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The ‘Gear Girls’: Flagstaff’s Next Generation Of Female Mountain Bikers

Courtesy of Gear Girls

Northern Arizona is a mountain biking mecca. The sport took off here some 30 years ago, when a few guys strapped fat tires onto cruiser bikes, and began trailblazing the region’s mountains and red rocks. At the start, it was male-dominated, but not for long as women began to climb the sport’s ranks. Now, some of those pioneering riders are mentoring the next generation of female mountain bikers. KNAU’s Aaron Granillo joined them for his first-ever trail ride.

Ten young girls and two coaches are about to show me how to navigate a mountain bike trail at the base of the San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff. First, some basics because I am a total rookie.

“So hey, since Mr. Granillo hasn’t done this before, can anybody tell him when he’s riding along, if he’s not pedaling, what should his feet be doing?” asks Sabrina Carlson.

“Keep your pedals level,” answers 12-year-old Katherine Foley.

Credit Ryan Heinsius
Coach Sabrina Carlson (left) and the Gear Girls

Carlson is founder of the youth group, Gear Girls. She started it last year when she noticed a lot of young, female riders dropping out of co-ed programs run by the Arizona Trail Association.

“They would get into that co-ed setting, and then that really competitive energy comes along and I watch them physically shrink away,” says Carlson. “I can actually see them get smaller, their shoulders start to hunch. They put themselves at the back of the group.”

That’s what eleven-year-old Nova Van Ness did the first few times she rode a bike with boys.

“Every time I went mountain biking it was with my brother and his friend, who are older than me,” says Van Ness. “They’d always be like, ‘come on, get up the hill already!’ because they don’t really help me at all.”

Credit Ryan Heinsius
The Gear Girls riding the Fort Valley Trail at the base of the San Francisco Peaks.

Now, after a summer in the Gear Girls program riding with female peers and mentors, Nova handles this single track with confidence. She zigzags through mazes of jagged rocks, fallen branches, and tree roots. Her coach, Cole Habay, follows behind.

“It’s easier when you start younger and not wait until you have a boyfriend later on to show you,” says Habay. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or girl. Just go out there and have fun.”

Habay was born into a family of cyclists. She went onto mountain bike professionally, winning hundred mile endurance races, ignoring gender stereotypes about athleticism.

“A comment that I frequently hear, sometimes from older men, is ‘why are you out here by yourself? Isn’t that unsafe?’ And they might be out there by themselves too,” says Habay. “And it’s like, well because I can, and I’m going to because I’m an independent person. I have faith in my skills and I’m going to go out into the wild by myself.”

Credit Ryan Heinsius
Gear Girls coach Cole Habay biking in Virginia's George Washington National Forest.

She shares that freedom with the Gear Girls. The program teaches them technical riding and how to take care of their bikes and themselves in the field. The Fort Valley trail, where we’re riding today, is a perfect place for a lesson in navigation.

“This area is pretty tricky because can we see the Peaks right now?” Habay asks the girls.

“I slightly see some darker stuff and then the sky above it,’” one of them responds.

“Okay, now we’ve located the Peaks. The Peaks are right there,” says Habay. “So, what direction is that?”

“About north.”

They also take a moment for mindfulness to focus on their surroundings and breathing.

“Is everybody ready? Okay, so just try to focus on your inhale, exhale,” Habay tells them.

They stand in silence, eyes closed. Coach Habay asks them to tap into their internal animals for strength. Here are 9-year-old McKenna Marino and 10-year-old Nora Montgomery.

Credit Ryan Heinsius
Gear Girl McKenna Marino

“So, I feel like a cheetah slash hummingbird because I feel like going really fast and zooming around,” says Marino.

“I feel kind of like a wolf. Kind of protective, tired, and defensive at the same time,” says Montgomery. “And, kind of wanting to go somewhere.”

That somewhere is down a rocky trail that used to give Nora trouble before she started riding with the Gear Girls.  

“Now, I find a path with my eyes and I go between the rocks and I found a path and that’s kind of how it works,” says Montgomery. “And that’s how life works.” 

Where there was once fear for Nora there is now sage-like perspective.

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