Creating Communities with Jo Guest
Words by Meg Elliot, photos by Mike Guest
Rain splashes down in bursts through the woodland roof. I’m soaked and speckled in mud, one part of a chorus of honking brakes and ticking chains. Chin over handlebars, eyes forward, knees bent – slightly – leaning into the unease.
It’s week two of Jo Guest’s (Black Fox Ride) all-women mountain bike course and along with thirty other women, I’ve set off into the woods. Over six weeks, we would ride Bike Glendhu, Lake Hawea and Wānaka’s pump tracks in a course designed to increase our skills from the ground up – and build a community along the way.
Jo started Mission WOW off the back of a trip to Scotland fifteen years ago, equipped with the outline of a mountain bike skills course, years of teaching experience and the drive to get people out and riding. Back then, it was only Jo and a handful of others across New Zealand who were forming women-specific riding groups, and their demand has not ebbed. That first Mission WOW class was as packed as it was last month.
“This is kind of like speed dating for biking”, Jo tells us on day one, “you have to actually talk to the people around you and communicate to us about what you want.”
In other words – go, make friends, these are the people you’ll practise your skills with way beyond the six weeks of this course.
And she was right. The learning happened both through Jo and the coaches, and through watching the other women, working out who you want to tail for the fastest riding, who’s pretty good at berms, who makes you feel brave when the prospect of the seesaw has you frozen.
“I think having a course especially for women is so important for more people finding this sport,” said Marjaana. “It’s so inspiring to meet people passionate about the same thing and encouraging to challenge yourself in a safe environment. For me participating opened up a new world to go out there and explore even more with mountain biking.”
In encouraging this mutual learning, Jo and the other coaches created a space where the successes of the women around me was cause for celebration not competition. When Fiona got air on a jump we were all struggling on, we whooped her over, delighted and inspired by this first big success. Marjaana’s consistently amazing form was something to learn from, not feel jealous of and the women riding the black trails represented something soon within our reach.
This is in large part down to the coaching team Jo has assembled around her. Jo herself is a natural-born teacher, balancing praise and instruction with enough skill to ease us over the most challenging features:
For Jo, mountain biking is more than a sport, “it’s a vehicle to bring people together to talk.” When you feel confident riding your bike, you ride more, with more people, and you inspire others to start riding too. When communities are created, the sport can thrive: “if you can see it, you can be it.”
The fact that Mission WOW mountain bike courses sell out pretty much straight away, without any advertisement is testament to both the quality of the course, and the continued demand for women-only spaces. We still crave afternoons where we turn up as we are without fear of judgement, perceived or otherwise. It’s also because Jo’s absolutely great, too.
It was nerve-wracking, standing in the car park before that first ride. Existing friends grouped together, leaving the rest of us shyly tailing them into the woods. But as soon as we were shuttling down-hill one after another, our nerves were lost to adrenaline, to the kicking mud, to the challenge of re-learning how to ride our bikes, to the knowledge that this sport is just as much ours as it is anyone else’s.