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The long trail

Women's-only enduros rose up in the Sea to Sky and are now gaining a foothold across B.C.

Though pop culture and sports alike continue to be a man's world of archetypal women, mountain bikers in the Sea to Sky are writing their own narratives.

Even as women continue to make up a larger portion of sport's population, making up a majority of riders in some communities, men continue to be disproportionately represented in co-ed contests. At the 2019 Squamish Enduro, for example, men outnumbered women 199 to 32 across all categories in the full-course event.

However, a surge of new women's-only events has created an opportunity for riders to participate on their own terms as the Sea to Sky serves as the vanguard of a movement that is starting to spread across the province.

Betty vs. Veronica

All of the women Pique interviewed for this story expressed a feeling of intimidation when taking part in co-ed events, even in lower-stakes contests such as weekly Toonie races.

Racing a women's-only event, however, can be a breath of fresh air even for skilled and experienced riders like Nicole Heisterman. While she avoided large, locally set races like the Test of Metal or Nimby 50, as a supporter of community camaraderie, in the early aughts, Heisterman regularly lined up for Tony Horn's legendary grassroots Samurai of Singletrack races that saw only a few women from the then-smaller pool of riders.

Focused more on the joy of riding than racing competitively, Heisterman appreciated when Horn organized a Betty and Veronica race for the Whistler Off-Road Cycling Association (WORCA) in 2011. She's subsequently taken part in other local contests such as Spud Crusher, which first sprouted in Pemberton in 2018.

Heisterman has enjoyed the ability to compare herself to a group of riders of similar speed and strength without the added competition of a bunch of male riders dropping in soon after.

"Seeding yourself is so much different with women than it is if you put men in the mix. It's so much less pressure," she says. "Even in Toonie rides, you could be in the top five in women, but you're in 50th place and there are guys all around you, they want to get on their bike in front of you.

"We were riding [in Betty and Veronica] and I looked up and I was like, 'Oh my God, there's less than 10 people in front of me. This has never happened to me in a race, ever.'

"You're actually not in the mix with hardly anyone because there's space ... I have never known what this is like as a woman.

"I've never known what it's like to not be in the crowds."

Horn recognized this sentiment after beginning to reckon with why so few women entered the events he organized, whether the Samurai series or the Four Jacks, which were focused more on riding than racing.

"There was definitely a hardcore group of women that did those races, but it was a select few and a lot of people just felt like it was too much for them. I wanted to do something that was more inclusive and just promoted women's riding in general," he says. "I'd done all these super-gnarly events and it was kind of fun to do something that was all about fun. I didn't feel like the course had to be super hard and I could scale things back a bit."

After filling out a short questionnaire, including such irreverent questions as what song a rider would play for the first dance at her wedding, registrants were divided into two teams based on the personality types of the classic Archie Comics characters. (Some riders weren't overly pleased, however, when they were placed on the team of noted diva Veronica rather than girl-next-door Betty.)

Fulfilling Horn's mission to create an epic day, the race started with a Whistler Mountain Bike Park portion in the morning before heading to the resort's west-side trails for 15 kilometres of mostly blue-level intermediate riding.

With the volunteer base having primarily been women at prior events, the script flipped with only men lending their time.

Horn acknowledges there were some "shenanigans" that were, in hindsight, inappropriate. Examples include the Tunnel of Love, where scantily dressed male volunteers gave sponge baths as riders ascended Whip Me Snip Me, or created a gauntlet of pool noodles as they descended in the Whistler Mountain Bike Park.

He appreciates that events such as the Spud Crusher have offered a more professional environment.

"Looking back, it's good that it's progressed to something more serious," he says.

Heel thyself

After the Betty and Veronica race, WORCA held a similarly styled Charlie's Angels contest, but the movement's groundwork shifted south to Squamish as Melissa Sheridan debuted the Hot On Your Heels enduro, with competitors racing timed stages and riding more casually in between, with roughly 60 racers in 2012.

"Most of them were my friends or people that I knew that I begged to come and do the race," she says. "I wouldn't say it was a hard sell—women wanted to do it, but they didn't want to race.

"I thought the enduro format really made it not competitive."

The next year, the participant list grew to roughly 100 and ballooned to 400, with more on the waitlist, in 2019. Though Sheridan offers a pro division, it had only seven racers last year.

"It's not a race for the pros. They have tons of different races. The pros that do come out just do it more for fun," she says.

Sheridan admittedly keeps the course on the tamer side, opting primarily for blue trails with some of the easier black options thrown in to spice things up, though she has slowly but surely increased the level of difficulty each time out.

Sheridan provides a unique perspective as she also boasts experience organizing co-ed events as The Gryphon race director, noting that she takes a different approach to each race. Most enduros, for example, won't release the map until the week of the event, but Hot On Your Heels bucks that tradition by revealing the route with significantly more lead time.

"Every year, I'll have women cancel closer to the race date because they just feel they're not prepared, but I don't find that in regular enduros," she says. "I get a lot of women who feel like they haven't gotten their confidence level up."

While she's been asked to provide multiple course lengths, she eschews that, wanting instead to motivate registrants with a longer course.

"I want it to be a length that women can work towards throughout the year," she says. "It's usually about 20 to 25 kms, which you can't do off the couch and you need to do some training for, get some longer rides in."

Crushing it

Despite Hot On Your Heels' quick success, it was the only event of its kind until 2018, when the Spud Crusher came to Pemberton and a sister event broke ground in Revelstoke.

Pemberton was a natural host, says organizer and Pemberton Off-Road Cycling Association (PORCA) executive director Bree Thorlakson, who notes the club's 2019 membership boasted a slim majority of women.

Inspired by Hot On Your Heels, Thorlakson explains the Spud Crusher grew out of the women's bike club, which holds 28 weekly rides per summer and, in addition to a night on the trails, looks to instil a sense of know-how and independence in its ranks.

Club members filled many of the 150 slots before they were opened to the public.

It was vital, she says, to organize a more formal contest to help members reach their next levels.

"A lot of women use these events as setting goals for themselves. It's not always about the time you're getting, but perhaps just going out there and trying something new, or seeing if you can complete the course," she says. "It's not always about getting the fastest time or being the best racer.

"It helps women build confidence and maybe go out to their local Toonie races or maybe go to co-ed events where they want to race."

PORCA board member Ming Sartee, who took up mountain biking in 2014 after moving from California's Bay Area, helped organize the first Spud Crusher and enjoyed the fruits of her labour as a participant last year, says the atmosphere differs greatly from the aggressive nature of the co-ed contests she's witnessed as a volunteer.

"It's not to say that women aren't competitive or fast. It's just the overall vibe and the mentality is more laidback, more about supporting each other and doing the best that they can do," she says.

The 2019 event sold out in eight hours, though this year's race, which was scheduled for May 9, was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

PORCA hopes to bring the event back next year, as Thorlakson says it's especially important to keep flagship events in transient communities like Pemberton to help new arrivals establish a sense of place and belonging.

PORCA vice-chair Emma Mostrom-Mombelli, who gained riding experience in the bike park before settling in Pemberton last year, says joining the women's bike club helped her settle in to the new community. As well, she said her first Spud Crusher provided some life lessons.

"It's very much pushing your limits and making yourself keep going even though you're sometimes about to give up," she says.

For her part, Heisterman acknowledges gaining a truer appreciation for the race when her sister came from Victoria to join her last year.

"We were rolling into the parking lot and she said, 'I've never seen so many women on bikes in my life,'" Heisterman recalls. "I said, 'This is kind of just normal around here' when there are 100-plus women on their mountain bikes."

Fostering greater diversity

Growing up south of the border, Sartee participated in sports ranging from soccer and basketball to running and rowing to volleyball and lacrosse. Though the area was more racially diverse than the Sea to Sky, Sartee says as an athlete, she was often on an island as a woman of colour.

While she's dealt with it, Sartee also acknowledges that the efforts to include women have mostly resulted in attracting white women.

"I was usually one of those that did not look like the others, which is something I'm OK with and comfortable with now, but I'd really like to see change going forward in the future, and especially for my children growing up," she says. "It's amazing how mountain biking has spread in popularity among women, but I would like for it to become a more culturally diverse sport as well.

"Mountain biking can be quite inaccessible because of the cost of owning a bike. Having more outreach programs among non-profit communities to draw more people in and make biking more accessible, and also having more trails that would be beginner-friendly and accessible for beginners."

In a follow-up email, Sartee adds that the onus should be on event organizers to proactively discover what they can do to become more inclusive, including reaching out to members of minority communities and listening to feedback about what they can do to facilitate their participation.

One of enduro's major appeals for Sartee is the camaraderie established among riders as they cheer one another on course and continue to grow closer during après.

"The Spud Crusher really cultivated a real culture of [being] a big celebration of biking and a big challenge," she says. "I really enjoy just having a big day on my bike, and the après of all the women being together and recapping the day, being part of the community is a really big part."

The trails to come

Though the 2020 schedule is currently a jumble because of the pandemic, it was initially set to be a season of optimism, with seven total women's-only events on the calendar, including brand-new dates in North Vancouver, Kamloops and Roberts Creek.

Sunshine Coast Women's Enduro race director Melanie Graversen is another acorn falling from the Hot On Your Heels tree, having completed the Squamish race last year, quickly moving to bring the event to the coast.

"There were no expectations, nobody elbowing you to get out of the way, nobody flying by you as you're pedalling," she says. "It was really comfortable."

Graversen says Sheridan quickly connected her with the other women's-only race directors, giving her additional confidence as she started to plan and approach vendors and potential sponsors.

"It was a plethora of knowledge and experience and people supportive of each other, throwing ideas around," she says.

There's been talk of creating an official series with acknowledgement of riders who complete the seven-stop circuit, but Sheridan notes that setting it in stone is still a ways away.

She's glad to see more events start to appear, explaining that in the heat of the moment, racers would excitedly ask her advice on how to bring an event home, only to be deterred after discovering the amount of work involved. However, Sheridan credits the 2018 class, including the Spud Crusher, with helping to get the ball rolling. "Once those popped up, people realized that they could start small. It didn't have to be Hot On Your Heels," she says. "You can start with 50 people and if that's all you have, that's amazing.

"If it grows to 100, that's perfect."

In her eight years running the event, Sheridan has taken joy in seeing women continue to improve their riding and challenge themselves by attacking more difficult trails. Horn, meanwhile, has noted impacts on the next generation as women continue to be represented in greater numbers on trail nights and in the coaching ranks.

With more and more women signing up as an opportunity to get their feet wet, these types of contests appear to be here to stay.

Says Thorlakson: "When I see co-ed events being a 50-per-cent participation rate, maybe there won't be a need for these women's-only events, but we're obviously selling out and doing something right, so there's a need."

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