|This is what I imagine a crown of mud and rocks would look like.|
When I first read Gloria Liu’s Bicycle magazine article titled “That Time I Went Full Enduro” a few weeks ago, it was hard to get through it without my heart racing and my eyes welling up with tears. I had developed a bit of a girl crush on Gloria a year or so before, when I discovered the value of reading bike and gear reviews from a real person who I’d encountered in real life and whose riding style and terrain was close to my own. Gloria’s opinions held much more weight than any random woman in Colorado, California, or the UK talking about howwell (or not) bikes and gear performed. When she won both the enduro stage and overall enduro classification at the Tran-Sylvania Epic this year, I was stoked…and jealous, but knowing that it wasn’t my time yet, I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather see it go to.
I admittedly hadn’t paid that much attention to her results last season, as she was in the Pro/Cat 1 class for the MASS races, and I was struggling to not be last in the Cat 2/3, so I couldn’t be concerned with what was transpiring a whole category up. Reading the article was a visceral experience, as I was actually there for many of the events mentioned, but busy getting caught up in the climbs and descents of my own morale. Although it was heartbreaking to read along with her struggles during the 2016 season, it was also heartening to know that a much better rider was going through the same sense of despair on many of the same days that I was. I definitely remember the woman in spandex kicking everyone’s butt in the Pro/Cat 1 class, and I’m all too familiar with the sickening feeling that you were beaten by someone who wasn’t even trying very hard. The article ended on an upbeat note when she got her groove back at last year’s Raven Enduro, the same time that I lost all faith in myself for a while. Regardless of when we hit our respective highs and lows, I finished the article feeling comforted that we both got happier endings in 2017.
From my own experience and others that I’ve read about, it seems that women are more susceptible to getting sucked in to their own crushing expectations in the superficially chill world of enduro. Because the sport is difficult, dangerous, and still pretty obscure, the women that it draws are brave, highly motivated women who forge their own paths. They are women who, regardless of what they were doing before, were offered the opportunity of long, often muddy, days in the saddle, grinding uphill on heavy bikes just to careen down a rocky chute in a fraction of the time it took to get up, then do it all again. To that they’d say, “Heck yes! That sounds like the best idea ever! I’ll do that now!”
More often than not, these special individuals end up riding alone or with a male companions who egg them on in these pursuits. They inevitably become the “cool girl” who is rad just for showing up when most others wouldn’t, and deservedly so. The problem with being the one “cool girl” day-to-day is that, when pitted against a handful of other cool girls on race day, the pressure to reign supreme is incredibly high. I even see this in Liv’s to decision to sponsor exactly one female EWS rider to accompany the release of the Hail after a few years of an all-boy Giant Factory Team. When I see Instagram posts of Rae Morrison surrounded by her male teammates, I see a queen presiding over her realm, and I love it, but I also find it a weird message for a women’s brand to be sending. Perhaps I’m completely crazy in this perception, and I should just be happy that Liv is in some way admitting that their $8000 160mm travel bike is in fact for racing and not just for riding to the nail salon with your friends.
Perhaps I’m also completely off in my theory as to why women seem to exhibit more stress and self-pressure in enduro racing than men, but I see it play out in my own life, at least. For the first few years that I lived in State College, Strava was a great motivator for me and served as my “safe space” substitute for racing during the summer. Considering that most of our trails have been traversed by national-level pros, it was pretty easy to focus on improving my own times without much thought as to where I stood on the leaderboards. I would occasionally find satisfaction in besting a faster local woman’s time from a year or two before, but for the most part, I was the only woman setting any PRs outside of the Tran-Sylvania Epic, Trailmix, and Wilderness 101 race days. I would occasionally decide to race after too many weeks of improvement, when it seemed like a good idea to compare myself to other people in real time, only to be sadly disappointed in the results (see Guts, Gravel, Glory).
Things changed this year when I finally got my hands on a big bike and had some lightbulb moments in my technical skills. I was rapidly approaching the top 10’s of the TSE enduro stage holy trinity of Sand Spring, Wildcat, and Old Laurel, and beginning to cherry pick obscure locals-only downhill QOMs that had maybe been walked by a woman once three years ago. Staying on my bike until the bottom was all it took to get a QOM. Admittedly, it was fun, although I kept notes of the “actually fast” goal times that I wanted to achieve before the summer was over.
However, I began to notice that the leaderboards weren’t staying stable. My random QOM that I’d taken from someone who set it five years ago would unexpectedly be blown away while I was away in West Virginia racing. After three years of singletrack Strava stagnation, up-and-comers suddenly appeared, all seemingly intent on the becoming the Undisputed Gnar Queen of Rothrock. It didn’t take long for me to start getting really stressed out about the situation, because who were these women, and why were they improving more quickly than me? I was so proud of the progress that I had made earlier in the spring, and suddenly I felt the crushing pressure to stay #1, instead of continuing to focus on clearing the features that were still tripping me up and easing off the brakes until I hit the “actually fast” goal times that I’d set for myself. What if one of those women hit the “actually fast” times before me? That would be further proof that I’m untalented and hopeless, right?
Ironically, racing has been my comfort instead of my disappointment this season. I gave the West Virginia Enduro Series a try because it seemed like the trails were closer to what I was used to than the MASS or ESC races, while still pushing me far enough from my comfort zone to learn to actually race instead of just time trialing via Strava. When we arrived at Valley Falls the weekend before last after a few weeks’ hiatus, my first thought as I got out of the car and surveyed the familiar faces around the parking lot was how much I loved it. At the WVES races, I’ve been able to get past my race nerves and just soak in how much I love putting on my silly costume and riding my silly bike over silly terrain with like-minded people. It reminds me of my early days of racing ‘cross, when there only a handful of women on the start line, and I was the only one in a skinsuit. I’ve always been a sucker for a silly costume.
Of course, my love has been bolstered by a couple of wins, and the fact that, even when I’ve been beaten, it was by someone who’s been racing enduro much longer than me. I actually feel like my results are in line with my trajectory of development, and it’s nice.
While I’d been mulling over a post about Gloria’s article since I read it, what really inspired me to move forward was Netflix’ recent release of GLOW, a fictional retelling of the “gorgeous ladies of wrestling” from the 80’s TV show. In addition to silly costumes, enduro is another world where “unconventional women” play characters and vie for a crown, albeit a metaphorical one. Instead of fake rivalries between the USA and USSR, our matches play out between hustlers vs. natural talents, young vs. old, equipment junkies vs. “run what you brung”, and sometimes even baggies vs. spandex.
However, instead of pleasing the audience, I think it’s most important that we remind ourselves that it’s all really just made-for-TV drama. The crown is just plastic and rhinestones (and metaphorical ones at that), and the writers of genetics, weather, and luck have likely already determined the winner. It’s up to us to make the silly costumes look good, put on the best show we can, and hopefully not get injured in the process.
I’ll admit that I struggle with actually living up to this ideal more than most, but I hope that by writing this I can have a reminder next time I start to feel stressed out and unworthy because of the competition. I’ll remind myself that the other gorgeous ladies of enduro are not actually my enemy, and perhaps ask them if they want to ride our 160mm bikes to the nail salon together.