“Betty rode the trail with her brake caliper squeezing her rotor and she still was the fastest girl I had ever ridden with, and Mary was a ripper – she would bomb down anything and left us in her dust. This was my first experience riding with people who were way out of my league, and definitely not my last.”
If you were to meet up with Jessica Conner today, you might have a hard time believing she was once the straggler on the trail. After all, she is one of the co-founders of the Women’s Mountain Biking Association of Colorado Springs (WMBA), a premier riding group for female cyclists in the Rocky Mountain region.
But Conner wasn’t always a shredder and cycling advocate. When she moved to Colorado Springs, CO in 2005 and took to her mountain bike, she found herself intimidated by the varied terrain and abundance of highly skilled riders. Based at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Springs boasts a diverse array of trails, everything from flat dirt to steep, decomposed granite. Coupled with the demands brought on by high altitudes and strenuous mountain climbs, the trails can be daunting to inexperienced riders.
Through a chance encounter at a dog park, Conner received an invitation to ride with a group of girlfriends. She began meeting up with the group regularly, and those gatherings would prove fateful.
“Riding with other ladies gave me confidence to try obstacles. I learned of new trails and better routes, and it taught me the etiquette for riding with a group. The bond that grew with the ladies I rode with was so different then the friendships I had with schoolmates or co-workers. We shared our frustrations at trying to tackle an obstacle, gain skills and fitness, and over beers after our ride we shared stories about our lives. These friendships felt purposeful in my new life in Colorado and started to make it feel like home.”
The group rides made an impact on Conner. She began to talk with other riders about forming a group specifically designed to encourage and support women interested in the sport of mountain biking. With the help of Betty Gilbert, Mary Hoyle, and Hillary Hienton, the WMBA was born.
“We realized that the camaraderie of the group would be the biggest motivator for women to join us. But for them to want to come back after the initial ride, we needed a safe, non-threatening place for women to learn from each other; therefore, our rides would be no woman left behind, and split into ability levels with a focus on skill over fitness. To lead the rides we needed accomplished riders who knew the trails and had the skills to lead these rides.”
Colorado Springs provided a perfect back drop when it came time to search for great riders to lead the group. The city has a culture of riding. While the snowy winters and high altitude mountain inclines can seem daunting, if the will is there, riding a bike can be done every day. As WMBA Chairwoman Jessica Verplank describes, “It’s very inspiring to see how many people really do get out each day to ride no matter the weather! Fat bikes in the snow, road bikes when the trails are too muddy and mountain bikes the rest of the time. “
The search for skilled guides to teach also led to the birth of a race team. Team members are chosen each year, and must commit to participating in several races each season, in addition to leading rides and workshops with the WMBA. But racing is not reserved for team members. The group encourages members to take part in races, even as they are developing their abilities as beginners. Conner says “We decided to form a race team and have the racers lead the group rides and be our volunteers for getting the group off the ground. The results were two-fold, we bridged the gap of experienced woman cyclists to empower and encourage newbie cyclists, and we also succeeded in getting more woman entering local and state mountain biking races. While many people think race teams and sponsored riders are only for elite athletes, our race team consisted mostly of beginner and intermediate racers. I think a lot of women found this encouraging.”
The WMBA provides opportunities for growth at every level. From May through August, the WMBA hosts weekly rides, led by members of the race team or other skilled volunteers. Bikers are divided into groups based on skill level- beginner, intermediate, and advanced, and then broken into rides to either work on specific skills or train for fitness. The group also coordinates skills clinics and other events. The WMBA wants to give women the support they need to reach their fullest potential, both on and off the bike. For proof of this mission, one needs to look no further than Verplank.
“I’ve been with WMBA for 5 years. I was super intimated to join a bad ass group of mountain bikers because I was just a beginner and had some extra pounds on me. My friend and I decided to take a chance and join together and I haven’t looked back! The group ride leaders were so supportive and nice and there was nothing intimidating about it! Women of all ages and levels of riding have a good time riding. I went from a beginner rider, new to town, to an intermediate racer of sorts and now Chair of the board!”
While the WMBA has the expertise to assist new riders, one of the main draws of the group is the atmosphere of support. Skilled leaders get a boost by passing on knowledge to beginners. New members flourish under the guidance of experts, and seeing women just like themselves conquer new challenges. While mountain biking can often be a solo endeavour, there is something appealing about strength in numbers.
Verplank says “There’s nothing more fun than riding with a group of 80+ women on a Thursday night and to just to watch all the smiles.”
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Kat Glover is a writer and photographer based out of Phoenix, Arizona. When she is not chasing after her two sons, Liam and Kellen, she can be found riding the trails on her mountain bike, affectionately dubbed Wonder Kitten. You can keep up with her adventures by following her blog, yourmamasallwrite.wordpress.com.