Photos by Adrienne Schofhauser & Ralf Hauser
Words by Adrienne Schofhauser
“You’re going to come off a little jump to the right, then there’ll be a berm to the left and then a berm to the right. After that, there are three wall rides and then, a big box that you can air up onto and off of. I’ll wait by the box and watch you all go by.”
With that, Julia, our fiery little freeride coach, sprints off down the trail, her squishy bike bouncing under her brisk pedal strokes. Our group of five pauses, then one by one, on our own 6- or 8-inch travel bikes, we drop into Crank It Up, one of Whislter Mountain Bike Park’s most popular downhill trails. We welcome the hardpacked created by recent, intermittent showers.
When we get to the box, we prove that we’ve mastered the skills that Julia’s worked all morning to teach us: arms in push-up position, knees bent, eyes ahead. At the lip of the box, we preload, then pop, land and manual off the other end.
When our two tires successfully hit the ground solidly and smoothly, the exhilaration is like firecrackers exploding at all of our nerve endings. Full of pure stoke, each of us hauls down the trail, powerful confidence surging through our veins.
When we convene, there are high-fives all around; we have beaming smiles and abrupt cheers choked by hard breathing. Then, with another cloud burst, we’re off again, charging amid the rain drops down the trail like a pack of playful, but gritty wolves.
It’s hardly the gentler side of mountain biking. Yet, this is all women, all weekend. We’re attending The Dirt Series—a traveling women’s mountain bike skills camp taught by some of the best female rippers on the continent to ladies looking to advance at all levels of riding.
The program has taught some 6,000 ladies during its 10 years of two-day weekend clinics. As it looks toward decade #2, it continues to increase the number of stops it makes throughout Western Canada and the U.S. We are the just latest crop of women shredders to be cultivated in regal hills.
But, this story must rise with the sun…
Saturday morning, 8 a.m.
Whistler Village is serenely quiet in the shadows of majestic Blackcomb and Whistler mountains, two hours north of Vancouver, B.C. Waiting outside our host shop, Skiis & Biikes, the alpine morning air creeps up the nostrils and a feeling of elation washes over me. I’m back—back in the enchantment that is Whistler — the towering peaks, the epic valley, the spirited village.
To make this morning even more glorious, the Northwest’s elusive sun is rising over the snow-patched peak, spilling a golden hue down the mountain’s bristled flank and burning off the clouds caught in the treetops.
It’s going to be a good weekend. Just me and the big bike, the legendary trails, the dramatic mountainscape—and the 64 other ladies who have come here to learn how to shred.
Around me, there is bustling excitement and a bit of chaos. Ladies geared up like storm troopers are in stark contrast to the Spandexed types; we are all checking in, collecting lift tickets and grabbing Luna bars.
Each of us has taken the prerequisite survey describing our mountain biking abilities before coming into camp—can we corner at high speeds? how well do we climb? can we land 4- to 6-foot drops? can we do wheel lifts? Our answers help to place us in the right progression groups for cross country, downhill or freeride. My cornering, braking, jumps and drops need mastering. But others are just realizing the feel of full-suspension for the first time. The mix of ladies is thrilling. Where in the woodwork has this massive female riding community been?
Actually privy to it longer than most, Trek is The Dirt Series’ title sponsor this year. A glistening herd of their burly 8-inch beasts wait to be taken up and let loose on those trails. The rest of the camp’s sponsors were also vetted for their commitment to women’s riding. We’ve got Race Face ladies’ specific armor, Bell helmets and Dakine hydration packs. A handful of local companies have kicked in everything from coffee to food and even a Sunday yoga session.
Before we pedal out in one massive group to the gondola, The Dirt Series founder and director calls order to our court. She is Candace Shadley, a spunky and articulate advocate for all of us. She gives us the weekend’s agenda: skill clinics in the morning followed by afternoon trail riding. The DHers and freeriders will spend the day in the park while the XCers will explore the valley. Cold beer is our reward at day’s end.
Then, she introduces our coaches. And the dynamics of the weekend change—we’re not only being taught by some national champions and podiumed riders in DH, XC and freeride (for the small price of the camp), but off the hill, these ladies are as brainy as they are (discreetly) brawny. They’re doctors, PhD students, neuroscientists and personal trainers. And they’re all hilarious. The intent of this weekend is to be released back into the mountain biking wild with their confidence and skills steeped into ours.
Shadley has one final thought: “I appreciate that all of you guys are here,” she tells us. “And if there’s anything that will make your experience better—tell us!”
Then we’e off—to schlrap some gnar, as they say. Or rather, to quell our thirst for action on two knobby tires and a suspension fork. With or without a guy.
“It feels like there are so many more of us now,” says Shadley. We’re musing in a quiet moment over the fact that women’s presence in mountain biking is exploding. Each of these camps sells-out with long wait lists. “When I started this in 2001, I couldn’t have imagined that it would be what it is today,” she says. “But when I look back, I have to say that I kind of understand why.”
The Dirt Series is a unique bird. Appreciated most by its alumni is the camp’s ability to build confidence in its pupils. The instructors plant that golden feather by distilling for campers the movements and mental strategies that a mountain biker must employ in any given terrain. Already this morning, we learn how looking where we want to go, takes us where we want to be and how to shift our hips in corners for balance as well as how to feather our brakes. We hone our drops by manualing off ladder bridges on Whistler’s B-Line trail. And on A-Line’s steep roll-down, we keep low and back while pushing the front end of the bike forward.
Ten years ago, when the sport itself was beginning to blossom, Shadley was the Mountain Bike Technical Director of Cycling B.C. She was tasked with bringing more women into the mix. But the simple “Follow me, bro” male tactic for learning to ride isn’t always encouraging to our fairer sex. We like to look before we leap. And dial in our confidence before even calling ourselves shredders.
Through The Dirt Series, Shadley pioneered a progressive arena where the only thing absent with the men was the pissing contest. In its place – inspiration, provided individually to campers. “The initial goal of program was simply to bring more riders into the sport, and to support, encourage, and motivate those who were already involved,” she says. “Providing an environment filled with guidance and instruction, and of course, a good dose of laughter and fun seemed to be a good way to go.”
The camp is fledged now with nearly 20 annual stops throughout B.C., Alberta, Washington, Oregon, California, Utah and Colorado. Shadley and her instructors haul their own structures and stunts for teaching in and out of the clinics along with a truckload of demo gear and prizes from sponsors.
“It’s hard to say where the program will go in the future as there are so many opportunities,” Shadley says. “It’s an awesome time to be a woman in mountain biking. Manufacturers are focusing on our demographic, media is taking an interest, and more and more programs and events are working to incorporate and promote our place in the sport. It feels like guys want more women out riding, and women want more women out riding. Growing women’s mountain biking grows mountain biking. That might be the best part of all.”
* * *
The afternoon breeze is picking up again.
Our group is situated at the mouth of a trail.
“Aside from the neutral position, you learned at the beginning, which is the fundamental base for mountain biking,” says Courtney Nash, a Bellingham, Washington resident and our savvy instructor, “…tight turns, fast bermed corners, high-speed drops, skinnies—all of it starts with looking ahead. The rest builds from there.”
Her constant reminders mean that we won’t forget the basics. Now, here’s to it all coming together. We’re about to drop into the thicket that is Devil’s Club, a blue square run at Whistler, but surely a black diamond elsewhere. The trail is uber technical. A traversing path manifested by gnarled roots, slippery boulders and incessant little drops. Nash is with us all the way.
At a particularly vertical rocky section, we dismount and watch her demo the technique demanded here. No need to go fast, she warns, but keep enough speed to allow the full-suspension to absorb the treacherous terrain. Mostly front brake, but ease in some back brake, too.
Surprising to us all, we triumph over the vindictive spot and our confidence levels sky-rocket. We emerge from the trees victorious, electric eagerness gushing from the pits of our souls. Again, high-fives smack through our posse.
“Having taken a Dirt Series camp myself when I first started riding, I know first-hand the transformative effect that it can have on someone,” says Nash. Whether she’s talking about the confidence boost or our heightened abilities doesn’t matter in this moment.
Then, we jump back in an open trail to shoot down to the village. We’ve got bike maintenance clinics to attend this evening, courtesy of Skiis & Biikes.
* * *
Sunday morning, 9:00 a.m
The gondola ushers us into obscuring mist. The weather seems to personify our moods. We’re tired. Our muscles are arguing yesterday’s rigorous exercise, and there are still hours of focus and riding to do.
But the fatigue and soreness evaporate with the early weather. The coaches are still full of life and they rally us. I’ve signed up for the dirt jumping clinic. Others have opted for skinnies or descending.
At noon, we break for lunch and our group photo. The picture is resounding proof that we came, we conquered and we can spread the word that yes, there are others out there like us.
Then it’s off to the trails again. I’m in a high-intermediate tribe. Julia is our coach today, and we head out to Crank It Up to work on getting more air off the steep lips along with smoother landings.
Separated by a few seconds, we each soar through the trail, rising and falling with its undulating jump line. Then we come to that little jump to the right that Julia’s described to us. It’s before the berm to the left, then berm to the right. There are the three wall rides, then the big box that we can air up onto and air off of. Julia is perched next to it.
When our two tires hit the ground, solid and smooth, the thrill is like firecrackers exploding at all the… well, you know the tale from here.
As gifted women riders continue to lay first tracks on 26 inches, the rest of us will be inspired to roll our own. Add a dash of Dirt Series experience and we’re armed with more than just a skill set. We’ve found the one ingredient that everyone everywhere seeks. “Confidence,” says instructor Nash, “is a magical, powerful thing.”