By Elke Bengtson and Anthony J. Nocella II, Ph.D. — Anthony: As a twenty-five-time USA Champion, Bronze BMX Olympian, and Mountain Bike World Champion, how did you get into cycling and were there many women role-models in the sport at that time?
Jill: Thank you! I got into biking like most kids, just ripping around the neighborhood on my bike, hanging out, going places, and trying to jump off curbs and little ditches. The movie Rad was an inspiration, and I had a little paper route on my bike when I was ten years old. We also had a BMX track a few miles away, so it was pretty natural to follow my brother down there for a bit of fun.
There weren’t many females in the sport at that time; I actually didn’t even have girls to play with in my neighborhood, but I got along fine with the boys and just liked adventuring outside. I played many sports like soccer and tennis and had girlfriends at school and teammates for soccer, so it didn’t really matter. I liked having both team and individual sports to give me variety.
There were a few older ladies in biking to look up to, but mostly I was just trying to keep up and learn from anybody who was better than me, male or female. My dad used to point out certain attributes to watch and then I would try to copy, so I didn’t focus too much on being a girl, just on being a better rider. Then we got to travel as a family and there were a lot more girls to ride with and against on the national circuit.
Anthony: In your opinion, how can we get more focus on women in the cycling culture and racing?
Jill: I think the sport, as a whole, has become more accessible. We are seeing more and more ladies getting into it. With all the disciplines of cycling, there is something for everyone whether they want to compete, or ride for well-being, or just have fun in nature with friends. Mountain biking has a great community of people, all pretty accepting and encouraging, so it’s coming, but its takes time to bridge the gender gap. Equality for prize money in competition has been a good start, but I think finding sponsorship to be a full time professional is still difficult and takes a lot of work. The level of riding will come up and be more competitive as this area fills in.
Elke: How can we breakdown the inequity and sexism within cycling toward women; from who gets hired at the bike shop to who gets sponsorships for racing?
Jill: I don’t know. Maybe just with women stepping into these roles so they are more commonly understood and accepted. I love seeing women as mechanics, engineers, and roles like that. For racers, it’s still tough to know what to ask for. The boys get paid a lot more and it’s not very transparent. I don’t know how to change this other than to ask.
Anthony: Do you see a connection between social justice and cycling and if so, what is that connection?
Jill: It just seems like there have been more opportunities created recently because of the awareness brought to this topic. Diversity can help solve problems, and bring in new points of view, so having an eclectic mix of people enjoying the sport will hopefully open doors for future generations where anybody can get into the biking industry. I think there should be programs to earn equipment, rather than just giving it away, so that it has value and is cared for.
Elke: How can we support more young girls into cycling to make the sport more inclusive, and prevent patronizing behavior such as male-splaining in bike shops, racing or the male-gaze, objectifying women on Instagram?
Jill: All tricky questions here! I think the more you know about a subject the less patronizing it becomes. I have been in the sport a long-time and have taken the time to learn all the technical skills, knowledge, and equipment that is maybe a bit overwhelming to newbies.
For the younger girls, at least in Bellingham, Washington, where I live, we have ride groups and weekly skill building where they all ride together from six years old onward. Mentorship and community are the best way to give kids confidence with their riding amongst peers. Just starting a ride group works wonders. Obviously, some will thrive and keep going with biking because they love it, but starting young or finding good support to learn from is a great start. For adults, the same group learning applies – the ladies’ all-ride clinics, dirt series, individual coaching are great investments, or just riding with other ladies helps break out of your comfort zone.
As far as social media, who knows. I think it’s up to individual people to decide how they want to portray themselves on Instagram. I personally try to be professional and share stuff that can – first, help others and/or second, is kind of interesting or insightful.
Elke Bengtson is a seasoned cyclist and trail runner, who dabbles for fun in triathlons and other adventure sports such as kayaking and climbing and is the Senior Marketing Manager at Sundance Catalog.