By Kim Cross
Photos by David Ditzler
“Rapha and the foam pit do not mix,” chided my friend Mike when I showed him a pic of myself standing before the drop-in at Ray’s Indoor Mountain Bike Park in Milwaukee. “You need jeans and a flannel.”
Mike, who probably went out and bought a hoodie to go with his new dirt-jumper, knows I’m a cross-country geek. I don’t own a single pair of baggies. Riding in jeans feels as awkward as running in heels. So as I was packing for Ray’s annual Women’s Weekend—where I would be decidedly out of my element—I decided to dress the part. As part of my counter-intuitive face-saving plan, I packed roadie wear, so I’d stick out among the downhillers and freestylers like an NFL linebacker in a Pure Barre class.
“If I show up looking like a total kook,” I told Mike, “I can only exceed their expectations.”
I needn’t have worried. Because the 155 women who showed up at this huckster playground were a more eclectic mix than the lost-and-found box at an adventure race. There were gals in cross-country kits, jeans and ironic T-shirts, leggings and yoga tops, bedazzled bike gloves and red-glittered Vans (that would be pro downhiller Leigh Donovan, the head coach). The participants ranged from pre-teen girls driven there by their dads to middle-aged moms riding with their 60-something mothers. They were pedaling everything from entry-level hybrids to squishy 29ers to rigid dirt-jumpers.
Clearly, it wasn’t about the gear. For a girl accustomed to riding with dudes who size up her bike before making eye contact, it was downright refreshing.
Once a year, Ray Petro, the founder of the country’s first indoor mountain-bike park, kicks out all the dudes for a day. He flies in female pros and treats his lady customers to the equivalent of a spa day for chicks who prefer pedals to pedicures: instruction for women, by women; free food; great swag; and a testosterone-free environment conducive to the learning of gnarly skills. Admission is free (thank you, Tri-Flow), lowering the barriers to entry to a no-excuses level.
Now in its 6th year at Ray’s Cleveland park (the original location), the program has been such a hit that Ray brought it to the newer Milwaukee park last year. And if this year’s Milwaukee attendance is any indication—nearly double last year’s, with women traveling from 12 states—it’s addressing a serious need.
I have already been to several women’s clinics, but never in a setting like this. Ray’s is basically a Costco-sized warehouse, gutted and rebuilt into a two-level wonderland that looks like an M.C. Escher sketch of a Dr. Seuss world. It is modular, with a tight pump track in the corner, a street park flanked by a super rhythm jump line, lines of obstacles ranging from beginner-friendly to physics-defying, and a gnarly-looking ramp that slingshots nutzos into a pit filled with chips of foam. A cross-country course makes a figure eight around all of it, climbing and dropping between the first and second floor, punctuated with optional features like logs and jumps. It’s like nothing I’d ever ridden—or seen.
Ray’s promised to teach me—the gentle way—via instructors who “get it,” a women’s-only crowd of non-judgmental peers, places to drill a skill over and over, and quick access to bathrooms and 911.
I’ve never seen so many fat-tire femmes in one place. They’re riding teeter-totters and skinnies with the unflappable confidence that comes either with skills or body armor. They’re whizzing around a pump track in a blur of ponytail. And they’re catching serious air on jumps bigger than an SUV. Ray could probably charge admission for guys to come and watch—but spends all day turning them away.
At the center of it all is downhill goddess Leigh Donovan, the ringleader. A 's'hero with nine US National Mountain Bike Championships, a World Cup cup win and a World Champion title to her name, Leigh is that mystical blend of serious (see said titles) and sexy (see Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, 1998). She is also living proof that being one fast mother is not mututally exclusive with being a good mother, too. Her daughter Grace, who can ride a skinny at 6 years old, has come along from California with her mom and dad.
Leigh is part of a tight cadre of female pros who go to great lengths to help amateur women progress in a male-dominated sport. Many of them cut their teeth riding and racing with men. That taught them to be fast, and tough, and smart. They also discovered, along the way, a few things that they didn’t learn from the guys. And those are the things that have made me a believer in instruction for women, by women.
“It’s different because women understand the fear factor, the intimidation, the weaknesses,” Leigh says. “Women don’t possess the same strengths as men. We’re not built the same way. Guys can muscle through it. Women don’t have that advantage.”
A prime example: the front-wheel lift. This is a move so intuitive for most men that it never occurs to them to explain it to the women they are earnestly trying to teach. That is, until those women endo on a log, stomp off in blood and tears, and swear never again to get on a mountain bike. Or if they do, they have learned not to trust their well-meaning dude when he says, “Honey, you can do this! Just ride over it. It’s easy.”
News flash: A front-wheel lift is as natural to most women as salsa dancing is to most men. Even guys who know how to break it down often miss a crucial difference between the sexes: strength and center of gravity. Men take their upper body mass for granted—they use it to load and rebound the shock or muscle up the wheel (or both). Women carry their strength and center of gravity farther south—in our legs and hips. The pedal-induced wheelie works better for us, because it doesn’t take a lick of upper body strength. But that takes technique and leverage that isn’t intuitive, plus a level of finesse that plenty of guys get by without.
“I’m married to one of the best downhillers in the world, and he doesn’t teach me shit,” says instructor Lindsey Voreis. (Her husband is World Cup downhiller Kirt Voreis.) “Women use finesse. Guys use brute strength. For women, that doesnt work. When you learn finesse, you gain strength.”
One look at the teeter-totters in the intermediate skills section at Ray’s, and I tuck my tail between my legs and head to the beginner room. Confidence, it so happens, is a skill in itself.
“Who wants to learn how to fall off her bike?” an instructor asks 40-odd women in the Novice Room. We are standing around a corral of gentle obstacles — a patch of rocks, a simulated wooden bridge, a skinny, and a small log. “It’s good to try, just so you know how it feels.” She rides into a semicircle of astroturf-covered foam, and topples gracefully over to the side. Everyone laughes. The air relaxes.
A few women try it. Squish! It’s kind of fun. Nerves calmed, I head out to explore the rest of the park.
After a few laps around the cross-country loop, a few log-hops, and a small jump or two, the nervous wobble has left my knees. There’s an instructor at each station, and the students cycle in and out at will. It’s a bit like a self-guided herd of cats, but soon we figure out the pecking order and where we need to be.
I follow the siren song of the first real pump track I have ever seen. It’s so compact that it packs nearly a dozen rollers and four, banked hairpin turns into a space the size of my living room. Expert riders carving the berms look nearly parallel to the floor. Tentative riders going too slow lose traction and slip down the aggressively sloped sides. One girl takes a handlebar to the gut, and we chorus, “You okay?” She shows off the tear in her shirt and the ripening bruise on her belly, and we cringe. I gather this one of the things you can’t do half-way, so I grit my teeth and commit.
This gives me the chutzpah to tackle the next step toward learning to jump: the micro jump line. It’s like a pump track, but the rollers are truncated into tabletops, allowing a little air. Problem is, I’m used to clipless pedals, and can’t figure out how to claw these unfamiliar flats. Coming off of them mid-air makes my stomach do flips, and I can’t help but berate myself for it. Time for Epiphay #2:
“Here is my favorite pearl of wisdom from riding with guys,” says Becky Tesch, an instructor from Milwaukee. “Dudes do not blame themselves for being bad at something. They blame the bike.”
Even though I started the day in the beginner room, as jittery as a Chihuahua on speed, my confidence snowballs throughout the day, until I’m ready to face the rhythm jump line. They’re not the biggest, steepest jumps in the park, but they’re enough to reawaken my inner Chihuahua. Before I can overthink it, I drop in, roll the jumps with zero air (and zero falls), and still feel like I’m flying. I know I look like the total kook that I am, but even so, I feel pretty damn cool.
After at least ten more tries, I’m still losing my pedals and on the fine line between flying and falling with style. So as I stalk Tammy Donahugh, the raven-haired angel of freeride, I ask her, with undisguised desperation, to teach me how to stick to my pedals.
She talks me down, and then delivers Epiphany #3: It’s not about sticking to the pedals. “It’s about compressing the bike so that it floats up beneath you.”
In other words, it’s about pushing; not pulling. And that “clawing” bit I’ve been obsessing about? It’s the position your feet naturally take when you jump—off the floor, or on a bike. It’s so counter-intuitively brilliant, yet so simple, that my head nearly explodes. I try it, and the pedals rise under my feet. It doesn’t feel as effortless as the pros make it look, but I feel a lot less like I’m wrestling a bike off the ground and more like I’m actually jumping.
At last I fact the grand finale of my day: the foam pit.
“Make sure you try it,” Leigh told the group flippantly, as if it were not in fact throwing yourself willingly off the very brink of terror. “You’ll be glad you did.”
You know that feeling when you’re on a roller coaster, juuuuust about to crest the first hill and plummet a drop so wrenching you can taste your stomach? That’s what it feels like to stand on the edge of the drop-in. It’s so steep that it appears to be concave. And the platform leading up to the precipice is barely long enough to get feet to pedals. Gnarly.
I can’t even remember what exactly Tammy D told me. But somehow, the Foam Pit Whisperer made me trust— truly—that it was not in fact the death-defying act of insanity that my innards would have me believe. And she talked me over the edge. All I remember is the last thing she said:
The clinic went on. But I was only half there. I was still levitating in that moment between ramp and foam pit. The photos would show that I got one, maybe two feet of air before landing in what felt like a Tempurpedic run through a mulcher. Or the world’s largest bowl of cotton candy.
The fun would go on. But I left my heart in the foam pit.
On the second day of Women’s Weekend, ladies get in for half-price, and get to ride with the pros—but also with the dudes, who are unleashed as if to remind us, with wild abandon, all the reasons why they weren’t allowed here the day before. I ride the jump line again and again, until I’m so tired that I start crashing stupidly.
I ride by the foam pit again and again, staring at it longingly, dying to ride it again. But every time, it’s filled with dudes honing their back flips. I don’t know if it’s pride, or shyness (I’m hardly shy), or fear of humiliating myself as a thirty-something mom in front of teenaged boys who will roll their eyes. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. And I realize the common refrain I had heard the day before: “If there had been guys there, I never would have tried that.”
I poll other women about the weekend, ask them what they liked best about the women-only environment. One woman, who had driven nearly 200 miles in one round-trip day to attend her first women’s clinc, pauses thoughtfully.
“It brings out the girl in all of us,” she says. “Not the woman. The girl.”
I would add: It brings out the badass.
Kim Cross is one of the few women in the world who can land two flips on a trick-ski. She’s still dreaming about learning how to do one on a bike.