It’s hard to believe I kept mountain biking after my initial experience with the sport. Not only had the ill-fitting, way-too-heavy bike I borrowed made it difficult for a flatlander from Illinois to complete long-busting climbs or enjoy the technical downhills in Steamboat Springs. But the fact that the well-intentioned men who I rode with were experienced riders and lousy teachers didn’t help much, either. On those outings, I caught glimpses of what people seemed to love about the activity—the adrenaline rush of nailing a tight turn, the triumph of climbing up a steep ascent—but more often than not, I was way behind the men I was riding “with,” bummed that I’d just had to walk my bike up a technical section.
It turns out, my “left behind” experience is incredibly common. Linda Travis, a three-time national downhill champion and planning coordinator for Fort Collins-based cycling brand Niner, says she was also miserable on her first singletrack outing, thanks to a bike that was too big, the men’s padded shorts she was wearing, and her struggle to keep pace with her more experienced male riding partners. Nancy Kelly, founder of the Denver-based women’s social mountain biking club Dirt Divas, shared a similar story.
Since then, both women have taken steps to prevent other ladies from following in their frustrated footsteps, including coaching women-only clinics or starting women-only riding clubs like Dirt Divas. “The popularity of the Dirt Divas was due to the niche it filled for providing women with a safe, non-judgmental, supportive group of other like-minded individuals who wanted to have fun on the trails,” Kelly says.
I experienced that same positive environment earlier this summer on a ride with the Mountain Bike Like a Girl Experience, a partnership between The Gant in Aspen and adventure travel company, Nomad Inc. The all-women crew (three of us total) pedaled more than 500 vertical feet to sweeping vistas of Mount Sopris and Capitol Peak. Along the way, our guide, Briana Valorosi, checked in on our comfort level with the significant drop-offs along the trail (I was nervous, so we went more slowly) and was just as happy to stop for wildflower photos as she was to pause for quick trail tutorials. I walked away with great tips for cornering, a new skincare routine, and a significant confidence boost in my riding abilities. Overall, the environment was motivating without feeling intimidating.
And my experience is the rule, not the exception. Here, local pros offer four key reasons why, if you’re a woman who rides, you should consider women-only riding outlets—at least some of the time.
You’ll learn in an environment that’s more about collaboration than competition.
Women-only riding environments tend to be less competitive, according to Travis and other experts. Riders are less likely to focus on being the first, only, or best. “It’s just more relaxed when you’re around women who are your peers, instead of feeling like you have to keep up,” Travis says. Some clubs even offer “no-drop rides,” where nobody gets left behind.
Founder of Lee Likes Bikes and former semi-pro downhiller Lee McCormack was originally hesitant to offer women-only clinics because of his staunch belief in teaching human beings, not genders, but acknowledges the value of the clinics now. “There’s definitely some sisterhood stuff that happens for sure when it’s all women. There’s a thing there,” McCormack says. “I really fought against it, but I’ve taught dozens of these women-only classes now. There’s definitely something special.”
You won’t be expected to “just try it.”
Whether it was a first ride or later in their cycling career, many women have been pushed to try trails beyond their skill level—and that can be devastating to their confidence on a bike. “Telling a woman to buck up and get over her fear of technical terrain is a great way to kill that woman’s desire to learn how to ride the beautiful trails we have here in Colorado,” Kelly says. “This is especially true when an injury has been incurred from the experience.”
Women typically assess risk differently than men do. They want to understand the process fully and feel relatively confident in their competence, Valerosi notes, whereas men tend to be more willing to tackle the obstacle, consequences and broken bones be damned. “That’s not to generalize across the board,” Valorosi says. “There will certainly be men that assess risk differently, and there will be women who just send it and don’t look—it goes both ways—but I do think that riding with women, we’re going to approach risk and navigate from our egos in a much different way.”
As a result, women-only learning environments tend to offer more in-depth explanations of each skill and plenty of opportunity for the iterative process known as “sessioning,” where the individual works on the same type of hurdle over and over again as the rider progresses up and down a trail.
You’ll have an opportunity to ride while building relationships.
Oddly, one of the highlights of my ride with the Mountain Bike Like a Girl Experience was discussing new ways to combat hormonal breakouts. That’s not something that’s likely to come up on a mixed-gender ride, Valorosi laughs: “My partner and I are not talking about skin care ever on the ride unless it’s like, ‘Do you have the sunscreen?’”
But in women-only environments, a wide range of topics come up, says Lindsey Richter, founder and director of inspiration for Ladies AllRide Mountain Bike Skills Camps, which are offered across the U.S. Though the camps focus on honing prowess in skills like lifting the front wheel and introductory drops, she’s also appreciated the open conversations her participants have on everything from relationship wins and woes, to hot flashes and perimenopause. In fact, she invites these non-biking-related discussions because they cues to riders that they’re fully accepted and allowed to bring their whole selves to class, warts and all.
You’ll leave feeling empowered.
No matter your gender or the group you ride with, mountain biking has the potential to develop a sense of confidence that permeates far beyond the trail. For both men and women “how we are on the bike is a core example of our life. If we’re hard on ourselves in life, we’re the same way on the bike,” McCormack says. “[But] with women, generally, their belief in themselves is way underreported. They don’t understand how awesome at riding they are, whereas men in general tend to think they’re way more awesome than they are.”
Learning to mountain bike in a safe and supportive environment is an avenue to that much-needed self-affirmation. “If we gain even the most miniscule sense of self-confidence [on a bike], then we go home to our families with that and we go to our jobs with that,” Valorosi says. “If I’m willing to take that risk in one area of my life, then I think I feel empowered to take it in other areas of my life also.”
Ready to ride? Here are a few women-focused mountain biking groups in Colorado:
Mountain Bike Like a Girl Experience at The Gant
Starting at $495 per night for a one-person lesson, bike rental, and lodging; $667 per night for a two-person lesson, bike rental, and lodging.
Lee Likes Bikes clinics and instruction
Two-hour skills clinics start at $75 for Level 1 co-ed and women-only classes.
Ladies AllRide camps and retreats
Starting at $165 for half-day camps, $255 for one-day camps, and $425 for two-day camps.
Vida MTB Series clinics
Starting at $175 for one-day clinics, $395 for two-day camps (not including lodging).
Little Bellas camps and clinics
Most weeklong programs are $185-$250.
Team BOB women’s mountain biking club
Free for initial rides; membership is $60 for the year.
Dirt Divas group clinics and rides
Free for initial rides; membership is $75 for the year; clinics and rides are currently on hold until next year.