Meet Claire McDonnell founder of the Dirt Maidens Challenge happening in Jindabyne next weekend. She shares with us her tips, tricks and passion for Mountain Biking (MTB) & the growing groundswell of female involvement in the sport.
Where does your mountain bike inspiration stem from?
My brother is a bit of a bike nut (road) and my family has always been around bikes, but I really started to love mountain biking on my first mountain bike expedition as an outdoor instructor. I love the outdoors and mountain biking is able to take me deeper into nature, and it also has the added bonus of getting the adrenaline going!
How do you see the current state of Women’s Mountain Biking in Australia compared to other countries?
We are getting some momentum which is great, but our infrastructure is still lacking. It is very different to other countries - particularly North America and New Zealand, in that our idea of intermediate terrain is much easier than intermediate terrain in those places! Our trails are less technical, but great for the general population because it means that more people can get involved and enjoy the benefits of MTB.
Tell us about your involvement with Dirt Maidens
I entered an all female race in Canada in 2012, and it was amazing to see 60+ women going hard at it, with support from a huge bunch of guys who had given up their Saturdays to volunteer. The girl who ran it was pretty inspirational and I loved the format of the day - it was all about the ladies.
With such a huge bunch of local Jindabyne girls giving MTB a go, I thought it would be nice to give the girls their own race to show them how fun it can be, and basically to create some connections between girl riders from around the area. I was working at Bungarra as the Mountain Bike Coordinator and I convinced my boss to let me organise it. So last year we had 76 ladies racing, and it was a huge success. This year I decided to get the Jindy Cycle Club involved to help run it because we have a strong club and a solid volunteer base. So here we are 2 weeks out and over 80 riders registered, with plenty of talk about costumes to deliver on the theme of Into the Wild: Creatures of the Land, Sea and Sky.
Tell us about some of the women involved in the Dirt Maidens
Ursula is one of our amazing girl riders who took up mountain biking at 60 years of age and absolutely kills it. Then we have Keely who is 11 years old and can ride faster and further than you would expect any 11 year old to ride. She's going to be racing with her mum, who has done one of our Scaredy Cats Clinics and now is an absolute gun.
Apart from all our local girls, we also have women from Queensland, Victoria, and a bunch from places like Nowra, Wollongong, Wodonga, and Canberra who are coming down to experience a great weekend of riding with other like minded girls.
What can riders expect from Dirt Maidens?
Fun, a great race course and format, heaps of support and encouragement, inclusivity, and hopefully some new networks and connections with girl riders from far and wide. On the Friday, we are offering a skills clinic for those who want to gain some confidence and get some pre-race familiarisation. On Saturday, we have 2 events for the women- a cross country and a gravity enduro, as well as a Mini Maidens race for the juniors. After racing we have an optional yoga session, followed by an after party at one of our local sponsors venue. On the Sunday, everything is social, and we are offering a free shuttle to participants which will get them to the start of the newly opened 17km Thredbo Valley Trail. A pretty action-packed weekend of riding!
For those gals who are still on the fence about MTB, what's so great about MTB & what are some of the benefits of riding for a gal?
There are lots of pre-conceived ideas about what MTB is all about, but I don't know any who have tried it and not liked it. Lots of people think high speed, steep, rocky, jumps, gnarly etc. but that's only if you choose to ride that kind of terrain.
Mountain biking is about getting active, getting into nature, and riding with friends. Apart from keeping fit and socialising, there's also a great deal of independence that comes with mountain biking, and with that comes a sense of control, increased confidence and improved self esteem.
I have seen so many women try mountain biking and there are always many 'ah ha!' moments. There is lots of stepping out of comfort zones and achieving things that they never thought possible.
For many women who take up MTB in their mid 30's and beyond, it becomes a way to connect with their kids, and when they are confident to ride, it gives them confidence to take their children out riding. Family and community connections, healthy active lifestyles and the benefits of interaction with nature are natural implications.
What is your best advice in getting started in the sport for a woman? How does she get involved and what will she need initially?
Sign yourself up for a clinic - there are skills clinics all over the place, and many have specific women's clinics, which offer a comfortable and supportive environment for those just starting out. Go to your local bike shop and find out if there are any girls rides in the area and drag a friend along!
In terms of equipment, a basic mountain bike (in good working order) with front suspension is a great start. An Aussie approved bike helmet, some full finger gloves, some rubber soled shoes and a 'give it a go' attitude should get you on your way.
There is a whole community of MTB chicks out there and you'll find that we have all been a beginner at some point, so we know how it feels to be starting out. Most mountain bikers are super friendly and supportive, so if you're willing to have a go, then everyone will be encouraging and more than happy to help out.
Something we like to ask all our Adventurous Women; Tell us your views in relation to gender equality in your chosen sport of women’s mountain biking.
Haha, this is opening a can of worms. There are a few girls I know who can shred better than most guys, but they've had trouble getting a decent sponsorship deal, and even then, some are still paying cost price for their bikes. It doesn't really matter which sport we talk about, women rarely get the sponsorship ops, media attention or prize monies that are afforded to men’s sports.
Even getting the mountain biking magazines interested in the Dirt Maidens has been difficult- we'll have over 80 girls from all around the place heading to Jindy to race and it hasn't really made a ripple. I wonder how many women we need to register for it to make a double page spread in one of the MTB magazines? These ladies may not be the elite riders, but I think it's a huge thing for many of these women to even enter, and is quite ground breaking in getting more women to participate. Its so awesome that Travel Play Live is acknowledging these events, and giving credit to female athletes.
I feel like the Dirt Maidens is a great way to celebrate women in mountain biking, and having a male dominated volunteer crew is a great way to increase the profile women in sport, and a great encouragement for our junior riders. Our club is right behind it, and can see how important it is to support and encourage women to participate in cycling and mountain biking.