Shayna Yellon was 8-years-old when she started mountain biking. Her dad was an old school hard tail bike, single-track rider, and encouraged Yellon and her brother to give the sport a try.
So they did. Yellon and her brother mountain biked through the rest of their childhood and into adulthood. She felt “un-gendered support” to continue the sport she describes as a full sensory experience and way to connect in a deep way with the surrounding environment.
“It’s a place where you’re seeing the sights, feeling the wind, the dirt, hearing the sounds of your tires against the rocks, the rustling of the trees,” Yellon said. “I think mountain bikers do have a deep appreciation for the spaces that they get to bike in, and it’s not just about biking and sending off big jumps but it’s literally being out in nature and maneuvering through nature in different ways.”
Now as a mountain biking instructor at the Snowmass Bike Park, Yellon is one of a handful of women teaching downhill skills and clinics — working to help more people experience mountain biking and to be a role model specifically for women interested in joining the sport as riders, competitors and coaches.
“I love to support young women especially in this sport,” Yellon said. “I want to create an environment where they’re not being overstressed, over pushed. I’m meeting them at their level yet they’re achieving and progressing to a point where they build confidence in their abilities and see (mountain biking) in their future.”
According to a thesis written by University of Arkansas, Fayetteville Education in Recreation and Sport Management master’s student Rebecca Irvin last year, quantitative data on mountain biking participation separated by gender is difficult to find.
In her thesis, Irvin writes that she reached out to the International Mountain Biking Association, USA Cycling, National Interscholastic Cycling Association and PeopleForBikes organizations about this specific data, and all said they did not have it.
Irvin went on to explore the question: What are females’ perception of learning to mountain bike? She found that many of the perceived barriers expressed by women were intrapersonal, like “when I think of mountain biking, I picture men” and “people who ride mountain bikes are super athletic.”
“The top five statements regarding participant constraints and motivation give professionals a starting point to start changing the female perspective to a more accurate perception of what it takes to learn this sport,” Irvin’s thesis states. “This sport is very accessible for females of all ages, fitness levels, financial levels, and hopefully this study helps professionals better communicate that message to females.”
In recent years, many biking organizations across the country have worked to be more inclusive toward women, hosting clinics and special events aimed at introducing them to the sport.
One of the local organizations working to break down the perceived barriers to mountain biking for women is VIDA, a Colorado-based organization that works to provide high quality mountain biking education and skills clinics for women and to create an inclusive community of female riders across the state.
Rachel Gottfried, who heads the VIDA MTB Series clinics, said she’s seen and felt the intimidation that comes with mountain biking as a hard, scary sport, and feels creating a positive, growth-minded learning environment can help overcome that.
“When we start the weekend and you look at all of our participants’ faces they are all timid and all afraid,” Gottfried said of a typical VIDA MTB Series clinic. “But then you see this transformation little by little. … Something happens with mountain biking and you realize that you can do it, and depending on where you are in the sport that may be getting up a technical climb, hitting the gap drop, whatever it is. But once that switch flips and you realize that you can do it, then c’mon, you can do anything.”
Gottfried went on to emphasize that she knows mountain biking isn’t for all people, but that it is something all people are capable of doing when given the right learning environment and skills education.
And for more than four years, VIDA has hosted a summer mountain biking skills clinic for women in Snowmass, working to create that positive learning environment and build camaraderie among local and visiting participants.
Gottfried said this year’s clinic—which was postponed to the end of this month due to the Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon—is sold out at 36 participants.
However, although the organization is known mainly for its skills education, it’s also working to be inclusive to all women, including women of color and a part of the LGBTQ+ community.
“If we’re finding that we are only attracting a certain type of woman, then we’re not doing our job,” Gottfried said. “We really want everyone to feel at home and safe.”
Yellon and Cami Nogueira, a local professional mountain biker, expressed similar desires to create safe, instructive environments for Roaring Fork locals to hone their mountain biking skills, especially for women.
“I know for some women it can be hard because there aren’t many of us in this world, there aren’t many girls riding, but for me I started with my brother and my father and I had really good friends to ride with so I always felt comfortable,” Nogueira said of her experience in mountain biking, noting that there have been many times when she’s the only girl riding with a group of her friends.
“But when I moved here a few years ago I was really happy because there are a lot of girls here who ride bikes in general. I didn’t expect that and it’s great. When you go to the bike park you can see girls riding which is really nice.”
Like Yellon, Nogueira, who is from Argentina, started mountain biking at a very young age. She said she began competing professionally in college and has raced all over the United States and Europe, including in the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup races.
But this summer because of the COVID-19 crisis, most of Nogueira’s races were canceled or postponed, leading her to shift gears and spend more of her time helping out with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club’s summer mountain biking program and taking part in the Snowmass Bike Park’s downhill race series.
“I think this sport can really inspire them a lot,” Nogueira said, referring to young adults and kids who give mountain biking a try.
She went on to say she hopes to continue to work with young mountain bike enthusiasts in the Roaring Fork Valley moving forward, and wants to serve as a resource for women mountain bikers especially — continuing to support and strengthen the already strong group of women mountain bikers she feels exists in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Yellon expressed similar thoughts, emphasizing that she feels there are good women mountain biking role models instructing at the Snowmass Bike Park and riding there for fun—and that she hopes to be one of them.
She said she didn’t really notice any sort of gender divide in mountain biking until she got into coaching, where Yellon said she’s noticed a decrease in women involved at the instructor level for a multitude of reasons, and has generally started to notice trends in how women prefer to learn the sport and thrive in it versus men.
“If I can create a situation for women that has as many options as possible, I find that women tend to do better when they’re given the easiest option, then the next hardest option and there’s some choice there,” Yellon said. “It’s more of a suggestion based coaching style and developmental rather than command, which men tend to lean toward. It’s generally a different conversation and a different tone.”
Overall, Yellon said moving forward as a local mountain biking coach, she hopes to inspire young women to pursue mountain biking as a sport and as a career option, ideally seeing some of the young women she works with now follow in her and the other Snowmass Bike Park women coaches’ footsteps.
“I tend to think there is something special about women working with women that allows for a different kind of learning experience,” Yellon said.
“I want to be one of the options of what you can be. … I’m invested in coaching so that I don’t have to coach forever. I’d like to see my little footsteps build at some point and be followed by the awesome kids we get to work with every day.”