Roll models

Kathryn Hudson on how women’s racing success will inspire us all in 2019.

>>> Women buy bikes too, so make us feel welcome

Rachel Atherton winning the downhill world cup and world championship, Annie Last bringing home Commonwealth gold in cross country mountain biking, with Tahnée Seagrave and Evie Richards snapping at their heels… elite women’s mountain biking is surfing a great wave, but will last year’s successes inspire more women to start shredding the trails in 2019?

This isn’t the first time leading UK women riders have been the best in the world. Rachel Atherton has been the world champion and world cup winner six times, while Tracy Moseley blazed the trail by winning the overall title at three Enduro World Series, as well as multiple downhill world cup wins and a world championship. So does this triumph at the top trickle down to get more women on the trails?

Faye Downey, women’s cycling project manager at British Cycling, believes so. “These women are fantastic role models for the next generation and we are incredibly fortunate to have so many leading the way,” she says. “The continued success of role models, like Rachel Atherton and Annie Last, is so important if we are to keep building on the amazing progress we have made in recent years to get more women on bikes. We are determined to harness their success to help make Britain a healthier and more active nation.”

Encouragingly, the numbers also show that more women are riding and racing than ever before. According to British Cycling, between 2013 and 2017, female membership doubled and there was a 72 per cent increase in women holding a race license. The 43% rise in women entering MTB XC ranking events suggests not all women coming into the sport are roadies.

Annie Last performs at UCI XCO World Cup in Lenzerheide, Switzerland on July 9th, 2017. Photographer Credit: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool

Last is first

Annie Last also hopes her gold and Evie Richards’ silver at the Commonwealth Games will tempt more women to get out in the mud. “I think a major championships, like the Commonwealth Games, really engages a wide audience and is something people can relate to,” she says. “Hopefully our medals will inspire some young women who would not ordinarily be engaged with mountain biking to start riding. And for those already into the sport, it sends the message that you can go on to achieve your goals and dreams.”

This year, the mainstream media got on board to celebrate the wins and other sports have shown that international success, along with media coverage, is a winning formula for inspiring participation. Last year these factors influenced netball’s 44 per cent surge in regular players. In boxing, the media coverage of Nicola Adams, and her Olympic gold in 2012, brought women flocking to boxing rings, with female participation skyrocketing by 79 per cent.

As well as getting involved with mentoring up and coming talent, many riders are also taking to social media to shout the benefits of riding. Atherton says it is great to be able to go direct and not have to wait for an editor to get in contact. Cross country world cup winner, Jolanda Neff, has gone one step further by producing a promotional video with her Polish team mate, Maja Wloszczowska. Featuring leading women riders, it reflects the infectious joy they get from their bikes and is a rallying cry to just go riding.

Tahnee Seagrave, Rachel Atherton, Myriam Nicole pose with the medals at the UCI DH World Championships in Lenzerheide on September 9th, 2018. Photographer Credit: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool

Inclusive sport

“Mountain biking is a pioneering sport: the men and women race on the same day, on the same track, with the same prize money and same media attention,” says Neff. “It’s really social, you can talk to your friend, which you can’t do if you are swimming or playing a team sport. Plus, you’re out in nature, it’s healthy, you can start at any age, and anyone can do it. Just go ride your bike!”

But how does anyone who is inspired by Neff’s video, or the GoPro footage of Atherton’s world championship run get into mountain biking? After borrowing or buying a bike, there are so many exciting opportunities to find a tribe: from ladies’ weekend at Bike Park Wales, to Filthy Foxes weekends in the south west and Go Where Scotland’s guided tours.

Lancashire-based manufacturer Hope is also very encouraging to women and girls, offering up the kids’ training academy and ladies ride at all of the Scott Mountain Marathons, as well as a women’s enduro, which attracts all abilities, and a weekly mountain bike ride from Hope’s Barnoldswick HQ. “We started the weekly rides a couple of years ago with around 30 to 40 women, and we’re seeing new women all the time, while others progress to form their own cycling groups,” says brand manager, Rachael Walker. “But, in my experience, normal women doing cool cycling challenges seem to be more inspirational than the professional riders.”

Whatever the reason, more girls are finding their way onto the trails than ever before, but the most powerful way of increasing participation would be for every bloke to share the love and take his partner, wife and/or daughter riding. This is a well trodden path, with most females coming into the sport via a family member, including Moseley, Atherton and Neff.

Family time spent on singletrack and shopping at the bike shop! A perfect scenario, no? What better way of forging a lifelong bond with your teenage daughter than teaching her how to ride downhill and getting the gossip on the uphills? As Rachel Atherton says, mountain biking can do more for self esteem than any amount of shopping or make-up.