February 20, 2016 – Looking back on her time as a pro-elite downhill racer, Amber Zirnhelt remembers just how important mentorship and support from her community were when she first started out. This realization is what prompted her to start Ride Like a Girl, a mentorship and bursary program designed to support young female DH, XC, and Freeride mountain bike athletes just starting out.
“I was lucky to have mentorship and support from our local bike shop owner in Williams Lake,” says Zirnhelt, of her early days mountain biking. “Mark Savard of Red Shred’s was instrumental in encouraging me to develop my passion and skills on the bike. At the time there weren’t very many women riding bikes in town, and I wanted to get more females into the sport. As a youth, I would have loved to have the opportunity to ride with and learn from an older female pro rider, and I wanted up-and-coming female racers to have this opportunity.”
Sandra Walter, pro cyclist, Canadian XC Marathon Champion, and four-time Canada Cup XC Series Champ, joined the Ride Like a Girl program as a mentor to up-and-coming Junior XC rider Emily Handford last year. Walter has represented Canada at seven World MTB Championships since her own time as a Junior rider, and it’s important to her to inspire a new generation of riders: “There are still relatively few women racers compared to men and I’d like to do everything I can to encourage and inspire more women to give it a shot and discover how much fun competing can be.”
The lower number of females in mountain biking is one of the obstacles facing young women getting into the sport. “Mountain biking is a pretty intimidating sport to get into as a girl because so many of the people who ride are guys,” notes Handford, who just finished her first year racing. “Although similar, there are definitely differences between a women’s race and a men’s race, so being able to get tips from a fast lady is so valuable.”
“Being able to contact Sandra with any question about racing was extremely helpful,” says Handford about her Ride Like a Girl mentor. “She helped me manage my expectations for how things would go, and gave me insight on what I should and shouldn’t be focused on at my age. This helped me go into races more confidently, because although I had little experience, I had an idea of what it would be like, which was the next best thing.”
Having Walter’s experienced hand guiding her gave Handford the confidence she needed to push herself and take risks, allowing her to let her talent and strengths as a young rider shine. “I think the best advice was when Sandra told me that taking risks and being confident even in situations you don’t feel prepared for can go a long way! During the road race at Western Canada Games, I made a breakaway – even though I’m not a road racer, and I didn’t fully know what I was doing. There was definitely the risk that the group would catch me back or I wouldn’t be able to hold my lead. But, that didn’t happen and my teammate bridged to me and we ended up taking first and second. I was confident that it might work, and that’s what got me to the podium!”
Although each Ride Like A Girl mentorship officially lasts just a year, both mentors and mentees gain skills, perspective, and relationships that last far longer. “When I got to a higher level and more knowledgeable about the sport, I looked up to the amazing Canadian female racers we are known for producing, like Alison Sydor, Chrissy Redden, Kiara Bisaro and my now good friend, Catharine Pendrel,” says Walter. “I see Catharine as a mentor in many ways, but our relationship is less teacher-student and more that of colleagues and friends.”
Amber Zirnhelt has high hopes for what the Ride Like a Girl program can accomplish, not only for the individual riders each year, but for a broader community of female riders: “I hope the program will encourage more girls to ride and race mountain bikes. Our aim is for Ride Like a Girl to continue to build and support the mountain bike racing community and to break down barriers that can make the sport intimidating for young women. We’ve heard really positive feedback from our program participants that they are building broader networks with other female racers and feel part of a community when they attend races and events.”