Inclusivity, accessibility anchor new offering
By Bella Butler MANAGING EDITOR
BIG SKY – Fridays in August at Big Sky Resort sound like bike tires slashing through dirt, gears whirring, breaks singing and women cheering each other on as they navigate berms and jumps. Sometimes, you can hear the joy from simply loading a bike onto a chairlift for the first time.
It’s a dusty symphony orchestrated by a cohort of the resort’s female downhill mountain biking coaches during the Women’s Bike Skills Series, free afternoon clinics occurring each Friday in August at the resort’s bike park.
On Aug. 5, during the first clinic in the series, Alice Schaefer, 47, approaches a jump on the Snake Charmer trail on Andesite Mountain. As her front tire begins to climb up toward the lip of the jump, she loads her front shocks in the same way that coach Lexie Hendricks demonstrated just minutes before. Her bike flies off the ground and Schaefer extends her limbs to give it more lift. She lands clean, a small cloud of dust rising around her as her tires find traction on the dry ground. Her peers in the advanced group she’s riding with whoop from the line on the other side of the jump, where they wait for their own turn to practice the skill.
Schaefer’s been biking for decades and is a mountain bike coach herself back in her hometown of Sun Valley, Idaho, but she’s still stoked to learn more.
“I love jumping,” she tells me on the Ramcharger 8 chairlift, her black ponytail hanging out of her full-face helmet. “But I kind of feel like mentally I need some extra.”
One goal anchoring the series is inclusivity. Though more than 40 women showed up for the first clinic, participants are spread out into beginner, intermediate and advanced groups.
In recent years, numerous studies have served to break down an understanding commonly held in mountain biking that the sport is male dominated. In fact, a 2018 study published in the National Library of Medicine states that 40 percent of males indicated they were advanced or professional riders while the same figure for women was half that.
Many of the women riding in the clinic said they felt the women-specific element of the series had contributed to a culture of support.
After riding Snake Charmer, I loaded the Swift Current chairlift with Schaefer and a rider from Bozeman, Meaghann Gaffney.
“Can I give you a tip?” Schaffer asked Gaffney, 27.
“Sure!” Gaffney replied.
Schaffer complimented Gaffney’s riding and told her if she extended her body more when she was going off jumps, she might get more air.
Gaffney nodded intently, asking follow-up questions as Shaffer demonstrated as best she could from her seat on the lift.
Gaffney appreciated the positive energy from the women in the clinic.
“Everyone’s really supportive of each other,” she said. “And there doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of ego. People are just happy to be there having fun.”
Another intention behind the clinic is accessibility. The clinics are free with a bike-haul ticket, and for those without one, Big Sky Resort is offering riders $25 tickets from 2-5 p.m. every Friday through August. Clinic participants can also rent bikes for $60, down from the usual $178.
“I know a handful of women who wouldn’t otherwise be riding the bike park or have access to that but in the upcoming clinics they’re going to try and make it because the lift tickets and the bikes are affordable,” Gaffney said.
After the lifts stopped spinning, women from each of the groups reunited on the patio outside Westward Social for après beers, a little dustier than three hours ago when they met for the first time in the base area.
Sara Marino, 50, from Big Sky, had one goal when she showed up to the intermediate group: ride beyond the beginner Explorer lift. And she did.
At the top of Happy Hooves, a blue-rated trail on Andesite, Marino’s fellow riders cheered her on as she navigated a tricky section.
“Everyone was like ‘Don’t worry, you can do it, you can do it,’” she said.
Marino’s friend, Morgen Ayres, 48, said the clinic was an opportunity to meet new women to connect with for future rides.
As riders shared stories from the afternoon, one of the coaches, Emily Mintle, demonstrated basic bike maintenance, including a brake pad inspection when Marino reported having squeaky brakes.
At Big Sky Resort, eight of the 17 total coaches are female, as are three of the seven bike mechanics.
Hendricks, one of the coaches who rode with the advanced group, played an organizing role in bringing the women’s skills series to fruition.
“I think women’s clinics are super awesome just because we all vibe together,” she said. “They’re less competitive, it’s just more uplifting and confidence-boosting to be riding with other women.”
From Duluth, Minnesota, Hendricks arrived in Big Sky two years ago after first coaching at Spirit Mountain in her hometown, where she had coached some women’s clinics.
“I just wanted to bring it here and give the opportunity to women in this community as well,” she said over an après beer. “We have this giant mountain and we should use it for everybody and make it super inclusive.”
The Women’s Bike Skills Series will continue on Aug. 12, 19 and 26. Click here for more information.