Pedal like a girl: Women give mountain biking a try
Four years ago, Jennie Wyderko — then finishing up her undergrad at Virginia Tech — had barely even touched a mountain bike.
Fast forward to 2015, and she’s one of two female officers for the Nantahala Area Southern Off Road Bicycle Association, co-organizer of a women-only skills clinic and weekly ride through the club and a year out from finishing a 2,000-mile mountain bike route along the Great Divide in the Rocky Mountains.
“It always seemed like something I wanted to do,” Wyderko said of mountain biking. “Riding a bike is kind of a large upfront cost, so I had never done that, and once I started grad school there were a lot of people there that biked, so I was able to borrow bikes.”
It was fun — a lot less terrifying than road biking, in fact, because mountain bikers don’t have to contend with cars — and a welcome release from the stresses of grad school. When her fiancé J.P. Gannon finished his Ph.D. last spring, they decided to take advantage of the time between school and work to do something “awesome” with their shared hobby. They signed up for a group ride from Banff, Alberta south to New Mexico.
“It was awesome, but it was really, really hard,” remembered Wyderko, who now lives in Cullowhee. “We had maps that were really good, but there was still an element of route-finding because a lot of the roads weren’t super well-labeled.”
The route encompassed a collection of secluded dirt-track trails, gravel roads and old railroad beds with a ride through some small Western town every few days. Because the ride began during the rainy season in the northern part of the route, it rained a lot, and the ride’s total 200,000 feet of elevation gain certainly qualified as strenuous.
“Physically it was challenging, but our bodies adjusted relatively quickly. The mental aspect was the real challenge,” Wyderko said. “Now that I’m at work again in an office I look longingly out the window like ‘I wish I could ride my bike all day.’”
Still, she rides as much as she can, adding her wheels to what Diane Cutler, membership coordinator for Nantahala SORBA and co-owner of Bryson City Bicycles, sees as a growing interest in the mountain biking sport among women in Western North Carolina.
“There isn’t anything that should preclude women from doing mountain biking,” Cutler said. “It’s not like doing power lifting and men are bigger and bulkier in general. It’s more of a finesse-type sport, and it doesn’t take the strongest. It’s a finesse thing, and I think that’s what people are figuring out now.”
Steady numbers, growing interest
A look at the numbers would show that women are still a minority in the world of mountain biking. Overall, about 25 percent of SORBA’s membership is female, a number that Tom Sauret, SORBA’s regional director, said has held steady over the past decade. That proportion holds in the Nantahala chapter, though Cutler said a good chunk of its non-female memberships are actually family memberships, which include female riders.
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, Cutler said. During her days at the bike shop, she’s seen an increasing number of women come in, wanting to learn more about mountain biking. A mountain biking clinic for women that Nantahala SORBA sponsored last week garnered so much attention that the club wound up increasing its initially planned two sessions to three. Those first two sessions with Sue Haywood, a Virginia-based biker who holds four national championships and one world mountain biking championship, had filled up before the club even had a chance to advertise.
And the women-only weekly ride Nantahala SORBA launched in the fall has seen steady buy-in as well, attracting a dedicated cohort of women to ride the trails at Tsali Recreation Area and Western Carolina University together.
“The women’s rides are just much more social,” said Wyderko, who worked with Cutler on the ride and clinic. “There’s a lot of camaraderie. We don’t drop anyone. It’s just a fun pace.”
A lot of the women she sees come through the shop, Cutler said, like the idea of mountain biking but just don’t like riding with their husbands or boyfriends. The men tend to push them too far too fast, and it winds up being stressful rather than fun.
“What I always tell them is ‘You can ride the same trail as your husband or your boyfriend,’” Cutler said. “Just ride it at your pace.”
While a lot of male mountain bikers started riding the trails as adrenaline-junkie teenagers, most females in the sport picked it up at a later age — it takes a while to build up the skills to cruise the trails as fast as a more experienced rider, Wyderko said.
Cutler is one of those late-start mountain bikers. She’d ridden a road bike for years, even pedaling from New York to California in 1984. But Cutler never used a mountain bike until six years ago, when she moved to Bryson City and opened the shop with her partner Andy Zivinsky. She knew how to handle herself on a road bike, so when Zivinsky suggested they go check out the trails at Tsali, she figured she’d be fine.
“I borrowed a bike from a friend,” Cutler recalled. “It was a little too big and the tires were filled a little too high with air. I wiped out like six times to try to keep up with him. I was muddy and bloody and it was a very intimidating experience.”
Then, Cutler began riding with other women.
“We did the same types of trails, but at a more comfortable pace,” she said.
That’s pretty much what happens at the club’s weekly women’s ride. The goal is to make the ride a safe place for beginners but also encourage budding riders to take the downhill a little faster than the last time or attempt to go over a root they might have avoided before.
“It’s good to have the core group about your level, and we push and strive for something a little bit tougher,” Cutler said.
While there might be nothing inherently male about mountain biking, there’s no denying that it has been seen as a traditionally male sport. Some of that might have to do with the mental image of “huge drops and giant things you have to jump over or go super fast over,” Wyderko said — adrenaline-inducing experiences that often attract men.
Whatever the reason, she said, “for a long time, the industry was really targeted to men.” At first, companies didn’t make mountain bikes built for women’s bodies, or mountain bike gear to accommodate them.
That’s starting to change.
“Now there are women-specific bikes and women-specific handlebars and the clothing and everything,” Cutler said.
There is also increasing opportunity to use them.
“There are so many trails out there being built,” Cutler said. “Here in our area [Bryson City] it’s pretty static at this point, but we have a lot of trails at Deep Creek, Tsali, Forest Service roads, WCU trails.”
And in the wider region — Atlanta, Charlotte, Hayesville — new trails are being built all the time.
“I think just with the proliferation of trails, it’s convenient for a lot more people,” Cutler said. “It’s fun, it’s convenient and there are more opportunities popping up all the time.”
Which is great, because in the end being a female mountain biker is not a statement about gender. It’s just a statement about wanting to have an active hobby — though, Wyderko said, apparently the Internet doesn’t always think so. Just last week she was searching for photos of female mountain bikers to use in a Facebook post for the club. Google provided four categories of images to choose from: professional, and then “hot, sexy and the name of some woman who was on a bikini while on a bike,” she said.
Which, needless to say, would not be the most comfortable way to ride a mountain bike. Wyderko wasn’t ready to say that a Google image search is necessarily representative of some pervading cultural perception about women on mountain bikes. But she was ready to say that it’s quite helpful for women with an interest in the sport to have serious role models to look up to.
“That’s why I think it’s valuable to have group rides where you can interact with other women who are riding, and a skills clinic,” Wyderko said. “It’s helpful to see strong, accomplished women rather than ones wearing bikinis.
“Not that you can’t be strong and accomplished with a bikini on,” she laughed, “but there’s a time and a place.”
Women-only riding opportunities
Women looking to get comfortable on a mountain bike have some opportunities to do so in Western North Carolina. Check out one of these ride options from Nantahala Area Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association and Motion Makers Bicycles Shop.