I take part in the occasional mountain bike race, but I never enter thinking I’m going to win – far from it.
I sign up for the experience, to try new events, set myself a challenge, go to new places and meet new people. I also like to think that the more women take part, the more others will be encouraged to give it a go.
You don’t have to be that fast or that technical or accomplished a rider if you want to take part (I’ve been in races where young girls are being chaperoned down the course by their parents – Lousã Avalanche) or met a mum who took part in the ladies race because her son was in one of the men’s races, not having ridden much before (Megavalanche). I raced alongside women who had borrowed a bike, helmet and body armour, and one who raced in hot pants because she didn’t have any ‘proper’ bike shorts (Inca Avalanche).
It doesn’t matter how old you are or that you’ve never done a race before, you can take part and have a great time in the process. Borrow the gear if you have to, come with friends and make it a group experience, or go solo (as I’ve done a few times). Just do it! It’s so much fun!
The numbers of women at races I’ve taken part in have been pretty small compared to the overall number of men. One of the benefits of this is, the smaller the number the more chance you have of getting on the podium or getting a medal.
The low entry numbers for women could be to do with the fact that I’ve only ever taken part in Avalanche format races, but who knows? Avalanche races are where all the riders (or at least large groups of them in some races) set off at once and battle it out for positions until they reach the finish line.
Races I’ve taken part in to date
Megavalanche (Alpe d’Huez France) – 2011
The longest downhill mountain bike race in the world at ~22km. You start on the glacier (the length of time you ride on snow varies from year to year) and then you ride over a rocky, moonscape before finally meeting the single track further down.
If I remember correctly, around 80 women had signed up the year I did this race, but as you can see from the results below, only 38 actually took part. A qualifying race determines your place on the start grid. I placed 33rd, and made it down in 2 hours dead (the same time as one of my male friends). I was happy to have got to the end, without injury (despite a small ‘off’ on the icy glacier bed below the start) and with no mechanicals either.
In comparison there were around 2000 men that year, who had to be split into 4 start line groups. Our start line was very chatty and happy, and only about 3 rows deep. We were singing and giggling (probably the nerves in my case) but it was pretty pleasant compared to the aggressive, packed-full men’s race. I saw two guys literally start a fight in one section… but there was none of that bad behaviour in the women’s race of course 😉
I was 35 when I did this race.
Passportes du Soleil – Châtel – 2013
I joined this race on a press pass (with a press race plate), with my photographer friend in tow. We weren’t really racing as such, just covering the event for news reports and photos. It covers ~80km over two days in lots of bike resorts in France and Switzerland and it’s really, really popular.
The base village or town for the event changes each year, and in 2013 it started in Châtel. Day one was pretty sunny. There were a few big snow patches left over from the ski season, but nothing too bad. Day two, however was an absolute washout, so we took the liberty of hunkering down in the village and looking around the bike exhibitor stalls.
Here’s a video for what to expect if you take part. The scenery is stunning, there’s lots of side events, food stations all over the course of the event and it draws people in from around 60 different countries each year.
At the end of the event there’s always a big concert. Jimmy Somerville was the headline act in 2013 and so I was pretty happy singing along with a glass or two of beer in hand 🙂
They’ve started doing a women’s bike test day and a women’s event since I took part, so it should definitely be one to add to your bucket list!
Top tip – Tickets sell out super fast, so you’ll want to look for which village is hosting the event that year, as that’s where you’ll want to start the event from. These are the tickets that sell out first.
Inca Avalanche (Ollantaytambo, Peru) – 2016
There were in the region of 200 people taking part in this race, with just 12 women. Everyone starts together and there’s no qualification race. I was 40 when I took part (in fact the reason I went was to celebrate this milestone). I finished 5th and it took me ~45 minutes (I stopped to check on a girl who’d crashed out hard on the way down, otherwise I might have saved 5 minutes). It’s ~18km long and starts at 4300m altitude. Read more about my trip.
It’s not a hard race (aside from the altitude which makes it hard to get a proper lung full). The trails are mostly old Inca paths (some wide, some single track) and you ride the main road a lot on the way down (it’s slightly disappointing how much tarmac there is). There are no major technical parts, apart from 2 big jumps which you can avoid, and a steep dirt chute which isn’t very long and totally manageable.
The previous year they had podiums for 1st to 5th place in the women’s race but the guy running it decided to go with 3 in 2016 (git) so I didn’t get a podium. But, I finished in one piece and again with no mechanicals. Sweet.
Mountain of Hell (Les Deux Alpes, France) – 2016
A few months after I got home from Peru, I took part in the Mountain of Hell. 700 people take part (it’s limited to this number each year) and there were only 16 women. Here’s my write up about it for the company I worked for at the time. It’s ~11km and goes from glacier snow to dirt single track.
Qualifiers went well, but in the race, I crashed out on the glacier and tore my right pec muscle pretty badly, trying to hold onto my bike whilst sliding down the snow. There was no way I was going to let my bike go, so the result was that I didn’t finish, I couldn’t ride. My should hurt, my fingers were tingling and I was gutted. (Sometimes injuries happen, but don’t let that put you off).
One thing I want to highlight about this race, is the disparity between prize funds for men and women. They rode exactly the same race, but the top woman won less than half the top man. FFS! This really pisses me off. I checked the 2018 and 2019 races and sadly it’s still the same, even after my contact at the tourist office said they were looking to even it out 😦
1 – Jérôme CLEMENTZ / FR – 26.49 – 700€
2 – Youn DENIAUD / FR – 28.00 – 500€
3 – Stefan PETER / SUISSE – 28.31 – 350€
4 – Yoan PESENTI / FR – 29.04 – 150€
5 – Olivier BRUWIERE / FR – 29.20 – 100€
1 – Morgane SUCH / FR – 34.18 – 300€
2 – Emilie SERRE / FR – 38.55 – 200€
3 – Pauline DIEFFENTHALER / FR – 39.21 – 100€
I was 40 when I did this race.
Avalanche Licor Beirão (Lousã, Portugal) – 2019
I moved to Portugal in October 2019, and this race took place in the November. There’s no qualifier, but you can ride the course and recce it the day before. My recce ride was the wettest ever, it pissed down and the wind was howling. There was little visibility at the top and it was freezing cold. The trails were boggy and full of slippery roots and rocks that made it pretty treacherous. It was technical in some parts and there’s one huge drop, but you can avoid that.
There were around 200 competitors, again all starting together. About 20 women took part, so a much better representation than the others races above.
Bearing in mind I was 43, overweight and smoking when I took part, I came 9th and even got a medal and a bottle of booze (Licor Beirão) for my efforts. My time was terrible (about 50:26 minutes) compared to the winning woman’s run of 26:59. It was still pretty wet on race day although not actually raining thankfully. I aim to smash my terrible time in 2020.
Top reasons to take part in a race
Camaraderie – You get to meet great, like-minded women (and men). Everyone is there for the same reason, and I’ve found everyone is helpful, even though it’s a competition. People want to celebrate the fact that they’re there taking part. My top tip: make friends and look out for eachother on the course, as you never know what might happen.
Atmosphere – There was a great atmosphere surrounding each of the races I’ve taken part in. The whole town is buzzing, filled with bikes and fellow bikers, happy to be there. Excited, chatty competitors, side events, displays, stalls selling gear, and a few parties at some of them, all added to the vibe.
Get to meet your heroes – Anne Caro Chausson, a bonafide mountain bike legend, was at the Mega when I took part and she won (see results above). She’s had an amazing career and achieved so much. It was great to be rubbing shoulders with her on the start grid.
Podium places, prize money and medals – Since the number of women taking part in a lot of these races is so small, it increases your chances of getting on the podium, winning some cash or winning a medal. An added bonus, but not essential to taking part.
Set yourself a challenge – Take part, make it to the bottom (or not) and you’ve for sure challenged yourself and your riding abilities. I wasn’t sure if I could finish the mega, as I had no idea how hard or technical it was going to be before I got there. But I took on the challenge and it felt amazing once I’d done it.
Great views – Downhill races naturally start from up high, so you get great views (as long as the weather plays ball). You’ll get some great photos for social media!
Learn stuff – What bikes are other people riding? What’s their set up? What brands are they wearing? How do they repair stuff? What tips can they share with you?
Going to new places – I’d never been to Alpe d’Huez before the Mega, but I went back countless times afterward, the biking there is amazing. I’d never been to Peru either, and that was such a great experience for lots of reasons. Broaden your horizons, go somewhere new…
There’s another avalanche race on my radar, again somewhere else I’ve never been – Reunion Island… who knows I might sign up for that too!
Don’t let age stop you – I took part in my first race when I was 35, so you don’t have be a young whipper-snapper to get started. Never say “I’m too old for this”. 😉
There are plenty other mountain-bike race formats out there, you just need to find one that takes your interest and get yourself signed up. If you’re not keen on diving straight in, find a race and go to watch it first. I’m sure you’ll be tempted after that!
In the words of Christina Koch, an astronaut who just spent a record time in space “Do things that scare you” I couldn’t agree more 🙂