Friday, 24 February 2012

Two of my passions: mountain biking and writing

Women's mountain biking - "It's what it does for your soul!"

After her first taste of mountain biking nearly 20 years ago on a Caribbean holiday, Jacqueline Easton was hooked. She soon set up her own business in Berkshire offering women-only mountain bike courses, Dirt Divas, having seen first hand what a testosterone-dominated sport it can be. Previously a professional rower, Jacqueline came from a sporting background, and found she quickly adapted to life on two wheels.

Mountain biking consists of riding bikes off road, usually over rough terrain. There are many different types of mountain biking, including; cross-country, trail riding, downhill, free ride and trials. Although mountain bikes are similar to other bikes, they tend to be specially adapted for performance and durability. The main differences being most use disc brakes and have a lower gear ratio. Skills required for the sport include endurance, balance, core strength and self-reliance; all skills that can be acquired on Dirt Diva courses.

Jacqueline recalls being inspired to take up the sport: “I’ve done a lot of other sports and I’d just come out of competitive rowing, it looked interesting so I thought I’d give it a go, and things went from there.” She loves the fact that it can enable you to see so much more of the world.

As well as providing an unrivalled level of enjoyment, the health benefits are huge too. For example, a woman weighing 130lbs can burn nearly 500 calories an hour during a moderate pace bike ride (about 12-14 mph), compared with the 207 she could burn walking the dog.

Like many other forms of exercise, mountain biking can reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke and other chronic illnesses, but there’s another area Jacqueline feels it can benefit too: “It’s not just the physical activity of it… but I think also it’s what it does for your soul. It’s just the feel good factor of being out there in the great landscape. It’s just the best thing.”

Another benefit of this adrenaline-pumping hobby is that it can be relatively cheap, after purchasing the bike. Jacqueline advised to “spend as much as you feel you can” because starting out on a hefty, old, clunky bike as she described it, will put you off. Beginners should opt to visit their local bike shop, rather than being tempted by online deals, as it’s vital you’re measured for your bike. A hard tail bike (a bike with an unsuspended back end and front suspension fork) will set you back around £400.

After the bike, your helmet will be your most important piece of kit. Go for a light, well-ventilated one to keep you cool, try plenty on and expect to pay in the region of £40 for a decent one. Next up, gloves. Some riders don’t wear them but they’ll to keep your hands protected if you have a fall, which is more likely when you’re starting out. Finally, cycling pants will become your best friend once you get into this sport. As a beginner you’re not used to sitting in a saddle, and you’ll notice that it can be uncomfortable. However, these little beauties with built-in padding will keep you comfy on long rides. They’ll feel strange at first, but persevere and you’ll soon start feeling the benefits.

Perhaps Jacqueline’s most valuable piece of advice is to find buddies to go out riding with. “It makes it so much more enjoyable, as well as the safety aspect.” Riding as part of a group is the best option for beginners, as you’re just learning about your bike. Finding yourself some friends to go out with will mean people are there if you are to get a puncture or an injury, and you won’t be miles away from help. Self-reliance is something that is built up over time, as you become a more confident rider, so having plenty of others around you as you’re starting out is key.

Making friends with like-minded girls is one of the core aspects of the courses, which Jacqueline and her team run. Dirt Divas, of which Jacqueline is the founder and director, was set up in 2006. They offer a variety of courses specifically tailored for women of different abilities, designed to build confidence, be fun and make friends too. Courses offered range from Back to Basics, which aim to increase confidence and improve technique, to Drops and Jumps, aimed at the more adventurous rider looking to push their boundaries. The courses take place in Berkshire, and you can expect to pay around £99 for each course. You need to bring your own bike, as the courses are focused on building your confidence on the bike YOU ride.

On any given course there can be up to 30 women, split into groups of no more than six. These small groups mean each girl can hone her techniques under the eye of her coach. Each coach has come from a wide and varied background in mountain biking, and their combined years of experience reaches nearly 120 years.

Jacqueline feels her company might help women who feel apprehensive about taking up the sport, given that it seems to be so male dominated: “It’s really all about giving them a really good time on the day of the course and introducing them to other girls who are all incredibly supportive of each other.”

She described how it can be a little scary and intimidating to go out with the guys when you’re just starting out; you need to build your confidence, instead of being worried about being stuck at the back all the time. “They’re going to be quicker, they’re going to be more gung-ho in their attitude. You’re always trying to keep up with them, rather than just enjoying yourself - not that we have anything against the guys in all of this!” she laughed.

So what are you waiting for? Few others sports can promise excessive calorie burning, superb scenery and a generous helping of companionship; no Y chromosome required!

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