Rutland Women's Mountain Biking Clinic Builds Confidence And Camaraderie
Rutland’s Pine Hill Park covers 300 acres of wooded hillside. Over the years, volunteers have created a 16-mile network of winding trails – a woodsy nirvana for mountain bikers like Shelley Lutz.
During the winter, Lutz is an avid backcountry and telemark skier. But once the snow’s gone, she switches to backcountry biking.
It’s a passion Lutz has been sharing with other women in her popular Thursday night mountain bike clinics; lessons she offers in partnership with the Rutland Recreation Department.
Lutz says she started the lessons to help women conquer their fears, meet other bikers and embrace what Lutz calls the joy of trail riding.
On a recent Thursday evening, 18 women gathered in the parking lot at Pine Hill Park for the second of five mountain biking lessons.
Lutz, their instructor, began by reviewing what she covered the week before. “Now when we’re going downhill,” Lutz calls out to the group, “We’re coasting ... where are our pedals?” “Level,” the women answer. “Right,” says Lutz. “Where are my fingers?” she asks. “On our brakes,” call out the women. “Where are my eyes?” asks Lutz.
Lutz spends several minutes going over the finer points of shifting and pedal positions before having the women divide into groups for the evening’s trail ride.
The youngest women in the group in their 20s, while the oldest are 60-something. Some have ridden a lot and come for the camaraderie, while others, like Stacy Elliott of Chittenden, are brand new to the sport.
“I got a mountain bike for Christmas,” says Elliott, “And I want to learn how to ride it and be braver!"
Elliott says her biggest fear is falling off her bike and hurting herself. It hasn’t happened yet, she admits. “But that’s because I don’t bike very often, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to learn how to use my bike. Honestly, Pine Hill Park is awesome, and I just want to be able to use this resource that we have in our community.”
Lynn Gee, another beginner who lives in Bomosen, admits she took her first spill last week in the parking lot. There had been a teeter-totter type obstacle set up for the women to ride over, and Gee said it didn’t go so well.
“I was the only one who fell off my bike last week, out of 17 people,” she admitted, laughing. "There was a diving board that you had to go up and then it would tilt and you had to go down. First time I did okay on it. Second time I sort of dumped off to the side, but it almost happened in slow motion so I could let the bike drop and just sort of roll off into the grass. But I really don’t want to fall tonight,” Gee says, rolling her eyes. “I would just as soon not fall.”
“Oh gosh, I don’t want to hear those stories,” quips one of the others in the group. “No going over the handlebars,” says Elliott. “We’re the ones who don’t need to hear the falling and crashing stories.”
This beginner group spent most of their first lesson going over basic techniques in the parking lot. But tonight, they’ve been promised their first honest to goodness trail ride.
“Thanks for coming back you guys!” Lutz says as she straps on her helmet. “Alright, are you really nervous now? You’re not shaking tonight so that’s a good sign,” she says laughing.
Lutz is teasing and joking with the women, but she understands how real their fear is and how important it is to help them overcome it. She says the fact that the group is made up entirely of women is key. “Fear for women is totally different than for men,” says Lutz. "Men tend to be risk takers, thrill seekers. Most of the women I see in the mountain biking clinic are not risk takers. The fear factor is extremely high. They’re afraid of every little pebble that’s in the woods and will knock them off their bike, and in reality that’s not going to happen, but you have to give them the confidence that it’s not going to happen.”
Reminding them to smile and have fun, Lutz has the women start up the trail in 10-second intervals. They’re breathing hard by the time they stop and gather at an intersection a couple hundred yards into the woods.
"Fear for women is totally different than for men. Men tend to be risk takers, thrill seekers. Most of the women I see in the mountain biking clinic are not risk takers. The fear factor is extremely high ... but you have to give them the confidence that [a fall] is not going to happen." - Shelley Lutz, mountain biking instructor
“So, how did everybody like Escalator?” asks Lutz. “It’s a little bit of a workout, huh? So unfortunately, we’re still going to be going up and the tight turn we’ve got is going to be up here.”
Pointing to where they’ll ride next, Lutz describes a hairpin turn they’ll take and the rocks she’ll help them navigate.
Don’t look down, she reminds them; look ahead and don’t forget to shift.
Once Lutz gets in position she calls out for the women to start up the trail.
“Alright Stacy! Take your time. Grab a hold of the tree and get yourself situated,” Lutz calls out. “Pedal! Look around your corner and pedal, pedal, pedal! ... Get your chest down," shouts Lutz encouragingly. “Woo! You’re doing great,” Elliott yells as she navigates around the turn and over the rocks.
About half of the women are able to navigate the turn and stay on their bike. The women who fall off, or have to stop, have a good laugh and quickly jump back in the saddle. They shout encouragement to each other as they go.
“The camaraderie with the women, it’s not so cut-throat and they’re just so much more supportive of one another," says Lutz. “Even last week when we were riding, someone was having a tough time with the teeter-totter and everybody [would] stand there and say, ‘Come on ... you can do it!’ The support that women give one another, there’s nothing like it. You have to be there to experience it.”
"The camaraderie with the women, it's not so cut-throat and they're just so much more supportive of one another."
The first few riders in stop at the next trail intersection to wait for the rest of the group. “Yay Karen,” shouts one. “Alright Lynne!” another calls out. The last rider pedals up grinning, “I only fell down like six times!” she says. “Whooo hooo,” the group cheers and laughs.
Lutz watches the group and nods encouragement. “I really enjoy doing this with the women because it’s a great feeling to see them come out of the woods at the end of the ride with the smiles on their faces. Even if they’ve fallen over and scratched up a knee or elbow, they always get up smiling and they come out of the woods hooting and hollering and just have a great time," she says. “I think a lot of these women feel empowered because some of them have never ridden a bike in the woods before.”
Besides teaching women how to bike, Lutz organizes several popular mountain biking camps for children each the summer. She says nothing pleases her more than to see a group of moms drop their kids off, then strap on their own helmets for a ride on the trails.