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Crankworx expanding opportunities for women

Festival adds women's event in dual speed and style, brings back Best Trick
NEXT LEVEL Caroline Buchanan applauds Crankworx's moves to add women's divisions to more of its events. Photo by Fraser Britton courtesy of Crankworx

Women will have two additional opportunities to compete during Crankworx Whistler from Aug. 9 to 18.

The festival announced on May 14 that the Clif Speed and Style event will feature a women's division for the first time when it runs on Aug. 16. As well, immediately afterward will be the Best Trick contest, being held for the first time since 2013. It was always held as a men's event in prior years.

Crankworx Events Inc. general manager Darren Kinnaird said he was inspired by the athletes speaking during Crankworx's Women in Action Sports panel and, sensing a hope for women to eventually line up in the premier event, Red Bull Joyride, looked to implement some first steps to being more welcoming to women in freeride events.

"We wanted to have an event that invited the freeride women into Crankworx, and that was something that we could replicate across the tour," he said. "We see it as the first step in the progression towards women competing in full-blown FMB (Freeride Mountain Bike Association) slopestyle events down the road."

Crankworx took a small step in 2018, welcoming the first women's Jump Jam to Whistler; however, it is difficult to host at its other stops in Rotorua, New Zealand and Innsbruck, Austria.

Kinnaird said providing the proper opportunity is important, and with the event relocating from the Boneyard to a new, as-yet-undisclosed location for 2019, he explained there will be separate courses for women and men. The festival allowed women to try out for the dual speed and style event in Rotorua, New Zealand in March, but the jumps were too big to land safely.

While Kinnaird expects some of the Crankworx World Tour stalwarts like Caroline Buchanan to test their hands in dual speed and style, he anticipates it will provide a platform for a plethora of new names and faces.

Buchanan, a longtime Crankworx juggernaut, is eager to see the festival become welcoming of women riders who can do more than race.

"There are girls out there now that are starting to push their style element in mountain biking," Buchanan said in a release. "Obviously, slopestyle has been massive for the men and the progression has been huge, so to open that pathway for women is crucial. I'm all for it, 100 per cent."

The field, however, will primarily be made up of athletes invited from the brand-new Women's Slopestyle Tour (WST) and from local events organized by Lisa Mason of the Women's Freeride Movement (WFM).

"It's really going to help give us an international space to showcase our skills. The best part about it is that Crankworx is reaching out to all these events and supporting the growth of the sport, so going through the grassroots, not (just) right through to the gold-medal events," Mason said.

When WFM first started in 2010, it had a network of about 100 riders; in less than a decade, Mason said that number has increased more than twentyfold. With that level of interest, she explained that while creating events is great to see, a commitment to keep them around long-term is also necessary to help those in the grassroots.

"We really need to have a consistent platform for ladies to compete on, so having annual events is a good way to go," she said. "The grassroots series to grow up to those events is extremely key, because not many people can jump from beginner to Joyride slopestyle.

"We need events that are going to help bridge that gap."

Meanwhile, Stephanie Nychka, one of the WST's founders, is glad to see the tour and its three events—the Little Big Bike Festival in California later this month, the Sugar Showdown in Washington state in July and the Big White Invitational in July—will serve as a feeder in its first year.

"It's really exciting to be finally bringing a group of girls who, specifically, do this kind of riding, to a real event that's recognized," she said.

While the tour is new, Nychka explained, the events are already established—two of the three have been running for nearly a decade while the other is entering its third, so they are organized and have sponsorship. Still, creating a connection with the FMB and fulfilling its requirements takes plenty of work, especially since the tour has a skeleton crew of just four.

Nychka, who is based out of Calgary, noted that even with recent progress, women still face barriers in mountain biking that their male counterparts don't, as many have additional access to infrastructure and opportunities.

Several women on the WST, she said, are often the only woman doing what they do in their area.

"There's one from Colorado, one from Philly, one from Alberta," she said. "All these women are training on their own, and that's hard, too, because they're always training with the men.

"I've been riding for 20 years and I've really only progressed a lot in the last two years because we had a bike park, an indoor bike park, introduced to Calgary ... Unless you're in the right place at the right time, it's really, really hard to train for that kind of thing."

Nychka is excited to see women's slopestyle continue to grow, though she added that it will be years before they reach heights similar to what the top men are currently throwing down.

"Men got to the point a decade ago, maybe, and I'd say we're 15 years behind that," she said. "We didn't get the encouragement at the start of slopestyle and so women dropped away as the men continued progressing at a really high level."

She said it's also important to keep in mind that high-level men's slopestyle started with basic tricks on small courses, which is the point at which the women's event finds itself at the moment.

However, the next generation of up-and-coming girls is starting to see some parity with boys in their opportunities, and Nychka said it bodes well for the future.

"We've been mentoring a whole lot of the riders who have been coming up for the past five years and they're some of our strongest riders right now," she said.

Mason, while noting she's an optimist, sees pathways for style riders to make girls realize that they can viably pursue a career in the sport, similar to what Buchanan and Canadian Casey Brown have done for racers who can also whip.

"In the next five years, all those little groms are coming up and they're going to start showcasing," she said. "It's five to 10 years out where girls will be doing combination tricks and getting close to that level to compete with the boys."