learn skills and socialise. It is a fun night that draws locals and visitors alike, and nothing makes me feel better about the future of our sport than seeing more than one hundred women ripping up the park. Hats off to Whistler Bike Park for some shrewd marketing that is making a real difference the gender gap boy-girl ratio, not to mention its bottom line.

However, mountain biking is massive in all the towns around Whistler, so the bike park is not the only factor at play. Communities have their own cycling associations that organise events, build trails and work with local councils to open up trail access. Events vary from professional endurance races to social rides and barbeques, again catering to all levels and types of riding. I live in Squamish and in any given week I can choose to shuttle with friends, join a social ride, ride with a women’s DH group or enter an XC or DH race for no more than $2. Accessible trails and community organisations have created a culture of mountain biking that encourages people from all walks of life to get involved.

Sounds like a dream come true? It is, and I have to pinch myself occasionally. I started riding in Brisbane, Australia and could count the number of mountain bikers I knew on one hand. Most of the time I was the only female rider, particularly when it came to downhill. Being the weakest, slowest and shyest in the group made it pretty hard to learn. My skill level dramatically improved by having a few lessons with Roadie Rob’s Bicycle School and riding with groups like Whistler Women’s Nights and the Gravity Girlz in Squamish. Groups like these are skills focused, and allow you to ride at a slower pace and practise technical sections in an encouraging and low pressure learning environment. Far from being an integration issue as Mitchell suggests, women’s only groups pump out stronger riders who are much more likely to be comfortable riding in mixed groups.

Granted, there are mental and physical differences between males and females that are obvious in any sport. But the biggest trap we all fall into is believing a female rider can never ride the same bikes, or ride as fast, as strong, as stylish as the guys (Anne-Caroline Chausson, anyone?). Pigeonhole yourself mentally and you are placing metal limits on your riding before you even hit the dirt. Want to be a great rider? Don’t try and ride like a girl, or a guy. Ride like an athlete. Learn the skills, watch the pros, work on your weaknesses and ride as much as you can with people who are better than you.

The truth is when it comes to shredding a gnarly descent or stomping a lung busting climb, how well you ride depends on a lot of factors - skill level, bike, mental preparation and fitness. It has bugger all to do with whether you are male or female. Passion for mountain biking isn’t gender specific, so quit acting like it matters, contribute to building your biking community and encourage everyone you know to get out there.

See you on the trails.

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