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BRION O’CONNOR | ON THE MOVE

‘Ride Like a Girl’ puts women in driver’s seat

03zorec - RLG 2014. Karen Eagan makes Introductory remarks at the start of a clinic on the Kingdom Trails in East Burke, Vermont, June 2014. (Photo: Philip Keyes)
Philip Keyes
Karen Eagan, organizer of the Ride Like a Girl clinics, greets a group of women on the Kingdom Trails in East Burke, Vt.

Roughly 15 years ago, during my mountain biking hey-day, a local shop sponsored a beginner’s ride. It was, I thought, the perfect opportunity for my wife to learn about a pastime I loved. I was wrong.

The guys leading the ride went out too fast, on trails that were far too technical for beginners. My wife, Lauri, tried her best to keep pace, but ultimately suffered several bad spills trying to ride beyond her limits. She came home bruised, convinced that mountain biking wasn’t for her. I nearly blew a gasket.

Clearly, the ride leaders forgot the reason for the ride – introducing more cyclists to the sport – and beginners like Lauri were the collateral damage of their selfishness. That won’t happen at the New England Mountain Bike Association’s “Ride Like a Girl” clinics, said Karen Eagan, the 46-year-old Lowell resident who organizes the series.

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Mountain biking, by its nature, is more demanding than road riding, especially on uneven, technical trails littered with roots, rocks, mud, and dirt. “Ride Like A Girl,” said Eagan, provides monthly opportunities for women new to mountain biking, or women with experience who want to pinpoint what’s slowing their progress, to learn from trained female mountain bike instructors with years of experience.

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“This women-helping-women, volunteer-driven program teaches basic bike handling skills in a fun and supportive environment,” she said. “Fundamental bike handling skills that lead to a sense of control. We believe that a sense of control leads to confidence, confidence leads to courage, and courage leads to conquering fear. It’s that fear that so many riders suffer from when wanting to become competent and progressive riders.”

NEMBA membership ($35 annual dues; $45 for families) is required to participate. Individual clinics are free, though a nominal fee can be applied if the clinic is held in conjunction with another NEMBA event. Additional donations are accepted for the program’s target charity, the Elizabeth Stone House’s Wilderness Heals Hike.

Upcoming Ride Like a Girl clinics include Saturday, July 9 at the Landlocked Forest in Lexington; Aug. 13 at Mines Falls in Nashua, N.H.; Sept. 11 at Great Brook Farm State Park in Carlisle; and Oct. 30 at Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover. Oftentimes, the clinics are held together with other association events, such as the Kona Bicycles MTB Adventure Ride series Sept. 11 and Oct. 30.

Each session runs three to four hours, features instruction followed by a casual ride, and is open to women aged 16 and older. The clinics, said 31-year-old Katelyn Parhiala, a volunteer instructor, accentuate the Mars/Venus nature of the sexes.

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“Most women learn in a different way than men,” said Parhiala, a Lexington native now living in Ashby. “In general, women would rather know how to do something properly before diving into it, whereas most men would just jump in and try to figure it out as they go along. The latter is the way that most people have learned how to mountain bike, but this results in persistent bad habits as well as numerous injuries.

One beneficiary of the Ride Like a Girl approach is Nanyee Keyes, 55, a family physician from Acton whose husband, Philip, is the executive director of the mountain bike association.

“Some men can be physically stronger, thus intimidating, leaving you behind on the trail,” said Keyes. “I almost stopped mountain biking after one of my first mountain bike rides with my husband, when I bonked. Ride Like a Girl has inspired me to ride more.”

While men can’t attend the clinics, many, like Ken Avery, 38, of Amherst, N.H., who works for cycling company Vittoria Industries North America, understand their benefit.

“Mountain biking is one of the most physical sports around, where the rider is constantly challenged by terrain – or riding buddies – which leads to the camaraderie of the scene as a whole,” said Avery.

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“I’ve met most of my friends, and even my wife, through the sport. It’s still a sort of ‘club,’ in that if you meet a random person who rides, you immediately have a bond.”

Avery acknowledged that people approach the sport in different ways.

“The scene is populated by guys trying to out-do each other,” said Avery. “I imagine this to be daunting, or off-putting, for women who have an interest in getting involved. Ride Like A Girl breaks all of these things down, and teaches women how to ride, all from a women’s perspective.”

Parhiala, the volunteer instructor, emphasized that my wife’s rough initial outing wasn’t unique.

“Unfortunately, for many women, their first mountain biking experience is very negative, and involves a male in their life trying to teach them how to ride,” she said. “While he means well, the dad/boyfriend/husband probably has no coaching experience, limited patience, and his own bad habits, and the situation puts a strain on these relationships.

“Ride Like a Girl eliminates that element and ensures that the women who attend take home skills that will allow them to safely progress into better riders,” she said.

“Many seem to be intimidated by mountain biking, when in reality it’s no more dangerous, and probably less so, than other sports that you would traditionally see women participating in, such as gymnastics, figure skating, horseback riding, skiing, et cetera. The difference is that those sports all have an instruction framework that has been in place for a long time.”

03zorec - RLG 2016. June. Auburn, NH. Coaches Karen Eagan (on bike) and Kate Parhiala (holding bars) demonstrate balance point for descending with the help of Isabelle Montesi. (holding rear wheel). (Photo by Tina Dwan)
Coaches Karen Eagan (on bike) and Kate Parhiala (holding bars) demonstrate balance point for descending with the help of Isabelle Montesi.

For information on NEMBA’s Ride Like a Girl program, visit nemba.org/news/ride-girl-2016-schedule. If you have an idea for the Globe’s “On the Move” column, contact correspondent Brion O’Connor at brionoc@verizon.net.