Many of us who are into mountain biking can name at least one woman within the pro race circuit. We are generally familiar with the names of the teams these women race for, what kind of bike they ride, and what they do in the off season. We see them in magazines, in YouTube videos, and on cycling websites. These pro women are the ones that have a great influence on what types of bikes the companies will design for women riders. They take prototype bikes and race the hell out of them, making sure that the geometry, frame material, and specs are suitable to sell to the general public.
These women have to work hard to make it to the pro ranks, giving up normal everyday life to train up to six hours a day and make the commitment to eat a specific diet – which means giving up many of the foods that regular people could not bear to part with. Chocolate, Wine, Cake… No way! They have to travel many weekends of the year, and they have to deal with a great deal of pressure to perform up to expectations in order to maintain their contracts. With all of this hard work the pros are rewarded with prize money, free bikes or equipment from their sponsors, and possibly a yearly salary.
Also within the mountain bike world there is another type of racer, the amateur racer. These are women who put in forty hours a week at their “regular job”, family responsibilities, daily hassles, and tight schedules and STILL fit in a precious few hours of training a week in order to race on the weekends. These amateur women, or weekend racers, who participate in local races are the backbone of grassroots racing.
History of grassroots racing
Grassroots racing has been around almost as long as the sport of mountain biking itself. In the early days, a few guys in Northern California and Colorado took cruiser bikes, adapted them to the rigors of off-road riding, and then raced these bikes down fire roads. This idea spawned the first grassroots racing, the Repack Series, a downhill time trial which helped bring mountain biking to the public eye for the first time. The Repack Series is also known as mountain biking’s first recorded competition.
In 1983, NORBA (National Off-Road Bicycle Association) was founded, which was the first sanctioning organization for off-road bicycle racing (now part of USA Cycling). In the 1990s, amateur mountain bike racing really took off and thousands of people around the United States got their first experience racing mountain bikes. Locally held races began popping up as promoters started offering weekend mountain bike racing within driving distance to most riders. This enabled amateur racers to get their chance to compete against local competitors and vie for trophies, medals, and pint glasses.
In 1999, I also caught the racing bug and entered my first beginner race. It was insanely hard, I had my ass kicked up and down the trails but I managed to finish third, and loved every minute of it! That race started me on an obsession with racing mountain bikes and I spent the next few years racing up and down California, moving from the beginner category to the expert category. I have been racing off and on as an amateur ever since.
Over the years, while racing the local circuit, I have had good (and not so good) experiences but one thing I have always found when racing bikes is the camaraderie among the women racers – the sisterhood you feel when you lineup at the start line. Every race is filled with both new and familiar faces. Some women you see will race one time, never to be seen again, but other women will show up at every race. You quickly learn who your rivals are, and yet, there is a sense of bonding among the racers who line up with you every weekend.
One thing is for sure: the other women standing at the start line with you are among the few members of society who can understand – or relate to – your obsessive dedication to a sport as brutally hard as mountain bike racing. They can relate to the pain of trying not to explode during a race when you still have three laps to go. Only they can understand how hard it was for you to fit in several hours of training in a week when your boss is breathing down your neck to get a sales presentation done before the deadline. Only other racers can relate to the bewildered looks when you tell your family why you need to ride your bike at 5:00am in the morning while everyone else is snoozing away.
This is the kind of bonding that occurs among women who spend their hard earned weekends paying race fees to get their ass kicked. You feel it when you roll to the start. The talking, laughing, and joking at the start line is in complete contrast to the physical pain you are about to endure for the next two hours: a fast paced, brutal, yet, good-spirited battle to the finish.
Once the whistle blows it is every woman for herself. The jockeying for position, the grinding of gears, the grunting of the riders as they make their way around the course. The chatter is quickly forgotten as you begin a tribal battle over who will be the first onto the singletrack, who will crest the top of the climb first, and ultimately, who will survive the battle to emerge as the victor.
There is something primal about racing bikes; you will never go so far out of your comfort zone as you do while racing. Like a soldier in battle, you simply push yourself further and deeper than you ever thought possible. Every woman who finishes a race has something in common: the prerequisite nervousness, followed by subsequent intense pain of going anaerobic for hours, then the complete sense of relief when the last hundred yards of the course is seen. This is followed by the relief and joy that is the crossing of the finish line. After a race, the finishers will usually gather in groups sharing war stories from the battle grounds. The talking, laughing, and joking return as the riders start to relax again, talk about their performances, results, course conditions, and to discuss upcoming races.
Reasons why women race
Let’s face it, the number of women racing mountain bikes is not as high as the men but the small amount who do participate in grassroots racing are dedicated cyclists that belong to a core group of women who make time to follow their cycling passion. I asked some of my mountain biker friends why they race:
“I enjoy the friendly competition with other girls my age and gives me a sense of satisfaction to finish a race”
“I love racing because it gives me a venue to release my competitive nature in a healthy way!”
“Simply because racing is fun!”
“Kicking a$$ is fun”
“Racing lets me see how I compare to other women in my area in regard to my fitness and technical skills. I can then see what I need to improve upon.”
“I get a sense of pride when I realize all my hard training pays off and I end up doing well in a race.”
“I want to see how far and how fast I can push myself”
These responses show that racing means different things to different women but ultimately we can see that the underlying theme is the desire to be competitive and challenge ourselves in a microcosm. Of course, what would any sport be without competition? Anyone participating in mountain bike racing generally has some kind of competitive urge. By nature, we humans are competitive at work, and in life, so it is only natural that some women look to mountain bike racing as an outlet for competing.
Family responsibilities and work
There can be many challenges for women when they decide to start racing mountain bikes. Piecing together a workable training program around a family can be difficult, but it can be done with careful planning. Arranging for after school care or to have a babysitter to come by a few days a week can allow us to get out and train worry free. Possibly scheduling training rides early in the morning while everyone is still sleeping is another way racers have learned to adapt to squeeze in more hours.
Many women also arrange for their husband or a grandparent to watch the kids for a couple of hours while they train. Most women have to be creative to make training time work, all while trying to hold down a full-time job; the bosses might not be so understanding about someone wanting to leave early to do a longer training ride, or understand when you come in an hour late because you were held up by a flat tire on your morning training ride. Many times we are often required to work late or come in early so training must be tailored to fit a busy schedule. Lunchtime rides are also another good way for women racers to pick up extra hours, and it really helps to find some co-workers to train with. Solidarity.
Mountain biking is not very lady like
It is a sport that can be looked upon as being more on the “manly” side and even the attitudes that run through the cycling world tend to promote mountain biking as a man’s sport: the extreme sport with massive drop-offs, big air, and big crashes.
In the “olden days”, women were expected to be properly dressed, be “well-mannered” and certainly never participate in aggressive sports. Luckily, this view for the most part has changed but there are still people out there who feel that women shouldn’t involve themselves in such “animalistic” behavior. This view is more generally shared by people outside of the mountain bike world, especially among other females. Other women at work are shocked and disgusted by the large bruises on your legs when you wear a skirt or dress. Scratches or cuts are yucky! Muscular legs on a girl? Eww! Women should be doing things like horseback riding, taking dance classes or cooking classes… Not bombing down dusty fire roads at 40 miles an hour.
Women mountain bikers, and racers are rebels, rebelling against what society views as “normal” female activities. That is part of what makes racing mountain bikes so appealing to me, the outlaw feeling it gives. Flipping off society!
Racing is a compact metaphor for our daily lives: representing the struggle to compete, thrive, and succeed.
Some people may ask why would anyone voluntary get up at 5:00am on a Saturday morning, drive two hours or more to a remote location, pay fifty dollars, spend two and half hours riding as hard as you can, all to have your ass handed to you on a plate? Well, the answer is pretty simple, elemental, and it’s not because we are crazy! It’s simply because the small group of women racers who are out there every weekend competing at the regional level have a passion for the sport, love bikes, and love competing. They love life.
We aren’t racing for sponsorship money, for big bike companies, or as a job, but we are doing it for personal gratification and for a personal challenge. We spend our weekends driving from race to race with kids and husbands in tow. All for the glory of a cold beer, a cheap medal, and a fourth place finish. It’s totally worth it!
Michelle Lambert is a cycling obsessed resident of the San Francisco Bay area. She loves being outside, training and exploring new trails. Michelle has been racing cross country mountain bikes off and on and 5 years ago she took up cyclocross as well.