Involved Series: Midwest Dirt Legion

Midwest Dirt Legion is here to build a better mountain bike community for marginalized genders. Based in Minneapolis, the group was founded in February 2018 by Steph Aich (she/her) and Ash Murray (they/them).

Our focus is on bringing passionate people and organizations in the Twin Cities together to increase ridership for transgender, gender non-binary, and cisgender women riders.

Tell us about your introduction to mountain biking, what about it made you say "Yes! This is for me!"
Steph (she/her): A friend borrowed me a bike, and it seemed like a good way to mesh outdoor exploration, camping, physical activity, and family time. What keeps me riding is pushing my boundaries and experiencing that “moving meditation” in this complex world.

Ash (they/them): A close friend bought me my first mountain bike because they wanted to see me riding off-road. I really knew it was for me when I was the slowest person in the group, falling all over like a doofus, and my friends were cheering me on the whole way. I’ve never felt like I had to “prove” myself while mountain biking.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
Steph (she/her): High-speed cornering was challenging for me at first. I have been working on these skills by understanding bike/body separation, controlling my speed, and looking where I’m going.

Ash (they/them): I really did not understand braking and traction. I was braking at all the wrong times, and falling because of it. Learning about the types of traction was key, as well as realizing that sometimes stopping is way more dangerous that rolling through an obstacle.
Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
Steph (she/her): Skinnies are a challenge for me. I try to slow down and work on them when I encounter them on the trail. I’d rather stop and practice for a while instead of ride around a feature. Again, focusing on where I am going as opposed to looking where I am.

Ash (they/them): I’m afraid of speed. I’ve been working on maintaining my speed by riding a trail, or section of trail, a few times back to back. Once I know what is ahead of me I can anticipate the trail better, and let go of the brakes a little more.

For folks who are nervous about giving mountain biking a shot, do you have any suggestions on how they can go about creating a positive experience?

Identifying those supportive friends and fellow riders. Find a buddy who will always cheer you on. Additionally, we really love the preride-reride-freeride method of gaining confidence. The goal isn’t just to get to the end of the trail, so take the time to hang out and work through sections or features as you come across them on the trail.

What was your inspiration behind creating Midwest Dirt Legion?
Midwest Dirt Legion was sort of a happy accident! We were looking for ways to build our own mountain bike skills. We’ve seen women’s mountain bike events advertised around the country, but they were farther away and specifically for women. This inspired us to create an inclusive and accessible mountain bike skills opportunity in our local community.

How did you come up with the name of your group?
We wanted to have a name that was not gendered and that described a group of riders. We also wanted to have a name that could be tailored to a specific region, if and when we expand beyond the Midwest!

Who is Midwest Dirt Legion for?
Short answer, its for everyone.

We do have some events that are specifically for cisgender women, transgender, and gender non-binary folks. But our group rides are often open to cis male allies as well. We really believe that inclusion is a mission that everyone needs to work on and that everyone will benefit from.

How do you create an environment welcoming to transgender and gender non-binary riders, as well as cis women?
We ask all participants to sign our Safer Spaces policy. This asks everyone to be mindful of pronouns, respectful of everyone around them, and to not use gendered language to address the group. We both share our pronouns at every event, and invite participants to share their pronouns if they want to as well. Through social media, we try to amplify voices and share resources for folks to learn about inclusive and respectful language.
How do you help break down the financial barriers of the sport?
We have offered free demo bikes or have been able to loan our own bikes to those who want to participate in our events, but don’t have a capable bike of their own. Our skills sessions have been free or low cost for participants, due to Midwest Dirt Legion partnerships and volunteers. We have also encouraged folks to carpool to events, as most of our mountain bike trails are outside of the city and not easy for everyone to get to.

What can riders expect if they come to a Midwest Dirt Legion event?
 Here is a testimony from one of our participants:
Ash Murray and Stephanie Aich welcomed me warmly. It was clear they loved mountain biking and wanted to help other people love it too — people who may not normally feel included in what is still a male-dominated scene that feels difficult to enter. They taught us that those forest paths were for us, too: that they belong to the beginners as much as to the experienced and to marginalized genders as much as to cis men.

What do you love about riding your bike?
Steph (she/her): I love that involuntary feeling to whoop and yell through the woods! Experiencing something that makes you just let it all out!

Ash (they/them): I love the rush of doing something I’m not super sure I can do. Expanding those limits of what I’m capable of, and experiencing my instincts getting better and better.

What do you feel deters others from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
There’s a cost barrier, for sure. Access to the right equipment and trails isn’t always easy to come by. The impression that it's exclusively macho-vibes. As well as the portrayal in the media - if all you see are white cis men riding advanced trails, it's hard to imagine yourself participating in that sport.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage the inclusivity of transgender and gender non-binary riders, as well as cis women?

There is so much that could be done, but if we had to pick just one thing, we recommend expanding already successful programs to a larger rider population by changing the language and shifting the mission to be inclusive of all genders. For this to be a successful change, program coordinators will need to be educated on the experiences of a diverse population in order to ensure participants will feel welcomed in that environment.

What inspires you to encourage others to ride?

The inspiration comes from empowering others to dip into a sport that has positively impacted us both in cycling and in our personal lives.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
We met through the urban cycling community, and both used to race track together before we independently transitioned into the mountain bike scene!