SPRINGFIELD — Mountain biking: It’s scary, it’s hardcore, and it’s growing to become more inclusive.
Dirt Maidens, Facebook group-turned nonprofit for women mountain bikers, started meetups that took off during COVID. It was an opportunity for local women to get together, make friends, and have fun.
“It was an experience of joy,” said Aparna Rajagopal, ride leader and organizer.
When Rajagopal moved to Eugene in 2018, she wondered what Dirt Maidens would look like reimagined. She wanted to provide a meaningful focus on including femme, women, trans, and nonbinary folks who identify as Black, Indigenous, Latine, Asian, or a person of color (BIPOC).
“There was a simple positive message but not necessarily nuanced. It wasn’t intentional, but it just ended up being that way,” said Rajagopal.
Rajagopal came to Lucy Scholz, who organizes and does communications for Dirt Maidens, about her idea of shifting the focus to create an affinity space for BIPOC folks. Affinity spaces “center the needs and perspectives of people with marginalized identities,” said Rajagopal.
“Lucy was really open to reimagining Dirt Maidens and formalizing it,” she said.
Early last year, Dirt Maidens became a nonprofit. They created a leadership team and now hold regular meetings.
Focusing on a mountain biking space specifically for BIPOC folks felt important for Rajagopal. She wanted to make the sport feel more welcoming and accessible for marginalized identities.
“It just has always felt like a very exclusionary space … I was really longing for a space with more people who look like me, and make the sport more accessible for BIPOC folks,” said Rajagopal.
Singletracks, a mountain biking publication that shares bike knowledge and “inspires epic adventures,” did a survey on the demographics of their viewers. According to this survey, they found that 95% of the responses came from males and more than 90% of readers are Caucasian.
“With mountain biking and adventure sports in general, the space has been dominated by white cis-gendered men or white cis-gendered women. It can just be so intimidating, especially when you’re learning something new that’s scary and has a high risk of hurting yourself,” said Scholz.
Rajagopal has personally experienced the mountain biking culture that has left her feeling unwelcomed.
She wrote about some negative experiences she faced while mountain-biking in Arizona. “Not a single one of them was someone like overtly telling me ‘hey, woman of color, you don’t belong’… but there’s that saying ‘death by 1,000 tiny cuts,” said Rajagopal. “A lot of little things that are not immediately visible or legible to white people, can make People of Color feel unwelcome.”
There’s a lot of reasons for creating affinity spaces, whether for people of color, women, or queer folks. But the first and foremost reason is safety. Feeling psychologically safe is crucial when you are in spaces that are created with dominant identities in mind, said Rajagopal.
It was important to Rajagopal that all skill levels would be welcomed and encouraged, making it less intimidating for folks who wanted to get into mountain biking.
“I really appreciated that they made it a really welcoming space when people have different skill levels,” said Ruth Huang, event-goer of the monthly BIPOC rides.
“They were very flexible and checked in with the group frequently to make sure people felt comfortable going down some of these trails,” she said.
The sport can also be intimidating in terms of the gear and expenses required.
“There’s this stigma that you have to have fancy gear in order to do it. I think that’s really what we see in the media,” said Scholz.
All bikes are welcomed at these meetups, and with the help of the University of Oregon in providing mountain bikes for members, Dirt Maidens is working hard to absolve the financial barrier that’s common in outdoor sports.
When Dirt Maidens decided to start its “Monthly BIPOC rides,” it joined forces with the University of Oregon’s outdoor recreational program in May for bike month. The University helped co-sponsor, provide bikes, and bring in about half of the participants, said Rajagopal.
On July 13, Dirt Maidens completed its third ride. While the turnout was not as high as its first meetup, Rajagopal and Scholz are looking forward to the fall when more students can join in and people can have a break from the scorching heat.
“Consistency is really hard when you’re a volunteer group. I’m hopeful that it will not just be a community based thing, but that other parts of the community will see how BIPOC affinity spaces are really important and will want to help with that,” said Scholz.
While the weekly meetups are somewhat new, Scholz and Rajagopal have already witnessed some inspiring moments that have motivated them to continue this event.
On the first ride, Rajagopal was nervous as a 47-year old, that she would be surrounded by a bunch of young people with no one else her age. But to her surprise, one of the event-goers was only one week apart from her in age.
She was a Latina grandmother who was also a business owner in Eugene. She was somewhat new to bicycling, but she wanted to come out “to show her kids that she was capable, and that she was an adventurous person,” said Rajagopal.
“She didn’t want to fall, but she finally took a fall and was like ‘Oh, that wasn’t so bad’ and it was really thrilling for her.”
Following the rides, Dirt Maidens provides drinks and snacks (and even charcuterie boards), that allow for more community building among their peers.
For now, Rajagopal’s hope is that more BIPOC folks come out of the woodwork and come out to these events.
The next ride is set for Aug. 17 at Thurston Hills at 6 p.m. Check out Dirt Maidens on Facebook and Instagram for more details and any updates.