Girls ride past adversity in male-dominated mountain biking

Maria Alexander

Dismounting from her bike after an exhausting yet thrilling race at the state championships, sophomore Haley Randel heads outs to the side of the track. Stringing 12 cowbells to a tennis racket, she devises her own noisemaker, ideal for cheering on the rest of the Redwood team. The pings and dings of the bells mix with chants as Randel watches the boys speed through the finish line.

The mountain biking team is not an official Redwood sport, but rather a club that competes in National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) races. In 2018, Randel won 1st place in the NorCal race, and although the club’s race season is just starting up, she has already won 1st place in two of her 2019 races. This year, she will be competing on the junior national team and if she performs, she will move on to represent the U.S. for international races. Randel has been successful on the mountain, yet she is one of few girls participating in the club. At Redwood, mountain biking is generally a male-dominated sport. The girls compete in separate events, but both boys and girls train together during the spring to prepare for upcoming races. The overall team is composed of about 25 riders, according to Randel; however, only six of them are girls.

Although this is a small number, Julia Violich, director of the team for 18 years, said that it varies from year to year. She described the number of riders on the team as a fluctuating process that is based on how involved the girls on the team are.

“I think that women are much more tribal and I think women love community and that’s the way women have been for centuries. Women are the gatherers and they sit together and make the baskets together. This is why it ebbs and flows because I have a core group and they get more girls into it, which gets more girls into it. Then it will completely flow. If a bunch of girls graduate and we haven’t been recruiting, then it will ebb and we just got a couple [of girls],” Violich said.

Randel attributes the fact that there are currently not many girl riders on the team due to commitment to other sports.

“When most girls get to high school, they are already invested in a sport like soccer or something where it requires you to have been playing your whole life. So many girls are participating in their sports and they are able to make the Redwood team and that prevents them from being able to join the mountain biking team,” Randel said. “With a lot of the boys, they joined the mountain biking team because they didn’t make the soccer team or something like that.”

Sophomore Isabella Heinemann, who joined the team in eighth grade, believes that fear may be another reason that stops girls from participating in the sport.

“I feel like a lot of people also just haven’t grown up riding bikes or mountain biking. Whenever they do see mountain bikers, they’re mostly just boys who are going really fast and are kind of intimidating. I don’t think it even crosses most people’s mind that they could mountain bike as a sport because it’s not a school sport that you can see all the time and then sign up for,” Heinemann said.

Photo courtesy of Haley Randel
Jingling her cowbells, Haley Randel supports her team.

With the girls usually surrounded by boys on the mountain, Randel has used the gender disparity to challenge herself, as it offers preparation for races.

“You always want to be riding and training with someone faster than you. It’s really great to be able to practice with [the boys] and chase them around and try to keep up. It’s really good for fitness and for skill,” Randel said.

One takeaway that both Randel and Heinemann mentioned is that the club is open to new girl riders and most girls start with little experience. Like official Redwood sports, racers can ride for varsity, junior varsity, or freshman competitions, and can choose to opt-out of racing all together if they choose.

“Don’t worry about how your skills are or how good you are or how fit you are. Mountain biking is an exponential sport, so you get good quickly. We’ve had top girls join freshman year that didn’t know how to ride a bike and ended up racing varsity. You don’t have to race; there’s no pressure. It’s for fun in the end, so they shouldn’t feel scared or worried about joining the team,” Randel said.

Sophomore Mady Gordon recently joined the team this year. She learned how to ride a bike when she was 10 and decided to sign up for the team at Club Day this fall. After a rough beginning, Gordon eventually became comfortable on her bike. Besides mastering the techniques of riding, she also learned how adapt to co-ed practices on the mountain.

Photo courtesy of Haley Randel
Sophomore Isabella Heinemann speeds down the track.

“I remember the first time I practiced with the team; I was really intimidated by all the boys who were going really fast and really far ahead, so I felt pressure to go as fast as they were. I’d push myself too hard and burn out halfway through the ride and the rest of it would be really tiring,” Gordon said. “I’d think, ‘Oh gosh, I don’t want to do this anymore.’ [Haley and Isabella] told me to understand that the boys would be a little bit faster, but I’d eventually keep up with them. You just have to stick with it.”

Although girls on the team may face some initial challenges, like in any sport, Violich values their presence on team.

“Guys get a little edgy, a little competitive, and I think girls bring humility. Like it’s okay to fail, it’s okay to not be as fast, it’s okay to not have the right day. Women are more forgiving, kind, and welcoming. They add diversity. You just feel like you are more part of a family,” Violich said.