Gender play gap
By Laura Bailey
Across the country, women are signing up to race enduro in numbers never before seen, women-only races are flourishing or selling out in hours.
But it’s been a long time coming: what’s kept women away for so long? And why are these special events and categories needed in the first place when riding a bike should be as appealing to one sex as another? It’s time to ask women and men at the sharp edge of racing and running these events.
As the fox at Redbull Foxhunt, the largest women’s only Downhill race in the UK, Rachel Atherton reckons it’s been a confidence thing. “If you’ve come to racing on your own without male influence there’s a bit of stigma around the fact that the men won’t be very supportive, which isn’t the case at all but women feel like that,” she says.
For Tris Taylor, owner of Swinley Bike Hub and founder of the Women’s Fox Head Swinduro it’s the belief that to race you have to be amazing (something that isn’t just limited to women). “There’s a fear and misexpectation you have to be great to race,” she says. “It’s actually just about getting out on your bike and having a great time”.
The words fear, confidence, and intimidating crop up in conversations with racers and organisers alike and it’s been holding entries back. Scott Fitzgerald, founder of the Southern Enduro Series, says that only two women regularly raced in his sell-out first season back in 2013. The numbers of women participating isn’t a problem limited to mountain biking, 1.5 million more men take part in sport every week than women. Research by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation found that the male dominated culture of sport presents a problem with increasing female participation and there is no denying that mountain biking has been heavily male dominated as the sport has developed.
Something had to change to get more women racing, and the advent of the women’s only race seem to have done just that. Redbull Foxhunt was one of the front runners back in 2014, but the calendar now boosts other high profile races such as HopeTech Women’s Enduro in Gisburn, through to local races such as the Ladies Do DH in the Forest of Dean or Fox Head Women’s Swinduro in Hampshire. Even within the mixed racing scene, race organisers such as Scott at Southern Enduro have been trialling different initiatives aimed at increasing women racing.
Swinduro saw over 200 entries in their original planned race in March, with 70% of riders giving it a go for the first time. Sadly the race was postponed due to the snow, they are still over 170 women will now line up on the new date in September. The first ever Ladies Do DH race saw organiser Amanda Tanfield send over 70 women off down Sheepskull at the Forest of Dean. After a big push on the last round of the season last year to drive more female entries, Southern Enduro saw entries rise to over 50 women and have seen a healthy field of 30+ women through the season this year.
What is it about the women’s only format that has become so appealing? Rachel Atherton reckons getting involved in Foxhunt gave the women in the sport the opportunity to participate in an event that they would probably be nervous to do as a mixed race.
“Having that camaraderie with the other women and having an event that is just women gives them confidence to step up and put themselves in a race situation and they all absolutely love it,” she says. “It’s amazing to see so many women, all just having a blast and really helping each other and even I leave the weekend buzzing for riding bikes.”
Liz Greaves is one of the women who has taken the leap into the competitive world in recent years. Entering her first race just two weeks after buying her bike she I was instantly hooked, “I loved the female camaraderie – we were all feeling sick with a mix of nerves and excitement. It helps build some solid friendships – it’s a really social scene once you put yourself out there,” she says.
The numbers are there and the women’s only race format is clearly a positive step forwards in increasing participation. But are we actually at risk of creating a new one if we keep separating out the genders. For Southern Enduro it’s been the reason they’ve steered away from a straight women-only format. “They are great as taster sessions but we don’t want to make people more fearful about doing mixed races,” he says. “If they go to a women’s enduro, love it and think let’s do more of this, then it would be great to see them come join us”.
For Liz as a female racer she things they’re really constructive to provide a non-confrontational environment for women to try racing and learn the format, but she learnt the reality of mixed events is that they aren’t confrontational anyway. Rachel Atherton agrees: “It’s why mountain biking is so great, everybody can do the same thing, everyone supports each other. I’ve never ever experienced any nastiness or unsupportive men against the women who are riding and it’s important to keep it mixed and everyone can learn from each other. The future is more women, it’s incredible time for women’s racing that’s just growing and growing.”