In the spring sunshine, triple enduro world champion Tracy Moseley gets ready to lead a ride, with 40 women lining up to join her. The team from Fox servicing outfit Mojo Suspension have just led a workshop demonstrating how to set up bike suspension to suit lighter riders.
Nearby, women browse through racks of bright, technical mountain bike gear in the pop-up retail village, and line up to demo the latest bikes and new wheelsets. At the end of the day, everyone gathers in the cafe with tea, cake and conversation to chat to Moseley about her impressive career and get advice and tips for their own riding.
This is the scene at the first BikePark Wales Women’s Weekend. BikePark Wales, one of the most popular mountain biking destinations in the UK, is for the most part is overwhelmingly male dominated. Over two days though, the event will transform the bike park’s customer demographic over from 95% men, 5% women to a whopping 38% women.
The BikePark Wales Women’s Weekend is part of a global wave of events and initiatives sweeping women’s mountain biking with a view to reducing the gender gap in participation. So what was it about the event that encouraged that so many women to come? And what do other successful women’s specific events, rides and communities have in common with it – apart from the obvious?
Challenging the gender mix
The bike park, which regularly attracts over 400 people in a weekend, is still a very male-dominated environment, and this is partly why BikePark Wales operations director and women’s weekend organiser Anna Astley decided to run the event.
“We noticed early on that not many women came to ride the park; just 5 to 6%,” she tells BikeRadar. “This is low even for the industry average, which is still too low at 10 to 15% in the UK. Whistler gets 35% [female customers], so there is interest out there! We asked ladies on Facebook what they would like to see and how we could help. We took all that feedback and tried to create an event that enabled women to meet other women in a relaxed and informal way and that took that feedback into account.”
Many riders at the BikePark Wales Women’s Weekend commented that the opportunity to see, touch and try on kit was a draw, as they find it hard to locate women’s specific mountain bike gear they like in bike shops
The atmosphere at Women’s Weekend event is fantastic: friendly, inclusive, supportive, and fun. The coaching and workshops are informative, the retail opportunities tempting, and the chance to chat with a world champion over tea and cake is jumped on, with questions on everything from training and bike setup to race nutrition and future plans pitched to Moseley. More than 150 women attend the weekend.
Women’s-specific riding: the international picture
While the Women’s Weekend has been one of the highest profile women’s-focused events in the UK recently, it’s by no means a one-off.
Women’s mountain biking has been developing for decades, fuelled by passionate individuals and groups who have organised and run group rides, race series, coaching camps and skills weekends. Notable in the UK are the Air Maiden series, which makes a return in 2016 after a break of several years, and the Diva Descent women’s only downhill race series, now sadly defunct.
The US hosts a veritable cornucopia of women’s specific events, many sponsored or supported by big brands. Examples include the Trek Dirt Series, which runs sessions and camps in Western Canada and the US, the SRAM Gold Rusch Tour featuring pro racer Rebecca Rusch, and Liv Ladies AllRide events series.
The power of social media and the internet has also been a powerful tool in helping mountain biking women find each other, coordinate events and grow communities. In Australia groups include Silent Revolution, which started life as a forum in the mid-2000’s, and has now evolved to offer regular meetings across the country. In the UK, Birds on Bikes has an extensive Facebook following, and grassroots groups like Black Girls Do Bike in the US are addressing not only the gender disparity in cycling but also the obvious lack of diversity.
As the numbers grow, the scope and breadth of what is on offer for women has evolved too.
“Most big riding communities have well-used Facebook pages for ladies in the area to hook up for different types of rides,” says Kath Bicknell, a mountain bike journalist and BikeRadar contributor. “While this is great for developing riders, I personally love the niche groups that have developed for more experienced, gravity-loving riders that events and ride days cater for less often.”
Having events that state what level they are pitched at, or that cater to a number of different levels, is key element in ensuring women can judge whether an event is suitable for them, which in turn helps confidence
A more inclusive environment
When it comes to ascertaining what attracts women to these events, there are some common themes. BikeRadar speaks to women at the BikePark Wales Women’s Weekend, along with others who’ve attended a variety of women’s specific events over the last few years, to gauge thoughts and opinions.
Many women feel these events will have a less intimidating, less competitive atmosphere, and that they tend to be more supportive and more sociable than mixed – or, as is still often the case, male dominated – mountain bike rides and events. The very fact that places like BikePark Wales run weekends like this, inviting women to come, makes a statement that says ‘this is for you, you are welcome here’. Several riders also say that women’s specific events and coaching sessions were helpful in helping them regain their confidence when returning to mountain biking after a break, either due to health issues, injury or post-childbirth.
“Since having my son three years ago I haven’t really gone out,” says Zanny Shirley-Smith, who came up from Exeter to attend the weekend event at BikePark Wales. “I thought this would be a chance to get my confidence back, get some advice and ride with other females without worrying about having loads of blokes about. It’s nice to ride with women who are generally a similar sort of ability, and talk on a different level. You feel more relaxed, I think, when you are with other women. You feel less intimidated.”
Cycling blogger and Singletrack magazine columnist Adele Mitchell also highlights the appeal of events that are built around friendliness and inclusivity.
“I entered Stilettoes on Wheels [a UK women’s-only mountain bike race] about five years ago,” she says. “I’d never done a competitive mountain bike event at that point, and the fact that it was a less technical course and women only (so I could hopefully keep up!) appealed to me.
“It was a small, friendly event and within my technical abilities, and I think I came 11th out of about 30 in my category – which was a pleasant surprise.” she goes on. “There was a range of riders, from international riders to beginners, so that made it interesting too. As a beginner to competitive events, it was a good experience and I think this was helped by the fact that it was women-only and fairly low key.”
Women’s-only coaching sessions can play a big part not only in developing skills, but also confidence in those skills and abilities
Women also tell us that they welcome the opportunity to find other women who ride, and join a community. “I really liked to find out I’m not ‘the only MTB girl'” says Julia Guiness via Twitter.
Racer and journalist Juliet Elliot subscribes to this view. “It’s tribalism,” she says. “We all like to feel a part of something and like we belong. [But this] can be hard in cycling when you’re in a minority.”
Women’s only coaching sessions are also popular, offering the chance to increase skills in an environment that many feel will be more approachable. Kate Gries, Helen Couch, Pippa Tanner and Kate Lord all join a session at the BikePark Wales Women’s Weekend, and rave about the experience, recalling trying out mixed coaching courses in the past and feeling that male participants tended to “take over”. The women add that the course they’ve just done has been a real eye-opener in terms of identifying correct technique – including highlighting the fact that riders passing them at speed may not always be in complete control of their bikes.
Another factor that often comes into play when it comes to encouraging women into mountain biking is lack of time, which is particularly true of women with children. Women are often the primary care-givers, which reduces the amount of free time available for riding, so rides that are easily accessible, local or take place at times when children are in school can help. Some locations, such as the Forest of Dean on the Welsh borders, offer weekend children’s cycling groups that allow parents to go off and ride while the kids are looked after (and riding themselves).
Maintenance workshops and hard-to-find gear
One tempting element at the BikePark Wales weekend centred on retail opportunities, with brands including Flare Clothing Co, Maloja, Fox, Troy Lee Designs, Trail 42, FiveTen and Bell helmets all hosting tents with a variety of products to sell, and a changing room where women could try garments on. Most mountain biking women will know what a struggle it is to find female specific gear actually stocked in shops, so this was an opportunity welcomed by many of the attendees.
“To be honest, the idea of having the clothing to try on was really quite a draw,” says Maresa Smith, who traveled to the event from Watford. “I’ve struggled to find the Maloja clothing that I wanted [elsewhere] and their sizing is a bit weird so this was useful.”
The opportunity to join free maintenance workshops was included in the entrance to the Women’s Weekend event at BikePark Wales – and proved very popular.
“I really enjoyed the workshops,” says Andrea Thomas, visiting from Southampton. “I normally jump on my bike and go, but feel a little useless when it comes to maintenance. So I did the gears one, the brakes one and the suspension workshop, and I feel a lot more confident about approaching these things on my bike.
Skills clinics, technical workshops and women’s only coaching session were all popular and fully booked at the Women’s Weekend event at BikePark Wales
“I could easily bleed my brakes and change the gear cables now, and [sort] the sag and the suspenson. I understand what it should be doing. The workshops were excellent,” she adds.
Getting industry support
While grassroots groups and smaller companies have been organising rides, competitions and holidays for years now, in the last couple of years there’s been a surge in involvement and support from some of the big brands within the industry. Bicknell, who is based in Australia, feels this picture translates internationally.
“While there have been social rides for women in my local mountain bike communities (in Australia) since the 90s, in the last five years the scene has started to explode.” she tells BikeRadar. “Camps, clinics and rides have been run by volunteers for local mountain bike clubs for years, but now it’s making more commercial sense for a lot of other people to get on board, which has seen a big swell in the number of ride experiences on offer. Brands like Liv are leading the way with regular ladies’ road and mountain bike rides in different cities around the country.”
In the US, Bell Helmets has launched an ambassador program, providing chosen ambassadors with resources and even budget to help grow women’s mountain biking in their local areas.
In the UK, component and accessories company Hope Tech has started running Tuesday night women’s rides. Rachel Atherton and Red Bull organised a women-only version of the Fox Hunt race format in 2014, and it proved popular enough it was repeated in 2015 with plans for future editions of the event.
“I think the industry has realised that there is a big gap in the market, and one that can be filled with support and events such as these,” Astley says. “Having a balance of men and women is great for a sport and really helps to push it to the next level, and without women you are losing 50% of the potential market.”
Most of the women we speak to enjoyed the experience at BikePark Wales, and would love to join future events – though many also tell us they find it hard to discover when and were events are taking place. Most also say they don’t want to ride exclusively in women’s-specific events.
“I don’t think we should discount mixed events as they can be all these things – supportive, less competitive – too,” points out Mitchell. “It really does depend on the group dynamics, which is why its essential to ask lots of questions before you turn up! I think the more experienced you become, the more you seek likeminded riders (of either gender) as opposed to the ‘reassurance’ of a same gender ride.”
Women’s-specific events and groups have a huge part to play in growing participation in mountain biking among women, providing a welcoming, supportive and encouraging environment.