There are certain sports and activities that in my mind you don’t take up after a certain age. Some of them include snowboarding, skiing (water or snow), skateboarding, and mountain biking. The risk of injury seems high and aging joints don’t seem like they would be compatible with these activities.
Sure, if you grew up doing them or took them up as a hobby in your 20s then there is probably no reason you couldn’t continue doing them into your 40s, 50s, or even 60s with a bit of extra conditioning. But to just plunge in at 40 or 50 seemed certain to result in a visit to the emergency room.
This is why I was surprised to learn that woman’s mountain biking is exploding in popularity! Woot!! You go girls!! And even better, there are a significant number of women over 40 participating. Whoot! Whoot! Shred it up, ladies!
But, like so many things in life, for women, there are significant barriers to entry into the sport of female mountain biking.
According to the 2019 study, Female Perspectives on Mountain Biking by Rebecca Irvin, the top five descriptors of females’ perceptions of learning to mountain bike were,
- Mountain biking is a male-dominated sport.
- The gear is too expensive.
- When I think of mountain biking, I picture men.
- People who ride mountain bikes are super athletic.
- If I wanted to learn to mountain bike, I would make it happen.
These are all things I have heard repeated again and again in the short time I have been involved in MTB.
Furthermore, as I continued to dive into research on the subject what I learned is that much of what is on the internet has titles something like this, “The Top Female Mountain Bikers to Follow on Instagram.” There’s nothing wrong with Instagram or looking at pictures there for inspiration but you are probably going to dig a bit to find the substance you want. Hopefully, this article can at least begin to fill some of the cavernous gaps in information specific to women’s mountain biking.
Where to get MTB skills if you are over 40 and female
Around the country and the world, you can find mountain biking clinics which are typically one-day courses where you can learn the basics of mountain biking. Some local bike shops (LBS) and biking clubs host them as well as mountain biking organizations such as NICA (National Interscholastic Cycling Association). While NICA is a youth cycling organization many of its events feature clinics that are open to all.
Some companies that offer women-specific introductory clinics around the US include REI and Ride Like a Ninja. Another you may want to consider is the Norco Dirt Series. They offer 2-day camps which are sure to have you feeling more confident when you head back to your home trails.
I have participated in two beginner clinics. Both were affiliated with NICA and the instructors for both were NICA coaches. I found both to be very similar in what was covered and even the structure and techniques taught. The biggest difference between the two was that one was an all-age female-specific clinic while the other was specific to women over 50.
The following section dives into the over 50 women’s clinics but much of what you read here applies to both workshops.
Girls ROC and Ladies ROC Beginners Camps in PA
While doing some research on mountain biking in Pennsylvania, my brother David a NICA coach in central Pennsylvania connected me with Connie Scheunemann, a fellow coach who, with her daughter, runs Girls ROC. This is a skills camp to introduce young women to the sport and improve the skills of those already involved in MTB.
The 4-week camp in Danville, PA progresses participants to new skill levels each week. The intent is to help the girls build confidence in their abilities. As a byproduct, the camp has become a feeder for the local NICA team which both Connie and David coach.
Girls ROC began when Connie’s daughter Allyson got involved in interscholastic riding. Allyson wondered why more girls weren’t riding, or even getting outdoors. At the same time, she was working toward getting her Gold Award with the Girl Scouts. This is the organization’s highest award, equivalent to the Eagle Badge in the Boy Scouts. This became her project to earn her award.
Now, Connie offers a camp to older women, many of whom are the mothers of some of the young riders. In my conversation with Connie, she too mentioned all the things the study revealed. She added that many women start getting involved with the sport because their kids, grandkids, or husband are riding and they want to be able to ride with them.
However, many tell stories of heading out with their husband and kids and just being left in their dust with no instruction. They feel as if they need to figure it out for themselves. Having grown up with brothers, this sounds so familiar to me.
The Ladies ROC Beginner Camp is a full day of skills-building geared toward these women. In 2021, the Scheunemanns added a 50+ Camp. Like the beginners camp, it is for women just starting out.
If you find yourself in Pennsylvania either for a clinic or just to ride take a look at my article The best mountain biking trails in Pennsylvania to help you plan your visit.
I attended the Ladies ROC 50+ Camp. I definitely learned some things and came away feeling like this was something I could do even at 55 years old. Some of the women who attended the camp were older than me and had some experience. Almost all the women including myself were former road riders.
In listening to the more experienced women talk among themselves I noticed a trend in the conversation and that was a lot of chatter about surviving crashes. Some of the women had experienced significant injuries but were still riding. I concluded that if you are going to consider mountain biking you need to be alright with the idea that you will get hurt. But I will add that as your skills develop you become more able to avert some of the more serious events.
The 50+ camp and the beginners camp both provide the basic skill that allows women to go out and ride with confidence in their abilities. And even better you get to learn in an environment that is non-intimidating. You will also learn some safety precautions. During the 6-hour camp, you will practice things like proper pedaling, turning, slaloming, and confronting obstacles.
An Introduction to Mountain Biking Styles: Enduro Vs. Downhill Vs. Cross-Country
Not all mountain biking is the same. There are different levels of extremity. This seems like a good time to go over them.
When discussing Mountain Biking there are three main classes of ride/trail styles, Enduro, Downhill, and Cross-Country (XC). Not only is the trail type different for each form but so are the bikes that are ridden. Let me break it down for you starting with the most extreme.
Enduro Mountain Biking
Enduro riding refers more to racing than casual riding. It is highly technical including steep climbs, big drops, and massive jumps. It is an extreme sport. It is a cross between endurance and downhill riding. In the racing world, it is completed in 3-6 stages sometimes over the course of multiple days. Transitions between stages can involve the use of ski lifts or even hiking to get a rider to the next stage.
Enduro riding is typically performed on full-suspension bikes with wide tires and long travel in the front and rear suspension. “Travel” refers to the movement that the front suspension fork can absorb. Endurance riders will be seen wearing full-face helmets and body armor.
This is exactly what it sounds like. Downhill Mountain Biking is a gravity-oriented sport that is all about speed rather than endurance. Trails take riders down the roughest single-track descents through rock gardens, massive drops, over jumps, and roots. Good balance is required to navigate tough terrain at high speeds. Riders wear full-face helmets, goggles, body armor, and pads. This is an extreme sport.
Because downhill riding is based on gravity and skill rather than pedal power, these bikes sport fewer and smaller gears that allow for greater clearance. These bikes have both front and rear suspension and large rotor brakes.
Cross-Country (XC) Mountain Biking
Cross-country is the least extreme and most user-friendly especially for those of us who aren’t in our twenties at this point. It is the most popular form of MTB. The Olympic Games recognize it as a sport. It is performed on technical trails, including open fire roads, winding narrow single-tracks with obstacles such as rocks, ruts, and roots. In competition, speed is obviously important but for the leisure rider out to have fun, it is more about the terrain, conquering sharp turns, and jumping.
Many XC bikes are single suspension, also known as a hardtail. However, many riders opt for full-suspension bikes. XC bikes are built for climbing and quick handling but they are not very forgiving. These bikes sport knobby tires and shorter suspension travel. This shorter travel is what leads to a rougher ride than some other bikes. XC riding requires the least amount of specialized gear.
Buying the Right Mountain Bike for Women
Knowing what style of riding you intend to do will dictate what kind of bike you should purchase. This is why I went over the types of riding first. Hopefully, you have a better idea of what kind of rider you intend to be.
Mountain bikes for women come with all different specifications and purchasing a bike can be a major investment. Therefore, your first bike purchase might be a bit intimidating. The right bike is the one you are comfortable riding.
Buying the right size bike
Buying the correct size bike is going to be essential to your success as a rider. When I took the Ladies ROC 50+ Skills Camp, I learned real quick how important fit is when mountain biking. I did not own a mountain bike so I borrowed my sister-in-law’s ride. She is considerably shorter than me but I thought if I raised the seat to the highest position I’d be fine. WRONG! I couldn’t have been more wrong. Within a few minutes, I knew it was too small as did Julie, one of the instructors. My quads were on fire within one short lap on the minuscule bicycle. There was no way I would make it through the day. Julie who is just a bit taller than I was happy to let me use her bike when she wasn’t giving instruction. With a few seat adjustments, I was in good shape for the day.
A bike that is too small is going to make your work exponentially harder than you would on a properly fitted bike. One that is too large poses safety concerns.
Bikes generally range in size from XS to XXL. What size bike you need depends predominantly on your height. But it is not the only factor in finding the right size bike for you. Other considerations are the geometry of the bike, especially the reach, which is the distance from the seat to the handlebars. If you have a long torso and short legs you may need a different size than a woman your same height but who is proportioned differently.
The best thing to do when buying a bike is to visit a reputable bike dealer and get sized. Let them tell you what size you need and then try the bike to see how it feels.
Keep in mind that the bike may feel wrong and still be the correct size bike. Tell the dealer so they can make the proper adjustments. Even after you get it home you may still need to make adjustments, especially to your seat to get it positioned properly.
Purchase the Bike that Suits Your Budget and Skills
A mountain bike can cost you anywhere from a few hundred dollars for a used bike to $10K for a new top-of-the-line bike.
Chances are that if you are just getting started you don’t need the $10K bike. Buying used is perfectly acceptable and in many cases, you can find a lightly used one with more of the bells and whistles for the same money you will pay for a new entry-level bike (A disclaimer should be added here. Because of COVID-19 bikes are in short supply and used bikes are bringing a premium. This is still true in 2022 but it’s improving)
It is a good idea to buy a bike that is slightly above your skillset. Early on you will develop your skills quite quickly. You don’t want a bike that can’t keep up with your improvements. Also, keep in mind that you can always make upgrades and improvements to your bike. You can switch to a better seat, tires, or components if you want to later. As your skills improve you may want to install a dropper post.
Should You Buy Hard Tail VS Full Suspension
This may come down to your budget. A hardtail will cost you considerably less than a full-suspension bike. I purchased a hardtail. I didn’t want to drop a ton of money into something I wasn’t even sure I would want to do in a year. Since making my purchase and getting out to do some rides I’ve learned a few things.
First, many people opt to spend the money on the full suspension from the start. Full suspension will give you a much softer ride than the hardtail. As an older rider, this should probably be a consideration. It will be gentler on your body.
But I’ve also been told, that riding a hardtail will make you a better rider. This is because it takes more effort to control the bike and to have it perform in the ways needed for technical terrain. Therefore, if you should decide at some point to upgrade to full suspension you will be killin’ it right out of the gate.
In conclusion, mountain biking is certainly something that older women can do successfully. But knowing your limits is probably a good practice. My attitude is that I’m out to have some fun. At 55 I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone and if I feel I need to get off the bike and walk it, that’s fine. I’d rather do that than seriously injure myself.
Another takeaway from my first year of riding is an appreciation for the skills possessed by advanced riders. The ability to take quick sharp turns at 11 or 12 mph is no easy endeavor (I’m not riding anywhere close to that speed yet). Not to mention doing it in between trees and with other obstacles in your path.
Mountain Biking Resources
Some Helpful Links
When dealing with anything specialized you will typically find that there is certain jargon associated with it. Mountain biking isn’t any different. And in some cases, you may even think that MTB riders are speaking a different language entirely. Here is a link to an article that will have you speaking the language of MTB in no time.
Some of that unusual lingo relates to the bikes we ride. This link may be helpful especially when it comes to purchasing your first bicycle. It discussed things like bike sizing and geometry
Mountain Biking Organizations
International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) is a membership-based organization whose mission is “To create, enhance and protect great places to ride mountain bikes.” Their goal is “To grow the quantity and quality of mountain bike trail communities across the U.S.”
National Interscholastic Bicycling Association (NIBA) has everything you need to know about interscholastic riding including how to get involved with coaching and team support.
MTB Websites, Apps, and Social Media
You will definitely want to download Strava on your phone so that you can keep track of your rides. It records your time and uses GPS so you will never get lost. Additionally, it interfaces with Trailforks and social media so you can share your rides.
If you want to connect with other female riders try these Facebook groups Mountain Biking Ladies or Women’s MTB Experience. Both are large active groups with women of all ages. I suggest you also try to find yourself some online and in-person local groups.
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