Thursday, June 18, 2015

Some thoughts on why more women don't race MTB - by a woman who does

I don’t really have time to get drawn into the ‘why don’t women race mountain bikes (MTB)’ debate. But then something pissed me off. In case you’re catching up the long running issue was again highlighted in this well-considered article . It explores the way sporting products (including MTB) are marketed to women. It was pretty much spot on and something that British Downhill is trying to counter by mandating that 50% of event promotion images must contain female competitors. Whether that will be successful remains to be seen.  You will have to find that article yourself, I know you can.

So back to being irked this morning when hearing about a female competitor contacting a race organiser to establish whether I was racing a certain event. Apparently if I was she would not enter the same category as the prize was obviously already determined. W.T.F? Are you for real? Sadly this is not the first time this has happened and it got me thinking. Not thinking about how men and marketing companies discriminate against women who race, but how we are frequently ostracised BY OTHER WOMEN.

I’m all for encouraging more women to be active and ride bikes. But if you want to race then it’s because you have set yourself a challenge to be the best bike rider you can be – the fittest, the most skilled, the fastest they are personally capable of being. Guess what? Other women also set that challenge. Do not expect me to gift you a race by not turning up. If you want to win a prize at a bike race then you do that by training harder and riding faster and hopefully on the day the winner is you. But sometimes other people are faster and that happens to everyone – me and world champions included.  Everyone has bad days. But how are you going to find out when mine is if you don’t enter? How are you going to know you’re improving if you don’t front up and compare your performance? For every woman who changed categories when they found out a woman they perceived as ‘faster’ was racing – you are part of the problem. It overjoys me when I hear guys say that placing in their age group has bored them and they want to race against the elite guys. I rarely hear that from women.

Maybe I’ve just never got the women’s mindset. I started riding with a bunch of guys and it was a sometimes brutal initiation. You get your tyre fixed once if you forget a tube or don’t know how to install it. After that, you better start walking. I rode stuff that scared the life out of me just because everyone else was doing it. If I was the slowest one on the ride and always being waited on, I went away, trained my ass off and came back when I was faster. I didn’t whinge about the ride not being ‘inclusive’.  Did I have doubts about my ability? Of course. But I turned up and kept turning up and that’s how I got better.

There are, I believe, deeper societal issues at play as well. At 12 girls start with the game of “You’re prettier” “No YOU’RE prettier” as if being better than each other in any realm means they can’t be friends. There is a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) undertone that competing against another female is somehow violating the sisterhood and how we should all be united against common enemies like men and patriarchal society etc. How does this result in less women racing MTB? How the hell do I know? I’m not a demographer/sociologist. This is just what I think about on my long rides when I’m feeling guilty about not spending time being ‘motherly’ with my daughter/working on my career/tanning at the salon so I can finally hook a doctor husband (please note sarcasm). Even when taking women’s rides I am told to ‘tone down’ my competitive image and to wear baggy shorts instead of lycra so I don’t intimidate anyone. Those of you who know me will have guessed I wear whatever the hell I want.

Looking at event start lists, the longer an event is, the lower percentage of women enter. Don’t women like long events? Or is it because they still do the bulk of housework and child-raising while holding down jobs and don’t have time to do the long k’s it takes to make 100km MTB even vaguely enjoyable?

Why should I care that more women don’t race? If women are riding and enjoying it and buying bikes so my sponsors are happy, shouldn’t I just take the prize money and shut up? I want other women to race because it makes the event better for me, for girls who come to watch their dad race (but not their mum??), for clubs who love to see families all getting involved. It makes the whole sport look great. Talking to one of my under 17 girls who won a race last week, she lamented that she was only one or two entrants and then the other girl broke her chain. She WANTS to compete and is likely to learn more about bike racing and herself from all the races she doesn’t win. If girls don’t want to race then that’s fine. But if they DO want to race but are being discouraged or conditioned to think it’s not a ‘feminine’ thing to do then that is NOT FINE.

I’ve always admired how men can race against each other then go have a beer or recovery ride together afterwards. Even in my riding group competition is permitted and trash-talking encouraged. You know THAT guy is the top dog and then THIS guy is second. This guy is a good climber, but THAT guy has the maddest skills. You don’t become the Top Dog by tearing that guy down personally and not turning up on rides because ‘it’s not fair’. If you want to be the Top Dog you get out and do an extra rep of your local climb and you get up in winter when its dark and you get fitter and stronger.

Do I believe that men are naturally more competitive than women? I’m not sure. Anyone on a bunch ride will tell you that’s absolutely the case. I’d say boys definitely have more confidence than girls, even at a young age. They’re a lot quicker to overrate their ability with absolutely no evidence, than a girl. But I know some very competitive girls. I’m not going to say we’re all great friends and spend time braiding each other’s hair when we are not racing. I don’t have to like them all, but I do RESPECT every one of them who put their arses on the line week after week racing the best riders they can find. So to all the women bemoaning that we are faster than you, content yourselves that you probably have higher salaries, more sex, cleaner nails and more girls’ margarita nights than the woman that just toweled you at the race.

If you want to know about racing hard and not winning, go race world cup. It’s about adjusting your goals. First you race to just not get lapped by the winners. Then if you get better you try not to get beaten by more than 15 minutes, then 10 minutes…I’d rather do that that win another set of men’s XL gloves in a race of one. But maybe I’m weird.
When I enter races I try not to think about winning or prize money. I don’t control who turns up to a race but, yes, sometimes my heart sinks when there’s a hitter on the line who I didn’t expect. I consider the condition I want to be at on that start line that would make me happy, and then work out if I am willing to make the sacrifices and put in the time to get myself to that level. If I’m satisfied that I’ve worked hard and smart, then the result is what it is. I don’t get angry at the person who beat me, I get angry at myself for being lazy or making poor choices in my preparation if that’s been the case. Or just accept that someone was better despite me being in the form of my life.

Well this has turned into a bit of a ramble. I’m not sure it’s answered many questions about women who don’t race, but it is a bit of insight from one who does and sometimes feels like other women would prefer she didn’t.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


It takes a lot to crack me, but Geoquest 48 hour adventure race succeeded. There were a few rookie errors from the start. There is no way I intended to race for 48 hours. Looking at the distances we had calculated on a 36 hour race, just in time for a steak and beer at the pub. It didn’t pan out like that.
I certainly feel the race was undersold to me by team captain ‘Tayles’ who had done three previous editions of Geoquest. It sounded like if you could paddle a bit, run a bit and not fall off your bike you could get through the race. I’d done a few 10k hilly runs a week and a whole five kayak sessions on the serene Brisbane River. To say I was a touch underdone was an understatement.

Each Geoquest varies in the relative time spent on each discipline. On Friday we got handed the race plan and maps and there was precious little mountain biking and a lot of time on foot. Having been a runner in a previous life, I relied on muscle memory to get me through, but there is no substitute for time on your feet, even if it’s just hiking. I also made the mistake of panic-buying new shoes before the race thinking my Nike Pegasus wouldn’t handle the rugged trails. Yes, I gave thanks for my extra-grippy and water-resistant Salomons when we were scurrying over rock cliffs and through mud puddles, but for running on firetrails they were too stiff to be comfortable and after the 24k rogaine my Achilles and my right knee were on fire and my feet felt like they had been crushed.

Ticking boxes from the start, it was also my first ocean kayak experience. With blue skies to start the race it was quite exciting punching through the waves to reach the water. But despite seeing dolphins and rainbows at the beginning, things soon changed to a vicious 3m swell around the point. My co-paddler, Andy C, issued instructions with calmness so I thought the conditions were fairly normal. It wasn’t until we reached shore that he confessed there were quite a few nervous moments. Not as nervous as our members in the other kayak, Andy M and Tayles, who ended up upside-down in the huge waves. Quote of the weekend went to the volunteer at the first checkpoint:

Volunteer: “Are you having a good time so far?”

Andy M: “No, not really”

Volunteer: “Oh well, it could be worse. You could be that guy whose bag was floating around the ocean”


How not to start a kayak leg: upside down boats are bad

Fighting the cold was a constant battle, so having all Andy M’s clothes soaked due to a dodgy boat hatch and ‘no-so-dry’ dry-bag was suboptimal. Luckily we had a long beach run ahead to warm us up. The clothing I brought was perfect for the conditions with a couple of light long sleeve thermal tops, Liv cycling vest, arm warmers, undershirts, beanie and rain jacket. A late purchase of some 2XU tri shorts was essential for forest toilet stops without the need to completely undress that comes with wearing bib-nicks.

As long as we kept moving I was pretty comfortable, however we were guilty of stopping too long in transitions when we should have grabbed and run. The winning team were fed on burgers and pizza and foods that could be consumed while moving. Spaghetti Bolognese, while delicious, was less portable. The length of the race meant we weren’t working at maximum intensity so I went with some low GI foods like peanut butter and honey sandwhiches and salty crackers with some medjool dates and Shotz gels to perk me up if the blood sugar was bottoming out. Instant coffee meant a lowering of my usual standards but it was purely about caffeine delivery for the night stages.

There were some spectacular moments on the first day. Clambering along rugged coastal cliffs while coasteering then coming upon sand dunes at Anna Bay complete with camels which could have seen us in a Saharan desert race. It would have been worth attaching a Go Pro to my backpack to capture some amazing scenery. The late addition of the snorkelling leg I thought was going to be an absolute chore, turned out to be one of the most fun. While not tropical, the conditions were sunny and looking for checkpoints underwater was a great way to see the fish and coral and make a mental note to come back to that spot for a summer holiday. As a tourist advertisement for the area, Geoquest was a massive success.

I'd definitely come back summer

Less successful was our rafting leg. Originally a body boarding stage, the organisers switched to inflatable craft a week before the race due to safety concerns. Crews had to leave racers uninflated craft of choice in the transition zone along with a pump. Andy C had managed to secure a raft which allegedly was fit for 4 people. Perhaps the two adults and two small children pictured on the front of the box may have comfortably traveled in it, but our whole team plus packs required a version of twister just to all get in and resulted in a lot of paddling in circles with the toy oars. Trying several different combinations led to the two rowing members kneeling in a manner similar to the stress-positions they use to torture inmates at Guantanamo Bay.

Arriving cold and frustrated into transition we were greeted with the joyous news that the race-provided canoes that were to be used during the river crossing had not been delivered and competitors would be required to swim the 50 metres across. Given that we would be hitting the crossing at 10:30pm and the ambient was around 8 degrees this posed a problem. For an hour of hiking I wondered if this was the leg which would bring me unstuck. Could I voluntarily get in water that cold for the sake of a race in which we were coming last?

So that’s how the four of us ended up naked on the bank of a river in the freezing dark putting our gear in garbage bags to keep it dry. I approached it like ripping off a Bandaid – just get in quick get it done and deal with the pain later. It was compounded by the fact that we weren’t even sure where we were able to get out on the other side so just aimed for a large tree we thought we could climb out on. I started paddling briskly as I entered the icy water, one arm holding my gear on top of the water, the other engaged in a sort of side-stroke. Halfway across the frigid water started to slow everything down and I wondered when they found my nude corpse clutching a garbage bag of perfectly good clothes, whether the coroner would be able to piece together the circumstances of my demise. Finally reaching the other side, climbing through some mangroves and up onto the bank we all descended into fits of laughter. Did that just happen? Did we really just do that? I felt oddly revitalised and even warm once clothes had been donned and we were back on our way.

A photo of me with camels because I'm not posting one of me swimming naked

The lack of sleep and long hike took its toll on Andy M and at 19 hours we made the decision to leave him with the support crew at the transition and continue as an unranked team of 3. Placing was not a priority at that point and at least we could finish the race. Pushing the kayaks out onto the river I was looking forward to seeing the sun rise on the water. The Lakes region did not disappoint with the first rays hitting a thick layer of mist on the water’s surface. It was fairy-tale stuff. Opting for some rented double kayaks and skirts it was surprisingly warm until we were required to land on an island and run up to the top of a hill to look for a checkpoint. The two night river kayaks were some of my favourite legs of the race – so peaceful, just the stars and the soft splashing of paddles.

Having done a 24 hour MTB I knew the energy restoring effects of sunrise and felt pretty good for the next leg where we were finally on the bike. I’d had a couple of micro-sleeps while paddling but was sure the trail action would keep me awake. On paper it looked like a fairly straight forward 57km ride and after driving it for the first hour and a half and knocking of 30ks we were hopeful of getting through it quickly. The next 90 mins only chewed up 10k though as we rode up a rocky water course and negotiated long fireroad climbs that were too muddy to ride. Fatigue was setting in, we were having silly crashes and one of the bikes suffered a snapped rear derailleur cable.

I’ve suffered through some tough MTB races but there was always the reward of a great view or fun singletrack descent. There was nothing rewarding about this pointless foray through the bush and I was pretty jack of the whole thing by then. We arrived at the start of the next rogaining leg in the afternoon with the second night looming and an estimated 12 hours of hiking, paddling and riding left to reach the end. I just couldn’t face another night without sleep and it wasn’t something I had expected to do. Completely cool with being wet, nude, sore and lost and it wasn’t that the legs were empty as we were the second fastest team overall on the MTB stage. Two nights of sleep deprivation is just not something that I could get through and I couldn’t think of a good enough reason to keep going given we were out of the running to even get recognition of finishing as a complete team.

Unfortunately there is no option of continuing as a two-person team due to safety rules set by the organisers. We called our support team to pick us up and grabbed 30 minutes sleep by the fire while we waited for them. I felt terrible for Andy C and Tayles for bringing a premature end to their adventure. I’ve run through a dozen scenarios wondering if there was anything which could have got me through that patch. Maybe a short sleep? Can of Coke? Foot massage? It’s misleading to look back and think there was something left to give, when at the time you’re just out of answers. I also found it disconcerting watching your team members deteriorate, hurt themselves due to extreme fatigue and struggle to string a sentence together at times. Looking at my teammates, they were in quite a state (as was I) but I knew they wouldn’t stop if I didn’t and I wasn’t sure if I was OK with that.  Geoquest was a very strange experience in that way. We really must look insane to other people!

Would I do it again? Absolutely. But I would train my arse off, especially for long distance running component. If you’re cool with sleep deprivation, go ahead and amble through Geoquest and enjoy the journey. If not then go hard and get it done so you can spend Sunday night celebrating.

Massive thanks to our incredible support crew Tanya and Rob. It was such a relief to see you guys and you did an amazing job anticipating everything we could conceivably want. Support crew duties are an event in their own right. Also thanks to Liv for my Lust 27.5 which has become my ‘do everything’ bike and For The Riders for preparing it for the onslaught of conditions; Ride Mechanic for the Bike Milk and Moonshine to make sure both my bike and body were free from friction; Shotz nutrition for their gels and recovery bars to keep me going; Maxxis Tyres for the Ardent Race and Ikon combination that proves itself again. And finally to my team mates. We didn’t make it this time, but just taking the start line was a win. Until the next one!

Anna Bay Sand dunes - keen for some sand boarding!