Are you OKAY?!
I am tired of smiling politely, explaining myself to strangers, because they just had to stop and ask if I was alright. I’ve been passionately into outdoor sports all of my life – everything from snowboarding, to rock climbing, and most of all, mountain biking. I’m pretty used to being underestimated at the sight of my femininity; to guys automatically assuming I can’t ride a certain line, or handle myself on the trail.
Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring the pulse of sexism that underlies outdoor sports like mountain biking, but lately I find myself at the end of my rope. My tolerance for the constant skepticism, questioning, and dismissiveness from people on the trail has run out.
Like everyone else who rides, mountain biking is my escape, my time to channel flow and grace on two wheels. I am lucky to live near some of the best mountain biking trails in California – the Santa Cruz Mountains. I cherish the simple act of disappearing into the forest, just me and my bike, as often as I can. Though I’ve ridden these trails thousands of times, they never get old.
A few years ago, I wrote about my experience with sexism on the trails in my post Just Do You: I Got This. It’s 2021, and my patience has only gotten thinner.
Maybe it’s the result of stay-at-home orders during the pandemic. As with every outdoor sport during this time, mountain biking has gotten extremely popular. People aren’t working as much or as regularly, and are understandably looking to recreation for a release from the tension of life amid Covid. I’ve never seen the trails so busy; I find myself riding during off-hours before sunset, avoiding the main parking lots, as if you’d be able to find a place to park. Highway 9 is jammed with cars on both sides, all trying to get a slice of some Santa Cruz sweetness. I can deal with the crowds, as I know that I am part of the crowd, too; after all, I’m out there riding as well.
What I’m finding hard to tolerate is interrogation by doubting dudes who treat me like I’m fragile cargo. I can no longer oblige sexism on the trails. While it’s a small minority of men who exhibit this behavior, it’s a loud, obtrusive contingent that has grated my nerves raw.
In the last few months, things have hit an all-time high. It’s about every one out of five rides that I come across a guy, or guys, that question me for no apparent reason. I’m not talking about the usual, “Hi! How’s it going?” that most guys greet me with. It’s kind to say hi to each other on the trail.
I’m talking about looking at me like I’m a broken porcelain doll, dramatic concern in their eyes, asking me ARE YOU OKAY?! It’s all in the tone and delivery, which conveys the message that I don’t look okay. It’s like they’re the mayor, and it’s their business to check up on me.
It’s not like I’m struggling or fiddling with my bike on the side of the trail when this happens. I’ll be some twenty feet off the trail, stretching, drinking water, taking a picture of a cool mushroom with my phone, closing my eyes and soaking up the sunshine; anything but presenting myself in distress. Clearly taking a rest, clearly doing alright, until a guy rides up to check on me.
Are you alright there? Are you waiting for someone? You lost?
Over the years, I typically respond by explaining myself. Yes, explaining myself to a complete stranger, who paused to question me. I’m just stretching; taking a picture. I’m good, thanks, I offer.
There’s nothing wrong with saying hi and asking someone if they’re okay. The difference is all in the tone, in the way the question is asked. A quick check in is different from an alarmed, doubtful slew of questions. I’m talking about asking me if I’m okay as if I had a Helpless sign on my forehead, with an overly concerned tone that doesn’t match the situation.
While it may seem like a nice thing to check in on a girl on the trail, what is the motivation underlying it? Do you see a girl and assume so quickly that she doesn’t know what she’s doing that you don’t even notice your implicit bias? By asking if I am okay when I am clearly doing alright, you are sending me a message that there is something questionable about a girl alone in the forest.
Do you not think I would ask for help if I needed it? By asking me if I need help, you are assuming I am not assertive enough to ask for it, further underestimating me. If I need something, I’ll let you know.
This is what irks me year after year. I am tired of being treated like a damsel in distress, like a lost child who needs to find their parent, particularly when I don’t present as one.
Imagine if most of the rides you went on people quizzically asked you if you were okay – like you weren’t okay. Again, it’s all in the tone and delivery. It would get annoying after a while, to say the least. Especially if you were going through cancer treatment like I was last year, and every time someone asked you if you were okay, you were reminded that maybe you didn’t look okay. We never really know what other people are going through when we see them out on the trails. Though they may look relatively normal and healthy, they may be pushing through a mountain of hurdles just to finish another pedal rotation. That’s how I feel now, my cardio stamina shot from chemo and radiation. The trails have become even more sacred to me, highlighting all that is good out there, but also that which doesn’t serve.
It’s more than just being constantly asked if I’m alright, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t the worst.
It’s an accumulation of interactions that have written this story for me, evidence built up over the years. While it’s certainly the minority of men who treat me this way, there’s been more than enough experiences that have brought me to this point.
I’ve been nearly ridden off the trail by dudes who were dropping the start of the uphill climbing route, making no effort to yield or slow to me, forcing me off the trail, smirking at me as they passed. If you want to send the uphill route, then be prepared to yield to the climbers.
I often encounter guys at the start of the downhill, who quickly jump in front of me though I am pedaling to drop. They see me coming and assume I’m going to be slower than them, so they hurry to drop in front of me. The best part is when I end up passing them. Success is the best revenge.
I’ve also been questioned when I pull over to let someone pass, like an E-bike.
You okay there?
Dude, I pulled over to let you pass! Again, asking if I’m okay…like I’m not. If I’m laid out on the side of the trail in distress, please ask if I’m okay; but if I pull over to let you pass? Thank me.
I’ve been taking pictures on the side of the trail – of a banana slug, mushroom, flower, whatever – clearly engrossed, when dudes pass and ask if I’m alright, seemingly perplexed by me taking a picture. What does it look like I’m doing?
If I’m riding with my husband Ron, people assume he’s the better mountain biker. Same with snowboarding, although he might be a little better than me on the snow.
Recently, I was crossing the train trestle over the San Lorenzo River on my usual route, lifting my bike up a steep path to the railroad embankment. A couple of guys standing on the tracks asked me if I needed some help. I couldn’t be polite and smile anymore, and retorted curtly:
Do I look like I need help?
Another pair of guys just happened to be passing and witness our interaction, and chimed in with a supportive, That’s right girl; you tell him!
I immediately offered a half-hearted apology. I was sorry if I came off rude, but when people see you’re a girl and assume you need help all the time, it gets old. I rode off, but I was irritated. I was even more irritated that I started apologizing, something I do way too much of.
No, I don’t need help. No, I’m not waiting for someone, and no, I’m not lost. No, I don’t need advice about how to ride this trail.
And I don’t need to be cheered on, either. A patronizing Good job! doesn’t help. I don’t need encouragement. I made this video below after that encounter.
Most of the time, what I really want is to be left alone. I ride my bike to get away from it all. I appreciate a friendly Hello or an acknowledging nod, but I am done being treated like I don’t belong out here, like I’m out of place in the woods.
Recently, however, I realized what a complex I’ve developed.
There was a large group of male riders who took a break near where I was at the top of Airborne, a popular trail in the area. As they started dropping, one of the guys asked me if I was okay.
I took a breath, and instead of answering him like I normally would, I said,
Can I ask why you’re asking? Does it look like anything is wrong?
Looking puzzled, he said, Uh, because you’re by yourself on the side of the trail…
I started explaining myself:
I was here just taking a break when you guys all rode up. Are you asking if I’m okay because I’m a girl?
I realize how bad that sounds. Poor guy, just asking if I was okay, didn’t know he was about to unleash years of my sexism complex.
His friend stood there, agape, as he replied,
No; I ask everyone if they’re okay.
His friend chimed in for defense: Yeah, he’s totally that guy on the trail who always asks people if they’re good.
I realized right then and there what a fool I’d presented myself as. His tone hadn’t been accusatory or derogatory. I am so conditioned to expect this behavior on the trail that it almost doesn’t matter what someone says, and that’s not cool. Yep, I’m that over-sensitive girl who snaps on you when you ask her if she’s okay, apparently. No matter my experiences, I’d become so hypersensitive that I automatically assumed everyone was questioning me because I was a girl.
I apologized to the gentleman, who stood there looking flummoxed by my response. I felt I owed him some explanation at that point.
I’m sorry; it’s just that, I’ve been riding a long time, and I’m usually by myself. For years, I’ve come across guys on the trail who doubt me and question me as soon as they see me. I’ve been asked if I’m lost, was it my first time here, was I waiting for someone; given unsolicited advice, warned about technical sections ahead. I get asked all the time if I’m okay, usually with a doubting, questioning tone: Are you OKAY? like I must not look okay or something is wrong. I’m a girl, alone in the forest; I’m good. There’s nothing wrong. After a while, it adds up and you start feeling like you don’t belong out here.
He nodded his head in labored understanding, seeming to glean where I was coming from.
My girlfriend complains about that, too, when she goes mountain biking. I can kind of understand what you’re talking about, he commiserated.
But hey, I’m sorry for responding that way; I’ve definitely developed a bit of a complex. If you’re that kind of guy who asks everyone on the trail – male or female – if they’re okay, then that’s cool; it’s better to be like that than the kind of person who ignores everyone.
I immediately felt embarrassed. Are you asking me because I’m a girl? I replayed it over in my head, realizing how crazy I must have sounded.
Perhaps curious to better understand, the rider asked me,
Is there something else I could have asked or said that would have been better than Are you okay?
I was so happy he asked that question, because I’ve given it a lot of thought. It also showed openness and courage on his end.
Just say Hi. Or maybe How’s it going? or How are you? Just saying hi and making contact opens that door for communication, for me to let you know if I need help. It’s better than Are you okay? which can imply that I don’t look okay. Trust that I’m assertive enough to speak up and ask for help if I need it.
He took it in and pondered it, perhaps understanding a glimmer of what I’d said.
He actually thanked me for making him think about it in a new way. I hope he was sincere, because it felt like a somewhat productive conversation despite my overreaction. I really appreciated his braveness in engaging with me like a human, instead of just dismissing me like the brat I was behaving. He and his friend left to join their group. They seemed like genuinely nice guys, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve become the butt of their jokes for the next few weeks. Are you okay?! I could imagine them teasing each other.
I don’t blame them if they did. Regardless of my past experiences with perceived moments of sexism, I felt bad about my reaction to this guy.
There are many similarities to racism and sexism, and while I may not have much experience with the former, I know the latter. Both come from a place of instantaneous doubt, skepticism, and assumption of unworthiness, that we aren’t good enough to be here. Over time, you start to expect this sort of treatment from others; it becomes your lens through which you perceive the world. Every time someone reinforces that reality, the lens only becomes sharper; you start noticing all kinds of examples of sexism.
It is imperative to not become myopic through this lens, however, warping every experience into the narrative you’ve established. Though my experiences are real and my feelings are valid, I can’t be riding around picking fights with unsuspecting dudes on the trail who ask if I’m okay. Not a good look.
I also realize that I haven’t lived through the challenges of my predecessors, who weren’t even allowed to do these sports, or had to fight incessantly to prove themselves when they were total standouts. I’m lucky to be here as a woman, able to do any sport I want, in a country that overall welcomes it. With more female athletes dominating outdoor sports these days, there may come a time when women don’t feel so doubted.
I know other women feel this way; I also recognize there are women out there who feel it far worse – historically, and today. I don’t think my experience is harrowing, traumatic, or smacking of systemic misogyny, but after forty years on this planet living as an athletic female, I can’t deny the nuances of sexism that pervade our society – in sports, careers, family roles, politics. I’ll work on my hypersensitivity, but It’d be nice if some guys would reevaluate how they perceive women on the trail, and the assumptions they may make about us.
Thank you to the majority of men out there who just say Hi, who give a smile or nod, looking at me like I belong out here. Most guys I come across on the trail are pretty awesome. I appreciate you treating me just like you would anyone else. I’ll try and focus on you all a little more on the trails, and less on the guys playing mayor.
And if you ask if I’m okay, I might just say what my husband Ron recommended:
So. Because I am so okay.
And if I’m not okay? I’ll let you know. I’m a big girl who can speak up for myself.