Lack of women in bikepacking is plenty apparent to anyone. I’m not a woman, so I don’t know first hand what deters women from participating. On the other hand, other sports are further down the line in addressing this issue (e.g. trail running), so it’s easy to look at those sports for ideas. I tried that and here I summarise what I learned. Before I continue though, let me get a few disclaimers out of the way.

  1. To establish the need for change, one does not have to show that the whole gender gap is due to gender discrimination/bias. It suffices to show that gender bias cannot be ruled out as one of the contributing factors. Then we are under ethical obligation to act.

  2. I am not advocating for affirmative action. All the suggestions below aim to increase fairness. While affirmative action can be useful, I decided to stay away from it and only suggest what’s definitely (over)due.

  3. I am writing from my privileged position. I did my best to research and think carefully about the topic. However, I must have missed some things simply because my experience is different. This is unfortunate, yet it would also be sad if only women were burdened with writing about this issue. I invite you to criticize and educate me.

The premise

Let’s first establish the fact that bikepacking (racing) is not accessed by both genders equally. For the purpose of this post, number of starters of each gender at an event is a good indicator of uptake of competitive bikepacking. That data, however, is not readily available. Hence, I use the number of finishers of each gender as a proxy for the number of starters of each gender. While these two values (starters vs. finishers) may seem different, they should encode inclusivity roughly the same way. In particular, if the number of female starters is high with respect to (wrt) the number of male starters, so should be the number of female finishers wrt the number of male finishers. There is no known reason for a woman to be less capable to finish a bikepacking event than a man. It is a physical endeavour that is quite easy on the scale of human limitations, so while winning can be hard, finishing should be well achievable. Therefore, if female starters are more likely to scratch than male starters, we are seeing just another symptom of an unfair race design (e.g. male calculated cutoffs, etc.). Therefore, let’s just go with comparing numbers of finishers between the two genders, it’s a good enough proxy.

I extracted some information from Grace Lambert-Smith’s dotwatcher.cc results section. I understand that these may be incomplete and that some races are probably omitted completely. But as you’ll see, this is not going to explain the whole gap. This data shows that the ratio of female finishers to male finishers is ~1/10. This is way below expected (1:1) ratio (I am going with 1:1 because none of the events are supposed to be gender specific). You can download my script for scraping and cleaning the data from my bikepacking repo on Github. The bottom line seems to be:

Women are ~10x less likely than men to take part in bikepacking events.

You can play with data to exclude some outlier races, but the ratio doesn’t change much. I don’t think it matters if it’s 1/10 or 12/100. It’s too low anyways.

The ‘why’

I don’t know why fewer women do bikepacking races. To know for sure, one would have to prove causality. That’s notoriously difficult. Therefore, waiting with actions until we know for sure what’s causing the inequality is a way of entrenching the status quo.

The why is not that critical. I am interested to know why, but it isn’t a prerequisite to starting to remedy the inequality. And that’s the point here. We can identify many aspects of bikepacking racing which are at least unpleasant or outright unfair to female participants. Assuming that these things don’t contribute to the inequality until we prove they do is lazy at best.

So here’s a suggestion, let’s sideline the discussion about why, and ask “what can we do to make bikepacking racing more welcoming?”. It’s extremely likely that this approach will benefit many people (of both genders) and there’s a good chance that it’ll correct some of the gap we’re seeing in uptake numbers.

Suggestions/topics

Some of the items below were taken from the internet. Trail running community has been addressing this topic for a while now, see e.g. Trail Sisters. The rest of the ideas below (probably worse) are mine. Feel free to criticize.

Transparency

Some bikepacking events do not have an explicit way to sign up (they don’t even tell you to email the organizer). I’m looking at you Further and HT550, to cherry pick a couple of them that I care about. You have to be bold enough to send an unsolicited email to the organizer in order to get a spot. If women are less likely to self-promote, what makes us think they’re not less likely to cold-email an organizer and self-promote to get a spot? Explicitly stating how application process works can be done in plaintext on a website. If there’s a vetting process in place, a list of applicants and a list of offers should be published at the end (public scrutiny will help keep an eye on unjustly denied entries). In other words, the application process needs to be transparent so that everyone feels equally invited to apply. Confidence or a lack thereof should play no role in getting a spot. Let’s not condition entries on elevated levels of cockiness & self-promotion for a race where speed on the bike over long distance is the subject of competition.

Separate results

Women need to have separate results sections. Equivalent in terms of visibility and shape/form. An “overall” results page can exist, but should not replace separate gender categories. There is, of course, the problem of low participation at the moment. So if there’s only 1 female finisher, it is hard to declare her a winner – that’d be a tautology. However, if an average female winner arrives in e.g. ~110% of male winner’s time, and there’s a sole female finisher who arrived quicker than that in this race, e.g. in 95% or 105% of male winners time, then she deserves to be a female winner, period. There’s no way around it, just because other women didn’t/couldn’t show up, she cannot be deprived of a win (which, statistically, would probably still be a win if more women participated). We could have multiple such conditions, e.g. either within 110% of male winner’s time, or better than 10th place overall, or… We can come up with good metrics over time. Note that these metrics should not be fixed: it’d be good if it was e.g. average % of male winner’s time over the past 10 years of races. As the scene evolves, so should the criteria.

The special case of a female rider winning overall is easy. She should still be a female winner. She just happens to have finished in e.g. 95% of male winner’s time. That’s why the additional results section with “overall” ranking might be a good idea to keep.

Pre-allocating equal fields

The organizers should “reserve” spots on the startline on a 1:1 basis between genders. Each gender should have a waiting list. If, after some deadlines, places remain empty for either gender, and the waiting list is also empty for that gender, only then should the remaining spots be offered to the eligible applicants of the other gender. The idea being that we should avoid spots for women being taken by members of the oversubscribed male category. The other thing this prevents is comparing a male candidate with a female candidate for a spot on the startline. We do not know how shifted the performance distribution is for women, so we cannot make sure that e.g. a slightly more eligible male than female applicant isn’t actually less eligible when normalized by their respective categories (e.g. he is further towards the lower tail of male distribution than the female candidate is towards the lower tail of the female distribution). So if I were an organizer, I’d embrace this to avoid an opportunity for a hard-to-control discrimination.

Shout out to the Transcontinental Race, which as far as I know, does this in some form. There might be other races too.

Cut-offs and time limits

How are checkpoint cut-offs calculated? If, as a percentage of the leader’s time, then naturally we need two cut-offs for the two categories. Same goes for the limit at the finish.

I understand that it’s a bit awkward to tell a male racer that they’re out of the race when the checkpoint stays open for another day. But it’s a race and you’re racing your field. If that field is long gone, you’re out of the race. People can still finish, just won’t be classified. Many races already offer this option to use race facilities while they’re open even if you’re out of the race already.

The main point is to avoid cutting off disproportionally many women.

Pregnancy deferrals

The preparation for a bikepacking race takes months or longer. However, having kids is still a greater undertaking. It’s absolutely sensible that a person forgoes their spot in a race (however competitive or hard to obtain) in order to have a child. Pregnancy, however, affects women only. So there are ~9+ months that are different for men and women. This could mean that women have to give up (or not apply for) more spots than men.

A simple improvement could be an automatic deferral of an entry in case of pregnancy, adoption, or a newborn. I’d even go as far as suggest that all of these should apply to both parents given that, as a society, we’ll be better off if men participate in everything child related. And let’s not forget about repeated deferrals (2nd child, or next year’s event is too early after giving birth – not allowing for adequate preparation or prolonged absence from the child or …).

False difficulty

“The toughest race”, “One of the toughest races on the calendar”, etc. This is often how races describe themselves and how the participants describe them. And almost all of them do it (which is funny on its own).

Portraying a race as overly hard or dangerous is a problem. Hearing people say “This is the toughest thing I’ve ever done” only means one thing: they did not do much before coming to the race. Yet people without experience won’t know this. And if someone keeps hearing their whole life that “that’s dangerous”, or “don’t do that, you could get hurt”, they’re a bit more affected by these exaggerated portrayals of events than I was. And I wouldn’t be surprised if this false image of difficulty deters women more than men – simply because that’s how society keeps conditioning them from young age (to be more risk averse).

Event location

Is Morrocco the best place to hold an event where participants ride alone for extended periods of time, in the dark, through remote places, with trackers, along a pre-determined route? I don’t know. I read this post by Jenny Tough about her experience at the 2019 Atlas Mountain Race. It seems to me that her race was different to that of her male colleagues. More difficult & risky.

I don’t know what to do about this. Maybe, overall, it is good to “evangelize” in these parts of the world by organizing events. The locals will see how women compete on par with men and maybe something will change over time. However, this does not change anything about the fact that women taking part in such a race are getting a bad deal. So these events are basically “designed with male participants in mind”.

I am leaving this point open – stating there are problems with hosting events in these parts of the world but maybe also long-term benefits.

Kindness vs. hostility

This is an example of an inviting race website: https://www.transcontinental.cc/ and this is an example of a hostile race website https://tourdivide.org/. The difference is stark.

Hostility is closely tied to every single of the above points: lack of transparency (do they even want me to apply? it’s probably just for friends of friends), not giving due credit for top performances (not having separate results sections), not giving equal chances to take part (not pre-allocating registration spots for each category), discriminating against people on the receiving end of gendered life events like pregnancies (no pregnancy deferrals), overstating difficulty of the events, and locating events in problematic places.

General kindness and the lack thereof is one of the major issues that I was able to identify. Trying to make a race overly “pure” (whatever that means) is not inviting. Take the example of Tour Divide and the flawed Visitation rule. Plain hostile.

On the other hand, I’m glad to see some more stereotypical (and great!) efforts for outreach, outward kindness, and inviting actions. Be it the live content during races, films about races, podcasts, ad-hoc overnighter groups, etc. I believe this helps normalize the sport and tempt more people into taking part. I’ve also noticed a few scholarships popping up, which is a nice touch.

  1. Lael rides Alaska scholarship
  2. GRIT program
  3. SJ Brooks Scholarship

Paywalling information

This point is quite subtle and hard to get across correctly. The question is: how should novice bikepackers access reliable materials related to bikepacking? Bikepacking is a sport where experience matters a great deal. If our goal is to attract more women to the sport, paywalling “experience information” is going to disproportionatelly affect exactly these women. So paywalling is seemingly at odds with the inclusivity goal.

Examples of paywalled materials which would be useful to be able to access before competing in one’s first event include: Kurt Refsnider and Sarah Hammond & Jesse Carlsson.

I did purchase and read both of those “publications” before writing this.

Conclusion

The important message is: a lot is wrong with our sport. Not everyone can enjoy it to the same extent. I hope we at least agree on this.

Whether the points I mention above will help, is less clear. And I have little hope that they are sufficient. However, I would be thrilled if this post fuelled further discussions on improving women’s participation in bikepacking events.

Happy international women’s day.

-Jakub