“Women of Dirt” is enjoying a much-deserved smash debut, with its worldwide premiere having sold out Friday night in Seattle, forcing addition of a second show opening night. And then came word of a new all-women Beti Bike Bash on June 12 at Lakewood, CO.
But one point needs clarifying. There’s a general perception that this is the first film about women and mountain biking. That’s not true: Nearly a decade ago, there was “HardiHood.”
The title came from a Susan B. Anthony quotation about women being persons — something nomale, no matter how misogynist, would have the “hardihood” to challenge. The quote set a decidedly feminist tone for the movie, which featured what might be called the early suffragists of mountain biking.
These women — Jacquie Phelan, Missy Giove, Cheri Elliott, Elke Brutsaert and others, but especially Phelan — had to endure a lot of second-class treatment in a male-dominated sport. Without them, the generation of younger riders featured in “Women of Dirt” might never have gotten exposed to mountain biking. In many ways, “Women of Dirt” and its cast are the children of “HardiHood.”
“HardiHood” got minimal attention when it was released (there’s not even a mainstream publication quote on the case) and sank like a stone. A Google search turns up a lot of linkrot. I managed to track down a copy on Amazon but had to wait three weeks to get it.
In contrast to most — make that pretty much all — mtb films, “HardiHood” focuses on (as the title quote suggests) the person, not the athlete. The opening sequence shows Phelan philosophizing about breast cancer and life’s meaning. The always voluble Giove is shown chatting and chopping veggies far more than riding her bike. Elliott talks about what it’s like being a mom and caring for a child while on tour.
Although the feminist undertone is there, “HardiHood” isn’t dogmatic. Its director, Nicole Hahn, uses the film as a vehicle to get into the minds and lifestyles of the riders — the whys and wherefores that led them to get involved in such a male milieu in the first place, how they stuck with it, and what it’s meant to them. Phelan, winner of the first three NORBA national women’s titles, especially comes across as ruggedly dedicated. Her cameos teaching women mountain biking in Marin, playing banjo and revealing what it took to beat most of a male field of riders are priceless.
While a lot of mtb DVDs over the past couple of decades have promised this kind of behind-the-scenes look, the fact is that the riding action always dominates. If a male rider has ever discussed cancer, fatherhood, or the rigors of travel on any of them, I missed it. However spectacular their aerial and speed skills are, male riders are like Her Majesty in the Beatles song: Pretty nice guys, but they haven’t got a lot to say. At least, that’s the way they come across in the films.
One problem may be the predictable, formulaic script of mountain biking/freeriding films. You get stunts, stunts and more stunts, accompanied by music soundtracks that range from awful to pretty good. You’re in awe of the action, but like too much of anything, it gets repetitive and humdrum. To some extent the Collective films, especially “The Collective” and “Roam,” step back for a reflective look. And Clay Porter’s perennial series on the World Cup, particularly “The Tipping Point,” captures more culture than most. (Not to neglect either “Klunkerz,” Billy Savage’s superb historical documentary on the roots of the sport, or “Tread,” the first and maybe best mtb film ever, which had women and men.)
But the focus is generally on the riding.
Would it be possible to get into riders’ heads today the way “HardiHood” did? “HardiHood” not only captured women’s perspective in a sport, it captured a moment of time in an ongoing evolution. Mountain biking was something no girl had grown up ever thinking she would compete in. There were no role models, there wasn’t even a sport. Phelan studied medicine; Marla Streb was a biomedical researcher. Streb has even written an autobiography, something few other riders male or female can claim (Phelan is working on one). The “HardiHood” riders had depth, character and life views shaped by a whole set of issues and values that were considered passe by the time their successors came along.
Several upcoming mountain biking DVDs are being promoted with the line that they’ll break the mold and bring us a much-needed alternative perspective. Nothing new there, it’s been promised annually since most of us tired of gap jumps and back flips. Whether the focus is on women or men riders or both, a mountain biking film today that incorporated the sensibilities of “HardiHood,” released way back in 2001, would indeed represent something “new.”
Elly Blue: “My year as a woman in a city of bikes.”