The Future is Female
Women’s mountain biking is blowing up and we’re loving it
Words by Kelsey Timpany, taken from Spoke Issue 84
The current rate of progression in women’s riding is exponential. 2021 has been a breakthrough year, with the inclusion of women in different platforms, women-specific events and world firsts. The explosion of women in mountain biking, and the ripple effect that follows, has been bubbling at the surface for a long time, but why are we now hitting milestones within the industry, on a global scale, and causing a damn right scene?
The move to include women’s categories at the likes of Red Bull Formation, Audi Nines, Proving Grounds and X Games, combined with the passion of the women riders and their willingness to pursue projects like Verionique Sandler’s ‘Vision’, Casey Brown’s ‘Dark Horse Invitational’ and Mons Royale’s Future Ground, are laying a foundation for the future.
A few years ago none of these opportunities existed, but now the industry is listening, enabling the sport’s progression to continue rising. Women’s freeride is leading by example and setting the tone for all things ‘female orientated’ and it’s nothing short of inspirational to witness.
For years women have pushed the limits on bikes in both freeride and on the World Cup DH circuit. In 2003, Hannah Hannah (Mick Hannah’s former wife) and Stephanie Nychka were doing backflips to dirt and launching off ramps, long before airbags or foampits existed. Women were unofficially riding at Red Bull Rampage, nailing gaps and dropping into canyons. In 2009 Katrina Stand, Lisa Lefroy and Clair Buchar ran a women-specific freeride event called ‘WomenzWorkz’ at Whistler BC, where the girls absolutely slayed it.
“Women like Anne Caroline Chausson, Tracy Moseley, Rachel Atherton, Cecile Ravanel, Leigh Donovan, Jill Kintner, Anneke Beerten and so many more, were all killing it in various disciplines,” says Anka Martin. “Regardless of whether it was on the DH tracks, the dirt jumps, four-cross, dual slalom, racing BMX at the Olympics, they were always killing it, always pushing the limits and progressing the sport.”
Gabby Malloy, a Kiwi racing stalwart, reflects on her time on the World Cup circuit: “not long after I started the girls began asking for a bit more recognition, but there was an obvious push-back from the boys, who felt it was unfair that we received the same pay and winnings. There were a lot less of us, and often the tail-enders – or even the winner – could cartwheel down the hill and still make the podium because there wasn’t the depth there. This started to change around 2008-2009 when the depth increased and the difference between first and fifth was a lot closer and reflective of a tight race.”
“At that time there was a huge blossoming of girls, and a big squad of juniors came through for various reasons; friends, boyfriends, sisters, daughters etc. This was probably indicative of the boys’ racing success overseas inspiring everyone back home to have a crack at racing.”
The Perfect Storm
So the tricks were being done and the speed, talent and desire was there 10-15 years ago, but why has it taken until now for females to get the next level?
I think there are a some key ingredients and major contributing factors to this rise: social media, Red Bull TV, wives, mothers, girlfriends and sisters of professional male riders, professionalism in general, a cultural shift and the rise of the feminist. It was a perfect storm that’s simmered for a long time, but has now exploded and companies are struggling to keep up. If a mountain bike website doesn’t have a ‘women-specific’ division, they’re glaringly behind and on the back foot, especially if the company’s mission is to empower, elevate and encourage more women to experience the best of mountain biking.
Substantial progress has also been made in women-specific bike technology, especially from female-specific brands Juliana and Liv. Not only are they building capable bikes, they’re providing us with a unique, taller and bigger platform and putting women front-and-centre and normalising our presence in the mountain bike industry. They’ve created a community for women, by women, paving the way for other brands.
As the popularity of female riding rose, there became an obvious gap in the market for women-specific clothing and apparel, but there have been huge improvements in this area over the past few years.
“Bikes and equipment have improved so much and that makes a huge difference” says Gabby Malloy. “Until recently you could only buy moto pants or a unisex pair of pants that morphed you into a pre-pubescent boy. Women-specific riding clothing is now much more common, and embraces and celebrates the feminine side of mountain biking.”
We love to hate social media, but it’s enabled the progression of female riders. The ability to connect with other lady shredders and access instant inspiration that compels and inspires other ladies is an extremely valuable tool. Every type of rider, from the beginner, weekend warrior and influencer (yes, I said it), through to the full-time professionals are being displayed to the world. Social media isn’t just for those whose lifestyle and riding is somewhat unattainable – it’s bridged the gap between the everyday riders and the professionals.
Ride Like a Girl
Another factor behind this surging women’s movement is a new generation of parents raising their daughters the same as they would their sons. These young girls are coming through the ranks and are reaping the rewards of being conditioned in a high-risk, high-reward, male-dominated environment. The term ‘ride like a girl’ is a compliment, especially for the groms who ride harder than their brothers.
The sport is masculine; it attracts risk-takers and daredevils. It takes nerve, perseverance and I hate to say it, balls (figuratively). The likes of Hannah Bergman, Casey Brown, Ellie Chew, Vero Sandler, Robin Gomes and Caroline Buchanan are just some of the women responsible for shutting down any preconceptions that women can’t compete at the same level as the men. I vividly remember one of my good guy friends telling me I’ll never be as good as him because I have ovaries. Cool story, bro, can’t wait to tow you into Dream Track this summer.
But this is the nature of the beast. Mountain biking has traditionally been masculine, male dominated and with a lot of ‘big dick energy’. When I first got into mountain biking in 2017 at Whistler, I was absolutely terrified of the ‘Fast as F**k’ gang. Their edgy, homemade T-shirts, chainless 26-inch Iron Horse Sundays and groupies made me want to leave my 2008 Kona Stinky in the line and retreat to the safety of my hostel.
I moved back to Queenstown shortly after, with a bit more confidence and an understanding of what makes mountain biking ‘cool’, but I couldn’t stand the Vanzacs, their larger-than-life personalities and their riding skills that I could only dream of. I avoided riding at the park when the crew would be out, as their energy was unnerving. It always felt like there was an undertone that girls didn’t ride in the park.
As the summers have passed, these boys became some of my best friends and have elevated my riding to the next level. Perhaps it’s a fine example of personal growth and the fact that we’re all becoming accustomed to ladies regularly riding the park.
We shouldn’t exclude or discredit the guys completely; it’s fun to ride with, learn from, and hang with them. They’ve taught me great values and principles and improved my confidence to take my riding to the next level. Combined with the power of femininity, this can be a formidable force.
Girls Can Crush Freeriding, Too
The 2019 Red Bull Formation event really triggered the women’s freeride movement. Organiser Katie Holden knew women were capable of riding freeride terrain, but they hadn’t had the opportunity or exposure to prove it to the world.
By eliminating competition and creating an environment that nurtured progression, six riders collectively raised the bar and pushed each other, and the sport, to new levels.
Mons Royale’s Future Ground in Queenstown soon followed suit, after director (and Mons Royale founder) Hamish Acland recognised the opportunity and posed the question: “is it opportunity or environment? Or both?”
Over four days Mons showed what can be achieved when women work together collectively in a supportive environment.
“We’ve always been big on the women’s side of action sports,” Hamish has said. “Our business is 55 per cent women, which is pretty unheard of in the snow, outdoor or bike industry. Through Covid we went through a lot of reflection and really nailed down our brand purpose, which is ‘we believe through action and adventure sports we can better people on the planet’.”
The floodgates have since opened, with Casey Brown’s Dark Horse in Revelstoke BC, Hannah Bergemann’s Hang Time in Bellingham WA and the inclusion of femmes at the Audi Nines and Proving Grounds.
Red Bull didn’t sign up Hannah Bergemann for her racing results (typically the stronger criteria for athletes), but for her inclusive approach and how she can develop the sport for all types of riders.
At Formation 2021 she won the Arc’teryx Evolution of Sports Award, voted by fellow riders who recognised her dedication, passion and collaborative effort helping her peers achieve their goals. One of Hannah’s main goals is to help pave a clear path for the next generation and provide more opportunity and inspiration to progress freeriding and mountain biking. Not only was the award a testament to her outstanding character, it proved that Red Bull-sponsored riders don’t need to be fast, furious and results-driven to wear the lid.
The New Normal
The women’s scene is no longer a whisper in the woods; we’re here to stay. Lady riders have erased stigmas and rewritten history. To maintain this momentum we need to enjoy the ride and stop comparing ourselves to men. Bikes are simple and fun, and when you’re riding purely for the love of it, it’s bloody astounding what waves can organically be created for the greater good.
When I ride I’m not thinking about being a woman. I’m thinking about the trail in front of me, whether I need to pop or pull, pedal harder or touch my brakes less. When I see a girl doing something rad, I think, “shit yeah, I can do that too”. I’m also thinking how good that beer will taste afterwards with my male and female riding mates. The best part is I’m no longer thinking we’re the minority or if I even belong here.
We’re doing an amazing job in terms of events, pushing each other, camps, racing, and most importantly, camaraderie. The more we progress, the more women we’ll see emerging and joining the movement, and encouraging others to do the same.
To the ladies of the trails: don’t forget to be a girl. Embrace your softer, feminine side. You don’t have to act super-tough to ride bikes or be involved in the industry – those days are gone like 26-inch wheels and the too-cool FAF boys at Whistler. Enjoy the ride and your place in the sport; it’s yours for the taking.
A huge thanks to Amy Cole, Anka Martin and Gabby Malloy for your valuable input and guidance.