Skirts In The Dirt: A Success Story

Early this November, I was inducted into the 2018 Michigan Mountain Biking’s Hall of Fame for Promotions, alongside my friend and riding buddy, Julie Whalen. Being nominated alone was a huge honor but sharing it with someone I admire and celebrating at the awards ceremony after a day spent zooming through the woods really was one of the best days of my life!

I started going on group mountain bike rides when I first started working at the bike shop. I hadn’t mountain biked before. It wasn’t ever something on my radar, and quite frankly, I laughed when I saw people riding full-squish, knobby-tired bikes around Grand Rapids. I rode a fixed gear in blue jean shorts and living in the city, I didn’t realize there were really great mountain bike trails nearby. I thought people just rode the bikes to look cool, or whatever.

I’ve always been someone who can easily be persuaded into trying new things. I’ve got a curious mind and when coworkers offered to take me out for a spin on some trails, I agreed. I say “yes” a lot – which has worked out really well for me. I began riding with these people I wouldn’t have ever met in any other area of my life and they became mentors and good friends. They didn’t have to patiently wait for me after I crashed into a tree, or talk me through clipping in for the first time, but they did – and they did it a lot! I started meeting more and more people through bikes who I wouldn’t have met at a music venue or the bar, and they started inviting me to more group rides. I met Julie Whalen through a mutual friend, and I remember seeing her laugh and smile and then bound through the woods, effortlessly moving her bike through the singletrack and disappearing from my view. I remember thinking that I couldn’t wait to be fast like her.

Things started snowballing, and from the shop group rides we began leading women’s group rides. We hosted women’s clinics, and I learned so much from trying to explain skills I was still learning and how a little confidence could go a long way. We joked about putting together a women’s only mountain bike race. We told some guys about it and a few laughed at it – but Chris Davison, the general manager at Grand Rapids Bicycle Company, he laughed with it – and offered to have Grand Rapids Bicycle Company help by sponsoring the event. Julie and I met with him at the restaurant above the shop, and we excitedly laid out idea after idea: it would be a benefit for the WMMBA, and we wanted to encourage more women to get involved with mountain biking. We wanted more women to ride and to race, but mostly we wanted people to eliminate, “I’m not a serious cyclist” from their vocabulary by seeing that racing can be FUN. You don’t have to be serious to be competitive. You don’t have to be fast to race. It’s about showing up to an event with other people who love what you love and trying your best and making some friends in the process.

A handful of our generous Skirts In The Dirt volunteers...

It’s now been five years since our first Skirts in the Dirt mountain bike race. We threw the first race together with just about three months worth of prep time and we had over 160 women come out to support the inaugural year. Friends who raced helped put on a skills clinic before the event so participants could work on their skills, more friends came to take photos, and a coworker of mine, Dan, volunteered his time to provide neutral race support for all of the racers. We wanted to shake down the mental obstacles that women faced when it came to racing, remembering the things that kept us from racing before we fell in love with it, and making sure there were plenty of shenanigans to go around. The race was, and always will be, organized by women. Guys help by volunteering to host challenges or to be course marshals, to MC the event, or to cheer. Dan still does neutral race support at Skirts in the Dirt, but now instead of my coworker, he’s my husband. Bikes brought us together and they help keep us in love.

Success!

If you do the math, so far over 700 women have signed up for their first mountain bike race through Skirts in the Dirt. The majority of them live in the West Michigan area, and many of them have gone on to coach youth mountain biking programs or to join different advisory boards. They’ve become familiar faces in the mountain biking community. Many have gotten fat bikes and now ride through the winter! My personal favorite is seeing when others ride further than they ever have before – and with each and every ride it becomes further and further. I work with women I met through riding, my own mother did her first (and only) mountain bike race ever, and my best friend and her mother-in-law participated this year. We’re seeing women give it a go, and sometimes it sticks, and they sign up to race events like the Marji Gesick 100 or they begin teaching their own skills clinics and mechanics 101 classes. Julie encouraged me to step up to sit on the board of directors for the West Michigan Mountain Biking Alliance and it’s been rewarding to work on building more trails and rider stewardship in the area.

A Skirts In The Dirt skills clinic...

At the Iceman Cometh, I saw several of the women who have done Skirts in the Dirt making the podium, cheering on others, or even carpooling up to race together - with friends that they made through the event. Skirts in the Dirt has become something more than just a race; it’s now a weekly group ride, a group of people to go bikepacking with, and trail work days. The rides move around the area and now we’re even meeting to ride in the dark. People are volunteering to sweep, because they’re finding out that they love encouraging the rider that’s still figuring it out – nothing is more exciting than someone nailing a rock garden that’s given them trouble from day one.

Though Julie Whalen and I were inducted into the Michigan Mountain Biking Hall of Fame, truthfully Skirts in the Dirt is what it is because of all of the support from the community and the people who came to race it. We just volunteered to get the gears turning and it’s carried by all of the amazing, strong, awesome people who share in our enthusiasm.

Sometimes if you want to see something happen in your community, you must take a step and make it happen. People will help. It’ll be cool.

To think I thought mountain bikes were silly when I first moved to Grand Rapids…now they consume my life.

We keep charging forward!

If no one had taken me out riding, I wouldn’t have found mountain biking on my own. If I didn’t have a mentor show me the ropes, I wouldn’t feel so inclined to share and to encourage others. Racing can be intimidating, and I’ve learned through saying “yes” to going on a group ride that I should say “yes” in other areas of my life. Riding mountain bike trails has made me more confident, braver, healthier, and it has introduced me to some of the best people in the world. We might be making a little impact here in West Michigan with our amazing group of riders, but it’s my hope that through the years it just keeps growing bigger and bigger and more and more people begin volunteering their time to see growth in the sport.

It shouldn’t always be about going fast; sometimes it should be about the journey and sharing the happiness bikes make you feel with others.

This post filed under topics: Mountain Biking Skills Sponsored Riders Jill Martindale

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jill Martindale

Jill Martindale

The bicycle to me means a whole heck of a lot of things - friendship, community, exploration, the best job in the world, independence, self-reliance. I love that it can connect me with so many people and so many places, but I also love that it can disconnect me from those places and people.

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