At the final stop of this unique mountain bike race series' inaugural season, riders and organizers reflected on what makes the Sturdy Dirty so special.
I’m hanging out at the top of a gnarly climb, watching dirt-crusted mountain bikes crank up the final hump. As soon as the riders dismount, they stumble like sunbaked zombies toward an aid station staffed by a merry band of plaid-attired women representing helmet purveyor Bell. There, the riders down pancakes, mimosas and bloody marys—and bask in a brief respite. One rather wilted rider hangs back, however. “I feel like shit,” she mumbles to her laughing friend, who hands over a tomato-and-vodka cure-all. The rider groans, then downs it in one impressive slug. There’s more racing to do.
Welcome to the final leg of the Sturdy Dirty Enduro Series, the world’s first women-only mountain bike race series of its kind. For the uninitiated, enduro is a type of race that challenges riders with big mileage and tons of vert along a multi-stage (often multi-day), technically demanding course. Unlike XC racing, where racers are timed continuously and battle head to head, enduro racers are only timed while bombing downhill on designated stages. In between, they’re grinding along untimed transitions, chatting with other riders, and yes, sometimes slamming adult beverages. “What I like to talk about is how it combines serious competition with serious fun,” explains Angela Sucich of event organizer Sturdy Bitch Racing. “The general tone isn’t as intense as you might see at other enduro events, even though the racing is."
"It doesn’t matter if you’re a pro rider gunning for the top of the podium or if you are just there to get yourself down the mountain—the priority is to have fun.”
The Sturdy B’s, as they’re known, are a Seattle-based mountain bike race group comprised of Sucich, Ady Bee Lane, Julie Crittenden and Katie Jackson. They noticed the overall lack of women participating in their sport and decided to spread some stoke by launching a one-off enduro race, the Sturdy Dirty, in Washington’s Capitol Forest in 2014, with help from local organizations including Friends of Capitol Forest and Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, and experienced race organizers Trey and Camille Wilson of Red Tent Timing and Cascadia Dirt Cup.
The focus was on creating an entryway for new racers—and a place where experienced ones could still have a blast. “I think for a lot of women, getting into mountain biking alone is pretty intimidating,” explains Crittenden. “For us, it was trying to create this environment where it’s fun first, but you can still race as seriously as you want to.”
That first event, along with subsequent ones, was a rousing success—measured not just in participation, but also in outcomes. “We’ve seen correlative data to suggest that not only are women participating more in our race, but it looks like they’re participating more in other races that are coed,” explains Sucich. “It’s exciting to think that our race may have unlocked something for these women.”
It felt natural to spread their reach beyond Washington, so this year the Sturdy B’s joined forces with Ash Bocast of Roam Events to expand the event into a series including three stops: Seattle, Washington; Oakridge, Oregon; and Big Bear, California. Bocast herself raced the Sturdy Dirty when she was working for cycling brand Liv, the series’ title partner, and she jumped at the chance to come on board. “You know how people say at their weddings that their faces hurt from smiling all day? The Sturdy Dirty was kind of like my wedding,” she laughs. “What really impressed me about that race in particular … is that it didn't matter if you were a pro rider gunning for the top of the podium or if you were just there to ride in the race and get yourself down the mountain—the main priority was to have fun.”
Liv’s U.S. Marketing Manager, Jen Audia, agrees with the assessment. “I think from the moment people get here to the time that they leave, they feel this super positive energy,” she says. “You see smiling faces, people laughing and dancing, riding bikes, and there’s no intimidation. Ladies are just like, ‘Hey, I can be whoever I want to be,' and that’s the challenge of getting into the sport—or any sport for that matter: Women feel like they don’t belong. I think the Sturdy Dirty has really helped women see that they do belong.”
To hear about this magic firsthand, I spoke with some racers at the mid-October series finale in Big Bear, California, about their two-wheeled passions, the nature of enduro racing, the vibe at an all-women event and what makes the Sturdy Dirty so darn special.
Sean Easterby skis, swims and hikes, but until the Sturdy Dirty, she’d never been on a mountain bike. She agreed to a friend’s invite when she learned there was a free pre-ride with world champion racer Leigh Donovan. “I said, ‘Oh, I’ll just get the lesson and I’ll know how to ride a mountain bike.’ I mean, how hard can it be?” As she discovered, pretty hard.
After a relatively successful first day of riding, Easterby plowed into a tree during the final stage. Shaken but uninjured, she still managed to finish half of her race stages the following day, tapping out only after a handful of wrecks killed her nerves. She laughs, “I was the weakest link, I was the one the tiger was going to kill!” Still, the experience was enlightening. “It was just such a high yesterday after the four runs, even though I was scared to death,” she recalls. “I need to start doing this stuff because I’m living a very conservative life. My kids are grown; it’s time to put balls to the wall and do something.”
The First-Time Racer
What began as a way to improve her exercise routine morphed into a rekindled need for speed for former racecar driver Annie Johnson. She initially picked up mountain biking as a “way to stay healthy,” but joining SoCal's Girlz Gone Riding group motivated her to go further with the sport. “There’s just something about riding with a bunch of other women that gives you this energy,” she explains. When a group member suggested she join the Sturdy Dirty team, her competitive side kicked in and Johnson signed up for her first bike race. “It’s like the ‘surfers of the mountain’—everyone’s super chill. You’re on a mountain bike? You’re cool. It’s a good bonding experience,” she says as her face spreads into a wide smile. “I’m still all hyped up.”
The Comeback Kid
If you know her name, it’s probably because you’re a cycling nerd or watched the documentary Ride the Divide and saw Mary Metcalf become the first woman to complete the entire 2,745-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route back in 2007. However, after becoming a mom, she found herself with far less time to devote to training—or even riding. “You have kids and you just get consumed by life. The stoke kind of goes away and your other priorities jump up ahead,” she explains. But as time passed, the itch returned and she turned to local trails to re-engage with a sport she loved. “The meditative, therapeutic benefit of going on a long bike ride and just being out there with the wheels turning and clearing your mind—you know, some people do yoga for that. My bike rides do it for me,” she says.
One thing that helped further revive her stoke was winning the Liv For A Day Contest, which offered Metcalf the opportunity to travel to Seattle in June to ride the first Sturdy Dirty race of the series at Tiger Mountain. The experience was so powerful that it spurred her to participate at Big Bear. “I have been racing since about 2000, and I’ve never felt this much support and love,” she says. Reflecting on the Great Divide and the reemergence of her racing life, Metcalf oozes gratitude. “It’ll be part of my legacy. I probably won’t leave riches or homes behind for my kids, because I choose the life that I choose. But I need this. I need to ride my bike.”
If anyone outside of its organizers can comment on the Sturdy Dirty’s special sauce, it’s Janine Robinson, who's raced all six Sturdy Dirtys to date—including this one, held on her birthday. She began mountain biking in college, and later hoped she’d be able to bring her three sons into the sport once they moved to bike-friendly Sammamish, Washington, where they could ride straight from their driveway to a local bike park. As it turns out, neither her kids nor her husband were as passionate as Robinson, so she rode solo. That is until she bought a full-suspension bike, began taking classes and decided to race the inaugural Sturdy Dirty.
“I was riding by myself almost all the time. I didn’t have a community,” she recalls. “Then after that first race, I had one. We all have this thing in common—that we love mountain biking—so it makes it easy. And also, when you suffer with someone, it brings you closer.” She pauses and laughs. “And we definitely suffer while we’re out there.”
The Series Leaders
Mid-race, Ash Bocast leaned over to me, Bloody Mary in hand, and whispered, “Today will come between Sarah and Andi.” She was talking about pro racers Sarah Viggers and Andi Zolton, both of whom boast a legacy of wins—and both of whom seemed more intent on having fun than knocking each other off the podium. (For the record, Zolton swept the series in their class.) If you recall the introduction, our Bloody chugger was Viggers, not-so-fresh off of a wedding the previous night. She’s a good spirit about our earlier encounter, “I was running on three hours of sleep and I may have had a little bit to drink the day before, so I was not wanting to do that climb,” she says. “I was bonking hard, I just was so tired. But my friends who were pedaling with me were super encouraging. They really are the reason I got through the race.”
While she loves the community aspect of racing, especially enduro, there’s also a deeper connection that formed from her very first downhill experience at 17 years old. “It’s a confidence builder when you send your bike down something that you didn’t think was possible before, but it’s on the race course, so you kind of have to do it,” she explains. “It’s a personal thing of, ‘Wow, I’m capable of a lot if I set myself to it.’”
I met Zolton on the first lift ride of the day, her signature lensless red glasses perched on her nose. She spoke about how Enduro holds a special place in her heart. “It’s all the best parts of mountain biking put into a race. If you enjoy racing, you get to race. If you enjoy the social aspect, you get that a hundred-million percent. If you like to climb, you still get to do that, but you don’t have to kill yourself doing it. You still get to earn your turns.”
Later, snacking on a piece of Robinson’s birthday cake, she was exhausted, no surprise considering not just the rigors of the race, but also the fact that she was up until midnight preparing bacon packets for racers. But there was nowhere else she’d rather be. “I feel more comfortable on my bike than in a lot of other places in life,” she says. “I’ve accomplished a lot to get where I’m at and it makes me feel good. When I’m on my bike, I feel proud of where I’m at, but I also feel like there’s still a lot that I have to learn and improve on. I feel like there’s so much more in front of me.”
The Next Generation
While more women dip their toes into dirt, it’s the younger generations who will eventually bust through the gender gap in mountain biking. Alexandria Simbulan (16), Jennifer Johnson (12) and Gia Guerrero (11) all entered the sport through their fathers’ enthusiasm, but they all stuck with it because of their own. For Simbulan, it’s all about speed. She started off riding cross-country, but hated being timed on the uphill grinds; enduro proved a better match. “I like the adrenaline going downhill,” she says.
Her father, Travis, who is incidentally dressed to the nines in an orange Pippi Longstocking wig and patterned dress, beams when listening to her wax poetic about her love of bikes. “I’m just filled with pride when she comes ripping through,” he says.
Multi-sport enthusiast Johnson also used to ride cross-country but found a home in enduro. Like Simbulan, she’s stoked on the adrenaline factor, but also loves the community aspect of the sport. While she’ll take any opportunity to ride, she likes being in an all-women environment. “Sometimes it’s nicer to have only girls because we have guys that kind of push you and they’re always in the front, and it’s like [she sighs]—okay. But when you have girls, you’re all together and all supporting each other.”
While both Johnson and Simbulan have raced before, this was Guerrero’s first—and she almost didn’t sign up. She was initially only going to participate in the pre-ride with Leigh Donovan. “I wanted to bring her up into an environment that she hasn’t seen before—strong women that can shred,” explains her father, Stan, who didn’t push her to race. “I was leaving the ball in her court. Everything worked out, and at the end of the day she wanted to race and barely got any sleep last night.”
Guerrero was excited but nervous. “The first stage, I was terrified. I thought I was going to die,” she laughs. “Then after, I was like, 'Why was I even scared? This is amazing!' I was just riding. This is what I like to do.”