Words by Jessica Cutler
I will not claim to know everything (or anything, for that matter) about child development or perfect cyclocross pedagogy. I do, however, know the concrete and subtle challenges that women and girls in the sport of cycling can face when they are trying to achieve their goals. I have experienced first-hand the barriers to entry that women and girls face in a sport that can be so rewarding and empowering. I spent six short years racing the professional cyclocross circuit in the United States. While I certainly wasn’t among the best riders in the country, I was pretty good, usually landing a few UCI podiums every year and consistently floating inside the top 100 in the world rankings. However, despite my modest success, I struggled and fretted every year over being able to race just a small part of the domestic professional calendar due to lack of financial and equipment support. I was racing a full road calendar as well as a full cross calendar and could barely make ends meet. Myself aside, I saw female riders who were much better than me; who were younger, hungrier, and more talented unable to reach their potential due to lack of support. In addition, when I would hope into the occasional local race, I would always note that while junior fields were growing, there were still far more boys than girls.
It was from my own experiences and observations that I decided, with the help of my husband Niels to create the Northwest Women’s Cyclcocross Project – a nonprofit program that would seek to help women, age 17-22, bridge the gap from local to national success while also seeking to remove barriers to entry and retention in the sport for all junior girls. I’m still no expert but here are some of the things that I have learned in my two seasons of trying to get more girls on bikes.
1. Keep Cross Fun
Winning races is awesome but what is more awesome is creating a lasting love of the sport for young girls. When our youngest girls are lining up to race, the team mentors and elite development riders go to the start line with them to give them high fives and last-minute tips.
We cheer for them during their races and even give them the occasional mini-cupcake handup to keep them motivated on cold and wet days.
When the race is over, we have found it’s best to never ask “how did you do?” but rather “did you have fun?” or “what was your favorite part of the race?” Turning the post-race discussion from one that is results focused to one that is enjoyment focused always yields a positive result. I have seen girls who suffered and struggled on technical muddy courses absolutely light up as soon as you ask them about how much fun they had.
So while it’s awesome to see girls win races and improve their skills it’s essential that they know that there are many measures for success and winning is only one such measure. For me, personally, working with a rider on a skill and then seeing her put that skill to use in a race is a huge win. Seeing every girl supporting her teammates and having fun both on and off the bike is another win.
2. Create a culture of kindness and support
I truly believe in the importance of creating safe spaces for girls and women where they can support each other, thrive, and grow as athletes and ambassadors. Having a strong mission-statement around which the team culture is formed is an important part of both removing barriers to entry into the sport and keeping girls motivated to race. For an 8-year-old girl who is new to the sport, she needs peers who will help her learn, grow, and feel welcome. We teach our riders to share their knowledge and care for their teammates and friends.
One simple thing that has worked for building this culture of kindness and support with the girls on NWCX Project has been to do group pre-rides at every race. Our elite development riders and I, often along with some parents, take all of the younger girls on appropriately paced pre-rides where at least one adult or elite rider leads and another sweeps so no one is left behind. Our group pre-rides are open to all junior girls regardless of whether they are on the team. The adults and elite riders patiently help the younger riders to develop the skills to tackle even the trickiest courses.
3. Find sponsors and volunteers who reinforce the culture of support
Every girl on NWCX Project knows that when she comes to a race she will have a warm tent to hang out under, a bin full of Clif Bar snacks free for the taking, a mechanic to look over her bike and help her with whatever she needs, and a big cheering section among other things. While I recognize that finding sponsorship can be difficult, many companies are more than happy to support junior development with donated or discounted product. In our case, we set NWCX Project up as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation which, I believe, made potential sponsors slightly more likely to donate to us.
It’s a small thing to give some socks or water bottles to a young rider, but to many of the girls, these items become prized possessions. Having free nutritional and mechanical support reinforces the idea that they have an entire community behind them.
Every race I learn more and more about the best ways to grow the sport for young women as well as how to help young talent succeed both in our program and beyond. Helping girls connect with one another and their community to create the next generation of riders and ambassadors is so important in this sport and I hope that sharing my knowledge will inspire others to help get more girls on bikes. You can read more about Jessica and the Northwest Women's Cyclocross Project here.