Hitting the Dirt
By Anne-Marije Rook
Photo at right: Kat Sweet hits a jump at Duthie Hill Park in Issaquah, Wash. Photo by Cash Kiser
In July of last year, 60 women ripped through Duthie Hill Park in Issaquah, Wash. for the Northwest’s first two-day women-only freeride event.
The Sugar Showdown was hosted by local mountain biking celebrity Kat Sweet. Her goal: To provide a venue for professional and amateur female freeriders to compete in a supportive environment while bringing awareness to the ever-growing women’s freeride movement. Freeride is one of the most popular disciplines of mountain bike races. Unlike cross-country, freeride riding includes tricks, style, and technical features in the trail. Future women mountain bikers also got a good dose of Sweet inspiration as well.
A few months later, Sweet was out in Duthie Park again, this time along with 180 kids, 80 parents and 40 volunteers for the seventh annual Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day, a celebration that strives to connect kids with the natural world through riding mountain bikes.
The sport of women’s mountain biking is growing in the Northwest, and Sweet is right there at the forefront.
As a racer, coach and Youth Program Manager at Cascade Bicycle Club in Seattle, Sweet has been instrumental in bringing new riders to the sport for the past 10 years.
“When I actually let myself step back and look at what we’ve done, I feel pretty proud,” said Sweet. “I feel honored to be at the forefront of a women’s movement.”
Sweet started mountain biking after her dad, a road racing enthusiast, bought her a rigid, 21-inch Specialized Rock Hopper in 1987.
“As soon as the wheels hit the dirt I was hooked,” Sweet recalled. “I felt the adrenalin, the accomplishment of doing something you weren’t sure you could do, mixed with fitness and lots of laughs. I like to call it adrenalin Zen. You have to focus on the trail ahead, leave your problems behind, find the best line, and live in the moment. It really brings you back to the now.
“Not to mention the views are spectacular, especially in the Northwest with lush forests of ferns, mushrooms, and trees.”
What started off as fun fitness training soon morphed into racing, and Sweet pushed herself to be the best.
From downhill champion to teacher
Sweet spent much of the 1990s competing professionally in mountain bike racing as well as skiing, competing in the X-Games and racking up titles such as Expert National Downhill Champion.
“Competing is a great way to push oneself to the next level,” said Sweet. “But somewhere along the way it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to find a way to make a difference in the world.”
Sweet decided to invest in a new generation of riders.
“When I moved to Seattle in 2001, I started a Trips for Kids chapter, taking low-income kids mountain biking, and I had found my niche,” said Sweet. “The bike is now a tool for creating the change I want to see in the world: From taking kids who have never been in a forest riding down single track, to giving women the tools to ride features they may not have realized they could, to building the Sisterhood of Shred by hosting, coaching and competing at women’s events all over North America—I get to change lives by doing what I love. How lucky am I?”
Over time, Sweet has seen (and helped) the sport grow.
“When I first started mountain biking, and especially racing downhill in Lake Tahoe, I was one of the few ladies doing it. Now I go to the NW Cup races and there are 5 to 10 ladies in each category,” said Sweet. “That might not sound like much but it’s a big step in the right direction … It’s still very male-dominated, which is part of the reason we started our own events,” said Sweet.
The past year was busy for Sweet, hosting Sugar Showdown, teaching camps and classes, growing her business Sweetlines, competing and producing her first film.
Together with filmmaker Mark Brent, Sweet produced If She Can Do It, a documentary capturing the Sugar Showdown event and the days leading up to it.
Sweet said she was amazed by the overwhelming support they received for the film, which was funded by Kickstarter and sponsor support.
“People want to see women riding bikes, supporting and pushing each other but keeping it fun,” she said. And that’s exactly what she’s offering women and youth with her events.
“I want to make my events so everyone can progress, have fun, and make new friends. They’re attainable for all levels of riders,” she added.
And what place better to host these events than the Northwest.
“What keeps me here is my community, the incredible people who put in countless hours into making the most amazing and, might I add, legal trails in North America. I grew up in Marin County, Calif. where all of the fun trails are illegal. It’s so refreshing to have mountain bike parks dedicated to riding and progressing skill levels,” said Sweet.
“I feel very lucky to live here.”
Anne-Marije Rook is a Seattle-based journalist who enjoys pedaling through life on two wheels. Outside of bike commuting, she spends many hours in the saddle training and racing with the Team Group Health women’s competitive cycling team. www.amrook.com.