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Taking To The Woods With Bikes And Boots: The Montana Dirt Girls
Montana Senior News, June/July 2013
When Carol Fulton moved to Missoula three years ago, one of the first things she did was type the following keywords into her computer’s search engine: “Missoula + mountain biking.” As soon as she saw “www.montanadirtgirls.com” among the hits, Carol had a feeling it would be a good match, especially since she never expected to find a women’s biking group in her new hometown.

“I was looking for information on trails, groups, and connections and went to the Montana Dirt Girls web site immediately. After exploring their site I decided to give them a try,” says Carol, who has been road and mountain biking regularly for the past 27 years. “I learned this isn’t a club. There are no dues, no meetings, and it’s open to everyone at all skill levels. I liked that.”

On her first bike ride, Carol discovered several more things she liked about the group. Whatever their age or expertise, new and beginning riders received a warm welcome. Carol met cyclists ranging from college students to grandmothers to bionic women sporting new knees. To her surprise, she also met many in her own 50-something age bracket.

“It’s a tough sport and you’re going to be in pain. But age doesn’t determine ability,” emphasizes Carol. “Practice does.”

In addition, Carol noticed the core group of riders provided lots of support to help newbies along the route. If anyone lagged behind, the women waited at turns and key points till everyone caught up and had a chance to take some deep breaths. As Carol embarked on more rides, she saw that when the group was large enough to split up, an experienced rider would typically volunteer to lead the “relaxed group” at a slower pace so those who wanted to pedal a bit faster could.

“This group is not about egos; egos are put aside when we’re on the trail together. It’s more about getting out and riding and encouraging other women to ride,” says Carol. “Many of the women have an I-can-do-this-attitude. They realize how hard it is to ride in the mountains but don’t quit or want to see others quit. If someone dislikes waiting for slower riders, she soon realizes this isn’t the group for her.”

As Carol has observed, even the waiting times at the regrouping points can be fun as people rest and visit with each other. One memorable day, they even dropped their bikes when someone spotted a motherlode of ripe huckleberries dangling from nearby bushes. “We stayed and picked and picked and picked,” recalls Carol, who found it more difficult to leave behind those juicy berries than to pedal herself up the next steep hillside.

The purpose of the Dirt Girls has remained the same since 2001 when Julie Huck unintentionally founded the group: They try to gear their rides to the slowest bicycler and make sure everyone has fun while building riding skills.

“This all started with me trying to get a co-worker out mountain biking. I told her I didn’t mind going slower and we rode together one day a week. Word spread and a group of friends gradually started to join us,” explains Julie, who works at Adventure Cycling as their membership director. Considering Julie has a lifetime passion for cycling and that the mission of this nationwide non-profit organization is to inspire and empower people to travel by bicycle, it seems practically inevitable that she would form a group like this on her own time.

“My co-worker biked with us for a year and that’s when I put up a web site. Now there are 150 names on our email list. Forty to fifty women drop off annually but new people keep finding and joining us,” says Julie. “It’s an easy introduction for women who are new to town who want to bike and want to know where to bike.”

Since the focus is on support, Julie has found that super-competitive bicyclists don’t return. Missoula has plenty of other group-biking opportunities to satisfy those cravings. “The whole point isn’t who gets there first; it’s making sure we all make it out and everyone has a good time. We aren’t hard core. We’re not out to hit it hard but to get women outside recreating. I enjoy mentoring others newer to the sport who never thought of themselves as athletic,” explains Julie. “And since I’m going to be out bicycling anyway, this makes it more social. If people don’t ask for advice, I don’t offer it. But if they do, I’m happy to help.”

Meeting every Tuesday at 6:00 p.m., the Dirt Girls alternate weekly between challenging and easier rides. Destination ideas come from within the group. Julie acts as the information coordinator sending out a weekly email to let folks know where the meeting place will be and where each journey will take them. The more experienced riders take turns acting as group leader so it becomes a shared responsibility.

“I like to organize but don’t always want to be in charge. What I really love is to plan the scene for the interaction to happen. I’ve made friends through the group and enjoy watching new people come along and make friends,” says Julie. “They become supportive of one another beyond the bicycling. When someone is going through a tough time in life, these ladies are there to help and care for each other even though we don’t always know one another’s last name.”

The all-female make-up of the Dirt Girls works well for these women. No one misses her menfolk for the evening. On the contrary, these gals value having the alone time with other women and the less competitive atmosphere when guys are absent. They also make their own bike repairs as necessary and do it with confidence.

“The dynamics definitely change when men are around,” observes Carol. “They talk bikes, bike parts, and the big rides they’ve done. Women talk about more personal things—about our day, about recipes and books we’re reading. It’s getting-to-know-you conversation.”

When Daylight Savings Time draws to a close in the fall or temperatures drop too low to ride comfortably, the group switches to hiking. They follow the same general procedures as for their mountain biking, meeting at a designated locale at 6:00 p.m. every Tuesday and returning by 9:30. Only now, they take along headlamps and bear spray and leave the tire pumps at home. Surprisingly, as many women show up for these starry night treks as for the daylight rides. As the ladies explore new and old trails together, they also discover more about each other.

“There’s a range of people from professionals to stay-at-home moms. You never know who you’ll meet on one of these hikes. Doctors, lawyers, artists—we all share the struggle together,” says Julie.

“What people do doesn’t matter. We don’t talk about our professions much, some not at all. It’s a place where you can check all that by the door,” adds Carol.

“These hikes push us into a new sense of community sharing the one thing we all have in common—we all love being outside. That transcends everything—the full spectrum from age, economics, profession, religious and political beliefs. That’s the unifying thing,” sums up Julie. “But it’s cool to have the diversity within.”

For more information, visit www.montanadirtgirls.com or email Julie Huck at montanadirtgirl@gmail.com. To learn more about Adventure Cycling, visit www.adventurecycling.org.