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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Sorry, it deleted:
      Do you seriously think some guys don't do the same thing? This is more a personality issue rather that a reason women don't ride. I have entered many races and will never have any chance of coming anywhere near the top. I know many other women who do the same.

  2. Refreshing article thanks! Its nice to read something for once that doesn't moan about women not racing because of men, competition being intimidating or low esteem etc etc. I would love more women to race XC for FUN and fitness. It would be cool to have other racers to consistently race to benchmark against and set those smaller improvement goals. Much more rewarding to beat someone who is usually a bit faster than you, than being the only one in your category...

  3. Love your attitude. I think you've hit the nail on the head about the discomfort some women feel about competition, but I'm glad you haven't let that deter you.