words :: Sarah Bulford.
Scrolling through Instagram, I roll over several photos of dudes—covered head to toe in sponsor logos—hitting jumps on a dirt bike. A trail of positive comments flood in below.
A few clicks on the sponsored tags reveal more images of men living it up in all their moto glory. Throughout the brand profiles I do see splashes of female faces, usually portraits where the woman’s face is clearly visible, hair down to the side, smiling. I get the feeling I am looking at two different representations of a dirt bike athlete.
Before the summer of 2020, it’d been more than ten years since I’d twisted a throttle. Messing around on a dirt bike was routine in my younger years: crashes, stitches, a lack of protective equipment—standard childhood fun. Moving to Squamish thrust me into the world of human-powered adventure and, after a decade of climbing, ski touring and hiking, I began to long for the smell, the power, and the flow of a two-stroke engine. Getting back on the bike as an adult has been an eye-opening experience. Not only do the crashes hurt more, but here in Squamish the enduro riding is much like the other sports in the area: hard.
But not as hard as trying to find anything to do with women and dirt biking on the internet. My Instagram explore page is loaded with shots of men riding gnarly hill climbs up sand dunes or intimidating granite features. I watch several race clips from events like the Erzberg Rodeo (an annual Austrian motorcycle enduro event—the largest of its kind in Europe), races where legends like Graham Jarvis, Tadeusz Błażusiak and Manuel Lettenbichler hold incredible victories in the sport. I become completely obsessed with watching these races. But that feeling comes back—out of the 500 riders in the Erzberg Rodeo, about 31 are women. Digging deeper, the first Google-suggested search is “Are there any female motocross racers?”
Finally, I find a poorly written article from 2019 about South African enduro rider Kirsten Landman, who made history as the first female to finish several extreme events. 2019 is not that long ago and races like Erzberg have been around since the ‘90s. Why haven’t more women made the cut? It’s only when I shut off the internet that I hit paydirt. The Coast Mountains is home to a community of women absolutely crushing it on their motos.
“I think women are underrepresented in motor sports,” says Crystal Borrelli. “There are old mindsets out there that will take time to reprogram.”
Crystal Borrelli is no stranger to crushing stereotypes: She’s a dedicated yogi of eight years and founder of Mythic Mantras (an immersion on stories of the gods and goddesses of yoga) but also covered head to toe in tattoos, and excited to talk about how she loves mixing gas and kicking ass on her bike.
Growing up on Lasqueti Island, a small, remote community off the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, Borelli spent most of her childhood outdoors but didn’t buy her own dirt bike until she turned 40. Snowboarding occupied most of her early life (she competed professionally into the early 2000s) but after seven concussions, Borelli decided to find another way to get that flowy freedom back.
Dirt biking gives her the same sense of speed and satisfaction she once received from snowboarding. Going out for a ride with Borrelli, you instantly feel the stoke. However, standing barely five feet tall, she has to ride what is essentially a modified child’s bike, there are no full-size (ie: full power) options. Regardless, she’s determined to progress and not let any limitations slow her down.
“The focus is not on female riders but to get more of our presence known” she says. “We can use social media as a tool to spread the word that women are killing it and need support, apparel and equipment that empowers them. We definitely have some strong females around here who are paving the way for the next generation.”
M-C Vanasse has been riding trails in the Sea to Sky Corridor for about a decade. “As a kid, I always wanted to ride. But my family wasn’t that interested in having motorsports around the house,” says Vanasse, who bought her first dirt bike in 2009 and became immediately hooked. She says the sport forces her to be present and has been great to help clear her head and focus on progression and skill. It’s also helped her build a ton of self-esteem. “Looking at something that seems impossible to ride and making it over is such a rewarding experience”.
While Vanasse agrees there are far more men than women dirt biking, she’s starting to see many more women on the trails. “For some women, it can be intimidating to start riding bikes. From loading the bike into a truck, a hitch rack or a trailer, to doing maintenance—or even riding the trails themselves and fearing crashes and struggles—with a little help from some friends it’s not as hard to get started as people think.”
There is a culture of support and mentoring on local trails—and also online. Angelise Edwards started the Braap Babes Instagram account back in 2018, “At the time, I was a new mom who lost my identity and was trying to find myself again. Being a mom is beautiful and rewarding, but I wanted to continue learning and expanding my skills in my sports as well.”
Initially set up to help bridge the gap for women getting into the sled community, Braap Babes hosted ten events in the first two years with the goal of connecting and empowering women in the dude-centric world of motorsports. “I felt the struggles and pains of wanting to see more women that could influence and motivate me in my sports,” she says, adding that there are user-built “feature” groups showcasing female athletes, but brands and the media have a long way to go.
To this end, Edwards started her own women’s-only snowmobile and dirt bike digital magazine and podcast. “All female athletes deserve representation and their voices to be heard and I’m so proud to give them a platform to do so.”
In an age where equality, of all sorts, is at the forefront of our minds—motorsports needs to catch the hell up and make a big shift in their culture, language, brands, media, and sponsorships. It really comes down to opportunity—creating space, increasing the development, efforts and availability of women’s clinics, more events, better gear and bikes. It will be a process, but it’s happened in other sports and the women I spoke with all agree that in the meantime it’s up to us to make our presence known and bridge that gender gap (and freakin’ send it!).