Words by Laura Heiner (@surly.girlie), photos by Dean Bradley
Five years ago, I stood at the finish line of Idaho’s Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400 bikepacking race, waiting for my brother-in-law to ride in. I had spent the last four days compulsively watching dots on Trackleaders. My husband, who was one of those dots, stood next to me when I declared, “I’m doing this next year.” I didn’t even own a mountain bike at the time, let alone have this type of biking experience. It seemed like a ridiculous declaration, but I was deadly serious. The following fall, I rolled across the finish line next to my husband. It was the scariest thing I had ever done.
I have raced every year since then, gaining enough skill and confidence to eventually go solo. Each time, I counted up the number of fellow female racers. I studied them to understand who they were and how they got there. My fourth year, only three other women signed up. The gender disparity nagged at me nearly every mile. At that point, I didn’t know a single other local female bikepacker. I rode alone or with men. Nearly everything I learned had been from men. I decided to find a way to get more women out there the following year.
When I got home, I went to my social media and the Smoke ‘n’ Fire Facebook page and made a proposal: “Ladies. Who’s always wanted to race SNF but didn’t want to go alone? Next year is your year.” I sat back, anticipating two or three people to take me up on my offer. To my surprise, the rapid and enthusiastic response led to the creation of a whole new Facebook group of 100+ women. “The Women of Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400” (WSNF) went into action.
Over the winter, I made gear lists, rudimentary instructional videos, and posts explaining the race. I wanted to show that you didn’t need years of experience or top-of-the-line gear. Other racers from previous years joined and helped mentor. We fielded thousands of questions, ranging from carbon vs. steel to tampons vs. menstrual cups. Two of our riders had to buy their very first bikes. Others had to acquire or modify gear. There was a no-judgment and no-dumb-questions culture.
My spouse commented on my lengthy training videos and Zoom meetings. He would continually say, “too much information,” and I would remind him, “This is the stuff women worry about, and men never say.”
As the months rolled on, the women stuck with the group. In spring, we started monthly overnight training rides. Fitness and experience levels varied widely. Ages ranged from 20 to 60. We were a hodge-podge group of mostly strangers, but we were patient with one another. And we stuck by our no woman left behind policy, even as our rides became longer and over more difficult terrain.
After a few grueling training rides, the number of potential racers shrunk to under 20. We shared our fears and agreed that our biggest worries were mechanicals, navigation, and getting enough training. We asked for help, and two local bike shops stepped up. Bike Touring News offered hands-on workshops where a female mechanic taught us skills from repairing chains to stitching sidewall tears. George’s Cycles donated coaching, bike fits, and customized training plans.
As the deadline approached, WSNF was a committed group of 14 racers, 12 of whom were first-timers. Though my original offer included being their riding partner, the women each decided that they wanted to race the way it was meant to be: solo. The morning of the race, we met at the starting line for a quick picture and well wishes.
What happened next is about what you would expect. Eight made it to the end, including the two women who hadn’t even owned a bike the year before, dubbed “The Wonder Twins.” Six women learned the hard lesson that bodies don’t always cooperate how we wish. Not one went down without a hard fight.
This experience has taught me some important lessons. One, there are plenty women who are interested in this sport. You just have to find them. So, reach out. Two, building a community of riders requires a safe place for questions, dialogue, and support. Three, never assume anything, especially based on a woman’s physical appearance or age. We are built for endurance and pain tolerance. Four, ask for help. There are individuals and businesses who will jump in. Lastly, talk a lot. Women are verbal in nature. Their confidence comes from expressing fears and making detailed plans.
Our group of 14 was a subset of the 19 total women who raced in 2021, compared to only four the year before. But the shift is greater than just numbers. The real success story is a new female bikepacking community. It supports women who plan to continue to bikepack casually, race SNF next year, or find other self-supported adventures. In preparing to go out into the wild alone, we came together.
A huge congrats goes out to the women of this year’s Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400 event, and to Laura for building such an awesome and inclusive community. You can find their Facebook group here.
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