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Pemberton Secondary student Rebecca Beaton mentors female mountain bikers

Beaton partners with the Pemberton Off-Road Cycling Association to run the female-centric youth biking program ‘Girls on Wheels’

Throughout her adolescence, Rebecca Beaton has sought out female mentors in the world of mountain biking. Her sport, like many so-called “extreme sports,” has historically been chock-full of men. Beaton grew up competing against boys, and is used to seeing hundreds of them at her high school bike races compared to just a few tens of girls, at most.

The 17-year-old chooses to be part of the solution, teaming up with the Pemberton Off-Road Cycling Association (PORCA) last spring to launch a brand-new program. Girls On Wheels (GOW) is billed as a teen-friendly version of the PORCA Women’s Bike Club, a place where young ladies aged 12 to 18 can spend time on two wheels. Each ride is led by a First Aid-certified adult, but this individual does not serve as a coach—rather the emphasis is on allowing teenage girls to bond and share knowledge in a non-competitive setting.

GOW began as a bi-weekly event with only four or five participants, but has since developed into a weekly Friday gathering that averages eight girls per ride—plus a monthly dirt jump session. This year, Beaton hoped to boost exposure for the initiative by way of images and sponsorship, and both goals were met: local photographer Josh Dooley conducted a photoshoot with the group, while mountain bike company Crankbrothers has agreed to sponsor them.

“I couldn’t have even imagined this time last year that we would have grown the program so much,” Beaton said.

Female mentorship

Beaton understands the importance of women supporting each other. Although a talented athlete, she admits that the lopsided gender ratios can be intimidating, and at times, detrimental to the solidarity between female athletes.

“Biking is a really scary sport, and it’s really hard to be a female in a male-dominated sport sometimes,” said the Pemberton Secondary School (PSS) student. “It feels like there isn’t a lot of space for us. When you have a strong group of competitive girls racing each other, it’s very easy for the environment to become over-competitive and kind of destructive.”

Beaton started riding at her local BMX track when she was about seven years old. It’s no surprise she did—her family has been in the mountain bike industry for decades, with father Mark and older brother Chris both lifelong riders. In those days, Beaton was accustomed to being one of two or three girls in a primarily male crowd, and most of her social rides also took place with boys.

In 2016, the Pembertonian crashed on her bike and suffered a concussion. Afterwards, she decided to focus on her other main sport: gymnastics. Perhaps she would have continued down that road if not for COVID-19, which shuttered gyms and indoor activities for quite some time.

At this juncture, Beaton returned to mountain biking and discovered a renewed love of the sport. She even found mentors—in 2021, Beaton was accepted into the Ride like a Girl program that paired her up with local bike guide Emily Slaco and Squamolian enduro star Andreane Lanthier Nadeau. She credits both for helping to boost her confidence and teach her about the mental side of riding.

“I started to realize that professional racers still face a lot of the same physical and mental struggles as amateur racers like myself,” Beaton explained. “Some of what [Lanthier Nadeau] and I talked about was separating a race from your actual life. Now when I race, I only think about the girls as competitors during my actual race run.

“Outside of those few minutes, they are my friends.”

Girls on wheels

Opportunities for consistent female mentorship have historically proven scarce in Beaton’s hometown of Pemberton, even as an increasing number of girls are joining the sport across British Columbia. She wasn’t willing to remain idle about it.

“I started dreaming about what I could do to change that,” Beaton said. “I ended up attending a trail night with the PORCA Women’s Bike Club, where I met many ladies in the community and started talking out my dream to encourage more girls my age to ride. Bree Thorlakson, the executive director of PORCA, told me that the organization would love to support me in this.”

At that point, PORCA was already considering how to support teenage girls in athletics. The involvement of Beaton, herself a member of the PSS mountain bike team, is crucial in making the GOW environment both safe and authentic. PORCA raised awareness online via social media and advertising, while Beaton credits Thorlakson with doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work, helping create contact lists and plan trail routes suitable for all comers.

Nowadays, Beaton is a busy bee. Her academic and extracurricular commitments prevented her from attending most North Shore Mountain Bike League races during the school year, though she did help her PSS teammates to a second straight provincials win by placing second in enduro and fourth in cross-country. Being mentored by Slaco and Lanthier Nadeau has helped the Pembertonian set healthier, more personalized goals (such as starting fast instead of beating a specific opponent), and she hopes to pass on this wisdom to other teens.

“Girls just need to be welcomed,” said Beaton. “Girls just want to know that there are other girls who have their back and who have their support. They don’t have to be amazing at biking … it just takes coming out and doing your best."