May 15, 2009 Features & Images » Feature Story

Riding with the Goddess 

Women are mountain biking’s fastest growing demographic

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There has never been a better time to be a woman on two wheels.

And if you haven't made the transition from the homosapien way of putting one foot in front of the other, haven't evolved into that never-ending chain with no end and no beginning, then roll with the gods, or in this case goddesses.

There are plenty to worship in Whistler's Garden of Eden of mountain biking. The dual nature of Adam and Eve balances delicately between the forces. Cross-country panters weigh down one side of the scale while the dark force of downhill bruisers balance the delicate equilibrium.

Good and evil do not exist. The only snakes weaving in and out of this world are the snakes and ladders of single track, planks, bridges and jumps.

Luck be your lady for this roll at the dice.

Goddesses smile favourably on Whistler's hundreds of kilometres of single track and a mountain bike park that attracts hundreds of thousands of gravity worshippers over a summer season.

There are no stats on the number of women infiltrating Whistler's mountain bike world, but just look at the male-female ratio at any après session on a Toonie Ride with the Whistler Off Road Cycling Association or count the number of ponytails lined up for the first ride of the season at the Whistler Mountain Bike Park, and the population of helmet-clad girls becomes clearer.

Whistler's mountain biking Mecca blooms with opportunity for women. Amongst this garden, this tree of life branches out with female-only mountain bike camps, professional female athletes who inspire, and careers that forgo stereotypes.

Meet a few of Whistler's two-wheeling goddesses.

The Goddesses of Inspiration

Sylvie Allen duct tapes cardboard to her scab-crusted shins before mounting her mighty steed, which wields a cushy two-inch suspension up front on her hardtail bike - advanced technology for downhill riding in 1992.

There is no Whistler Mountain Bike Park at this point. A little wheeling and dealing with a liftee brought her and the boys up Blackcomb Mountain to clatter their way down Seventh Heaven ski runs now free of snow.

"We rode cross-country bikes and rattled our way down," Allen said. "This is where I got addicted to speed and downhilling. We thought it was the best thing ever because it was the only thing we had to ride."

Learning how to ride was as ghetto as her spandex-clad body and her handlebars that were as straight and flat as a Prairie horizon.

"I learned by trial and error and hustling to keep up with the guys that were faster than me," she said. "You'd learn by getting tips from your guy friends: just do this, go faster, ride over there, just do it. I was stubborn and I'd try things over and over again. There were no camps or lessons. I only met other girls when I started to race. I had no idea how other women rode their bikes."

Lisa Lefroy rode her bike with the strength of an orange.

Why not a pineapple or maybe a honeydew melon?

Mountain biking wasn't being promoted on Whistler Mountain until the late 1990s, but two wheelers were allowed to take their bikes up the gondola - as long as you could squeeze an orange for a full five minutes. There were no easily-controlled disc brakes back then.

"You had to go to guest services where you had to squeeze an orange before you could buy a lift ticket," Lefroy said. "You would pick up the orange and squeeze it as hard as you could for five minutes and then they would say, 'We think you are okay to go up the mountain.' It was hilarious."

There were very few women to ride with. She kept company mainly with Katrina Strand and a gaggle of guys including Grey Rodieah and Chris Harper, and later Brett Tippie and Richey Schley.

"I might have lost a boyfriend or two," she laughs. "They'd be like, 'Why are you spending seven hours a day in the forest with 14 boys and you?'"

The answer: there were more boys than girls playing on pedals at the time.

Allen and Lefroy now ride in a different era.

Six-inch suspension both in front and in back glide Allen through challenging climbs and speedy descents on her favourite Whistler trails such as Cheap Thrills.

The multi-talented rider, former Canadian Downhill Champion and national series cross-country medalist has now retired from the racing circuit to pass on her passion for the sport to others. She, along with Lefroy, is one of more than a dozen female instructors who lead the Dirt Series by Rocky Mountain Bicycles.

"Everyone is getting it so easy now, taking a mountain biking camp they are learning so much in a day by practicing the tips we give them," she said. "There are a lot less injuries then the trial-and-error technique."

Confidence and skills are what riders navigate during the women-only camps that circumnavigate North America. Ditching the just-do-it advice, the Whistler-based company caters to riders of all motivations and levels. The weekend camps size down an entire season of learning with small group skill sessions where riders can build and perfect mountain bike fundamentals, instructional rides to get these skills onto the trails and then finally social time to share the successes of the day.

"We looked at what was going on in mountain biking and said, 'What can we do to give more women the confidence to get out on the trails and get huge amounts of enjoyment out of the sport?'" said founder Candace Shadley. "I think we're one of a number of great initiatives - product development, trail development, club development and other instructional programs as well. I think that women in mountain biking are in a really good place, and I feel lucky that we get to be a part of that."

The popularity of women in riding has grown with the camp. The first season hosted three camps with one hundred participants. Now in their ninth season, the Dirt Series have pedaled through more than 45,000 participants.

"When I look at how our business has grown, how the sport has grown, and specifically how the women's demographic within our sport has grown, I definitely smile," Shadley said.

Both numbers and skill sets are growing. So much so, Shadley expanded the advanced programming component of the Dirt Series this year. Whistler camps are offered May 30-31, June 27-28 and July 25-26 with a co-ed camp Sept. 12-13.

"We've always had rock solid step by step progressions for beginner and intermediate skills and recently we've concentrated on developing a similar approach for more advanced ones," she said. "Mountain bike skills in general are improving in leaps and bounds."

Men are from Mars and Women from Venus, not only in love, but on their bikes as well.

"I always laugh, every camp I have one woman come up to me and say, 'Don't tell anybody but I get so nervous.' Everyone gets nervous," Lefroy said. "The camps are very successful in the fact that we break down the skills in such a way that women are able to understand it a lot more. We tell them the who, what, where, when, why and what if. Women want to know this stuff. Men are a bit more about seeing and imitating. Women like an explanation."

Sharpened skills lead to a smoother more enjoyable ride, which leads to more trail time, which sometimes leads to a race for the finish line.

The Goddesses of Action

Making a living in the sport of mountain biking is challenging no matter who you are. Downhiller, cross-country rider. Racer, freerider. Male, female.

But Lisa Lefroy, Katrina Strand and Kira Cailes found a way to make it work. All began in fun and later racing, but one trail led Cailes in one direction while another shuttled Lefroy and Strand along a different route - a dirty one.

They called themselves The Dirty Girls.

"Katrina and I came down from the park one day absolutely covered in mud," Lefroy said. "Every inch of us is covered in mud except where our goggles were. We were walking through the village, and Richey Schley said, 'Look at those dirty girls.' I liked it, so we kind of took it and ran with it."

More like pedaled.

Lefroy and Strand capitalized on the novelty of being freeride mountain bikers. Female racers were popular enough, but Lefroy and Strand's tricks and jumps set them apart from the rest of the pack.

"We sent out this brochure titled Dirty Girls saying what we did and who we were," Lefroy said. "People liked that we made ourselves into a product. We were playing up the fact that we weren't racers but freeriders and were marketable. It didn't hurt that we had Richey and Brett Tippie calling afterwards and telling them they needed to support us."

Brochures were only the beginning. The duo's freeriding feats were showcased on race courses, in films, in television and print. Instead of the usual Playboy pin up, Marazocchi dubbed this duo the first Bomber Girls who actually knew how to ride a bike. Decline Magazine included the two women in their "26 Most Influential People in Mountain Biking" issue.

This past year Strand represented Canada at the World Championships, finished top three at the Canadian National Championships and she recently finished third at the Pro Gravity MTB Race Tour (formally the NORBA series) in Port Angeles, Washington. Even though it was only a short drive away from one of Canada's most famous mountain biking Mecca, Strand had to explain off-road mountain biking to her American hosts.

"A lot of people still don't know what it is," Strand said. "Last weekend at a Pro Gravity Race I was staying with relatives and it was an half-an-hour process of explaining what mountain biking is. This is not far away. It's still a fringe sport. It's still not an Olympic sport."

The two event planners are determined to bring both the sport and women's participation in it to a wider audience. They looked beyond their own careers and began to brainstorm how they could contribute to the bigger picture of women in mountain biking, and the world's only women's freeride competition was born. Womenzworx, which takes place during Crankworx in August, is the only competitive event in the world that showcases the talents of female freeriders.

"It was always an idea in the back of my mind to create an event for girls," Strand said. "The events that exist for girls are timed events, downhill, cross country and even in the Velodrome (where) whoever comes across the finish line first wins. This is the only non-timed event for females that exists to date."

"It's an event that gets women out and gives them a platform to display their talents," Lefroy said. "We were in the boardroom pitching (Womenzworx) to Whistler Blackcomb and they asked us how many women we might get in the first year, and we said 50 or 60 with our fingers crossed behind our back. We were worried. What happens if only two of us show up and we are the only two?"

Decline Magazine trumpeted the event as a huge success. Forty women - some from as far away as France, Scotland and Australia - participated in the first competition, making it the biggest field of female riders for any other gravity event hosted in 2007.

"We want to build freeride and slopestyle female riders," Strand said. "It's really difficult for the girls. It's hard for them to get better when they are not given the opportunity to do so. I think this competition gives them that opportunity."

New this year, the third annual competition will host an invitational slopestyle event showcasing between five and ten top female riders in the Whistler Boneyard.

"Obviously the girls are stoked," Strand said. "Clearly they want it."

Like Strand and Lefroy, Kira Cailes also had her mountain bike start in racing and coaching. But the former Dirt Series instructor eventually left her post to pursue fulltime work as a mountain bike patroller and later as a patrol supervisor for the Whistler Mountain Bike Park. She began ski patrolling on Blackcomb Mountain in 1999 during the winter and transitioning to summer patrolling in the mountain bike park was a natural progression for the seasoned rider of 20 years.

"I raced cross country for a couple of years and I enjoyed it, but I made the decision not to race," she said. "I preferred to ride for my own enjoyment. I enjoyed racing. I didn't want to make biking a stressful thing."

She leads a staff of both professional and volunteer bike patrollers. There are more men than women on her team, but that is just the nature of the beast, she said.

"Patrol is a male dominated career," she said. "I've never had any real issues with that. I think it is just the way."

She said riders don't need to be the gnarliest of gnarl riders to become a patroller. Along with First Aid skills, being a solid rider, good team player, quick thinker and strong multi-tasker are important requirements for the job.

"Those are the types of skills needed, which women are really good at," she said. "We patrol because we love what we do. It's a passion driven thing that isn't gender dictated."

Passion is what drives all of Whistler's gear goddesses. And when they share that passion, whether through instructing, creating events or just being who they are, that excitement passes on to others. The female presence becomes more visible in Whistler's mountain biking scene and how they move within it just gets higher.

But like putting your two hands together and bowing your head, everything comes down to two grips, two tires and two pedals.

"I think everybody wants to be a mountain biker, they just don't know it yet," Strand said. "Bikes are an international thing. You get off the train in Amsterdam; only bikes are used for transportation. Everyone knows what a bike is, but not a lot of people know you can bring it off-road. We need to let people know."

Women and men alike.

Links:

Dirt Series Camps - www.dirtseries.com

Whistler Mountain Bike Park (clinics, camps and "Women's Wednesdays" deals) - www.whistlerbike.com

Whistler Off Road Cycling Association (camps and clinics for men and women, youth toonie nights) - www.worca.com

Mad March Racing (kids camps) - www.madmarchracing.com

Epic Ride (camps for all ages) - www.epicride.com

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