Just 20 percent of participants in National Interscholastic Cycling Association mountain biking are girls. But by 2023, the middle- and high-school program is gunning for girls to make up more than one-third of its bikers.
The nationwide youth mountain biking program started a decade ago in California. NICA now represents 31 leagues, including newly inaugurated teams in places not typically associated with the sport: Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Ohio.
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To get more girls on bikes during an explosive growth period, NICA is doubling down on GRiT (Girls Riding Together). Already underwritten by the Walton Family Foundation, the NICA-embedded awareness program just received a $150,000 infusion from the newly established Rapha Foundation, the U.S.-based charitable arm of a high-end cycling clothing company out of London.
“The bicycle industry and the greater outdoor industry are both male-dominated,” said NICA President Steve Matous. “However there are more women and girls in this world than there are men and boys. We need to move the needle on our industry and broader community — and sooner than later.”
NICA Gets GRiT Funding for Female Riders
Women and girls come to and stay in mountain biking for different reasons than men and boys. Now, GRiT coordinators for each league will ensure that girls get what they need to feel heard, empowered, and supported in the sport.
A “toolbox” includes targeted riding opportunities for girls, moms, friends, siblings, and female coaches. And social rides, camps, clinics, and events are all part of the mix.
Recruiting more female NICA coaches is also a big focus for the GRiT initiative. “We know having strong female role models is a key part of getting more girls involved and participating in our programs,” Matous said.
One of those up-and-coming role models is varsity-level rider Lucinda Kaye, 15, out of Pennsylvania. In seventh grade, alongside her brother, she joined her state’s inaugural NICA league. “In the two-and-a-half seasons since then, we have grown to about 30 riders and have still managed to keep a 50/50 girl-to-boy ratio,” Kaye said.
That ratio doesn’t reflect current nationwide participation in NICA. But Kaye thinks the organization’s goal of 33 percent female involvement over the next 3 years is achievable.
“I definitely think it is possible because our team has done it and maintained it,” she said. “At first it will be hard. But once the ball gets rolling, it creates a feedback loop, and more and more girls will join.”
Barriers for Girls in Mountain Biking
The hardest part is those “annoying” boys, according to Kaye. “The biggest barrier to getting more girls into the sport is that many teams are 50 boys to maybe two girls. So if a girl comes to practice and sees all these annoying boys messing around and showing off, she will not want to stay,” she said.
“This is a hard thing because the more girls you have, the easier it is to get more and retain the old ones. But if you start with a team of virtually all boys, it is difficult to get any girls involved. I think there is also just a general misconception that mountain biking is for men, which discourages girls from even trying.”
Her GRiT friends have made up for some of that. Kaye has bonded with other female riders even during short connections at races and GRiT camps. But misogyny still exists.
That was apparent after a recent “pickup” granny-gear bike game. “After we had gone through the finish, this kid goes, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe I got beaten by a girl.’ I just couldn’t believe it. I thought we were past that, but apparently that is still a mindset we need to change,” she said.
But that’s much of what mountain biking has taught Kaye: toughness. “I have never felt so at home with a sport before, and this has really helped me learn how to stick up for myself,” she said. Other lessons are dealing with defeat, time management, and how to be a good leader.
Kaye put the latter to task with her homegrown coach-in-training program. Older, more experienced riders help coach newer riders, especially girls mentoring other girls.
“This is really important because it gives new girls and other underrepresented groups something to aspire to and can motivate them to become better riders,” she said.
Future of Females in Mountain Biking
If Kaye is any indicator of what GRiT might do for girls in mountain biking, the future looks bright. But she’s just one shining star. NICA NorCal alum Kate Courtney won the XC World Championships last year. And this year, NICA Utah rider Haley Batten took the U23 World Cup race.
Matous said, “NICA GRiT is here to supercharge these opportunities and changes by creating welcoming experiences for all girls and women to participate in a cycling community.”