NICA: Supporting the stoke for girl’s mountain biking

A New Jersey club aims for parity — and makes racing fun for everyone in the process.

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Jay Huggins coaches the Highlands Composite Team in New Jersey, and has a son and a daughter. When his son Ethan began racing, he received extensive support from family and friends for his athletic aspirations. But when Huggins’ daughter Kate got interested in mountain biking, the reaction was different.

“The level of support I see whenever she decides to pursue a sport is a fraction of what it is for her older brother,” Huggins says. “It’s completely unfair.”

Infuriated by the disparity he saw in his own family, Huggins has made gender equity a priority for the team he coaches. Huggins and coaches Emily Hodge and Susan Spoelstra run the Highlands Composite program, which includes students from more than ten schools. Their goal is a 50-50 gender split. This year, a third of the team are girls. In seeking to make the team more welcoming to girls, they’ve created a fun environment for all their riders.

Located in the northern part of the state, the New Jersey Highlands are mountainous with rocky, steep, and technical trails. The difficulty of the riding in the Highlands is a point of pride for the team, but it also presents a challenge for new riders. The team’s coaches seek out trails that strike a balance between challenging and impossible to make the sport more approachable.

Currently, half the girls at Highlands Composite are riding borrowed bikes.

“I see parents hem and haw a bit about buying a bike, and it seems more so with their daughter than their sons,” Huggins says.

Having the latest and greatest gear is definitely not a requirement at Highlands Composite. In fact, the team races in t-shirts, instead of jerseys — another way to make mountain biking welcoming to new riders.

Earlier this year, Highlands Composite held a dinner for the girls on the team and their mothers.

The coaches asked what the girls wanted to know about what it’s like to be a girl who mountain bikes. The answers ranged from everyday details, such as knotted hair, to deeper cultural attitudes. “We want people not to have a predetermined label about how we ride, because we are girls,” one rider wrote.

At a race last year, one of Highlands Composite’s girls finished on the podium. The team raised a ruckus, cheering for her, as she stepped up to receive her award. One of the quietest kids on the team, she had practiced each afternoon, riding up a hill near her house.

“From the expression on her face, you could just see it in her,” Spoelstra says. “It made her feel like, ‘I matter here, and my effort is not unnoticed.’”

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