By Monica Jones from Rubber Side Down
Mountain biking (MTB) can make the most experienced rider anxious from time to time, perhaps pushing yourself to ride a section of trail faster, landing that drop that you have been eyeing off for some time or simply when the front wheel slips out from under you on that wet tree root. So, it can be easy to forget how nerve-racking it can be for new riders to make that leap from, “always wanting to ride a mountain bike” to getting on the trail and experiencing the thrill of what riding trails is all about.
Whilst the number of female riders has increased over the last 10 years, mountain biking is still very male dominated, so what are the barriers that stand in the way of potential female riders getting into the sport and how can we overcome them? I recently had the pleasure of interviewing 4 Adelaide based female riders with different experiences in the mountain bike scene to discuss this very question.
How did you get into mountain biking?
Julie has been on the local MTB scene for over 20 years and can remember racing downhill in the early days of the South Australian Downhill MTB Club, Inside Line. Julie recalls being one of only a few females riding mountain bikes in the early 2000’s and that as a female rider back then, it wasn’t always the most comfortable place to be with nearly all riders being male, typically faster and often sitting on your wheel on the trails. Julie has noticed a change when you look at the number of female riders either riding or participating in club organised events and in the attitude of men for the positive.
Alice started riding road bikes about 6 years ago. After a couple of years, Alice transitioned to gravel riding which is a discipline that usually sees riders on a drop bar bike with tyres that have more aggressive grip than a road bike and riders ride on gravel roads and other unpaved surfaces. The enjoyment of being off the road finally resulted in Alice riding mountain bikes on the local trails in Adelaide.
Susie is relatively new to MTB and started riding, late in 2019. Susie’s son got a bike and needed to be accompanied out on the trails which meant that Susie needed to get a bike. Susie’s son over time stopped riding but she had found her passion and in the short time that Susie has been riding on the trails is now racing cross-country and is very happy to send it over jumps and tabletops at Fox Creek Bike Park where Susie is resident due to living local to the trails.
Ali is affectionately referred to as the Bike Mum due to her supportive nature of others on the trails. Ali got into the scene after her husband Liam bought her a mountain bike. Having resisted for quite some time after, Ali met up with a riding group for girls called Gravity Girls. It was the friendships that Ali made that resulted in Ali becoming hooked. Now, Ali is a regular on the local cross-country, downhill and gravity enduro race scene.
Diversity and Inclusion
Julie recalls that back when she started riding, there were very few women out on the trails, and it was not uncommon to receive abuse on the trails. In the early 2000’s it was a very blokey environment and female riding groups were not a thing back then. At races, there were limited categories for women, with prizes being significantly different to those of the male podiums.
In contrast to today, there are many female riding groups that cater for all skill and fitness levels of riders. These groups offer a supportive environment for beginner riders with plenty of help and guidance at hand to assist new riders to the scene. Ali mentioned that one of the things she loves is seeing a new rider join the group, progress, and improve. Ali jokes that a lot of the younger riders are now flying down the trails faster than herself but mentions it is awesome to see.
At today’s races, there are almost as many categories for women as men and females are encouraged to come out and have a try. Most recognise that the races are not “UCI World Cup” events and that it is the community aspect that has the appeal. Clubs will often have a women’s only or women’s focused race day in their calendar with a view to encouraging more girls and women to head out and be part of a club organised event. Both Gravity Enduro SA and Adelaide MTB Club have run these types of events with huge success. By reducing entry fees and working with sponsors to provide incentives to girls and women to come along and try, slowly more females are getting into mountain biking and being a part of club race events.
Quite often, bike fitness is cited as a reason not to get on a mountain bike. “Lots of hills” and faster riders are reasons often used by women who would like to give mountain biking a try but are put off by these factors. Alice who owns and runs Adelaide base MTB Bods, a company that provides strength & conditioning programmes for mountain bike riders commented that everyone starts somewhere and there is always someone quicker. Ultimately its time on the bike and riding with friends or a social riding group that will improve your fitness over time, stated Alice. Alice also mentioned that having an off the bike fitness regime is a big plus in terms of building both core and overall strength to benefit you on the bike.
Friends and riding groups will usually have faster riders but what you will often see is that these groups split after heading off but will always regroup, have a chat and a laugh before heading off on the next section. Riding with more experienced and faster riders is one of the best ways to keep your bike fitness moving in the right direction. Julie mentioned that even the more experienced riders feel this from time to time and that we all have days where it feels ok and other days where it doesn’t. Being comfortable to ride within yourself and knowing that your riding group will always regroup helps to stay positive and push through when it does feel tough out there.
It was also commented that we are all time poor, everyone has their family and work commitments which makes getting out on the trails with regularity a challenge. A great way to deal with this is to use an indoor trainer where you can be on and off the bike in an hour and continue to improve your fitness. With the advent of programs such as Zwift which have fitness programs for all levels of fitness, the experience is a lot better than it once was riding indoors.
Don’t have the technical skills?
Quite often to the uninitiated, MTB is seen as an extreme sport, jumping huge gaps, and riding very technical descents. As the panel discussed, the reality is somewhat different, and this should not be a reason to not get on the trail. Susie mentioned that when starting out, it’s important to pick your trail. Chat online with community MTB groups and ask questions for good beginner trails if you are unsure. When you are at a bike park, look for the green and blue trails if you want to ride less technical features and are looking to gain experience and confidence.
Julie mentioned that even now if there is a technical section that she is unsure of, she has no problem in dismounting and walking the section. Often, it’s when you half commit to a section that an accident happens. If you’re not feeling it, give yourself a break and take the “B-line” or walk it.
One of the benefits of being a member of a group like Gravity Girls SA is that quite often on an organised ride, the girls will do sections of a track to help with skills development and confidence building. Monica mentioned that on a recent ride there was a particular technical section that the girls lined up on both sides of the track so that that she could ride through and if she got it wrong, knew that she would be caught by the girls on the side of the trail.
All the panellists agreed that participating in a beginners MTB course is a great way to learn basic skills and build confidence. Courses cater for all skill levels and some even offer women’s only sessions. MTB chat groups on Facebook will soon point you in the direction of a reputable MTB coach.
A key message on this topic was to not compare yourself to others, ride within your skill level and not force yourself to attempt something that you are not comfortable to do without others to assist you. Taking these points onboard will go a long way to avoid coming off the bike.
Over the recent years riding apparel for women has improved significantly with many brands offering female centric fit and designs, a far cry from a women’s variant of men’s riding apparel years ago. This also means that women do not need to wear roadie lycra gear when out on the trails if they do not want to. More relaxed fit and stylish options are available with more choice and better options in terms of sizing. If you are not an elite cross-country racer with a petit frame, brands like Rubber Side Down have invested a lot of effort into their sizing options and can cater for you.
Julie mentioned that certain brands have not progressed as much in that you are riding in extra-large when you are actually a medium or a large and that’s not a feel-good factor. It’s important to feel good on the bike and being comfortable and looking good assists with this.
One of the challenges in riding in more relaxed apparel is the lack of pockets on clothing items like an MTB jersey. Rubber Side Down recently introduced their Cargo Base Layer which is designed to be worn underneath your jersey and has three pockets at the back for you to carry your phone, snacks etc. Its innovations such as this which is making the overall riding experience a lot more comfortable and enjoyable.
An important point made was to make sure you get decent gear whether its apparel or the bike. Riding in comfort is so important on the trails and poor fitting/quality apparel is a sure-fire way to discourage you from getting back on the trails. Similarly with the bike and equipment, you do not need to spend thousands of dollars but do make sure you have gear that is fit for purpose. The panel mentioned that they have seen women on trails with bikes with next to no suspension, cheap K-Mart bikes with skinny wheels that just make it that much harder to develop your skills. There is nothing wrong with buying a second-hand bike, just make sure it can do the job properly and is in good working order.
In Wrapping Up
The world needs more female mountain bikers, everyone is capable of giving it a go, and it’s never too late to start. Be patient and immersive yourself in what is an amazing and supportive community, don’t be afraid to reach out and find your crew.
Getting fitness in any sport takes time and gaining fitness hurts a little. MTB is no different, but it does get easier. Make sure you celebrate the little wins and enjoy the moment.
If you listen to trusted advise and be brave, there is an amazing new world out there for you to experience.
Find a She Rides MTB session near you by clicking HERE.