Gender and Bikepack Racing

By: Frances Hacker

“Why is my phone not charging?” I thought to myself through my sleep-deprived brain fog. It was day four of the 2023 Colorado Trail Race, and I was stopped by a small creek about 5 miles east of Breckenridge. Up to that point, I had surprised myself by sticking to my goal pace during my second attempt at a bikepacking race. Although I was quite fatigued, I was still exhilarated from the ripping descent into Breckenridge out of the Ten Mile Range. I had kept motivation all day by chasing Colorado Trail legend, Alexandera Houchin. 

I pulled out my battery bank and took a closer look to find the cause of the charging issue. I saw the battery light flashing, indicating that the power bank was completely drained. “Oh hell no.” I thought to myself. I looked at my phone. It was at a 30 percent charge. I pulled out my inReach tracker, 40 percent, and glanced at my GPS device, just 30 percent. I was still 142 miles from the finish line at Waterton Canyon Trailhead and there were essentially no amenities ahead on route, so a future charging stop was out of the question. A pit formed in my stomach as I surveyed my options. Riding back to Breckenridge to charge my devices would take hours and would certainly ruin my goal of finishing in under six days. Riding on would risk all of my electronics dying, including my inReach tracker and GPS, which were my sole navigation devices for the upcoming detour around the Lost Creek Wilderness. I cursed myself for not bringing a paper map as backup. The temptation of quitting began to worm its way into my exhausted brain. “This could be a sign that my ride is over; maybe I should just give up…” In a panic, I called my partner to discuss options. Their concern was obvious, and although their support was comforting, they were hesitant to give definite advice; this was ultimately my decision. At a loss, I called my friend Leigh, who raced the Colorado Trail twice and has served as a mentor during my preparation. She encouraged me to keep going, put my devices in battery save mode, and hope for the best. I thanked her and hung up, still paralyzed with the decision I made, still grappling with the overwhelming desire to quit. 

“Why am I even doing this?” Then, I pulled out my phone and glanced at Trackleaders, fixating on the sole purple dot marked with my initials. I had come out as non-binary to myself and a few friends in 2022. For the better part of a year, I had been minimizing my non-binary identity. I had kept “she” pronouns on my work email and avoided in-depth discussions of gender in most conversations. I felt worried that this part of my identity would be questioned or misunderstood; it felt easier to keep my non-binary identity private. When signing up for the Colorado Trail Race, I felt a pull to be brave and honor this identity by registering as the only non-binary racer. To my knowledge I was the first person to register as non-binary in the CTR. 

It had been a scary decision and one that had prompted me to come out to many people, including my family. I figured that I should discuss my gender identity with them before they found out from dot-watching. The information had been received with mixed results. Choosing not to identify with a particular gender is confusing for many people, although it has been extremely liberating for me. At age 29, learning about the possibility of being non-binary felt like a huge relief and homecoming. I discovered that there is a label to describe how I had felt for most of my life. I am happy with my female anatomy, and it has rarely held me back, but I have constantly felt frustration around the pressure to conform to female gender norms or act a certain way due to my biological sex. I am a human, period. 

Registering as non-binary for the CTR had been nerve-racking, but I felt that it was important to represent the gender-queer demographic within this space. In June 2023, as I tracked the results of the 2023 Tour Divide, I was thrilled to see racer Arya Tenzin Namdol, who was the first registered non-binary racer in Tour Divide history. I felt inspired. Trans and non-binary athletes have struggled to find a place in competitive athletics and have even been banned from competing in some cases. Gender-queer athletes are starting to become more welcomed within the sport of cycling, but representation is still minuscule compared to cis-gender racers. I had high hopes that the bikepack racing community would be queer-friendly, and I was thrilled to see that Trackleaders had a non-binary category listed. There are many factors that pose a barrier to riders entering in these ultra endurance cycling events and I am privileged to be able to participate. I can afford decent gear and take time off work to race. Many talented riders are not in this position, queer and cis folks alike. Using this privilege to complete the race as a non-binary finisher had become a part of “my why.” 

This motivation is what I drew from as I took a last look at that purple dot before turning my phone off, throwing my leg over the bike, and beginning the climb up Georgia Pass toward the finish. The following 36 hours were some of the most mentally and physically taxing hours that I had ever experienced. I saw no other racers, I had no music to listen to, and was constantly pushing away the fear that my InReach and GPS were dying. My legs had swollen significantly and my anxious brain worried about compartment syndrome, a buildup of pressure in the muscles that can lead to permanent tissue damage. Towards the Denver terminus of the trail, I stopped every 15 minutes to elevate my legs on trees in an attempt to combat the swelling. I rolled into the Waterton Canyon trailhead at 3 a.m. on the fifth day of the race, completing the trail in five days and 23 hours, just under my goal time! Completely spent and at a loss of what to do (with no functioning phone,) I got in my sleeping bag and passed out until 6 a.m. when the city park ranger woke me up to ask what I was doing. 

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Over the two weeks following the race, I went from questioning my longevity in ultra racing to scheming my races and rides for next year. Needless to say, I had caught the bug and couldn’t wait to get back out there. 

When I am on the bike and totally focused on the task at hand, my gender disappears, and my identity disappears. I cannot describe the amount of solace I find in this flow. It is a sweet relief from the buzz of the mind and the constant search for identity and meaning. This solace is what keeps me coming back to the bike day after day, year after year. In a world that often feels harsh and unforgiving, the simplicity of riding grounds me in the present moment. The daily ruminations are replaced by thoughts of physical challenges- how to get over the next rock or how to navigate the cascading descent ahead. I think many bikepackers can relate to this love of the journey- the escape, the freedom. 

2023 was an astounding year in bikepack racing. I was floored by the efforts put out by female-bodied racers across the board as I followed their dots in the Tour Divide, Colorado Trail Race, Arizona Trail Race, and more. Several of these riders finished in the top ten (or top three) overall, demonstrating that on these longer distances and endurance events, gender and sex have a marginal role. As this sport gains popularity, I look forward to seeing more diversity in race participants. In particular, I hope to be cheering on more gender queer folks in this space and watching those purple dots crush it.  

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One response to “Gender and Bikepack Racing”

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