Writing about Women Mountain Bikers for a Local Paper
I frequently write feature stories for the Laconia Daily Sun in Laconia, New Hampshire. This one, on women mountain bikers, ran on the front page about a week ago.
Tania Lillak is pushing 51, but she still likes to push herself to her limits on a mountain bike.
She started trail riding when she was a teenager in Toronto and only started serious downhill mountain biking about seven years ago, when she and her family discovered Highland Mountain Bike Park in Northfield. Pretty much every weekend, you can catch Lillak launching her bike into the air, flying over 20- and 30-foot gaps and landing hard but steady on the other side.
“We’re definitely a crazy bunch up there at Highland,” Lillak says.
The ergonomics consultant has broken both of her collarbones, in two separate falls, but she keeps driving through the fear each time she tries something new on a trail because she loves the rush the sport gives her.
She and her husband, Brett Laker, and their 16-year-old son Brody Laker ride all over the country, and they have ridden in Canada and Europe. But they spend most weekends at Highland Mountain—even though it’s 90 minutes from their home in Swampscott, Massachusetts, and they must stay overnight in a hotel to ride both weekend days.
Not just a guy sport anymore
Lillak is one of hundreds of women who ride at Highland Mountain, and over the past five or six years, she has seen the gender balance at the park shift from almost entirely men to now roughly 20 percent women, 80 percent men.
These numbers mirror the trend across the country that began when top female mountain bikers like Katie Holden, Rebecca Rusch, and Jill Kintner launched an intense, week-long riding camp for women.
In their adventure, called Formation, these hard-core racers prepare courses on rugged and treacherous desert landscapes in Virgin, Utah—terrain formerly championed only by men in the famous Red Bull Rampage—and barrel down them to claim victory.
Events like Formation, and the kinds of opportunities Highland Mountain and other mountain parks are offering specifically for women, are removing barriers to the sport for females, helping them wrestle with and conquer their fears and leveling the course.
“The sport’s become more inviting to women,” Lillak says. “It’s exploded over the past couple of years with a lot more women coming to Highland. For many years, I was one of the only women I could see when I went riding there. I knew there were three other women a few years ago, but we didn’t ride together.”
Lillak rode with Brett and Brody, but now all three of them ride with their own friends. “There’s a women’s culture there,” she says. “We say ‘hi’ to women we see in the lodge or in the line or on the trails. We help each other out if we want to try new things. That’s definitely been huge in helping women feel more comfortable.”
The trainings Highland offers have also helped remove fear as a barrier for women. Still, the sport isn’t for everyone, Lillak says. “I think it’s maybe more your personality, whether you’re a risk-taker,” she says. “This is an adrenalin sport. You are going to have to feel fear to get the full feeling of doing drops or jumps or steep technical moves.”
James Willette, the park’s marketing and content manager, says, “It’s great to see women and families here and not just the guy who’s going to go upside down 20 feet in the air. One of our biggest focuses is inclusion. No matter what background you come from, there’s something for you here.”
Amanda Vansant, a coach at Highland Park, says “I absolutely appreciate that more women are entering the sport. The more women that are involved, the more we can all push each other to our potential abilities and progression. Without any competition and comradery, there would be no incentive for progression.”
About Highland Mountain
Bikers come from all over the country to ride at Highland—and some have visited from overseas.
Training director Chris Chmielewski says the park’s mission is providing world-class terrain for all ability levels and instruction for all levels of riders. With that goal in mind, the Find Your Ride Program offers a package deal for newcomers to experience the thrill of mountain biking.
For women, Highland hosts Women’s Gravity Weekend each spring. This June, Chmielewski said 80 women took part over the two days.
Another women’s event in the fall is the Women’s Freeride Festival; the 11th annual offering took place several weeks ago. Chmielewski says that three-hour clinics are offered both weekend days in the morning and afternoon. “Women can sign up for one or all or just come and get a half-priced lift pass and half-priced rental and do the Find Your Ride Program,” he says.
Clinics this year focused on core fundamental skills, balance points, ranges of motion on changing terrain, and how to approach drop-offs and getting air—or jumping.
“The Women’s Freeride Fest is a celebration of women in the sport,” Chmielewski says, noting the program is a good feeder program for the park; many women keep coming back.
“We’ve continued to see more women on a daily basis, more families with little boys and little girls who are now regulars at the park,” he says.
People tend to think of mountain biking as an extreme sport for adrenalin junkies. “We’re very aware of that, and we work hard to break down that reputation,” Chmielewski adds. “We have incredible free ride bikers, but we have a range of opportunities. When you come and see lots of women, couples riding together, whole families, it does look a lot more approachable and welcoming than just seeing guys doing crazy stuff.”
Women helping Women
Having women coaches at Highland Mountain helps with the approachability factor.
Amanda Vansant was one of this season’s trainers, offering introductory downhill lessons, coaching kid’s camps, giving private lessons, and coaching women’s specific programs such as the Women’s Gravity Weekend and the festival.
A rider herself for the past four years, Vansant enjoys progressing in the sport, and in her work, she loved helping other women do the same. “The improvements and empowerment that comes along with that progression I saw in my group members throughout the clinics was absolutely incredible,” she says.
“My favorite thing about helping other women enter the sport is to see them fall in love with the same aspects of mountain biking that I have fallen in love with. I see women every day gaining confidence in their mental and physical abilities through the sport, confidence that is often there but just needs to be uncovered with the encouragement and modeling of another female rider.”
When rider Tania Lillak started biking in Canada as a teen, she bought a Marin bike with no suspension and set off on trails in the woods.
Back then, there were no mountains or parks offering lifts for downhill riders; if you wanted to ride down, you had to also ride up. “I really liked the feeling of being in nature, outdoors, being on a bike and going fast,” she says. “I liked being able to ride with other people in a group doing something we all enjoyed.”
Lillak first went downhilling in Vermont in 2014; when they had some experience in their spokes, they went to Highland, which has a reputation for difficulty and being the best around.
Once the family had conquered the green trails and had some skill and experience, Brody challenged his mother to do some jumping. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m kind of old, and I’m not sure I want to do that,’” Lillak says. “Before I knew it, I was doing little jumps, and then I was doing big jumps, and now I do a lot of big jumps.
“It’s a fun passion for all of us.”
Highland Mountain Bike Park offers information on its website about its offerings for women and its Find Your Ride Program:
Women’s Gravity Weekend https://www.highlandmountain.com/camps-lessons/camps/womens-progams/gravity-weekend/
Women’s Freeride Festival https://www.highlandmountain.com/camps-lessons/camps/womens-progams/womens-freeride-fest/
Highland Is Home Video series, a women’s perspective https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqpwiE_ScFg&t=31s
As coach Amanda Vansant says, “Hope to see all you wonderful, shredding ladies out on the trails soon, no matter your ability level!”
For more information, visit www.highlandmountain.com or call 603-286-7677.