I spent last night watching some of the best sport I’ve watched in a while. And it wasn’t even MTB. It was the Tour de France Femmes Avec Zwift and the semi-finals of the UFEA Euros football [also known as soccer – Ed] competition.
So why am I about to talk about road racing and ball kicking here on a website that’s about pedaling around in the dirt on two wheels?
Sport for all
For a start let's get one thing straight – whoever is doing/playing a sport does not fundamentally change it. So I don’t really know why we call it women’s MTB, or football or road racing etc. I get why there are different categories in terms of competitive grouping in the same way as there are for age groups etc. Once you’ve established that though, you don’t need to constantly refer to it as women’s mountain biking/football/road racing, etc. It’s just mountain biking/football/road racing, etc. The same sport is being done by equally passionate, enthusiastic, and committed riders/players.
On second thoughts, I’m pretty sure that’s not actually true. Thanks to fantastic, fanatical pioneers, it’s certainly easier to start getting into traditionally male sport than it used to be. Events like Sisters of Send, Project Evolve etc, and just a lot more lassies riding bikes and shouting about it on social media make pulling on a helmet and hitting the trails a lot less intimidating than it used to be.
However, just like football and road racing, mountain biking is still a massively male-dominated sport. That means it takes a huge amount of guts just to go into a bike shop or turn up to a trail center, let alone get stuck into an event. If the men among you reading this find yourselves being self-conscious doing stuff as a bloke, just imagine having every social and physical anxiety you might have being amplified multiple times by a jeeringly judgemental society when you do the same things as a woman.
From chatting to female riders and colleagues, and seeing the posts they put on social it’s a constant toxic corrosion too. Snide comments from spectators at racers. Comments on appearance, sexual references, unwanted advances/harassment, even just patronizing mansplaining. Pillocks who are determined to push past anyone with a pink top or a ponytail on a trail/track because their ego is too fragile. Killing themselves to ‘beat’ girls who are chilling on climbs and then getting in the way on the descent because their balls are even smaller than their aerobic capacity. I’ve seen and heard about it all far too many times and it absolutely sucks.
The industry has a lot to answer for here too. Until very recently when MBR (opens in new tab), in particular, started pushing really hard for women’s representation – including an issue edited and filled by female riders and writers – MTB mags have been a total sausage fest. It’s nowhere near as bad as when I started and we shared an office with Loaded who introduced our art team to the concept of hiring adult models for fleece and sports bra shoots. But it wasn’t many years ago when I heard of a meeting where a brilliant cover image was pulled on a mag when the publisher realized it was top downhiller Emily Horridge in the shot. Regardless of the fact that he hadn’t even realized until someone mentioned her name or that she’d ridden us into the ground on the photoshoot.
Bike shops often fail badly too. Presuming that women are shopping for their boyfriends/husbands or telling riders that ‘this’ll be fine for what you’re doing’ or just being awkward/inappropriate or weird in some way they might not even realize. Compared to running or triathlon, where gender has been a non-issue for decades, cycle sports are still only just coming out of the dark ages. That’s totally reflected in the self-fulfilling gender bias of the biking demographic and how self-restricting it is in terms of growth.
It’s not just riders and media either, it's general society. ‘Chicks dig scars’ is definitely macho bullshit, but people ‘not digging chicks with scars’ is a far more damaging judgment. My wife once got pulled aside into a ‘domestic violence suite’ at a hospital appointment because of scuffs from a weekend of mountain biking. I’ve been called irresponsible for racing enduro on a tandem with my daughter when it was her telling me that “I’ll need a couple more gears out of that corner if we’re going to properly send that drop”. In short, while we’re conditioned to think if someone with testicles tastes dirt they’re a warrior, if you’ve got ovaries and go over the bars it’s somehow inappropriate. It’s not just disapproving aunties and old dears we’re talking about here either. There’s a far deeper and darker world of horrific online abuse that potentially haunts any woman brave enough to throw themselves into a situation that might provoke the Incel cesspit of anonymous forums and social media comments.
Pushing the positives
While any assessment of the current demographic of MTB – and that’s before we even start adding in all the other gender and race topics which are a whole other issue – can get depressing very quickly there is a huge amount to be positive about though.
Events like the Women's European Ball Kicking Championships [aka the Women's Euros – Ed] are awesome for raising the profile of wider sports participation and showing that women often play harder and more passionately than pampered male superstars. Disruptors like Zwift and other forward-thinking bike brands are pushing women’s road racing to a new level of representation and coverage that mountain biking has enjoyed for a while.
Although it’s undoubtedly got a huge way to go, mountain biking feels more inclusive and celebrative of everyone than ever before. Race courses have been the same for a while now and more and more events are offering equal prize money. Coverage is creeping towards parity and female riders are knocking on the door of the times of the fastest male racers and getting ready to rep at Freeride events like Red Bull Rampage. Rachel Atherton, Tracey Moseley, and others mixing motherhood and top-level racing with total transparency and honesty to set a fantastic example for future riders.
A shout-out should go to every mum taking their kids riding and getting stuck in themselves, not just being the uplift driver. Every parent thinking that pedals are as relevant as ponies for their daughter. For picking them up, dusting them down, and sending them off again, knowing the glares those fresh scabs will get from the ‘judgy club’ in the school playground. Every MTBer who has the sense to give their best bike to a new rider so they have the best experience while they cope with the old banger from the shed themselves.
The industry is getting far better too. Most brands have dropped the whole ‘pink it and shrink it’ approach to designing and marketing women’s kit and bikes and are representing real riders. I’m lucky enough to work alongside a more diverse population of awesome people – writers, testers, photographers, creatives, adventurers, editors, brand managers, presenters, bloggers, vloggers, shop managers, and staff who are of a different gender, sexuality, or color to me than I can ever remember.
And thanks to all this creating an upward spiral we’re seeing a far richer, more rewarding, and thoughtful biking landscape as a result too.
Onwards and upwards
What we absolutely cannot do though is think we’ve done enough. And while I know as a dad and husband how often I get things wrong when I try and say or do ‘the right thing’, if you keep it simple the fundamentals aren’t hard.
First and foremost treat everyone equally and with the same respect. If you see anyone not doing that, call them out. If someone is making racist or sexist comments about people at an event or online, it’s not ‘banter’, it’s abuse. And if you think sticking your neck out yourself sounds a bit ‘too brave’ and might get you a mouthful back, think about how it feels to that the person getting the abuse. Someone who’s already had to overcome so much just to be that side of the tape, or how it looks to anyone else who’s reading the comments and wondering if this sport is for them.
Secondly, do yourself a favor and watch the sports you enjoy whoever is playing them. Not just because every screen turned in their direction is counted and will create more momentum to increase coverage. But because you’ll often see your sport being done with more drive, determination, and defiance than those who take access and adulation for granted. I don’t know much about ball kickery, but that game last night was totally brilliant. I laughed out loud as hard at that back heel nutmeg on the poor Swedish goalie as I did at Uttrup Ludwig swearing with tearful delight after taking her Tour de France win. It was fantastic to see how stoked the World Cup racers were when Valle Holl broke her nightmare race run the other weekend or when Jenny Rissveds fought her way back to the podium after being in the darkest of places after the Olympics. The post-event buzz from events like Sisters Of Send or Project Evolve also gives me hope for the future of mountain biking as a whole, not just for specific segments of it all.
Sisters really are doing it for themselves right now and in a way that’s exactly what we need in a world that’s been stale, male, and pale for way too long.