By Karen Kefuaver
The bike shop was bustling on a sunny, spring morning. Riders of all shapes and sizes were sipping coffee, filling water bottles and hydration packs and stocking up on energy bars. The cash register was ringing and the buzz of voices filled The Bicycle Trip in Santa Cruz, California. The sizable crowd was unusual for a Saturday morning - cyclists would usually be out riding at that hour. Stranger still, the store was packed with women. All 52 of us gals had gathered to attend The Dirt Series, a two-day mountain bike skills clinic taught by women and for women.
"Everyone is here to learn and have a good time," said The Dirt Series founder and director Candace Shadley when she welcomed our group to “camp.”
With bright blue eyes and a mega-watt smile, Shadley told us about The Dirt Series, which she launched in 2000 in Whistler, British Columbia. During the past nine years, more than 5,000 women have joined the camps that take place annually in Canada and the United States. Last year's locations included Oregon, Idaho, Utah, California as well as British Columbia and Alberta. (The 2010 schedule will be finalized in February).
As she introduced the instructors, a hush fell over our talkative group these women's cycling credentials were awesome. Many were past or present mountain national bike champions in cross country or downhill. I was thrilled to have such expert instruction.
"I love being able to travel and teach women in one weekend the skills it took me years to learn," said Emily Johnston, 30, a coach with The Dirt Series for the past five years. One of three women in the world who can do a full back flip on her mountain bike, Johnston raced downhill professionally for six years. "Watching women's progression on the bike is really exciting," she said.
Thanks for having me at the camp. It was a lot of fun. You guys have it down and the ladies in my group were awesome to ride with too. I’m off early for world domination…
Olympic bronze medalist
Three-time World Champion
As a confident intermediate rider, (with no aspirations to perform back flips), I was excited to learn the step-by-step "how to's" so I could better navigate technical terrain. When I signed up online for the skills clinic, at the recommendation of friends who had attended, I provided detailed information about my level of mountain biking expertise. They also asked what I wanted to focus on learning. At the clinic, some participants would be totally new to mountain biking while others would be advanced competitors in downhill racing.
"We are open to all levels and all abilities and try to group similar skill sets together," said Johnston, who spent several summers in Whistler bombing down the famous trails there. "One woman was so new to biking that she did not know how to shift gears," recalled Johnston, "while others are perfecting their wheelies and bunny hops."
My top priority at the clinic was learning how to lift my front wheel over logs. For years, I have been frustrated that I lacked this elusive skill. I watched friends ahead of me on the trail clear things on their bikes that I had to walk over. Fellow riders had attempted to teach me this skill, but I couldn't master it on the go.
Our packed, two-day schedule had a good mix of skills and riding. During the two mornings, we separated into smaller groups based on interest and rotated between stations and instructors to learn different skills. The coaches set up a variety of stations including one for straight-line riding on a flat fire hose and boxes set up for wheelie drop-offs. There were also small obstacles to practice front wheel lifts to get up curbs or ledges and boxes set up for manuals for clearing obstacles on downhill runs.
In the afternoons, we hit the trails under the watchful eye of our coaches and the volunteer riders who accompanied us. Which trails we rode on depended again on our skill level. At each session, the coaches both explained what and then demonstrated the move we were about to attempt. We often got one-on-one attention and detailed advice on how to better execute a maneuver.
I liked that there was a lot of flexibility: we could select the skill clinic that best fit our needs and change it later if was too hard or easy. Our groupings by skill level were an effective method for us to learn new things safely. The environment was very supportive and we cheered for each other.
After a full day of riding and learning, we returned to the bike shop Saturday evening to feast on a catered dinner (included with price of the clinic). Then, shop mechanics taught us tips on weekly bike maintenance, how to fix a flat tire and showed us how to set up our bikes for the best fit. I asked a ton of questions. We also signed up for the skills we wanted to work on the next day. Early Sunday morning, back at the bike shop, our group was noticeably quieter than the day before. Some of us displayed bruises like badges of courage and all of us had tired muscles. I was surprised how sore my arms were! We traded stories of triumph and set out to learn more on the second and final day of our intensive clinic.
We devoted an hour to each of the skills we had chosen. The repetition from the day before was a great opportunity to build confidence. Our lunch break was especially fun because we got to draw prizes from sponsors, including the title sponsor Rocky Mountain Bicycles (www.bikes.com)
During the afternoon ride on the trails, I concentrated on practicing all my new skills: taking corners at both fast and low speeds, riding in a straight line and climbing up steep hills. I was happy I didn't need to use my new bailout method - an emergency tool for self-preservation for when you can't ride something.
The highlight of the weekend for me was the revelation that getting over a log required a full-body effort, not just trying to yank upwards on the handlebars. I wish I could say I am now an ace at clearing logs on the trail but I'm not. I have improved a lot and can now ride things I couldn't before. It just takes practice. And what better excuse to go out and ride more? When I join the clinic next time, sign me up to ride teeter-totters and drop off ledges!