On a September day in 2017, the early morning air was heavy with nerves. A thickness was tangible in the atmosphere; morning Grand Departs are somehow always both friendly and fiery. Some lined up at the small coffee shop for a pre-race caffeine boost while others made last minute tweaks to their bicycles. The Bearskin Fire was active in the Deadwood area, and for the second year in a row, intense fire activity had forced a reroute in the appropriately named Idaho Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400 (SnF) bikepacking race, making the race route roughly 460 miles.
Just the year before, Laura Heiner had spent three days and 11 hours feverishly watching her husband, Cody, exist as a blue dot on Trackleaders and something about watching him crawl across the computer screen made her want to line up for her chance to ride 460 miles. But she wasn’t a racer. She wasn’t even a mountain biker at the time.
Now, five years later, Laura heads up the Idaho Women’s Bikepacking Group, a Boise-based organization dedicated to getting more women out bikepacking, and specifically to race the SnF. She’s helped the women’s participation grow in the SnF from four women in 2016 to having 31 sign up for the 2022 race. Her’s is a success story of what it takes to bring women into bikepacking and a clear demonstration that the women are there, and it’s just a matter of providing a pathway for them into the sport.
Not a Mountain Biker
Laura wears a lot of hats these days; she’s a bikepacker, a mountain biker, a community leader, a mother of four, a fitness instructor, a yogi, a cardio queen, and if you asked her five years ago she’d agree with most of that statement, except for having an identity as a mountain biker and bikepacker. “I was terrified that first year (lining up for SnF), I never mountain biked before. There were all these guys at that start and I was like ‘I’m just a mom, I don’t race, I don’t even bike!’”
She didn’t even have her own mountain bike when deciding that she was going to ride the SnF. She’d taken her husband’s jettisoned Surly ECR and adopted it as her own. From the time Cody finished his 2016 SnF effort, Laura began piling on the training and the questions. “I asked him a million questions, and didn’t stop,” she chuckled. They rode the entire route together that first year, and with more confidence, she lined up again at the 2018 start of the race, but still, with Cody.
The Mountain Bike Racer
It took two years of riding with her partner before she decided she was ready to race the SnF alone, and in 2019, Laura lined up at the starting line of her first solo bikepacking race. As an extra assurance that she would do the race entirely on her own, as they tend to ride the same speed, she and Cody decided he would race the course backwards as the Fire and Smoke. And off she went. A well-trained mountain biker, with two practice runs of the SnF under her belt, she still felt fear. “I knew the route well, but I would lay in bed at night, scanning the route in my head.” She’d go over her trailside repair knowledge and she’d remind herself that she was strong enough to do it on her own. She’d felt scared, sometimes, when thinking about sleeping in the mountains alone– but enough of her male friends out there were frightened by sleeping alone too, that she realized everyone gets scared in these races.
“It’s kind of… that I have a split personality,” Laura giggles when asked to describe herself. “If you saw me at a grocery store, you’d think I was just a mom.” Just a mom is a full time gig. Laura has always hustled as a mother of four and a fitness instructor. Things have been slowing down over the past few years as her kids grow up. “We just dropped our son off at college last week, so now I only have one kiddo left at home.” She exhales, and a kind of lightness comes through the lines. “I never really had the capacity to do these big multi-day races because I had four kids at home, but I could always do the Smoke and Fire because it was right in my backyard.”
The Blind Leading the Super Capable
“I didn’t mean to start a [women’s bikepacking] group…” As Laura’s passion radiated, the pace of her words picked up, it’s like the ”blind leading the blind – hell, the blind leading the super capable!” One year, she recalled only four women were signed up to start the race, including herself. She felt disappointment when she realized that she had a high chance of placing in the top three regardless if she even tried or not. “Where’s the competition in that? I live in Idaho, don’t tell me there aren’t rugged, adventurous women out here,” she said. She knew there were adventurous women mountain biking in her community– where were they, though?
It took her a while before she realized that all she had learned about bikepacking and training had come from men; her husband and brother-in-law had taught her everything she knows about the sport. “If I didn’t have them, I don’t know where I would even get this information,” she said. So she created an invitation. She started a Facebook group and asked “Who’s always wanted to race Smoke ‘n’ Fire but doesn’t want to go alone? Next year is your year.” And with that, she’s created an entire community of women supporting each other in a space previously dominated by men.
Two years later, this year’s SnF has 31 women signed up to participate. Women riders make up one-third of the race field this year. Laura played a pivotal role in making that happen.
Don’t Hansel and Grettle Your Goodies Down the Trail
“If I didn’t have any connections in the bikepacking world, how would I get help?” This was one of the driving questions that guided her invitation. For an entire year, Laura managed a Facebook group, organized group rides, worked with her husband to craft training routes and made a series of videos and lessons to help answer questions from group members. There was a “no such thing as a dumb question” attitude about her. “Anytime I would take a brand new woman out, I would remember back to my fear.” Laura spoke about her process and reasoning for a long time, but the radiating factor was her compassion. Any time someone came to her with a question, she remembered how it felt not to know the answer.
Laura is humble whenever there’s a prying question giving her credit for the shift in demographics of the SnF. “I just set a date on the calendar and show up on my bike,” she says, referring to the group’s training rides. It’s more than that, though. Laura has a kindness, an encouraging aura of competition about her. It’s not a feeling that she wants to beat you, but one of making sure that you are trying your hardest.
Several of the women who signed up for this year’s Grand Depart credit Laura as the way they found out about the SnF. Laura has plenty of tips and tricks for the women, sharing everything she’s learned over the past five years with the group. “I just share what I know and think about when I am racing.” She rattles off her list; “Remember to turn things off to save battery, checklists for when you stop, reminders to zip your bags so you don’t Hansel and Grettle all of your stuff on the trail, and the phone checklists– I keep notes on my phone for everything from how to toggle between screens on my Garmin and repair notes for my bike.” The list goes on, and it’s clear that she’s really chugged the bikepacker Kool Aid. She’s a bikepacker now, and the Boise community is so fortunate that they get to have Laura to guide them.
Kindness and Respect
Catching up with Laura was like visiting with a sister. There was gossip and giggling galore, and when it came time for things to get serious, she had clear answers for her vision. When society and media still pit women against each other, how do we create healthy, strong competition in the female ultra-racing bikepacking world?
“Through kindness and respect,” she replied immediately. “We care about the other women, we want what’s in their best interest. If you leapfrog, be kind, not ferocious. Look and learn – we learn so much from each other, including when people are kicking your ass. If we want to rise, and want a presence in these races, we have to lift each other up and create invitations. If we want to generate a competitive field, it can only be built through kindness. Respect, don’t resent.” As Laura continued to talk about the future of ultra-racing for women, her voice was full of life. She shared countless stories of women surprising her, riders stepping up to fill in roles that weren’t filled and how they’ve all learned to slow down a little and enjoy the beauty of the training rides. “We smell the smells out on those training rides so that we can race together and compete against each other,” she paused and continued, “All the while we’re hoping we cross paths with each other just so we can cheerlead the women who pass us.”
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