How to Get Women to Race Dirt (And How Not To)

11 Apr

The Sea Otter Classic, the largest consumer bike festival in North America, is running this weekend down the coast at Laguna Seca raceway in Monterey. In addition to the large expo hosting over 450 vendors, there will be pro and amateur racing in almost every cycling discipline, from downhill mountain biking to BMX to criterium road racing to cyclocross, plus recreational events for all ages, including Gran Fondo endurance rides.

I won’t be one of the estimated 65,000 people headed down there. It’s partly because Sea Otter’s focus is on the sport side of cycling and my interest these days is more in the practical side of cycling: city and cargo cycling. But it’s more than that. I haven’t been back to Sea Otter since I stood on the podium there in 2008, which was long before I got into city cycling. It’s that my last experience there made me feel like Sea Otter isn’t really for people like me who love bikes but don’t fit into American cycling’s hardcore dude culture.

After Work Girlfriend Rides

Back in 2008 I was mountain biking regularly with the Dirt Divas, an informal group of experienced mountain bikers and road racers with a taste of dirt. Every Monday night during daylight saving time we did recovery pace after work spins, and every few weeks or so we did longer weekend rides on more challenging trails. Just as importantly, we were an online community of 200 dirt-loving women sprinkled throughout the Bay Area, offering support and advice for each other that was just as valuable as having women nearby to ride with.

With my friends from Dirt Divas and the support of the Velo Bella and Velo Girl race teams, I had raced several smaller races. We had even challenged ourselves with a 24 hour mountain bike relay on the trails at Laguna Seca. Those races were all fun, but didn’t bring out the crowds like Sea Otter. Where else can recreational riders race the same courses, on the same weekend as the pros?

The Sea Otter excitement started on the Diva email list in March: how hard it it? who’s racing this year? In no time we had set up carpools down to Laguna Seca to pre-ride the course a few weeks before the race. The course wasn’t particularly technical, but the hilly 20 mile course had proven challenging for some beginner fields, so they shortened the women’s, juniors, women’s single-speed and Clydesdale men’s (over 200 lbs) races to a nominal 10 miles. For some reason, they didn’t say it was actually over 13 miles.

Dirt Divas

The nine of us were a mix of experienced and brand new racers. A couple were new to Dirt Divas and had never ridden in an all-female group before. With only a printout from the web site for navigation, we fared well until the climbers out front missed a key turn and got lost. Afterward, it was laughing over burritos and lots of email banter: reporting trail conditions and answering questions from women who couldn’t make the pre-ride.

So when things went wrong at the race we had each other. After a good start on the paved track (picking the right wheel to draft is key) I hit the gravel in top five. I was behind my friend Holly as we picked up speed where the course descended. As we approached a left turn, I could tell Holly was aimed straight. I yelled “go left,” she did and we both hit the singletrack ahead of the main field, then up the ridge and down the long sandy descent.

On the long grind back up, my climber friend Lesley passed me and asked if I had missed the turn. That’s when I realized Holly wasn’t only one. There were many others confused about the turn, including my friend E who’s zooming downhill in this photo. Her boyfriend took the shot right after she went off course. Not easy to tell, is it?

Missed Turn

I was still grinding away uphill when I came to the turn where we lost the climbers on the pre-ride. I was moving slow enough to read the signs carefully: “XC Race 20 miles” and “MTB Tour 10 miles.” Even though I had raced the course the year before, studied the map, pre-ridden three weeks before and have the nickname “GPS Janet,” I wasn’t confident I should turn left to stay on the 10 mi XC race course. But I did, even though I could see racers going straight ahead of me, and knew that going straight would cut the course by at least a mile.


When I finished the race they were already posting our race’s winning time at 41 minutes, an impossible time. Holly and I reported it to race officials, waited a while until it got cold and dark, then gave up and went to dinner. The next morning they posted results: I was 2nd, Holly 3rd, and Michelle 4th. On podium we didn’t recognize the winner and we didn’t see the two or three other women that I was pretty sure were ahead of me. (I found out much later that one missed the first turn and the true winner had lost her chip somewhere on the course.)

Sea Otter Podium

Back on online I shared my story and learned that three more of my Diva friends had missed the first turn and doubled back. A Velo Bella race team friend was spectating at the junction, saw the confusion and started calling out directions to racers. She confronted the course monitor about why he wasn’t doing it. He shrugged.

So I wrote my first letter of complaint ever to the race director. I let him know the impact on us as racers, but focused on what I wanted for next year: cones, course monitors, and accurately labeling the course as a 13 mile, not 10 mile course. After a long email exchange his response was that it’s the racers responsibility to stay on course and lessons were learned on both sides. He didn’t get that if that much of the field is confused, it’s the course, not the riders. And that beginners could use a little more, not less, consideration and support.

Sea Otter 2008 crop

I will agree that lessons were learned, indeed, but probably not what the race director expected:

  • Women often enter sport through men and they learn a lot from them. But there’s something special about riding with women: it’s empowering and challenging in a different way.
  • Until women ride with or race women, they don’t know really how how they stack up. Too many women who only ride with men think they’re slow when they’re not slow at all.
  • Having a social aspect makes many women more strongly engaged and loyal to the sport. Romantic relationships end, but bikes and bike friends stay.
  • If you want more new people racing, it takes group support. We hosted our own group pre-ride for women on our Dirt Diva email list. A pre-ride from the organizers with racing tips might encourage riders to try racing.
  • Community support is important both in person and online. The fewer women that ride in an geographic area, the more important online friendships are.
  • Women (especially beginner women) don’t expect to be the focus of an event. We don’t expect to race at prime time, we don’t expect our results to be listed first. But when things go wrong and we get an attitude, it feels deeper than “that guy is a jerk” it becomes “they don’t care about women or beginners.”
  • When you complain, adjust your argument for the personality of the official. When I advocated from the perspective of disoriented racers I got nothing. When I complained that riders might have placed ahead of me by cutting the course I got more sympathy. I needed to switch from chick talk to dude talk.

There was a silver lining to the story. One of the silent members on our Dirt Diva list was an employee of Sea Otter. She wasn’t part of the racing side, but she contacted the right people within the organization. They gave us a discount registration code for the next year’s race. That taught me my last lesson: complaining can pay off, even when you’re blown off at first. You may have allies you don’t know about that are listening.

I was touched and grateful. I know at least one woman used the discount to race the next year. Just not me.



Posted by on April 11, 2014 in Dirt Trails, Women & Bikes


11 responses to “How to Get Women to Race Dirt (And How Not To)

  1. jillycube

    April 11, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    “Sea Otter isn’t really for people like me who love bikes but don’t fit into American cycling’s hardcore dude culture.”

    Aaaaah I totally feel this way too! I’m friends with a few guys who are pretty competitive with each other and how awesome it is to go fast and they’re basically bro-fisting each other on FB and I’m just “uggghhhhh….” x_x Basically that Ride Hard or Go Home mentality. One of them critiqued how I had my vest opened up flapping in the wind and how it’s “inefficient.” Sorry I just want to enjoy my way of roadie riding and I’m not looking to go fast (and I didn’t even ask for advice!). Sorry I’m getting ranty 😦

    • ladyfleur

      April 11, 2014 at 6:22 pm

      I glad you identified with my statement. I was a little nervous writing it for fear of offending. The “ride hard or go home” is fine for people who want it, but it’s not the only way to enjoy bicycling. Ditto for being all into the latest gear and technology. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a bike that performs well, I’m just not into the nitty gritty details and don’t get all excited about the latest technology. And I feel like if you’re not into that, the in-crowd treats you like you’re not a “real cyclist.”

  2. Glen

    April 11, 2014 at 8:03 pm

    Well said.

  3. annoyedcyclist

    April 11, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    Nicely said. I’m not surprised by the response from USA Cycling. Almost every race I’ve done that was USAC sanctioned left a bad taste in my mouth. USAC takes entry fees and provides very little in return to grass-roots racers. Local promoters who avoid USAC are much more accommodating, creative and supportive of amateurs.
    For those of your readers with any interest in racing (be it mountain bike or cyclocross) you can’t go wrong at a CCCX event. Great vibe and you can show up and have fun or you can take it seriously and they are very supportive of newbies!

  4. Jean

    April 12, 2014 at 10:36 am

    I’m no familiar with mountain biking /racing much at all…even though I’ve been cycling for past 23 yrs. and am car-free. So cycling infuses my whole lifestyle.

    For certain if I had been exposed to hard nosed dude culture of ride hard and leave everyone else, it would have killed my love for cycling a lot.

    My partner has been cycling just as long as I have but is 16 yrs. old than I. He has solo cycled with his gear across North America over mountain ranges…several different trips. Yet, I am certain enough racing pack guys kitted out in their logo-splashed jerseys/tights, even judge him since he doesn’t have a carbon bike, is now slightly riding more upright (finds it easier now at his age) and is not climbing the hills as fast as he did 15 yrs. ago. (Give him a break, he’s 70.)

    As you know even pannier hauling cyclists are dissed by some racer types with their $8,000 carbon bikes.

    • ladyfleur

      April 12, 2014 at 10:43 am

      Cycling is fraught with elitism and it’s not pretty. So yes, there are riders in kits who think they’re better than your man because they zip by him, even though they’re over 30 years younger and riding a bike that weighs 10 pounds less. But many of them are judging each other just as harshly so it’s not like we’re being singled out. They’re just elitist jerks.

      • Jean

        April 12, 2014 at 10:50 am

        Yes, elitist jerks are just that. My partner just had a Dahon folding bike replaced by the manufacturer because his bike frame cracked.

        The new Dahon….is white frame. Now you can imagine, the reaction of some guys ..a folding bike (but it has 20 inch wheels) it’s white. He doesn’t care. (And he wears a white helmet with light turquoise highlights. Tends to look more “girl” in colour. I think he got it out of desperation and wanted to be visible in dark.)

      • jillycube

        April 12, 2014 at 10:49 pm

        I wonder how it feels for them to be challenged by people who actually ride a “hard mode” type of bike. By that I mean geared steel frame, beach cruiser (I knew one who conquered mt. ham with it), or anything equally as heavy.

        See I have a friend who had only ridden a steel frame step through bike with gears of over 35lbs up until I handed down my first road bike at 20 lbs to her about two to three years ago. She zipped through her 3rd century ride in her lifetime (non-supported and around the bay from SJ, East Bay, down the Peninsula and back) and was one of the very first arrivals. Also speaking of elitism: before I gave her the bike, we rode in Old La Honda with a group of friends. Riding her old steel step through, she got yelled at by a kitted roadie who told her she didn’t belong there and was even suggested to turn back. She did the whole thing fine and still had fun despite being given the attitude.

        From what I’ve said thus far is why I love the anime Yowamushi Pedal so much (sorry if I seem to talk about it a lot on FB). If anyone has time to spare to watch some anime, as juvenile as it might be to some, I definitely recommend this show which you can find on There are some pretty far fetched situations, and although the cast is almost all male (it’s a shonen anime afterall) it’s currently one of the most popular shows (I’m hoping to find some merchandise at FanimeCon). It’s also a new series so it’s easy to catch up if you can watch a few episodes a day as episode 20 is the latest one. Also watch the after credits portion 🙂

  5. ejohns07

    April 14, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    This year was my first time racing Sea Otter, and I was disappointed in the way things were organized. The cat 3 men started the race before us (cat 1 women) on a 16 mile course. We caught many of them in the single track (I probably passed at least 50 men and I was not the fastest racer of the day). Our course split, and when all the women were on the course with no men, it was a blast!!! But then our course joined up with the cat 3 course again and we had to pass many of the same men as we worked to pass before. If sea otter wants to support women racing and beginner racing of any kind, that’s not how to do it. Women racers of all categories deserve a clear course. And beginner men deserve a course that isn’t constantly disrupted by a women saying “on your left.” I think the tips you noted above are great, and will be used when I draft a letter to Sea Otter.

  6. Christine Holmes

    April 14, 2014 at 7:10 pm

    My impression is that you’re at a place now where you want to be and your blog entries are inspiring, especially for women, and whenever someone writes from the heart, they are admired and appreciated.

    • ladyfleur

      April 14, 2014 at 8:22 pm

      Thanks, Christine. That’s sweet. I enjoy where I am now just like I enjoyed where I was six years ago, riding with my Dirt Diva friends and taking on challenges together.

      Bicycling has never been an individual pursuit for me, whether it was completing that first 33 mile organized ride at Tour de Peninsula or convincing my friends to do the 24 Hours of Adrenalin mountain bike relay. Bicycling is social for me and I love sharing it with others.


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