Mountain Biking’s Bumpy Road to Gender Equality

On September 8, 2018, during her first year as an elite racer, 23-year-old Kate Courtney won the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, ending a 17-year gold medal drought for the United States. Reflecting on her win, Courtney noticed a shift in her interactions with fans—particularly male fans. Here’s the story, in her words.

I’ve made a living out of being uncomfortable. I ride through the rain, tumble over rocks, and push through rugged climbs laden with roots, ruts, and boulders. In order to get better, I have to take risks, and I have to suffer. I thrive in these moments of discomfort, because I know they ultimately lead to the next level. But there is one type of discomfort I have never gotten used to, one that can’t be controlled by putting my head down and working harder. It’s the discomfort that usually comes from interacting with male fans at my competitions.

I’ve received marriage proposals and many unsolicited observations on my appearance. Two years ago, after I won the national championships, a group of teenage boys shouted in unison, “You’re cute!” I had just won nationals; I was covered in dirt and sweat, my fishtail braid fraying from exertion and elation. This outburst told me that when they watched me race, some weren’t paying attention to the skill I had spent the past decade cultivating. I was a lot of things that day, including many more powerful adjectives than “cute.”

Such interactions have long been the norm for women across all sports. Even in mountain biking—where women race the same course, for the same amount of time, and for the same amount of prize money as men—female racers are all too familiar with receiving these types of comments. Even if the talk isn’t explicitly centered around a woman’s body, her accomplishments are often qualified by gender. She didn’t just win nationals, she won women’s nationals. She doesn’t ride well, she rides well for a woman.

This year, however, I experienced a distinct and heartening change in the way people interacted with me. After crossing the line at the world championships, and in several instances since, conversations about my riding have shifted from a preoccupation with my looks, instead focusing on my grit, determination, and ability to overcome obstacles—the kind of qualities that drive all athletes, regardless of gender.

Now, instead of boys of telling me they think I’m cute or want to marry me, they ask me how I learned to ride a rock garden, climb a technical hill, or descend on impassable ground. They want me to sign helmets, hats, and jerseys. They tell me they want to be like me, leaving out any qualifiers. Their fathers say I’m a good role model for their sons—as well as their daughters. At nationals, a few teenage boys even painted their nails pink with a sparkly accent nail to match my prerace manicure.

These changes represent a larger shift in the sport. In the past, the women’s field was dismissed as uncompetitive because it had less funding and fewer competitors—and those competitors were women. Since 2013, the world championships’ elite women’s heat has grown by 20 athletes, compared to 15 in the men’s field. Now our races are considered some of the most exciting to watch. From 2017 to 2018, viewership for the women’s world championship event more than doubled, from 99,000 to 233,000 views on Red Bull TV, on par with the men’s event. These races are always tight, often decided in the last lap or dwindling minutes of an hour-and-half-long race—before worlds, the highest I’d placed in a World Cup race was sixth. While we still don’t have as many racers as the men’s field (60 to 80, compared to their 90 to 100), no one who watches a World Cup can reasonably make the argument that the women’s field is soft.

It’s hard to quantify what it means for attitudes to change and for boys to openly look up to a woman. But when I stood on the podium at worlds, I could feel a sense of history in my achievement. I grew up just after the Title IX era, where athletic feminism centered around access. The motto was one of inclusion and participation—the idea that “women can too!” At a very young age, this kind of feminism irked me. Of course women can ride a bike, I thought. Of course they can play football. Why is the focus on participation, and not on how well women compete and push the limits, like in men’s athletics? I now understand that the work of women before me gave me the privilege of thinking that way.

Across women’s sports, a new generation of talented female athletes are finally benefiting from gradually changing attitudes. People call Serena Williams the best tennis player of all time. When Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall won gold at the Winter Olympics, they were recognized as heroes for all Americans, not just women. Watching these performances, and those of so many other female athletes, inspires me to deliver at the top level and to be recognized for my work as an athlete.

At my first world championships, in 2012, I crashed and watched the elite women race from the sidelines, concussed and forlorn. At least, I did until Georgia Gould crossed the line in third place—while the loudspeakers blasted “Born in the USA.” Seeing Georgia, and later my teammate Lea Davison, win medals for Team USA at the 2012 and 2014 world championships showed me that it was possible to get to the next level. This year at worlds, that finish line anthem was on my prerace playlist.

Today, someone else could use my race as inspiration to do better. And I’m not just talking about little girls.

Yes, we still have a way to go. Women are still largely underpaid as professionals in cycling and other sports. Girls still drop out of sports at a higher rate than their male peers or don’t get the chance to participate at all. But if cycling has taught me anything, it’s that progress is jagged. We often stagnate or step back before we step forward, and in order to improve, you must keep moving and celebrate the victories along the way. Subtle changes in perceptions of female athletes may seem like a small step, but the implications represent a greater victory and an opportunity to keep moving.

As told to Annie Pokorny.

Outside Magazine: Fitness

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