Shifting Perceptions documents rise of women in mountain biking

New web series traces radical changes in the sport

Crankworx and TELUS STORYHIVE present Shifting Perceptions, a three-part web series about women in mountain biking.

They swoop, swerve, veer and occasionally soar down the mountain, their bikes glinting in the sun like an aluminum avalanche.

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To the uninitiated, mountain bike racing seems sensible only if you’re possessed of a deep longing to spend time with your orthopedic surgeon or if you spotted lava spurting from the mountaintop. But for the women who chase their adrenaline rush on rocky peaks and sandy paths from Rotorua, New Zealand to Heckler’s Rock in Whistler, mountain biking is a way of life.

That subculture of women’s mountain biking is the subject of three-part, Telus-produced web series Shifting Perceptions.

There was a time when women riders were underrepresented, but 2015 was a milestone year in equality on the mountain, according to Julia Montague, communications manager for the Crankworx World Tour. That was the year Crankworx started handing out the same amount of prize money to female riders.

Besides equal pay, which was “quite radical at the time,” Montague notes, Crankworx also started putting its male and female champions side by side on the podium.

The image of the sport’s best riders on literal equal footing “speaks louder than a paycheque,” she says.

The documentary features interviews with mountain biking luminaries including Jill Kintner, Claire Buchar and North Vancouver’s Vaea Verbeeck.

Crankworx
North Vancouver’s Vaea Verbeeck is one of the mountain bikers featured in the Shifting Perceptions web series. - Supplied, Fraser Britton

Born in Tahiti, Verbeeck was raised in Quebec alongside an older sister she describes as “girly and anti-sport.”

“My mom was dealing with quite the duo,” she reflects.

For the better part of a decade Verbeeck was primarily a gymnast, although she spent her winters skiing and snowboarding in Bromont.

“When I was 16, my girlfriends and I bumped into this group of guys at the ski hill and we became friends,” she writes in an email.

The guys were mountain bikers and so, when the snow melted, Verbeeck and her friends opted to give the sport a test ride.

“I loved it instantly,” she recalls.

It required the body control of gymnastics but demanded improvisation to adjust to new tracks, different dirt and changing weather conditions.

“I could always work to progress rather than feeling like I had achieved what I thought was my max,” she writes.

Pretty soon Verbeeck was putting money aside from her part-time job to buy a used downhill bike.

“Then it was up to me to keep up to my fast friends,” she recalls.

But to keep up Verbeeck realized she’d have to get out of Quebec and dip her toe into national and later international competition.

“2011 was my first try at World Cup racing,” she recalls. “Then yeah, injuries happened.”

In Shifting Perceptions, Verbeeck talks about breaking her femur and spending three months on crutches.

Injuries, she says, are “part of the game.”

The web series captures her sideswiping a guardrail and hitting the ground helmet first. She hits hard, as though gravity had been nursing a grudge against her. But just as quickly she flashes a peace sign, the near-universal symbol for ‘that wasn’t as bad as it looked.’

The series intercuts mountain biking highlights with casual interviews with riders; all of whom are welcoming a new generation to the trails.

 “It’s kind of nice seeing the younger girls who are super-fast and then seeing the older chicks that still rip,” says 2018 champ Kialani Hines. “It’s sort of motivating to keep doing it for as long as I can.”

The sport needs more women riding and pushing each other to do better, agrees Micayla Gatto

“If there [aren’t] any women around then there won’t be any women to compare yourself to. It’s kind of as simple as that.”

Verbeeck didn’t get into the sport to be a role model, but she seems open to the idea.

“I want to be that person right now in the sport that someone can look up to,” she says.

The third episode in the series is set to be released Tuesday, Feb. 12.

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