Liah Harvie won’t forget her first national-level race.
The young rider took a header on one of the descents, knocking a tooth loose after a trip over the handlebars.
Her coach, concerned for her health, queried her afterwards.
Unphased by the tumble, ‘I’m fine,’ was her only response.
Harvie and Sara Poidevin finished third and fourth respectively in the U17 mountain bike national championship race Saturday (July 16) at the Canmore Nordic Centre. This was their first time competing against Canada’s best young mountain bikers.
“I never saw them ride so well before,” said their coach Scott Manktelow, past president of the Rundle Mountain Cycling Club. “I was very impressed with how well they handled the technical features.”
Both enrolled in the RMCC Rampage intro to racing program. After one season, they performed beyond expectations at the Nationals.
However Harvie and Poidevin, who both come from biking families, are the exception. Canada has a strong national program, but very few young girls pick up the sport. There were only five Canadians enrolled in the U17 girls program at Nationals this year, and boys continue to outnumber girls in all age groups.
“In the sport of cycling, in Alberta, there is an absence of opportunity to get into the sport at a younger age,” said Manktelow.
Mountain biking is a ‘high anxiety sport’ Manktelow said. Outside of the Bow Valley, he said there is no effort to attract young girls to the sport.
“We need to get girls in when they’re younger,” Manktelow said. “Get them in when they’re riding with the family and develop skills when they’re younger, so when they are exposed to racing, it’s not too new to them.”
The club doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel. They’re borrowing from the cross-country skiing Jackrabbit program moving mountain bikers from the recreation level to the race level. Locally, hundreds of children work their way through the Jackrabbit program.
“It’s not something that’s widespread with cycling, but I’d like to see it widespread,” Manktelow said.
Developing elite mountain bikers takes a long time, as many don’t peak until their late twenties and ride competitively into their 40s.
“It takes a while to build that big engine,” Manktelow said. “We want them to develop the skills when they’re young.”
This year, Fast and Female launched a mountain bike event for girls between the ages of nine and 19. Mountain bike stars like Katherine Fendel, Catherine Vipond and Emily Batty acted as role models for the young girls, teaching them skills and showing them Olympic success is possible for those who work at their sport.
Danelle Kabush is an Xterra triathlete and mental performance consultant who competed professionally for years.
When she started mountain bike racing 10 years ago, she said there were more girls taking part at Nationals. Part of that is location, as Nationals in Ontario and Quebec attract more athletes, however increasing the social appeal and support of local clubs will help, she said.
“For girls, a lot of it is social, especially for this age group. It’s key for girls to have that aspect to keep them involved,” Kabush said.
She had the advantage of her brother – seven-time Canadian mountain bike champion Geoff Kabush – push her to succeed. Riding with family works for some racers, but not all.
“A lot of girls in my generation got in from riding with guys,” Kabush said. “But when girls ride together, there’s a lot of vicarious learning. When they see one girl ride, they all want to do it.”
Witnessing programs develop in Canmore, she’s seen firsthand how a strong club presence can help the sport. In the past ten years, Canmore has gone from a community with no kids programs to a well-run network of programs.
Manktelow said there is no specific girls program with RMCC right now, but occasionally the groups work out to keep girls together. Once the club has an appropriate number of racers, he foresees running girls only groups.
“You have to build a critical mass,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they’ll all become racers.
“Mountain biking can cater to racers, free riders – but it’s mostly for recreationalists. If they develop the skill for mountain biking as lifelong pursuit, that’s a win right that there.”