The Trails Need Gals and Gals need the Trails

I was reading an IMBA article that asked the question why there are so few women out on the trails. I put a post on a social media site with some thoughts on the matter, and then, I realized I had much more to share. I wanted to put out encouraging words for women, girls of all ages to read and absorb. Mountain biking is for women, too. I’ve come to integrate this fact on a deep level, but I didn’t always feel that way.

As many of you know, I started as a roadie and was certain I’d never touch the trails. Here were my former thoughts on the matter. “That’s for warped people who just want to do crazy stuff and get hurt! I’m not riding dirt!” Little did I know that I was not only making false assumptions but cutting myself off from a beautiful way to experience the woods!

However, here’s what happened to form my previous opinion. My husband started as a mountain biker long before I took up road riding. It seemed like every other ride he was coming home bleeding in some way. I was wide-eyed and horror-filled. What kind of a sport IS this–rugby on wheels? He’d tell me about how this bruise, that scrape or that abrasion happened. I swear. My eye lids must have bounced off the back of my skull because they opened so wide. (Ah hah! That’s why they are so slouchy, now!) I had never visited those trails, not even to walk on them. Gee, I didn’t even realize walking was allowed, or else I would have done, at least, that to start. I just thought those trails were for the crazy guys who had a death wish.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Sure, there are those who do stuff that can get themselves hurt on the trails. Guess what? That’s true of almost any sport. Anyone see the World Cup Final soccer game on Sunday? One of Germany’s lead players had medical attention on the field 4 times, just in the last 40 minutes of the game. It’s soccer, for crying out loud, not wrestling!

Guess what else? There’s also fringe in any sport that pushes the levels to the limits and beyond. Mountain biking has more than its fair share, too. The problem is those doing the wild and crazy stuff get too much attention. There’s not enough focus on those of us who just want to get out for a simple ride and enjoy the woods…or whatever type of wilderness in which you find yourself. THAT is the true point of mountain biking. Joy.

Have you ever walked/run/hiked the wilderness? If you have, you’ve got a slight taste for what it’s like to experience it on a bike. On foot, it is a pleasure, and you are able to notice things you might miss if you go faster.

On the bike though, you get to see more of the woods. Your attention is always rapt because there’s something new just around the corner. Not only that but depending on the trail if you are lucky (like I am on my “home” trail), you’ll notice that the animals pay you little-to-no-mind. It’s as if you’re just another aspect of the woods…as if you are one of them. That’s a form of acceptance that we don’t often get our in our human, western-world, device-dominated lives. This small nuance is actually quite huge. This feeling is as if I’m one with the woods and the creatures that reside there. I do not experience this feeling anywhere else in my life, period. Not like this. We’re so engrossed with the latest gadget or whoop-de-do that we don’t even realize how distanced we are from nature. We’re always standing back and looking at it as an outsider. It’s rare that we get to be a part of it and see it as part of us. Once you have experienced this vantage point, it changes you. Your world expands, and you see the trails in a totally new way. It’s an addicting feeling, too. If you think about it, we’re addicted to water because we need it. It is essential to our lives. Being in the woods is an essential part of my life and of the lives of my friends who also ride dirt. We can’t live without it. Go ride. You’ll see what I mean.

“But mountain biking is scary!”

Have you tried it, yet? If you have and didn’t like it, did you go with someone who’s been riding a while and has forgotten what it’s like to be a newbie and be scared? If you have a friend, partner, spouse like this, don’t ride with them! I’ve seen this happen several times and to several friends and acquaintances. That introductory experience is so very important. You owe it to yourself to put your foot down, and make this experience about you, your needs and not their expectations of you. Find someone or an organization/bike shop or other riding group that is devoted to helping new folks get started, especially females. YES. They are out there! Yes, they are! Go ride.

First things first. Get a bike. Don’t have the funds? See what’s lurking forgotten in your family or friends’ garages and basements. Then, check Craigslist and garage sales. Find something that does NOT have those really skinny wheels. That’s a road bike. Get a bike with wheels approx 2” wide (give or take a hair to two). Need some sort of tread on those tires, too. Found one? Terrific, take that baby to the woods, and go ride.

If you can get a mentor to lead the way and teach you some beginner skills, that’s great. If not, there are loads of books, sites, videos and even a couple DVDs out there that will teach you how to do the very basic stuff that will get you started. Some trails even have a skills area where you can practice before you head out. So, you can gain confidence, right off the bat.

Don’t have the “proper clothes”? Since when was that a requirement? Wear what you have. I’ve got a friend who rides in jeans and a tank top. It’s in what she feels most comfortable. There’s no dress code for the trails. You’ll see all types – just like you do at a gym or a park. So, who cares what you’re wearing. Go ride!

Is the fear still gripping you? That’s okay. Start rolling, and get off your bike when you come to a trail element that scares you. There’s no shame in walking it. We’ve all been there at one time or another. In fact, it’s a great opportunity to watch others roll by, and observe how they overcome that particular element or obstacle. The cool thing about mountain biking is there’s never any boredom. Depending on how far you want to take it, there’s always something new to learn or a skill that you can improve. Just a reminder, no one said you had to learn it all. I’ve been riding on the trails for over 3 years, now, and still have loads to learn and current skills to refine. My husband has been riding the trails for 13 years and is the same way – plenty to learn, plenty to refine. I hear this even of the pros. So, go ride!

The trails weren’t built only for the fast people who are a blur as they zoom by you. No, they were built for everyone. (Granted if you are a beginner, know your limitations and avoid the advanced trails! Besides, those harder trails are not fun without the proper base of experience and confidence underneath you. That’s just a gentle reminder because I know you’ll choose to be smart and safe.)

Still think the trails are only for “those people”, and us women/ladies don’t belong? I encourage you to take a long look at what so many cities, counties, etc. are doing to attract people and families to move to their areas. It used to be that golf courses were at the top of the list. Know what is now? That’s right – trails systems and elements that encourage and enable people of all ages to get outside and enjoy nature right in their backyard. The municipalities that have recognized this and invested toward this end are reaping major rewards. People not only move to their areas, but these areas are drawing major tourist dollars, as well. The fact is we’ve all had enough of the urban jungle, and we all need a place to exhale.

The woods are it. Go ride.

“But I’m so slow!” That’s perfectly okay. We all start that way. Some of us never make it to the really fast levels and have no desire or need for it. Few of us are racers. Just because you get on a bike doesn’t mean you have to tear it up. No, you can take the trails at your own speed and on your own terms. As long as you read the trail signs, follow the rules and use trail etiquette, everyone is happy. Don’t know what trail etiquette is, either? It’s okay. It’s super easy to learn. You very likely know some of it, already, just on instinct, manners and respect for others. For example, here’s one. Pull over in a safe spot to let faster folks pass you. Then, keep rolling after they pass. That makes everyone happy because you’re not pressured to pedal faster than you’re able, and you both can roll along in peace once the faster rider has gone ahead.

I pass people, and I get passed, regularly. I’m not a racer and probably never will be. It’s not my thing. I just like the experience of the woods. It’s as if I get to take a mini vacation with every ride. I’m able to forget about life’s stresses, forget that I live much too close to my next-door neighbor, forget about traffic woes, forget about time crunches and forget about all the rest of the noise that goes along with my adult life. In many ways, I feel like I’m able to turn back time – even make it stop – to be a kid, again. Remember those days when we took so much for granted and had so little about which to worry? Oh, you barely remember them? You, girl, need those trails even more! Go ride.

Here’s another neat aspect of mountain biking. Once I got some baseline skills under my belt, we started exploring other trails. Since then, I’ve gone to parts of my home state and surrounding states I would never have had the opportunity to experience, otherwise. I’m excited, now, to ride more and new trails…and to take in even more sites, areas and terrains. Exploring is fun! Bored where you live? You won’t be if you get a mountain bike, and go ride.

Oh and by the way, shhh! Don’t tell anyone because I’m about to share a little secret with you. I’m a big chicken. Yes. Me. Oh my, you should have seen the dorky chicken wings I had when I first started riding. Prawk, prawk, prawk!! Now that I have some skills, the goofy flapping is getting better, and I make less fear-filled noises. There are some things I have yet to learn and other things I have no desire to tackle. Most of it is just a matter of overcoming fears. That means, you can be a chicken, too, and you can still enjoy the trails, just like I do. In case you hadn’t noticed, I don’t just like the trails. I freaking LOVE the trails. My heart sings after riding, and my mind is silenced. If you’re a mom, you need this more than anyone. We have other humans – large and small – pawing for our attention, needing something from us every minute of the day. It’s hard to set time aside for ourselves, but do it, we must! We are not only taking care of ourselves. (So, we can take better care of others.) We’re also setting an example for our kids to observe and learn that self care is of utmost importance. If we don’t teach them that, who will? You can. You must, and you will. Give yourself that chance. Go ride.

Plus, I want to point out a little understood element to riding dirt. You gain power when mountain biking. I’m not talking about strength. Sure, you’ll probably gain that, too. The power I’m taking about is the internal variety. As women, we are dis-empowered and disenfranchised in so many ways in our society. We’re treated too often as objects or as “property” (overtly or in covert, subtle ways we sometimes don’t even realize) rather than the living, feeling, human-beings who are smart, able, and deserving of claiming and broadcasting our internal strength. We hear all too often that “this” isn’t the right thing for us to do, dress, act, or be. Excuse me? That’s not anyone’s place but our own to make those decisions. So, we need our stronger gals to reach out, and pull up other women along with us. Are you one of those women? Reach out. Help your friends understand that they can do this. Don’t have someone to help you? You can do this. You can enjoy this on your own terms. Those woods and that bike are for you, too. Go ride.

Remember, the trails aren’t there to hurt you or make you scream. Those trails are there to calm your heart, soothe your mind and let your soul sigh with relief. Know what’s even better? Riding the trails with other women! The woods don’t know laughter until us, gals, get out there to share and express it. So girls, get a bike and get on a trail. Do some internet searches or call your local bike shop and ask about what trails are near you or are within a reasonable driving distance. Get feedback from several sources – not just one bike shop, not just one person(!) – to find the trails that are the easiest upon which to start. Also, ask around for local organizations that reach out, teach and empower women to get out on dirt. Many of these organizations teach girls, too. So, get your daughters out on the trails, as well! The gasps of wonder at the beauty and mystery of the woods are both for the very young and the very old.

Besides once you start, you’ll look around and notice other women/families getting out on those trails, and you’ll finally realize that those trails truly are there for everyone.

Lastly, I said that the trails need gals. They do. As with anything in life, balance must be held. Women offer different experiences and vantage points to all conversations in life. So, it is with trail riding. In order for our beloved trails to improve and grow, they need the participation and interaction of women. Mountain biking is a sport that’s still growing. In some ways, it’s still in its infancy until more of our society comes to recognize just how much this sport has to offer and also how keen trail riders are to keep the wilderness through which they ride in pristine condition as is possible. People who love the trails tend to be more respectful and careful while using them. They tend to be terrific advocates for conservation. This is good for the environment as a whole. So gals of all ages, get out there! You will fall in love with those trails, as I have. Then, you too won’t be able to shut up about riding dirt, either. ;)

Remember, you can do this! Now…go ride!!!