Just a few weeks ago I was wondering why more women don’t race, and today I participated in an event that set an Australian record for the largest women’s MTB event ever.
When I wrote about women’s participation I was only faintly aware of a new approach to women’s racing. A race concept that has been in the works close to my home town of Brisbane for about a year – a women’s-only endurance mountain biking event: Three hours of singletrack. No men. Chicks in the Sticks.
Organised by a small team of women who enjoy mountain biking but who also have jobs, families, and millions of other commitments, Chicks in the Sticks sold so well in its first few weeks that numbers had to be capped at 175 riders – which soon sold out. It was the biggest event of its kind in Australia, and its capacity for growth is limitless. Key was some really clever preparation in the lead-up to the event – opportunities to ride the track, a great partnership with local skills coach Rob George, and a blog by Cathy Peel on Facebook, who bared and shared all her preparations for the event: body and mind – all of which lowered the typical barriers and anxieties we all feel when it comes to diving into a big event in a technical sport.
The inaugural Chicks in the Sticks three hour was held today just outside Brisbane in perfect sub-tropical (winter) weather – a little cloudy, humid, and around 25 degrees. Women could race in pairs, solo, and there was a race for little chicks before the main event set off with a dozen or so small ladies trying their hand at mountain biking.
Although a big part of the event was aimed at welcoming newbies to the sport, the race track at Karingal Scout Camp was proper MTB. Mostly hardpack, 5.5km, the course had some very tight, twisty sections, a few decent hills to sting the legs, some challenging downhill bush stairs, and about 85% singletrack. Every root, stone, and sharp thing had been sprayed with pink paint, making line choice a breeze, and for inspiration in times of struggle, motivational signs had been nailed to trees at the toughest spots on the course.
I was really happy to line up on the front row of the start in front of masses of colour and waves and waves of talk and laughter. We set off at a gentle pace through a race village staffed entirely by men, many with children strapped to them, and started the first tough fire road climb of the day. I pushed harder and harder as the trail rose up, then settled into a rhythm, enjoying the descents, and the man-crowds on the more technical parts of the track. I had a clear lap and a half before coming across the back end of the field, and from then on I always had company.
As there was a best-dressed prize for the day, I regularly came across fairies, bumblebees, superheroes, ladybirds, and some strange sexy outfits. I also came across a few men in pretty unsuccessful drag who were out giving encouragement. I knew from the discussions on the event Facebook page and my own (ongoing) experience that getting passed and holding up other riders is one of the most mentally excruciating parts of racing, so I tried really hard to pass well. Some of the newer racers had little number plates that said ‘New to MTB’ on the backs of their saddles, and I tried to pass them even better. My race turned into a strange three hour interval session as I slowed down, waited, passed, went crazy, then slowed again. As the race went on was more and more dismayed when chicks pulled over to let me pass.
But this race really, really wasn’t about me. I had it easier than anyone else there: I’ve got generous sponsors and great equipment. I’ve got a lot of experience. And for once I wasn’t scared by anything on the course. I can’t speak for the other ladies out there, but I had an amazing time and my big hope is that the women who raced liked it as much as I did. The festival atmosphere, the blokes on the sidelines looking after the kids and taking photos of their wives and girlfriends, the sheer friendliness out on course. A lot of the time women I passed were yelling encouragement at me. ‘No!’ I kept shouting, ‘It should be the other way around!’
More than anything I’ve done for years and years, this race reminded me what the essence of mountain bike racing is – A lot of people wonder why I race so much and why I love it. It’s this: Every time I line up on the start line I line up against myself – my insecurities, my doubts, my fears – and there are lots of those. Every time I cross the finish line I know I can beat them (or at least negotiate with them). I hope that some of the chicks out there in the sticks today got the same feeling.