Sure, it's "just" a weekly mountain bike ride. Like many groups formed around a common interest and shared challenges, this weekly gathering of women mountain bikers has morphed into a unique community. For years now, every Monday evening, a group of women abscond to the woods on bicycles. On inky dark winter nights, when you can see your breath in the air, they pack layers and turn on their bike lights. In spring and fall, they measure the time until sunset by horizontal finger-widths, each finger representing approximately 15 minutes until the sun dips below the horizon or, more often, the fog bank. In summer, the ride starts and ends hours before nightfall, leaving plenty of time for post-ride beers or river dips.
Once the wheels meet the loam, the camaraderie is somewhere between a giggling sleepover and a lighthearted counseling session. Conversations click around like gears on the cog or twit rapidly like the chipmunks of the forest — it just depends on who is riding next to you. We stop as often as needed, to regroup, to snack, to take pictures of flowers. No one is in a particular hurry. We're not there for a hammer fest or a personal record. We are there to ride, to laugh, to learn and to enjoy the views under towering conifers.
On windy days, like those we've been having lately, the trail and streets are covered with cones from the most common trees here on the North Coast: Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii, not a true fir, which is the Abies genus), Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) and redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). Each conifer produces two reproductive structures: the seed cones, or female cones, are larger, woodier structures that produce seeds; the pollen cones, or male cones, are the smaller, softer structures that produce and then release pollen when the time and the wind is right. Seed cones can be papery like with Sitka spruce or berry-like as with junipers. No matter the structure, the pollen makes it to the seed cones via blustery days and, as with most reproduction on Earth, the seeds develop inside the cone to be released anew.
Red Alders (Alnus rubra) produce what looks like a cone, but is actually a woody catkin (female), of which there is a (male) pollen counterpart. A catkin is a pendant cluster of unisexual flowers. These alder woody catkins are the small cones that haphazardly decorate places like the Hammond Trail just south of the Clam Beach overlook.
As our bike tires roll over, bounce off or slip on these cones and catkins, I like to think about how the tiny three-pronged tails sticking out of Doug fir cones are actually their bracts, nested just above their cone scales. Redwood cones are small and spherical, as is common of the Cupressaceae family, and to me, the tip of their scales look like a mouth with big lips. The spruce cones are more papery and the spaces between their scales look like secret cubby holes for fairies. Maybe I let my mind wander a little too far while biking uphill, but if I was a forest gnome, or a fairy living under the sorrel, I'd hide my treasures there.
The woody seed cones and catkins are tough and resilient, much like the women who ride on Mondays. Some of them have seeds of their own — young or grown children. But kids and responsibilities are miraculously put on hold for the ladies' ride. Pumping legs into the steep hills, I have marveled at the dedication of moms, students, professors, semi-pro riders and beginners, scientists, nurses, administrators and retirees. All together under the trees, we are there to cheer each other on, unconditionally. Like the mycorrhizal fungi networks the trees rely on, we share resources. Bike gear, clothes and advice are traded freely. We chat for too long at the top of climbs, coordinate childcare and carpools when possible, and never leave anyone behind.
Mountain biking can be hard and intimidating, but not with this group. We cheer each other on through switchbacks or down drops, but also through breakups, divorces, child rearing, job changes, life plans and career-building. We talk about schemes and dreams over logs and rocks or post-ride pie and cider. Friendships form and grow out there in the dirt, and I am beyond grateful to be part of such an incredible web of women. People may come and go, as is the ebb and flow of life, but it doesn't matter if it's been years or hours since your last ride — no one cares as long as you are having fun.
Our times together are always fun, sometimes challenging, usually full of laughter. When possible, birthdays mean cycling with onesies and costumes. For one of our steadfast members' 50th birthday, yours truly showed up late wearing spandex and oven mitts, carrying a still-hot cupcake pan.
The weekly rides were started by women who wanted to encourage more women to ride by creating a welcoming space — and that it has. We now call ourselves the Humboldt Ladies MTB group and we communicate on an ever-growing Whatsapp chat by the same name. As I write this, we are at 96 women and counting. By next week, there will be more.
The ride is every Monday, usually around 5:30 p.m., maybe 6 in the summer. It might get more organized in the future but for now it's completely grassroots. Whoever wants to ride puts a text on the chat, proposing a time and place. The location changes. If you're a female-identifying person who loves mountain biking, message us on Facebook to join the Whatsapp group. See you in the woods.
Hollie Ernest (she/her) is a botanist and forestry technician. She is writing a book about her international bike adventures, gardening and exploring the corners of Northern California. Find her on Instagram @Hollie_holly.