Shoulder to shoulder? As valued equals enjoying postive experiences or sidelined extras on the end of male chauvinism? Julia Hobson investigates.

By Julia Hobson

When I took my first forays into the world of mountain biking on the rocky bridleways of the Peak District in the early 2000s, it was pretty common to be the sole woman in a group of male riders, and fairly rare to see other women out on the trails.

Fast forward a couple of decades and things look very different. On a recent weekend ride out in the Hope Valley, I passed dozens of people, and by my reckoning, almost an equal number of male and female riders of varying ages and abilities. At a personal level I now have just as many female riding friends as I do male. Times have definitely changed.

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Or have they? Is my own experience that of others too? Have we really reached a point where there are now as many women out mountain biking as men? Maybe more importantly, what are the experiences of those women?

To try and understand where we are at in the quest for equality in the sport, I wanted to take a snapshot of the current state of women’s mountain biking in the UK, through the eyes of real riders. From current and former professional racers to mechanics, bike industry stalwarts and everyday riders, I wanted to know their experiences as women riders.

Where are we at?

Hope’s Rachael Walker applauds the growth in women-only events

Rachael Walker, Hope Technology Brand Manager, Surrey:

“When the Hopetech Women programme launched in April 2016, there was an immediate appetite for women-only events. The events were met with scepticism, with some questioning the need for them – “everyone can ride together, surely?” Some even laughed and made fun of the concept. But the events have proved time and again that they have a place. The simple act of bringing women together to meet other female riders brings a mix of emotions, including relief and happiness that others share their fears and anxieties about riding that their male friends may not understand.”

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MIxed-gender rides are a double-edged sword for Chloe Griggs

Chloe Griggs, mtb rider, Kent:

“I started riding over 20 years ago. I now know and ride with more strong women riders, and love the looks we get when fixing bikes, riding fast and cleaning technical sections – basically showing that despite physical differences there can be equality in the sport. But I continue to be judged as a woman by some male riders. There’s still an assumption on a group ride with strangers that women will be slower, and so only once in 20+ years of riding can I remember being asked if I’d like to lead off at the front.”

Katy Curd bears witness to the industry’s changing attitudes

Katy Curd, World Cup DH racer and mtb coach, Forest of Dean:

“When I moved to the area there was only a handful of female riders, but I have watched the women’s scene grow to what it is now, almost a 50:50 ratio, especially on the weekends. You can almost look at any bike brand out there at the moment and most have a decent range of women’s kit, products, components, and bikes available specifically aimed at women too. Look back only five years ago and that wasn’t the case.”

The increased profile of women’s racing is a big plus for Katy Winton

Katy Winton, EWS racer Trek Factory team, Tweed Valley:

“I’ve been blown away by how the number of women riding bikes has rocketed over the last few years. The increase in women-only events has allowed relationships to be formed that in turn creates more riding groups and communities. Having been at some of these events like The Fox Hunt, The Gowaan Gals Festival and 
The Fanny Hunt, it’s been so inspiring to see how supportive everyone is to help one another improve and push their comfort zones.”

BASE student POlly Hednerson gives her male classmates full marks

Polly Henderson, enduro racer and BASE student, Tweed Valley:

“There has been a huge development in women’s mountain biking over the years I’ve been racing. When I first started racing enduro there was only one women’s category, now there are at least three. This definitely encourages younger girls especially to give racing a go.”

Jules MacLean is impressed by the progress that’s been made

Jules MacLean, Fox Suspension World Cup technician, Dunkeld:

“When I started riding bikes eight years ago it never really occurred to me that mountain biking was a male-dominated sport, or that I couldn’t do it because I was a woman. It definitely feels like more and more women of all ages and abilities are now out riding, thanks to female-friendly groups and events, and mountain biking in general is becoming more mainstream and accessible for all.”

Mandy Langdon’s mtb epiphany came in the Alps

Mandy Langon, mtb rider, Cornwall:

“I started riding three years ago with my boyfriend, brother and a couple of their mates – I was always the only girl. Going on an Alpine riding trip and ending up with a great bunch of girls was a turning point for me – more women-only trips and events can only be a good thing. Comments like “oh your friend is pretty good/fast for a girl” still do happen, but they are infrequent and I don’t think the people who have said it mean it in a derogatory way, but that attitude is still out there and needs to change. I definitely see more women on mountain bikes now than I did three years ago, both on the trails and on my screens and perhaps that hints at a growing movement.”

Joolze Dymond points ot the industry’s continuing misogyny

Joolze Dymond, Photographer, Yorkshire:

We’ve probably not come as far as we think in terms of female participation in mtb.Back in the early 90s when the sport was in its infancy, I remember a lot more women out there taking part in events and generally just riding. Everyone was discovering this new phenomenon pretty much equally. But that didn’t last. The first bike shop I ever visited as a youngster, keen to get into cycle racing, was an old fashioned, dingy affair, with nude images of the owner’s wife on display and his attitude towards me when I asked for advice was distrespectful. That experience held me back several years until I plucked up the confidence to join a club. Even these days, I’m often treated with disdain, though mostly with disinterest. Enquiries are usually directed to my husband, who has no idea and very little interest in bikes. It’s quite sad and I can see why it can be off-putting to people coming into the sport for the first time.

What about within the bike industry?

The media need to step up and represent women says Hannah Wilson

Hannah Wilson, Brand manager for Crank Brothers and Fizik, Forest of Dean:

“When I first started working at Extra I was out on the road visiting shops, doing product training and helping the reps with sell-ins. Most people I encountered were wonderful, but then there were the “is it bring your girlfriend to work day?” comments to reps in front of me. However, it must be said that the vast majority of the few negative experiences were in more road-focused shops – most mtb riders and shop owners seem more forward thinking.”

Rachael Walker:

“Unfortunately the bike industry hasn’t progressed as much as the female riding scene. There are perhaps more women working in the industry than five years ago, but that number has only increased by a handful, particularly in the more senior positions. The industry is still heavily male dominated which is often paired with a macho, laddish mentality. There are still barriers to women reaching more senior positions and a lack of companies who support women, particularly when having children and the change in circumstances that brings. Things like maternity pay and flexible working options are just ignored and unfortunately act as barriers to women entering or staying in the industry.”

Joolze Dymond:

“I’ve worked in bike shops, marketing, and now as a sports photographer covering all the major bike events worldwide, for nearly 20 years. The industry really hasn’t moved forward much since then. It’s still heavily misogynistic. Many times, I had people come into the shop I managed and ask me if I could point them in the direction of someone (a male colleague) who knew about the bikes and were always alarmed when I suggested that I could tell them everything they ever wanted to know and maybe a bit more. There are a lot more women working in the industry than there were but it can still be a novelty. Attitudes are changing though and the ‘old boy’ mentality, though still very present, is slowly subsiding.”

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Mechanic Hannah Colleridge calls out unthinking sexism

Hannah Collingridge, mechanic and guidebook writer, Yorkshire:

“Things are better than they were but still not perfect, and that’s an issue allied to the inherent misogyny within society. I had all too many weekly, if not daily, examples of everyday sexism in the shop. Customers surprised that I was a mechanic, surprised that I knew what could be wrong with a bike.”

Katy Winton:

“From a racer’s point of view the industry has really stepped up and started supporting women in the sport and investing in female athletes for their teams. This has upped the level of female mountain bike racers and added depth to the field; it is no longer just the top three in any discipline getting support. This has increased the respect for women in the sport and a more even spread of media coverage between the male and female races has helped too, which is absolutely awesome. It is very exciting for the future, as young girls are growing up in a mtb world filled with rad female role models to inspire them.”

Emma Holgate wants to bring down the walls to women’s participation

Emma Holgate, Scottish Cycling Leadership tutor, guide and coach, Aviemore:

“We have some exceptional role models in the industry in general, with many women holding positions in retail, as well as roles as mechanics, racing, guiding and coaching. I feel we are at a point where we simply need to get out and ride, and each and every one of us should try and be a role model wherever possible – male and female.”

Endura racer Winton is blazing a trail for female mountain bikers

How to increase participation further?

Chloe Griggs:

“Women-only rides have been a good thing, but we now need more women to ride with men so they have that experience and change their attitude or perception of female riders. Without this we risk further segregation.”

Hannah Wilson:

“The media should be backing female participation in the sport. Get more female content, use female testers for ‘unisex’ products, just make it normal to see women on bikes. As brands we have to consider how to reach our whole market, including women.”

Joolze Dymond:

“The media has a big role to play in how it presents its image of the sport to women. Most cycling magazines are still predominantly white male orientated. Men might represent the bulk of the market but if you don’t write or photograph for women how can you expect to convince them that mountain biking is for all?”

Jules MacLean:

“We’ve come a long way and it’s important to be celebrating the victories rather than always looking for the ways in which the industry is failing us. A good balance of genders within the marketing departments of mountain bike brands would definitely help. Keep celebrating positive stories. Keep employing good people. I want to feel inspired by other women in the industry, not that we’re being included to keep things fair.”

Polly Henderson:

“I’m the only girl on a mountain bike college course of around 30 people. I’d love to see more girls joining. The guys on the course are always encouraging me and have definitely helped me become a better rider, but I love riding with other girls too, we just lack the numbers.”

Katy Curd:

“Continuing with women- only events is so important to keep the women’s scene growing in future years. I would love to see more videos, photos and general media coverage of inspirational female riders like Vero Sandler, Casey Brown and Rachael Atherton who are raising the bar and proving that gender isn’t really a big issue in riding.”

Emma Holgate:

“The aim is to become a community where there are no barriers, no segregation, and no need for emphasis to be put onto ‘women only’ events. We need to focus on broader inclusion for all, especially recognising that the majority of male riders are simply not phased by the gender in their group of riders, and riding in mixed groups can be a positive influence for anyone to progress their confidence and skill level. What we now really need to focus on and assist with is the number of female leaders, coaches and tutors to train and access other leaders. This is still where there is a lack of women, and there really does not need to be.”

Old attitudes may linger but it’s clear that women are going places in sport

The answers: what we’ve learned

More women are now riding than ever, helped into the sport by the growth in female-only events, provision and availability of better kit and bikes, and simply seeing more women out riding. Social media has now made them more visible too, as well as highlighting awesome women not just racing but out having fun on their bikes or getting out on achievable adventures, doing things that everyone can aspire to.

Hotspots like the Tweed Valley and the Forest of Dean are leading the way, with large communities of female riders. These in turn attract more women to get involved as they see how welcoming the sport can be at its best. The younger riders are the most positive here, suggesting things really have changed in terms of equality and opportunity for young women.

It’s important to recognise and celebrate these successes, but it’ snot all good news – longtermers talk of how many things haven’t changed and that everyday sexism while out riding and in the industry still exists. There’s not really any excuse for this to be happening in the 21st century.

Brands can do more to help, howcasing successful women so younger girls have relatable role models and see that opportunities really do exist for them – especially in ‘men’s jobs’ like mechanics or guides. If you can see it, you can be it.

Woemn need equal pay, proper maternity pay and leave and flexible working options to attract more women to higher-level roles. There needs to be a greater representation of women in the mountain bike media too – on the ground, we’re seeing more women riding across all disciplines and facets of the sport, now is the time to portray this.

There’s a place for women’s only events, but it’s also important this doesn’t become the only way for women to ride and we create segregation, so a focus on showing both male and female riders together in the media is also essential.

All the women who had positive experiences had great support networks, so regardless of gender we all need to encourage others into the sport. We need to recognise the relative strengths and weaknesses of both men and women and learn from each other, rather than looking at them as ways to make judgements.

Of course these are just the opinions of a few, but they represent the feelings shared by many women involved in the sport. In an ideal world somewhere down the line we won’t have to talk about gender equality in mountain biking because it will be the norm. We will all just be a community of passionate cyclists and that’s all that will matter. We’re not there yet, but we’ve come a long way, and the rapid growth of the women’s bike community in the UK is exciting to see.

By Julia Hobson