Are there less women than men on the trails these days? Has it always been that way?
If you’re a mountain bike racer, you might say, “yes”.
If you’re a trail runner, you might say, “no”.
If you’re an outdoor or off-road race promoter, you might be asking completely different questions like, “where are they” and “how do I get them to come to my races”?
Those are excellent questions for a race promoter.
However, they are not easy ones to answer. But let’s try!
During a recent race series, I noticed something interesting:
- There has been a steady decline in beginner women turnout
- There was a dismal turnout for girls (Juniors) in the 15-18 range
- There was some marginal growth in in women in the 25-45 range
So what gives?
Are all the women racers now only over 25?
Why have turnouts for women mountain bike racers in beginner and junior categories been statistically poor?
It could be that there are just not that many women interested. Not everyone who rides a mountain bike or runs a trail wants to race.
However, after talking to several women about why they race, and others that only ride for fun, I’ve started to really think about how this trend could be changed.
The result was the formation of an early hypothesis.
A hypothesis? I didn’t know that race promotion required science!
Well, it does! At least some of the principles used by science.
Mainly observation, experimentation, and conclusions.
When it comes to the issue of getting more women to come to your races, you must first make some observations about those that do come.
This is what I did. I, like many other race promoters, observed the lack of women in local races.
This led to a asking some questions about what I observed:
- Why do they race?
- What motivates them to register to competitive events?
- Why do they think other women should race?
To answer these questions, I started collecting data.
Yeah! Nothing complicated. I just went around and talked to women racers and asked them those questions.
Sometimes passively, sometimes directly.
After doing this enough times, you have enough answers (or repeat answers) to start forming some conclusions.
Is it 100-percent accurate?
No. But it gets you enough information to start asking better questions and collecting better conclusions.
It will also give you some confidence in the findings of more official sources like the Outdoor Industry Association.
My data collection was of a much smaller sample, but do you know what I discovered?
It turns out the reasons why women race are almost identical to men:
- They like the challenge of completing a course
- They like competition
- They like winning
- They like to see what has resulted from their training efforts
- They like to socialize with other people who like the sport
That is exciting news!
But if these are the reason why women race, then what are the reasons they don’t race?
Asking that question both racers and casual riders, provided even more interesting results.
This time the reasons were much more women-specific:
- Most off-road race marketing is centered toward men
- There are few opportunities for women to learn racing skills
- Few races have the same category and class divisions as men
- Few race promoters target women in their marketing
These answers revealed some insight into the real problem around low turnout among women racers.
Everything out there right now is targeted towards men — marketing, race education, categories/classes — all men-specific.
There seems to be little effort being made to reach out and engage women riders.
Although some promoters are starting to see women racers as a potential market, few put any effort into it.
Many have it tacked on in an almost, “oh yeah, and women racing too” sort of way.
They claim to be women-friendly but do not behave in a way that women would find all that friendly.
This has become evident in how many race promoters combine women categories and classes into single groups, or just relabel a men’s class as “Open”, forcing women to race in the same wave as men.
Challenging long-held assumptions
There is also the constant attitude I hear many race directors take when it comes to women in racing.
They claim that if more race promoters featured more women-friendly races, there still will not be an increase in women racing.
No increase in women racing?
It is hard to hold them in contempt, however. They based their assumptions primarily off of past experiences.
Once upon a time, plenty of race promoters did have expanded women categories and classes.
The women racer just did not show up.
The result was a reduction in the number of categories and classes.
Cause and effect.
So how do I solve this issue and create new women racers if it has already been tried and failed?
Race promotion requires you keep a close eye on market trends.
One of those market trends appears to be an up-swing in the number of women interested in outdoor recreation (source: Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition).
Fortunately, this market change now challenges many long-held assumptions that marketing, race education, and expanded categories/classes focused on women was not a possible solution.
The data would seem to now point in favor of women-friendly marketing.
But how do I take advantage of this trend?
This is where your marketing experimentation needs to kick in.
The path to proving that women-friendly races can lead to more women racing begins with the development of a few solid strategies.
However, devising your own marketing experiments is tough.
But have no worries! I’ve created three (3) simple strategies for building women-friendly race environments.
#1 — Make your sport more appealing to women
Mountain biker marketing is very male-based in that the edgy, dangerous world of single-track riding is featured at all times.
This is not to say that women do not like edgy and dangerous trails, it is to say that not ALL women like it.
Race turnout numbers would say that fewer like it than not.
As a race promoter, you need to focus on the fun atmosphere that is created during a race as a selling point.
Women riders are already focused on the fitness part of cycling. Now it is your job to show them that racing is just an extension of that same fitness.
Plus, mountain biking is a lot safer than road biking.
Safer than road biking?
Yes! There might be trees and dirt, but there are NO CARS!
Cars while riding equals danger. Maybe more danger than a fun ride with friends out in nature.
Speaking of nature, nature is another selling point that can take the edge off of male-dominated race marketing.
Getting out in nature on a trail has very powerful imagery.
If you connect that to riding with friends, then your race marketing starts to take the shape of social riding with friends for fun and fitness.
Lose the gnarl and shred you find in most hardcore racing marketing.
Embrace the social and fitness riding scene in your marketing towards women.
Make it more about challenging your fitness while riding with friends, and less about gut-punching your mates in a head-to-head grudge match.
#2 — Develop better outreach towards women
Give back to your community by organizing group rides.
This works for both men and women, but since the focus is on women, this is a must-have for any race promoter.
The concept is simple, especially if you use online tools like Facebook or Meetup.
In between each of your races, hold about 2-3 group rides at the venues you plan on using for your races.
Your goal is to be encouraging women to try the sport in an environment that is non-threatening.
Many women complain that there are few group rides that help build skills.
Either they end up at the back of the pack or get left behind of fend for themselves.
Very little education takes place.
Change that perception. Become a teacher and give your skills away for free.
Yes, for free! Group rides are a great way to get women into riding in the first place. They will not race if they do not feel comfortable riding to being with.
Those that can ride will appreciate the lessons you can teach them, particularly advanced skills.
Your education efforts will certainly be a long-term investment. You cannot expect to have a few Group Rides then see those same people at your races.
You need to build a reputation with women first.
Then you will start to build word-of-mouth familiarity with your races.
Teach beginner women how to ride, and intermediate women how to flow.
Be warned, this does not always mean women only events.
Have some women-only events, but not all group rides need to be women only.
Consider that some women like to ride with men. Other women like to ride with their spouses or significant other.
If men are the dominant demographic in the sport, then they are also the gateway to getting their girlfriends, wives, sisters, mothers, or daughters to come to one of your group rides.
Beyond teaching and socializing, group ride also provide added security.
Riding on trails does have a particular level of risk, doubled when you ride alone.
Group rides remove some of that risk by having like-minded people — potentially friends — along for the ride with you.
You should also consider group rides that are aimed at young junior riders, or even super juniors (10 and under).
Junior girls between the ages of 15-18 are the poorest performing demographic in many races.
Often, this is a result of all the focus place on boys in that same age group.
Try opening your group rides to girls as a way to encourage junior riders to improve their skills, learn trail confidence, and maybe even build future racers.
Again, this strategy is long term. But education-based marketing is all about investment.
If you invest your time in teaching and encouraging women to become better riders, your races will become, over time, imbued with the same reputation.
Build the future of women racing by giving your time away now.
#3 — Build a Women-Only Events
This third strategy is focused on your race organization and how you need to become less intimidating.
This is a perception change. Becoming less intimidating means that you need to make some of your race, less race-ee.
Not all of your events need to be full-blown races.
This may seem counter-productive if you’re trying to build a race promotion company but bear with me.
The concept is based on making 80-percent of your events races, while 20-percent are clinics, social meetings, and experiments.
It is the 80-20 way of setting up your race promotion portfolio.
In that 20-percent — which is realistically all experimental — you should think about creating women-only events.
A women-only event is just like it sounds — NO DUDES!
You can have men promoters and volunteers, but there are no men allowed to participate in the actual racing.
The goal is to make an event for women that removed the intimidating nature of competition created by some men.
Is it fool proof?
No. That’s why it’s an experiment.
Some women love these kinds of events. Surprisingly, other women hate these kinds of events.
Some women find women-only events to be even more competitive then Co-Ed events.
Thus, it’s experimental. Your turnout will tell you if it works or not.
For those that are not fond of women-only events, you can begin introducing better categories and classes in your existing races.
This means less open classes and expanding the range of women race classes.
This could include breaking up categories like Single-Speed into both a men’s and women’s class.
It could also include adding in the same age categories. Instead of only having a Women’s 35+ class, you would create both a 35+ and a 45+ class.
The risk is in dividing your small turnout even further, but marketing is a double-edged sword.
By focusing your marketing efforts towards women, using expanded women’s categories and classes as an incentive, you make increase turnout due directly to that expansion.
It might not, but the answer cannot be known until you work out the problem.
You can make a race day decision to allow classes to become combined if there is no turnout.
Or you can just make an overall decision to eat the extra cost of awards and medals for the few women riders that show up, in hopes they will tell their friends.
If you build it, will they race?
There is a paradox to overcome when developing strategies designed to increase the turnout of women in your races.
You cannot expect large numbers of women to turn out to your race if the environment is focused mostly on men.
But if you create an environment that promotes a women-friendly environment, you cannot expect a large women turnout if there are no women that want to race in your area.
So before any of your efforts can succeed, you need to tap into your local community and find those women that may want to challenge themselves to a race, but never knew they could or would like it.
These strategies are understood forwards but are implemented backward.
Think about it.
You need to organize your races to be more appealing towards women by having categories and classes aimed towards women (strategy #3).
Once you have a race that is appealing towards women, you need to teach and encourage more women to be better riders in order to inspire some of them to become those racers (strategy #2).
Only after having women-friendly organization built-in can you honestly market to them (strategy #1).
That last statement has some teeth to it — honestly market to them.
Do not go into any of these strategies thinking that you can increase your women turnout with half-measures.
These are long-term solutions have been proven to work, but only if you stay consistent to maintain their momentum over the duration of multiple seasons.
Half-measures will destroy your turnout of women racers
Making half-measures, or only attempting these strategies for a short time will leave you with mixed results.
Your commitment to having a women-friendly race needs to be built into your race promotion efforts, not tacked on as an afterthought.
If you’re okay with having mostly men at your races, then maybe half-measures work for you.
However, the untapped potential of women’s racing is a factor you dare not overlook.
Women make up more than half of the population, and women in outdoor recreation are on the rise.
If you keep in mind that if your goal is to focus your efforts on developing new women racers, then you need to be in this for the long game to be successful.
Make no mistake about it. Women are discovering the outdoors faster than ever before.
And you can not afford to ignore them.
By becoming a women-friendly race promoter, and investing in what is likely to become a powerful demographic in off-road racing, your efforts may reward you sooner than you expect!
And now you know.
Listen to the Merchants of Dirt Podcast
Merchants of Dirt, hosted by Reckoneer.com founder Kyle Bondo, is dedicated to helping you start and finish successful outdoor events.
Each episode provides you with Kyle’s exclusive, behind-the-scenes perspective that only his 20+ years of producing endurance, trail, water, orienteering, mountain bike, and adventure races can provide.
The result is a show that can help you start a new event, or build a career that keeps you outside for the rest of your life!
Find more Merchants of Dirt Podcast episodes at MerchantsofDirt.com!