In 2005, 41-year-old Wendy Engelberg needed something new in her life. Stressed out by a divorce, bored by her job as an auto parts store manager and with no kids or compelling hobbies, she showed up at Malibu Creek State Park for the Fat Tire Fest.
"I always wanted to try mountain biking," she said. "I was fit from aerobics class, so I thought I could do it. I was a little scared." This would be her first ride on the $419 bike she had just bought. In fact, she hadn't ridden a bike since childhood.
"After two hours, I hated it," she says. "Mountain biking is hard. I fell again and again. But it was therapeutic. It immersed me in a whole new world of challenge and learning and fun that took my mind off the divorce. By the end of the day, I was hooked."
Eight years later, Engelberg has six bikes in her Los Angeles garage. She's a hard-core endurance rider and downhiller who spends every weekend at a mountain bike race or cycling adventure. And although her picture does not appear in magazines, some say she has emerged as one of the most influential people in the country in getting women in their 30s, 40s and 50s out on the trails through the club she founded three years ago: Girlz Gone Riding.
GGR has quickly grown to about 400 members in Southern California to become the biggest women's mountain biking club in the country. Some of the world's largest bike companies get in line to sponsor its events. Famous riders like Rebecca Rusch, the three-time Leadville 100 champion, show up to stage riding-skills clinics. And in the tradition of women's-only running races and triathlons, which have been magnets for introducing hundreds of thousands of women to endurance sports in the last decade, some say that GGR is inspiring thousands of women to get out on the trails.
The reason is simple: "There are no men there," says Mark Langton, who has run coaching sessions for GGR and is president of CORBA, the Concerned Off-Road Mountain Bike Assn., the national organization that sponsored the event in Malibu Creek. "Women empower other women when they ride together. They love to get out and exercise — but they hate doing it with men. They get turned off when there's too much testosterone floating around."
Men ride too fast and don't wait. Men are impatient. Men aren't supportive, aren't nurturing. They're too competitive. No matter at what level she rode, Engelberg heard the same complaints.
She heard them while riding Santa Monica Mountain fire roads three or four days a week with women she met at the Fat Tire Fest. As she moved up to technical single-track trails, bought a $3,000 dual-suspension bike and began taking road trips to top mountain-biking spots from Sedona, Ariz., to Whistler, Canada, with riders from the 700-member North Ranch Mountain Bikers, the biggest (and mainly male) club in the West, she heard the same thing: It's no fun riding with men.
"In fact," she says, "some women think that men were actually holding us back. Their very presence was stopping women from even trying this sport."
Karen Rehder, manager of the Luna Chix Ambassador program, which runs women-only rides in the Bay Area, says the reason is pure speed. "We have a greater fear of falling and a much higher threshold for wanting to be safe. We carry babies," she says. "So we won't follow a man downhill because of how fast they go. But we will follow another girl, because we know they'll do it at a safer speed."
She says the women who really want to go fast ride with the men.
In January 2011, Engelberg went to a happy hour with several female mountain bikers. Again, they began ranting about how they hated riding with their boyfriends.
That's when the big idea hit: a club just for women. They settled on the name Girlz Gone Riding and immediately planned their first event, with three levels of guided rides, guest speakers, coaching clinics and gear donated from bike shops for raffles.
"We expected 20 or 30 girls to show up," Engelberg said. "So we were shocked when we got over 100."
The women ranged in age from 30 to 65, with the majority older than 40.
Today, GGR has 389 members, including a few male bike shop managers and CORBA board members.
The best thing about all the club's activities, stars and connections, she says, is that "women are sticking with it. We keep gaining members and not losing any. Women are continuing to mountain bike instead of getting discouraged and leaving. That's because we wait for the slow riders. Nobody gets dropped, by design."
Every GGR ride is broken up into beginner, intermediate and advanced groups, and then sub-divided into fast, medium and slow. Each group has a ride leader up front, a sweeper in the rear, and a floater who goes back and forth to help out wherever needed.
"This way, it's not intimidating," Engelberg says. She guesses that "probably more than half of our members would not be riding regularly if not for the GGR."