Adventure cycling is on the rise and with it a range of events that cater for riders who like a good, long, epic adventure are too. Cyclocross sportives are very definitely in this camp, but at a recent event I found that I was one of a very small number of female participants.
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Almost as much as I love riding my bike, I love riding the crest of a wave. And that’s what it has felt like this summer in my first season of adventure ‘cross racing. You might not recognise 'adventure ‘cross' as a thing, maybe you prefer ‘monster cross’ or ‘CX sportives’, but they are a blend of sportive, mountain bike endurance and cyclocross.
For me it’s the best of cyclocross; no skin suits or gurning, and lots of big views, big climbs and big smiles. It’s everything bike riding should be; long days in the saddle and zero constraints about what terrain you should and shouldn’t ride and on what bike. Anything goes, although skinny road bike tyres generally won’t cut it. But it doesn’t seem to be quite hitting the mark with women, if the low numbers at events I’ve tackled this year are anything to go by. In some cases I’ve been the only contender. Good for my Strava stats, but not so good for women in cycling more broadly.
What is a CX sportive?
What’s not to love? My recent foray into the wilds of Salisbury and The Gold Rush CX sportive included some ‘top 100’ road climbs (the 1 in 4 gradient cobbled Gold Hill and dramatic Zig Zag Hill), long tree-lined, ridge-top droves offering golden autumnal views and hair-raising rutted descents.
Whipping past the sluggish mountain bikes on the road climbs my ‘crosser was the perfect bike, although mountain bike skills helped considerably on the testing stretches of tyre-wide slimy ruts. More importantly, it didn’t feel like it was about the bike, but rather that bikes can go anywhere if the rider is willing. The experience just became about my relationship with the landscape. When I mountain bike, the ‘slog up, fly down’ approach has a totally different, adrenaline-soaked, bike-centric feel. Fun, but different.
The joy of riding long off-road distances isn’t a new thing and the recent wave of endurance CX events harks back to a time when ‘enduro’ meant long wilderness rides, more along the lines of a sportive and not as elongated as downhill races. It feels like as mountain bikes get more suspension, bells and whistles — undoubtedly a great way to get people riding as some of the raw skill requirements are absorbed by the bike — there has been a gently rebellious response from riders who Just Want To Ride A Bike.
Adventure ‘cross is simple, bringing bike riding back to its responsive, natural, bum-bruising basics. However, as the numbers of female enduro riders slowly increases it is notable that these longer cyclocross events aren’t yet attracting the female market.
Men-only bicycle riding?
So how big is this new wave and why is there such a gender split? Overall numbers at the events I’ve taken part in haven’t been huge — still fewer than 200 at the largest — and it seems too that the more tarmac there is on the route, the more riders show up. However, when the event is off-road and the terrain is at its most brutal with the least respite, there are even fewer riders and very few women.
The director of CX Sportives, Martin Harrison, says that on the one hand “because it’s so new it’s understandable that there aren’t that many early adopters”, he adds that in cycling “women are less likely to be among those early adopters”. Harrison emphasised that it is the responsibility of the cycling industry more broadly to attract women and wants to see more at his events.
Numbers of women at mountain bike events, from XC to downhill, have always been lower than men. It’s not the fault of the events specifically and there are a lot of women who love racing (like me) and for whom cycling in all manifestations is part of their DNA.
But changing the gender conversation across a whole industry takes time and is particularly hard when event organisers, journalists and retailers are so often men; women are dressed up in skimpy dresses to present male winners bunches of flowers; and when women are featured solely as the servers of tea in promotional race videos.
I have recently campaigned on Facebook about race write ups that portray women participants as having "put some of the lads to shame", like it is embarrassing to be overtaken by a fast female rider. And for all the positive action being taken by some retailers and bike designers to equalise the opportunities for both genders in cycling, I still see bike shop assistants talking to women customers like they have stumbled into the wrong store and still see women cyclists riding apologetically on the road.
Cycling is not a gendered activity, only people make it so. That women don’t race in equal numbers to men is about the public discourse around cycling, which continues to say that women who ride bikes are not quite within the bounds of social normality. Shift that and the gender of race entrants will equalise. We all have a role.
Where are all the women?
When I asked fellow CX sportive riders their views this summer I was struck by the two types of answers. A large number of those asked failed to come up with any reason for the gender divide, shrugging it off as normal and making comments about female endurance ‘crossers being as rare as ‘hens teeth’. Others wondered if the lack of women riders might be about the “ball busting” nature of the events. “Too hard for women?” I quizzed my new male riding buddies. “Maybe” came the sheepish answer “or maybe they’re worried about getting punctures or chain breaks from the rough ground”.
I pondered these suggestions before riding off and soaking them in my rear-wheel spray (sorry about the lack of mudguard, chaps). Feminist heckles aside, they might have a point, at least in that the rough terrain and wintry conditions can lead to multiple punctures and bike malfunctions. That might put some people off, including women, but events like CX Sportive's tackle those risks head on with a fleet of roaming mechanics loaded with spares, and the system works. I had my tyre replaced on the Gold Rush by a very capable and supportive mechanic from sponsors Wiggle. “We also emphasise the need to come with a fully working bike” says Harrison “and offer as much support as we can with maps and phone numbers and checkpoints. To be honest we don’t get any more bike problems than at road events, but the perception might be different”.
The ‘right bike’?
Another concern might be about having the 'right bike’. The irony around these back-to-basics off-road rides and events, and the ‘any bike and any terrain’ ethos, is that they have been fostered, or triggered by, the new range of bikes from the marketing bandwagon-jumpers. There are gravel bikes and disc-braked cyclocross bikes — and beach racing bikes, adventure road bikes and various wheel sizes.
You could just ride your mountain bike of course, but it was noticeable how many shiny new bikes there were on the start line of the events this year. I guess people will always like new stuff, but that shouldn’t put you off giving adventure ‘cross a go on your trusty 'any bike' (as long as it really is trusty).
As for the suggestion that off-road sportives are too hard for women, I’m not going to rise to that one, but I wish more women would ride them.
Is adventure ‘cross here to stay?
A few years ago I wrote a series of articles wondering whether enduro racing (the downhill kind) would stick around or fade like a fleeting fad. Well, it’s still here and World Series event organisers — and those of the many mushrooming local races — would argue vehemently that it’s here to stay. So what about adventure ‘cross? There were new events in 2016 and promises of more next year. There are more gravel bikes popping onto the market and companies like Rapha are introducing very pretty ‘cross-specific gear to their ranges.
There was once a time when the Three Peaks Cyclocross race, the 61km Yorkshire epic, stood out as a crazy, unique event a world away from the more usual short, round-the-park ‘cross racing. Now the Three Peaks has a dedicated warm up race, the Hope Pre Peaks, and is part of a range of UK races that appeal to British riders with a penchant for long, tough ‘cross rides in beautiful terrain, which may include road, byway, singletrack and some (but hopefully not much) bike carrying. So why not give one a go?