Blue Ribbon Banter: Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice
By Zach Faulker
I want to ride like a girl. I do, that’s a serious statement. When women like Rachel Atherton and Tracy Hannah are flying down the hill, I think it is totally cool to want to ride like them. This sport of mountain biking needs women as much as it need chains to spin the wheels. Sure, the demographic is not as large as the male market, however, that’s not to say we shouldn’t foster the segment. When I was a kid I idolized the Luna Chix squad as much as I did Cedric Gracia or Nathan Rennie. Those women were amazing, both the DH’ers like Marla and Kathy, and the XC’ers like Katerina. I have autographed water bottles from them to prove that my fan-dom was top-tier, gender of the rider notwithstanding, because they were the best.
Years after my first NORBA national at Mount Snow (as an attendee, not a racer) where I met all of these amazing athletes, I read Marla Streb’s book and was floored by her story. It pushed me to keep trying and not get discouraged. My dad and I actually parked next to her at the U.S. Open in 2006 and chatted with her and Mark (a noble man of note in her life), trying not to geek out the whole time. It was so cool to be around such formidable athletes as a young rider, even more so that a good number of them were strong and positive women. Right now, we have an equally strong contingent of women sending it all over the world. The Women’s Pro field on the World Cup circuit is intense right now. Once Holly is healed up, and Tahnee moves up, the Elite class is going to be even more stacked.
I want to help sway the perception of female riders. They do not have to be super masculine or lose their femininity to be strong. Tough women can still have that “girly side” per se. The trend of making women’s gear über girly with stereotypical color schemes and graphics was once overly prevalent and definitely undermined the efforts of the women putting in the work to be taken seriously. Having the option of a pink bike - like Tracey's old Morewood or Holly Feniak’s old Cove - is always nice, but Casey Brown and Micayla Gatto are both rocking non-pink kits and bikes.
The aspects of women’s gear needs to have a bigger focus on fit during the design phrase. Thankfully, the marketing folks and designers took notice and listened to consumers (women) preaching a similar gospel. Now there are many neutral options for women, focusing less on having a girly “look” and instead focusing on proper tailoring and function. Providing products that meet the needs of female participants, and not just redoing size “small” men’s gear with new colors, has been a huge leap forward for the sport. This trend addresses the growing female rider population, shows that our sport is all about inclusion and progressing on the bike and out on the trails. It is great to see brands stepping up to the plate by producing quality women’s lines with a variety of options in both style and function to meet a broader range of tastes and needs. Making sure women are more focused on progressing on the bike instead of stressing to find clothing and gear that works for them should be the end-goal.
I think gender neutrality in terms of options is a good starting point. Having attention focused on the riding and actions on track far outweighs the importance of appearance in terms of gender norms. Too many other sports turn athletes into sex symbols (both men and women) which can detract from the athlete’s accomplishments within the sport, versus the resulting appearance from the hard training that made them famous in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, attractive athletes certainly don’t hurt the sport, but think it is paramount that as our sport grows, we address the way women are portrayed in ads and other forms of marketing (I’m looking at you Specialized, and that sexy nurse). We need to keep in mind that we are all out on the trail for the same reason. This isn’t like football where the men put on the pads and helmets, and we hand the women pom poms and spanks. Callused hands show hard work, as do painted nails, so instead of carrying on the age-old stereotype of “girly-girls” and “tom-boys”, let’s give credit where credit is due and talk about how great the rider is, gender notwithstanding.