This weekend I rode and raced alongside more than 220 women. Yep, over 220. For any race that’s quite a lot, for a women’s only event it’s pretty much unheard of. For context it’s more than the combined total of women in all the other races I’ve done this year (114 in five events. And yes, I did count). [It’s also more than the 186 that took part in the Red Bull Foxhunt just the week before – Ed]
Hopetech Women’s Enduro at Gisburn Forest was organised as a grassroots event to encourage women who had raced only a little or not at all to give it a go. But it wasn’t just first-time racers who were there (although over a third were). Amongst the riders were multiple World Champion Tracy Moseley, World Cup winner Annie Last as well as up and coming talent such as Martha Gill and Bex Barona (and Singletrack’s own Vic Alker of course).
The horrendous weather the day before was enough to put off even the seasoned racer. I certainly was seriously questioning my sanity as wind and rain lashed against the van and kept me awake most of Friday night; the flooded roads and flowing water across the fields did little to encourage me in the morning. But any suggestion that people wouldn’t turn up was quashed by the long queue to sign-in an hour before registration officially opened. There’s nothing like a little enthusiasm to brighten the skies.
The race consisted of three stages and included Gisburn’s brand new A Long Way Down trail and, naturally, the Hope Line. I hadn’t ridden at Gisburn before so aside from assuming a typical trail centre I wasn’t sure what to expect. Given the targeting of the event I was pleasantly surprised by the technical nature of sections of the trail. There were tight and twisty slabby rocks; fast off-camber singletrack with uncertain grip from the newly-laid surface and, my personal nemesis, wet roots and wooden bridges. There were some tough climbing sections too which were plagued with ring-mashing rocky up and overs and scree-covered grunts.
By 10am when I headed out for practice the rain had more or less stopped but given the amount of water around it made little difference to the saturation factor. The immense about of surface water and lack of visibility from the low cloud and dark skies added in a little more challenge. It was one of those rides that you couldn’t see for splatter and fogging if you had glasses on and couldn’t see for grit and rubbish in your eye if you went without. At least the well-armoured trails meant mud levels were minimal.
The course and conditions were certainly enough to be a challenge to skilled and confident riders and yet didn’t seem to be deterring those who were newer to the game. As Tracy described there comes a confidence and assuredness with a lot of women when they ride with their peers. The innate ‘can’t manage this’ approach that often underpins both women’s own attitudes as well as their male riding partners, is gone. The challenge is seen as within reach and, well, a challenge rather than something unobtainable.
I can’t recall ever being at a race where people were talking and riding together so comfortably and easily.
The atmosphere and comradery at the event was amazing. I can’t recall ever being at a race where people were talking and riding together so comfortably and easily. Both Tracy and Annie described it as the best racing vibe they’d ever experienced – and they should know. I went from riding discussions with a racing debutant mother and daughter to having remarkably similar conversations with international champions. The only person I saw who was ill at ease all day was my star-struck husband who could barely remember his own name when we were chatting to Tracy.
Everyone was happy to be there and support one another regardless of their pedigree or whether they were there to race hard or just aiming to make it round the course. It made for a rather surreal experience that Annie asked me for racing advice as it was only her second Enduro event (I’m not entirely sure that three races counts as a wealth of experience but everything is relative I guess). The day caused a turn of events completely unknown to me as I was almost as happy milling around and chatting to people than actually riding. When I was on course I got as much pleasure from riding alongside and encouraging (hopefully) those who were struggling a bit than I did from clearing the table top on my race run.
Oh yes, the race. Sorry. Like on the day, it seems a little secondary. Proving it’s not really about the bike, Annie stormed to first place in the elite category on her fidgety 100mm XC machine and Polly Henderson topped the U21s field. I came somewhere in a field of 50 Vets – that’s quite a lot of women over 40 riding bikes, the organisers even separated out the 50+s to give us more of a chance.
For Hope organising an Enduro was a natural progression following a second year of successful of the Hopetech Women’s ride programme. As Rachael Walker, Hope’s Brand Manager and Hopetech Women’s driving force puts it ‘We’ve been running women’s rides up and down the country and have women of all abilities coming along. Some of the women already race, some never want to race, some think racing is too scary or out of their reach. Many feel like they’re not good enough, they worry about getting in the way of faster riders or crashing. The women’s rides have always been about trying to increase confidence and help the women progress in their own way. It seemed an obvious step to organise an Enduro race to try and show that racing doesn’t need to be so scary; it can actually be really fun. ‘
I have to confess I was a little hesitant about putting my entry in for the event. When riding it never really occurs to me that I’m female and almost all my riding mates are not. If (OK, when) I can’t ride a technical bit of trail or storm up a hill I put it down to my lack of years riding or strength compared to my friends and not that I’m a girl. Having grown up with two brothers and having many male-dominated hobbies I’ve never seen being a girl stopping me doing things and so I wasn’t really sure I wanted to enter and define myself as a ‘woman rider’.
But for many women their sex is a reason not to participate in riding. By simply engineering out many of the barriers that they may have to racing, Hope and PMBA managed to organise an event that was both a challenge and enjoyable. The marshals were brilliant, heckling and supporting riders in equal measure and no-one got grumpy on queuing at the start of each stage, it just served as an opportunity to talk to other riders about bikes and riding. There was great support (and thankfully massive gazebos under which riders could hide from the rain) from both mainstream brands and those targeted a bit more at women including Juliana Bicycles, Crankbrothers, Cliff Bar, Flare Clothing, Ohlins Suspension, Sweet Protection, Fizik, Pace Cycles, Troy Lee Designs, Alpkit and T-Mo Racing. It’s encouraging to see that Hope isn’t the only company in the industry who are keen to get behind women’s riding and racing.
Given the success of the race women should be pleased to hear that Hope has already said the event will run again next year and there might even be a second race in the south. In the meantime, don’t forget that women can enter other races too, none of them are that scary or out of your reach.