It was the day before the 2019 Dirty Kanza and I pedaled my bicycle alongside a racer named Peta Takai along a dusty, bumpy road. It was the event’s traditional shakeout ride, where participants pedal easy miles to work through the pre-race jitters. Takai, a New Zealander living in Los Angeles, and I talked about the badass nature of Alison Tetrick, our gear choices, and other topics. Not once did we mention our bizarre place among the ride.
Of the 200 or so riders in the group, we were the only women.
As women who race, we were both accustomed to being the only females, and it’s no bother. What is annoying, however, is when actually getting into races becomes an issue.
Several months after our ride, Takai texted me frantically.
“Chic, I didn’t get into Big Sugar, it must have sold out in like five minutes,” she wrote. It was the morning that registration opened for the new gravel race in Arkansas, and Takai, like so many thousands of others, had tried to register after the race sold out. According to organizers, The Big Sugar sold out 1,000 spots in four minutes. And of those 1,000 spots only 10% went to women.
“Don’t you think the fact that you and I are females and also placed really well at DK should count for something?” Takai continued. “I mean, I went to all of the bigger gravel races this year.”
Only later did Takai learn that the organizers of the race felt the same way. When she clicked on the “contact us” button on the event’s website, she received the following message: There may be additional opportunities for women.
It’s no secret that gravel’s explosive growth has made it a challenge for cyclists to get into the marquee races dotting the schedule, such as the Dirty Kanza, The Mid South, and SBT GRVL, among others. The lightning-fast sellouts have had a disproportionately greater impact on female riders, who already make up a smaller portion of the participant pool.
Race promoters have responded with innovative new registration formats that place a higher value on female participants. Some races simply allow all the women who want to participate a spot in the race. Nevertheless, a tough question remains: Aside from the fact women have always been the minority in bike racing, why aren’t their numbers higher in the brave, new, and inclusive world of gravel?
Race organizers across the country have taken the question to heart. They are retooling their registration formats to allow for more women, offering camps and women’s-only programs, and making sure that their marketing conveys the message that women are welcome. Most importantly, however, they’ve realized that once women get into gravel, you can’t get us out.
WHERE THE GIRLS AREN’T
Before Kristi Mohn became a race promoter, she was a gravel rider herself. She and her husband had discovered cycling as a way to stay fit and spend time together. When a few of their friends came up with the harebrained idea to stage a 200 mile course on the gravel roads around their home in Emporia, Kansas, and call it the Dirty Kanza, Tim signed up.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to or wasn’t interested,” says Mohn. “But somebody had to stay with the kids.”
Mohn, of course, isn’t alone. For years, competitive cycling has lagged behind other endurance sports in attracting female participants. While some promoters have tried to address the sport’s participation disparity at the race level, for many women, the turnoff comes well before the start line.
Training for a long, endurance-style bike race like gravel is time consuming and can be logistically challenging. Even with a supportive partner or family who shares the burden of household chores and child-rearing, women tend to have less flexibility with their free time.
“It’s often about managing families and workloads,” says Miguel Crawford, who runs the Grasshopper Adventure Series. “More often, guys budget a certain amount of time to train no matter what. Women don’t always choose the mega miles to do the super long events because they know the likelihood is that they won’t have the time.”
Of course there are other endurance events that have become wildly popular with women. Running races sit atop this list. According to the IAAF’s State of Running report for 2019, female participation in running events surpassed male participation in 2019. Female participation in long running events is similarly large — the report examined the 443,878 marathon results recorded for the United States over the last decade, and close to 43% of those results were from female runners.
Training for a marathon is certainly tough, but is it perhaps more convenient than training for a bike race? Or are there cultural reasons why mass-participant gravel races struggle to attract women?
In 2008, Mohn became a co-director of the Dirty Kanza, partially because she saw that female participation was tiny, which represented an enormous opportunity. She credits her own experience racing gravel with helping her to see through the barriers that might be holding women back.
“It dawned on me that we need to encourage them [women] to do it,” Mohn says. “It came out of the way I was feeling. It didn’t feel like I wasn’t allowed to do it, but it was the bigger picture. Husbands aren’t realizing that they’re not supporting their wives in this space.”
OPENING THE DOOR
Back to my friend Peta Takai. She didn’t get into The Mid South gravel race this year, either.
“Unfortunately I was out racing that day, but I heard that it sold out in minutes,” Takai said. “I just feel women like us who are out there really trying to get more girls into the sport should be ambassadors somehow.”
The Mid South uses a first-come, first-serve registration format, and in recent years the race has sold out quickly. Having women at the start line is important to director Bobby Wintle. So, Wintle created a simple solution to the problem.
“For the last three years or so we have pulled every single woman that gets onto the waitlist, no matter the distance, and pulled them into the race,” Wintle said. “And for the past four years, 20% of The Mid South’s participants have been women.”
Other promoters have also tried a retroactive approach. In 2019, organizers of SBT GRVL were dismayed by the dismal female numbers when registration closed. So, organizers released an additional 250 spots to women only. Before they reopened registration, however, they asked women who had already registered to tell them why they wanted to do the race.
“We felt as race directors that it was our responsibility to influence change,” says co-founder Amy Charity. “We were hopeful that these women and their stories would inspire other women to join us.”
When Mohn joined the Dirty Kanza team in 2008, she knew that part of her role would be to address the disparity in men’s and women’s numbers at the race. It wasn’t until 2016, however, that the team took a drastic measure to do so. They set aside 200 (of 1,000) spots for women for the 200-mile format and planned to keep them open for three weeks before releasing them to the general public.
Mohn says that her partners Jim Cummins and LeLan Dains thought that the campaign might be successful after three years. She herself thought it would take the full three weeks for the spots to fill.
“I never thought it would be three hours,” Mohn says.
It was obvious women wanted to race gravel. And making sure that they could at least get a foot into the race’s door has been a milestone. Nevertheless, race organizers can’t assume the work is done just because the quota has been reached. What if women get into races only to discover that actually being there isn’t all that cool? Mohn says that the event has to reflect the desires of all the people who are there, no matter what their percentage.
“Why doesn’t the industry see that 50% of the population is women and only 10% are doing events?” Mohn says. “Women need to be a bigger part of it.”
MAKING SPACE FOR WOMEN
Making space for women at gravel events is one way to tackle the issue of parity, but making sure that space will serve them is another. For many women, the uncertainty of whether going to a gravel race will be worth their time and money is reason enough not to sign up.
When Heidi Myers, one of the co-founder’s of the Rasputitsa Spring Classic, noticed that female numbers were low at the Vermont gravel event, she created another cycling event specifically for women. She called the event “Bittersweet,” and thus far, the events have been wildly popular. The races have brought new riders to Rasputitsa year after year, Myers said. In 2019 the Bittersweet itinerary was a day of fly-fishing and gravel riding, among other social activities, and Myers said that the odd pairing was intentional.
“It levels the playing field,” Myers said. “You might be a confident gravel rider but you’ve never fly-fished, so no one feels that if they’re not great at something, they’re not gonna stand out. Lea Davison was there, she had never fished.”
Sometimes, revisiting the structure of the event itself can help organizers create a more inclusive space. When Sarah Swallow launched the 125-mile Ruta del Jefe adventure race in the Arizona borderlands in 2019, the field that showed up was predominantly male. After the race was over, Swallow sat down to examine why few women showed up.
“I realized that having it be a 125-mile race is already limiting and kinda elite,” Swallow said. So, for 2020 Swallow added shorter distances of 50 and 12 miles.
“That allowed more people to participate and to want to participate,” Swallow said.
Swallow has been instrumental in curating a community of people who identify as women, transgender, femme, and/or non-binary called the WTF Bikexplorers, and the feedback that the group has provided her around gravel racing helped guide the 2020 Ruta del Jefe. Swallow says that the pliant boundaries of gravel allow for constant reinvention.
“I see gravel racing as a moldable form of racing right now, we have the opportunity to shape it the way we want to,” she said. “If certain events aren’t going to adapt to these things, then we’ll just create more events with this focus. There’s plenty of room and plenty of demand.”
While numbers are an important tool for measuring women’s involvement in gravel, so too is the feedback that race organizers receive and then incorporate into their planning. Swallow created a survey about gravel racing for the WTF Bikexplorers and received over 200 responses. Myers says that the stories she’s heard after Bittersweet have helped her refocus the mission of her race.
“One woman came home and quit her job. Another signed up for an Ironman. Those empowering stories are a metric I value, not that the numbers aren’t,” Myers said. “The stories and the change of mindset and women empowering each other in all parts of their life are totally inspirational.”
Understanding the dearth of women in cycling requires us to acknowledge some simple truths. Men and women, by the virtues of both nature and nurture, seek different experiences at a gravel event. And men and women face different lifestyle challenges that can get in the way of signing up for a gravel race two minutes after online registration opens.
Armed with this knowledge, gravel race promoters, who operate unbridled by the sanctions and regulations of other racing disciplines, have the opportunity to create a playing field that is more equitable and inclusive. Many of them are tackling the issue in earnest with the registration formats, camps, forums, and media campaigns that target women’s participation. The organizers who’ve put in the effort have reaped the reward: this year, SBT GRVL garnered 30% female participation without any focused campaign. You might say that women felt so welcomed last year that they convinced their friends to join them.
Since we first met on the gravel outside of Emporia last year, I’ve met up with Peta at two more gravel races. At the Spirit World in Arizona we made plans for The Mid South in Oklahoma. We know that if our own little tribe of gravel girlfriends is growing, then the overall numbers must be catching up, too.
Those “additional opportunities for women”? Keep them coming, we say.