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With more than a decade of experience in the cycling industry as a pro mountain biker, bikepacker, guide, and community organizer, Rachael Walker seeks to create more welcoming and inclusive spaces for women riders. The 2019 BikeBiz Woman of the Year and creator of the UK Women's Enduro has tried just about everything on two wheels, and she encourages others to do the same and ride beyond their comfort zones.

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I’m often asked, “How did you get into riding?”

Back in my teens, I was obsessed with snowboarding. Generally, the only people I knew who boarded were guys, and they became my gang. They had this other passion of riding bikes downhill, and one day they put me on a bike and pushed me off. I crashed, hurt myself, my ego was wounded, but I never said a word. And that’s how my story progressed, riding with the boys and eventually going to races. Downhill was my world, which was great at the time, but it was only as time went on that I realised how restrictive it was with zero diversity and inclusion. My riding stalled as a result of it. With maybe only six or seven women at an event, a women’s scene was non-existent really. I was paralysed a little by the fear of failing, not fitting in, not being as good as the guys.

Rachael Walker rides the South Downs Way mountain bike route.

Working as a young corporate lawyer, I reluctantly ended up making the move to London. Career-wise it was a great move. But socially I feared the concrete, the lack of countryside, and leaving my clique. Little did I know, this move opened by eyes to how cycling could become more diverse and inclusive, and barriers to entry for women and so-called riding disciplines needn’t dictate our relationship with cycling.

During those first weeks in London, I met one of my now best friends, Anna Glowinski, who was a great mountain biker. She hated traditional MTB clothes, which at the time were generally baggy and masculine. We’d go riding and she’d wear tights with knee pads over the top and glitter on her face. She didn’t care about passing comments or whether she fit in with the mountain bike community's unsaid rules.

In London, I was introduced to the Herne Hill community and the Mule Bar Girls, which were very much road cycling focused. The women were strong, welcoming, loved cycling and the party. I was amazed these groups existed. I’d never come across anything like this before. I turned to the road and the community around it but was acutely aware this scene was so different and separate from the downhill community. I also knew either you were a downhiller, a road rider, or an XC’er...Find your box and fit in it. The question always niggled me: How do we get more women cycling if there are so many barriers? Getting women to the “start line” of riding a bike was one thing in a male dominated environment, but getting them to find a type of riding they like was another thing.

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In the years that passed, I moved to work in the bike industry and always had at the back of my mind the idea of getting more women to ride bikes, in whatever form that may be. I knew that my riding had progressed since riding with more women. I had that instinctive approach of “if she can, I can.” I tried jumps and drops I would never before try. I knew the key was simply bringing women together in a welcoming, patient environment. This would help break down the barriers and empower women to explore their own cycling journey.

I started holding regular guided women's rides and established a women's enduro race, attracting over 300 participants. Good friend and multi-discipline world champion, Tracy Moseley, has always been a firm supporter of women-specific events and how they can instill confidence that mixed-gender events often fail to achieve. Tracy is also a known advocate for the multi-discipline approach, encouraging riders she coaches to embrace all forms of cycling. It’s the idea that we never stop learning, whether that's from riding different bikes and genres or from different people and groups we spend time with.

Rachael Walker and Sisters In The Wild UK on a bikepacking trip

On a personal level, I continued to flit between disciplines, dabbling in all forms of racing and riding. Jumping from the Trans-Provence enduro event, to the Three Peaks CX event, to long distance early morning dawn rides on the South Downs, because why not?

I've loved not fitting into those cycling norms, and hope more women will follow that approach to find what most clicks for them. The opportunity to explore and learn has never been so great. Women are supporting and encouraging eachother like never before. I’ve been fortunate to be involved in incredible events where the whole focus is on women coming together to ride, inspire and break down barriers: Sisters in the Wild and the Komoot Women's Torino Nice Rally.

The Women's komoot Torino Nice Rally.

Sisters In The Wild aims to create an environment where women, trans, and non-binary folks can feel comfortable and push themselves to face their personal challenges in supportive and pressure-free surroundings. Confidence is the key for women to step out of their comfort zones, but equal representation and influence from other women is important as well. Seeing other women doing something opens up for others to follow.

Sisters In The Wild hosts events based in the UK, such as bikepacking weekends to bring women together via camping and gravel riding. Post-ride campfires are where the instant mashed potato is served, marshmallows are toasted, and where a lot of the magic of these events happen. Women open up about their highs and lows of the days, what scared them, what they hope to learn, and what they overcame. Often one of the highs of these trips for most women is simply meeting more women with a similar mindset and the unique buzz of riding as a group with zero intimidation.

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Even as we get older, you never stop having heroes, right? It’s no secret that one of my heroes is Lael Wilcox. Her jaw-dropping accolades on the bike are one thing, but for me, it's her passion for getting more women on bikes and sharing her passion for adventure.

When she contacted me with an invite for the inaugural Komoot Women’s Torino Nice Rally, I was there, no question. Nearly 30 women from seven different countries came together to tackle the 700km bikepacking challenge. I felt privileged to be a part of this self-supported adventure.

Lael Wilcox and Rachael Walker.

The women’s peloton led by Lael set off from Torino, but from there each rider made their own adventure. Whether riding solo or with others, we could sleep and eat wherever we preferred. With no rules, everyone went at their own pace, forging friendships along the way. Tired and exhausted, you keep going because you have the most supportive and encouraging company. Ham, cheese, and bread are shared during the day and campsite beers by night. The terrain is both spectacular and demanding with relentless climbs through the beautiful Italian-French valleys. Hours pass with constant chat, laughter and a few tears.

The Cols come and go and the kilometres slowly tick away. Arriving in Nice was bittersweet. My saddle sores were thankful the ride was over, but my heart was sad. There’s something addictive about these wholesome events. Thankfully there's a follow-up to the event in April with a women’s bikepacking adventure in Spanish Lapland. Hosted by Lael, the event is all about getting women to the start line and letting the magic happen.

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These events show what can happen when women come together to support one another and collaborate. Boundaries are crossed and barriers are broken. I often wish these groups and events had existed when I first started riding, but I also feel super privileged to play a small part in the movement that is helping to break the bias and remove barriers to entry. We are showing what we can achieve together when we push a little out of our comfort zones.

Wear the hot pants, eat the cake, and ride outside the box.

–Rachael Walker

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Words by Rachael Walker. Photos by Rue Kaladyte and Roo Fowler. In honor of Rachael's essay for International Women's Day, SRAM is excited to support her work with Sisters in the Wild UK with $5000 to organise an intro to mountain bike weekend for Muslim women.

Learn more about Sisters in the Wild UK here.