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When soft meets hard

What happens when women meet the muscle of a gnarly mountain-biking trek? They ace it.

Pemberton is a brutal place to learn to mountain bike.

The topography is mostly at fault. Straight up. Straight down. Lung-searing climbs. Skill-testing switchbacks. Shuddering descents. A narrow valley. Sky-licking mountains. Distractingly beautiful scenery.

Many of the foundational trails were scratched in by gnarly riders whose motivation and sole reward for all those grubby mosquito-feast-making hours of hard labour was something that would be fun to ride, for them.

There's not a lot of mercy to be found when you're starting out.

Some perverse part of me loves it here. Loves that having cut my teeth in Pemberton, I can ride anywhere. There's a pride-surge that comes from being able to ride the mountains a bike was built to ride, in the place where the technology is actually tested and applied, not superfluous in the way of the off-road upgrades of an all-wheel drive that is perennially stop-starting through downtown rush-hour traffic.

I also benefit from a flexible work schedule, a two-minute ride from my "office" to the trailhead, so I can ride/climb Happy Trail every day until I can do it clean, and from the fact that there are some awesome coaches living here — coaches who kick it on a bike — Casey Brown, Sarah Leishman, Syvlie Allen, Emily Slaco: coaches who can break down the progression into manageable bits, and who also understand that maybe, due to my biology, I learn a little bit differently than my XY-chromosomed brethren who, for the most part, learn by just givin' 'er.

When you can't get mercy, you'll take whatever grace is on offer.

Fight or flight

I celebrated hitting 40 by taking a bike clinic with Sylvie Allen's Sweet Skills, learning to "huck my pickle" with an evening jump clinic that would end with a couple of laps (ideally with controlled air time) down One Mile Lake's Pickle Surprise, and then beer and burgers at Mile One Eating House. (Good food is always the best reward.)

I had come to bunny-hopping late in the game. But better late than never.

Four of us in the baking sun of a Pemberton summer evening circle a dirt parking lot, jumping over ropes, as Allen and fellow coach Slaco cheer us on. There is something stupidly contagious about it. It is as addictive as my partner's previous insistence that I practice manuals up and down the driveway had been a turn-off. I don't know why. I don't know the other girls, so our camaraderie is loose. We check out each other's gear, fashion, with subtle once-overs. And then we are too focused on doing our drills in the parking lot to take much notice of each other. It's not like we are insta-friends.

Science posits that women adventure differently from men. When confronted with stress, instead of a "flight or fight" response, in the absence of testosterone, a sudden release of oxytocin is more likely to inspire a tend-and-befriend reaction in women. So, in challenging situations, women seek out social contact, especially with other women, and urge each other on.

During our drills, the coaches are the only ones cheering. The rest of us are awkward, focused, so self-absorbed that we are prone to collisions. But as soon as we hit the trail, dropping over little airs and roll-overs one at a time, we are watching each other, taking turns, pumping up each other, shooting videos, cheering wildly. Somehow in the space of 45 minutes we become a crew.


"I'm always curious about learning environments," says Dr. Sean Richardson, a sports and performance psychologist who coaches athletes, elite coaches and corporate CEOs on optimizing performance.

His book, Dealing with the Tough Stuff, is about giving critical feedback and having tough conversations in order that they're actually constructive, as distinct from destructive. You'd think coaching is shorthand for giving constructive feedback that separates the person from the behaviour being critiqued, but in Richardson's experience in competitive and pro-sports environments, it's the opposite. Abuse is rampant. "In sports, I can abuse you and treat you like crap, like in no other group environment. It seems to be normalized. The way athletes are talked to by coaches, in general, is horrendous."

Richardson, who is originally from Vancouver, has been working within the Australian Football League and other national-level teams for the last decade. "Somehow in sports, because people are striving for performance and they've signed up for it, it's a licence for the coach to say anything."

But his key clients are having conversations about shifting that culture within their teams, organizations or personal careers — especially as the science supports the performance-enhancing results of treating people, even thick-headed professional Australian footballers, as emotional beings.

"How do you build a high-performance culture or team? How do you get people to be the best they can be?" says Richardson. "Understand the human behind it all. A lot of the time, in these high-performance realms, the underlying culture is put your head down, be tough, stoic, don't (show) pain or weakness. But the biggest issue I deal with, in athletes, is people who don't know how to cope with their own emotions." Their feelings inhibit their performance. So Richardson is turning around the "suck it up" mentality. "No, we're allowed to be human. We strive for excellence, but we've got to acknowledge the people and their emotions. If we're not, we're not going to get the best out of them."

That "feelings are welcome" space might go a long way to explain the success of women's-only programs, such as Sweet Skills, Women's Night at the Bike Park, or the Trek Dirt Series.

You can't improve someone's performance until you acknowledge their emotions and the feelings that might be holding them back.

Women generally have a good "coaching mindset" to boot. "A coaching mindset is one where you ask questions, do less telling. I think women are better at that. It's documented that women are more likely to listen — maybe because they've been socialized to be quiet and polite and listen while a man dominates the conversation — but listening and asking questions is something you're more likely to see... in all-female groups. That's a better way to help people learn. So if you're in a women's group, and they're going to be allowed to ask questions, not be interrupted by some guy dominating the conversation, and they're good listeners, you've created a fertile ground for learning, and for connection."

Style, substance, skill

Candace Shadley, the founder of the Trek Dirt Series of mountain-bike clinics, has been cultivating that fertile ground for 15 years and has seen the benefits from a women's-only environment play out, time and again.

"Men and women generally have different learning styles," she says. "Women like things to be broken down. We like to stop and session things so when you go riding, you don't have to think. The moves have become second nature."

Shadley founded women's technical clinics in 2001 as a program for Cycling BC to increase participation in racing. "There weren't enough women racing because they didn't think they had the technical skills. So we put on technical-skills camps in places where they had races. The camps filled up, but the races didn't. Women just wanted better technical skills, not to race, but to have more fun."

For two days, emboldened by our own numbers, 75 women took over Ross Rebagliati Park, the Air Dome and the Bike Park. The oxytocin was flowing, as was the stress, and sometimes the blood, (you're not trying if you're not bleeding, right?). The coaches and volunteer sweeps were working their magic. Feelings were validated. But it was also the presence of little girl gangs on bikes on trails up and down the mountain and the valley that gave us a sense of permission. We felt entitled to be there, on these too-hard trails and stunts, taking our turns, taking up space. When your skills aren't up to par, that is a rare feeling. It's also key to getting better. You don't just need a fertile learning space. You have to be willing to take it up.

Ladies who launch

There's plenty of space to go around when you ride into the wild Chilcotin backcountry. Or more precisely, when Tyax Adventures' float plane drops you onto Lorna Lake, and you and your all-girl posse — with Sylvie Allen at the helm — once more pedal out so far beyond the realm of cell-phone reception that your phones are just app-less cameras.

My own backcountry haplessness — grizzly smarts, bike-mechanic mastery — had kept me from taking up space in the southern Chilcotins despite its long-whispered Mecca status among Pemberton's mountain-biking keeners.

Allen and Slaco brain-trusted the idea of guiding Ladies Only groups on hut-to-hut mountain bike tours. This is their second year, and people are just starting to catch on to what Tyax's newly acquired huts meant for bike adventures.

We are riding just with our personal gear. A resupply bag is to be flown in on Day 2. At the huts, at the end of each day, fleece jackets, Crocs, hot showers, tents, beds, sleeping bags, and dinner await.

We are five girls strong, and we ride three days deep in the backcountry, overnight in old trapper's cabins, are cooked for by wrangler camp hosts, and pedal past guys packing their tents and sleeping bags in their giant backpacks.

We are glamping.

And it is awesome.

Wilderness meet women

Andrea Thomson isn't the glamping type.

She lived in a squat in Whistler in the '70s, and later in a cabin without electricity, with the permission of the owners. She was integral at the Outward Bound operation in Pemberton until it closed — a day she never wanted to happen. But the program was evolving, the demographic was shifting, and the timeless values of "discovering potential through shared wilderness experiences" seemed out of sync with a hyperkinetic world that was disconnecting from nature. It wasn't out of sync for Thomson, so for a while, she was just out of sync with the world.

And then, she had a chance to work at Tyax Adventures, as a wrangler and camphost, sleeping in her tiny little tent under a sky unaffected by light pollution, listening to the horses breathe, keeping alert for grizzlies, back in her happy place.

That's where I meet her. Long-haired and whippet-lean, she greets our crew of five tired mountain bikers with a plate of nacho chips, salsa and lemonade. I could have hugged her.

Twelve hours later when we pedal out, we are fuelled by a good night's rest in canvas tents as the rain beat down overhead, followed the next morning by coffee and the best oatmeal breakfast we'd ever eaten.

It was as rustic a place as I've ever been, with a deep pit latrine up the hill and 50-year-old graffiti etched into the log walls.

It felt like a spa.

Thomson welcomes us into the space in the graciously subtle way that veteran experiential educators do. Even when she was leading recovering addicts and survivors of abuse and trauma into the Pemberton wilderness on "Women of Courage" Outward Bound courses, Thomson was a believer in letting the experience speak for itself, in letting emotions happen, in letting people rise to the challenge of a big technical adventure, of letting them surprise themselves.

People just need to be given the chance to discover how hard, and how soft, they can be.

"Women are different," acknowledges Richardson. "But we are actually more similar than we are different. We are socialized to be more different than we naturally are. To me, if we were starting from zero and there was no backdrop of sexism and imbalanced treatment, I think we could ask what are the key principles for human learning and human development — and most of them would be the same, whether you're male or female."

Translation? Hut-to-hut mountain biking shouldn't be considered a Ladies Only experience.

"The only thing that would make this better," says Lindsey Bolivar, one of our riders who is freshly showered as she heads away from her tent at Bear Paw camp, "would be a rainbow."

We are watching as Thomson feeds the horses before she gets down to the business of putting dinner together, and someone, laughing, motions for Bolivar to turn around.

You guessed it. It's a rainbow. Right on cue.

Sylvie Allen and Emily Slaco team up again this year to present Ladies Only in the South Chilcotin mountain biking adventure camps, July 22-24, and August 4-8. More info at

The Trek Dirt Series schedule offers 5 Whistler camps, two of which are co-ed, as well as a host of other locations. Details at n