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Governing bodies, ageism in professional women’s mountain biking

“No apologising!”

I could hear Adi’s disk brakes humming behind me as we hammered down through the brilliant single track of Coed y Brenin. It was my first time back on the big wheels since my Epic failure in March and I was all knees and elbows. As in, I was keeping them out like my life depended on it.

Not only was it my first mountain bike ride in months, I was in the company of some of the world’s top mountain bike racers. British XC champion Lee Craigie and 2004 Downhill and 2013 Enduro world champion Tracy Moseley, were leading the charge. I couldn’t help but apologise for the occasional foot down and stutter around the berms.

Once a year for the last 13 years, a group of riders – all women, of sometimes multiple generations – have gathered for a weekend of mountain biking. Many of the them are pros and ex-pros, many with children – some of whom are now pros themselves, top elite riders and a few newbies like myself. This is not mountain biking as the industry and governing bodies know it.

With each pass of a group of (usually male) riders, we’d hear them whisper and baulk at our number. Twenty-one of us. All women. “They’re all women….” You could see it in their eyes as they’d register just how many of us there were riding by.

The UK produces many of the world’s top female mountain bikers, a reflection not necessarily of the support provided by British Cycling, but of the extraordinary grassroots communities of riders and events that crop up around the country.

Mountain biking, in its many different forms (perhaps with the exception of Downhill), lacks the buzz and media attention of so many sports. It also has the unique characteristic of not being defined by youth. But you wouldn’t know it by reading the current roster of BC-supported riders.

Many women, including both Lee Craigie and Sally Bigham come into the sport later in their twenties. For some reason this is a mark against many elite riders looking for support from official governing bodies. I can’t speak with confidence for those outside the UK, but this seems to ring true for many international riders as well.

And yet mountain biking is one of the few sports where older athletes are often more competitive. Particularly for XC Marathon, but also for Cross Country, many women at the top are often well into their 30s. I don’t put words in these women’s mouths, but as an amateur rider who will never seek funding from British Cycling, I think it’s my duty to call out BC for this oversight.

Typically, governing bodies say their money follow medals. But it’s a myth to think athletes – particularly women – cannot develop later in life. Women typically reach their athletic peak much later in life than men. Women often develop endurance muscles well into their 30s and 40s – a fact reflected in the on-going success of female ultra-distance runners and XCM racers. British Cycling (and others) should get with the programme and recognise that these women are extraordinary athletes and capable of developing new skills into their 30s and even 40s.

The remit of BC extends to the growth and support of “women’s cycling” generally, and should recognise the impact professionals like this have on the legions of grassroots cyclists who only start riding later in life.

Mountain biking in its purest form is about the feeling of freedom and adventure it gives you. You start mountain biking and suddenly you realise you’re capable of doing things you’d never before thought possible. It’s not like rolling a road bike down the pavement – you’re dropping off bouldery descents, scaling rocky climbs and learning how to pop your front wheel to keep upright. You learn how to focus. You learn how to laugh at yourself in the face of insurmountable obstacles – like a river you fall into. And most of all, you remember how to play. And when you love what you’re doing, you can get really good at it.

There is no age restriction on mountain-biking. That’s part of its beauty. But for some reason, the official governing bodies of the world like to think otherwise. A weekend like the one we just had cuts deep at the mistakes BC is making by ignoring so many of these women simply because they are a little bit older. The wrinkles in her face don’t make her a slower racer. The size of her thighs and grey in her hair are not a reflection of how competitive or determined she is. By limiting their funding to the youthful pool of teen and 20-something riders, BC are not only limiting these women’s potential, they’re endorsing a culture of ageism in a sport that proves there is nothing to stop a woman well into her 40s becoming a world champion.

I don’t think governing bodies like the idea of older women winning races. These champions have complex and extraordinary personalities. They often have children. They often have had amazing careers outside of cycling. They usually won’t pose naked for men’s magazines because they have too much self-respect. They are fascinating, complicated, astounding women with multi-dimensional personalities that cannot be defined by getting a medal or the way she poses in tight jerseys.  And they inspire other women into the sport in droves.

Nearly two dozen women in all shapes and sizes, of all ages, in all types of kit, smashed through the forest, our whoops and hollers echoed up the single track. And the comment everyone kept making was how evenly paced we all were. The best in the world down to people like me – we all rode together and pushed each other with supportive words, loving mockery, and gallons of gummy sweets.

I look at Lee and I think I could maybe be a little be like her. And to Adi and Killer and Wildie and Anya and Mo and think, yeah… you know, if they can do it, maybe I can too, if not this year, than maybe sometime in the next fifteen years.

The problem is, you just can’t govern these bodies, so the governing bodies have all but made them invisible instead.

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