Does Mountain Biking have a Sexism Problem?

February 17, 2016

Sexism is not just a hot topic, it’s a scorching one.

It’s a topic that won’t burn out until the problem itself disappears. Sadly it hasn’t, yet.

In parts, that’s still the case for mountain biking. There are true heroes of the sport – Rachel Atherton, Tracey Moseley, Manon Carpenter (to name a few) – leading the way and inspiring not just women, but all people who have ever thought about picking up a bike and throwing themselves down a dusty track. The evidence is there to suggest that this is being forgotten by some people in the industry.

Mountain biking does have a problem with equality, but what can be said is that the problem very rarely exists on the trails, or at least that’s what former “glossy mag” editor turned freelance bike journalist Adele Mitchell believes:

“Anybody that’s paying attention on the industry side of things knows that the growth of the sport will come from women”

I’ve been riding for quite a few years now and I would say mountain biking feels more inclusive than it used to be,” she said.

“Media and advertising still largely represents mountain biking as a ‘gentleman’s club’ and that means there’s often a focus on the danger and extreme elements of the sport, rather than the benefits to mental health or the opportunity to have an adventure with your friends in the great outdoors.

“I am mindful that women – at the moment – are very much in the minority of the sport. You can justify some of the decisions made by the brands when it comes to marketing their products to their biggest audience, but they should be doing more to grow the sport and the only way to do that is with women.”

This point is echoed by the former Trek UK Media and Communications Manager, Chris Garrison:

“From a participant level there are a lot of women riding bikes,” she said.

“Anybody that’s paying attention on the industry side of things knows that the growth of the sport will come from women and that will eventually become the driving force behind getting kids on bikes, which is sustaining the sport.”

Mitchell (centre left) and Garrison (right) are active campaigners in making the sport equal and better

Mitchell (centre left) and Garrison (right) are active campaigners in making the sport equal and better

There is no blame to be pointed. This is just the sport, which isn’t a bad thing, mostly, and there are so many positives to look at, as Adele Mitchell explains:

“It’s not all bad, of course not,” she said.

“Just look at the film Sealskinz produced back in January (which featured Trahan Chidley, a true ‘superwoman’ of sport, talking about why she rides). It is truly a thing of beauty which presents a moving, intelligently told story about one woman’s experience of the joys of mountain biking.

“It includes the positive roles played by some of the men in her life too, so everyone can take something from it.”

It’s easy to create a dividing competition between gender, but when is the easy way always the right way?

This is not man vs woman. This is just people being people. People being happy doing something they love. This is forgotten by some brands, in some instances.

Czech-based Superior Cycles fell foul to this in June 2015. To quote:

“Female cyclists do not generally need to push their limits, race against time and increase their adrenaline when riding rough downhill trails,” is what the description read for a women’s specific hardtail bike.

“They just want to enjoy the time spent in nature on the bike, and their expectations from the bike are completely different than men’s,” it continued.

“They look mainly for safe, easy and, of course, stylish bikes that have good and natural handling.”

Alienating, segregating and stereotyping. Are those the best ways to sell a product?

Then there was “Sockgate” at Interbike 2015, where visitors to the trade show were greeted with a “goodie bag” packed with all sorts of promotional material- and, of course, a singular pair of socks, featuring bikini clad, sun-kissed women. And guess what, they were not riding bikes.

(Courtesy of Surly)
(Courtesy of Surly)

Body armour company SixSixOne posted an image of a woman modelling a pair of knee pads. The woman was naked. That’s not only objectifying marketing, it’s just lazy marketing. In the defence of SixSixOne, they did remove the image quickly after a barrage of criticism. They also explained that it was a mistake stemming from a social media audit by a firm of consultants rather than any deliberate marketing strategy. They have since been contrite to the whole situation.

#protectfun was the tag on 661's Instagram page. What does that even mean?
#protectfun was the tag on 661’s Instagram page. What does that even mean?

The “Maxxis Babes Calendar” was perhaps the most talked about case. The name itself provides all the description you need.

Maxxis eventually scrapped the calendar and replaced it because most people did not like it, which is the singular silver lining that shone brightly and proudly following the mistake.

This not brand shaming. This is behaviour shaming. The industry is denying itself the prospect of a much greater and more diverse sport if it continues to, both subconsciously and in some cases purposefully, exclude half of the population.

There has been example after example and undoubtedly there will be more come, but at least, for now, most brands recognise when they are wrong and that brings some hope for the future.

“At the end of it all we don’t see men with next to no clothing showcasing body armour, we don’t see men in bathing suits on a pair of socks at the largest trading show in North America (Interbike), we just don’t see men in the same way we see women. How can the two genders ever be treated as equal when that’s the case?,” is what Garrison said, with sincerity, for perhaps the perfect summation.

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