Cover Feature: Girls just wanna have fun – Aug / Sept

With apologies to Madonna (who does actually ride a bike), two-time Olympian ERICA GREEN wants to see more girls on the trails, enjoying the same safe and satisfying stoke the okes do. Read further as she destroys every excuse not to join the knobbly revolution.

Gone are the days that mountain biking (OK, we’re speaking a little more about mtb, than road cycling here, if we may), was just for guys. It’s dusty, muddy, sweaty, gritty, gutsy, challenging, scary, tiring (oh, so wonderfully tiring), hip … and more welcoming than ever. It doesn’t matter what makes you walk into your local bike shop and buy the ride of your dreams – a magazine story, a poster, watching someone else finish a gruelling bike race, and thinking to yourself, “I wanna do that too!”, there is no better time than now to get out there.

When I ride my mountain bike, I feel alive. Still, 30 years later. There are moments in every ride that keep me coming back for more and the challenges of the split-second decisions I have to make – speed, body
position, braking, how hard to corner, line choice, avoiding hazards – keep it thrilling and fun, over and
above just being outdoors and living life.

Now, which woman in her right mind is going to subscribe to all of this? Every single one of us. If you do it right, I am willing to bet you will be hooked for life; be bold and get right in there!

Before you really do something “totally crazy”, here are a couple of tips that will help point you in the right
direction, before you waste any time or money. Starting off wrong will make your first experiences miserable, and you won’t come back. We want you to come back.

 

Get the right bike for you – Ask around for advice on a local a bike shop that really cares. You could probably buy a bike cheaper online, but what’s going to happen when you need to have your bike serviced, or pop in for advice on which saddle to use? Because the one you’re currently riding on, is causing problems in other fun arenas (and yes, men struggle with this too), we were not anatomically designed to sit on a shoe box. There are still some bike shops that care about and value their customers – the trick is to find the one for you; ask other women who cycle, and you will narrow it down.

Avoid shops that try and sell you whatever needs to be cleared off their floor – there are some bike  brands that make women-specific bikes, but really, as long as the bike set-up is good for you, any bike brand is okay – if you fancy a specific brand, model or colour, then get that one. Provided the frame size is good, you can always make a bike fit you – whichever bike makes you feel like a queen, that’s the bike for you.

A good bike set-up is critical. Formulae, laser beams and all that jazz aren’t the only way to achieve optimum bike set-up – find an experienced bike fitter, who really understands cycling, anatomical pros and cons, respects your type of riding, keeps it simple and who is willing to go for a ride with you to ensure the bike fit is 110% and that it is comfortable out on the trail.

Find a saddle that fits you – and no, measuring the width of your sit bones is not the complete answer – it’s which saddle is most comfortable – always trust your own (gut/ bum) feeling.

Girls can shred too! Jo Dobinson at speed.

Skills first – practice some patience and learn the basics first. Invest in at least four to six skill sessions with a qualified and reputable cycling coach who ensures that you get off to a solid start to your off-road cycling. There are five skills that you can practice with ease, on a grassy field, that will ensure that all necessary ability is conquered out on the trail, with just some basic confidence.

Be kind to yourself. Take it a step at a time. Hook up with other like-minded women and ensure that the social element of mountain biking is fulfilled with social group rides. One of the biggest off-putting elements of women riding MTB is that their boyfriend, friend or husband pulls them along at a pace faster than they can cope with, before fatigue sets in, and it is just not a nice experience, or, the route is far more technical that what is truly possible – rides like these turn out to be a scary, once-off experience.

Don’t borrow his bike. The biggest turn-off for most women beginners (who almost never try again) is being shoved onto their beau’s spare bike, even though he is six foot and they aren’t. This will be horrible – both on the bike (physically, the ruin can be unprintable, and the lack of control trying to wrangle a farm gate makes the whole thing seem impossible), and off it when you get back to the car… Rather spend a bit of cash renting a bike the right size for a weekend – many bike shops have this as an option.

Be self-sufficient. Make an effort to learn how to put a chain back on if it falls off the chain rings (both back and front), fix a chain with a magic link, repair a flat tyre. If you can become familiar with just these three skills, you will almost always make it back to your car.

Test yourself. The next step to progress from learning to ride is to enter some of the shorter races – ask around regarding type of terrain. You want to be tackling some very basic types of routes, that are mainly jeep track, and not longer than 20-30km. It is good to feel a little tired after your first couple of races – this is a sure way to know that you are progressing in your fitness and conditioning. Get a small group of friends together to enter with you, so that you can all be on this amazing journey all together.

Progress. You will know when to progress to longer distances, when you can finish your race distance feeling strong and confident. Don’t be afraid to take that next step when you feel you’re ready – just TRY. Consistency in your training will pay off – don’t feel the need to ride every single day, for hours at a time – if you can achieve just three or four rides a week, consistently, as opposed to one huge ride a week, you will achieve far greater success in the enjoyment of the sport.

Enjoy. All the above is great, but never lose the ability to just enjoy – ride slow, stop and smell the flowers, linger a little longer at the coffee stop, ride with a group that is slower than your norm, and feed of their
enjoyment. Outdoors, on two wheels, is great no matter what shape it takes.

There is just something about being out on the trails on a mountain bike: fresh air, exercise, a challenge, facing fears, laughing, feeling a sense of achievement, and there is no reason you can’t get a piece of the action.

 

BUT, SHOULD I RACE?

Absolutely. Testing yourself against yourself, and others, is so rewarding. We have so many great events in this country, most of which cater for all levels of racing. You don’t need to be aiming for the podium to race, just do it for yourself.

In terms of progressing to more serious racing, here is how I would get started, if I had to do it over:

  • First, enter the short or middle distance local racing series (e.g. Nissan Trailseekers) or one day classics.
  • Gradually build up, physically and mentally, to the long routes – I can’t tell you when it is right to move up to them, but you will just know.
  • Multi-day stage races – first enter for fun to get a feel for what these events are all about – after that you can go back to the training plan and be more specific about your preparation.
  • If you want to race “seriously”, dipping a toe into provincial and national racing, there are fewer events, but they are a lot more intense and rewarding, in their own way: there are both provincial and
    national series, in both marathon (on big loop) as well as cross country (lap racing, maybe only six or seven kilometres, on more technical terrain). This is National Federation territory, and comes with rules and restrictions aplenty, but is the path to take if you want to get to the top of the sport; go and watch some of the events to get a feel for who rides, race times, types of terrain and skills you might need to develop. I am biased, with my history, but this is where I would love all of us to end up racing; it is the purest discipline, and teaches you so much for every other area of mountain biking.

The more experienced you become there will be a natural progression, in your results. Experience is really the only way to progress: be it in fitness and experience, but also learning the ropes of actual racing and it’s tactics. There are so many other aspects of training and racing – just one thing; please never lose the love of riding your bike!

Erica Green is a former road and MTB pro cyclist, who represented South Africa at two Olympic Games, seven World Championships, and held the African pursuit record on the track.

 

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