Last fall, Jennie Bromley found herself searching for a fun way to get back into shape. She tried taking her bicycle on the road but found herself bored. She had mountain biked when living in Colorado in her early 20s, but that was nearly two decades ago.
She began to search for local mountain bike groups but couldn't find anything that accommodated riders who wanted to start slowly and learn the basics.
Then she stumbled upon Catonsville's Muddy Pedals, the region's only exclusively female mountain biking group. She signed up for an introductory course and has been coming back for classes ever since.
"They're very patient, understanding, very knowledgeable," she said, "so I learned a lot that first clinic."
Muddy Pedals was formed in November 2013. Co-founders Erin Wells and Laura King said they wanted to fight stereotypes about the sport that painted it as a male-dominated activity. In reality, Wells said, those misconceptions about off-road biking could not be farther from the truth.
"Right now, over the past year or two, there's really been a push to get women involved in mountain biking," Wells said.
Based on the 100 or so email addresses on the group's mailing list, there is no shortage of women interested in the sport in Maryland, although
women made up just 18 percent of the International Mountain Biking Association's membership and 9 percent of its board as of 2013.
The women of Muddy Pedals aren't discouraged. In the year that they have been active, their numbers have steadily increased. Earlier this month, an introductory workshop drew 18 women. The average turnout for their weekly rides, co-hosted with Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts (MORE), a local group that promotes mountain biking in the Maryland area, steadily sits at the dozen mark.
There's just something different about biking with a group of supportive women, Wells said.
"Women out mountain biking together encourages women better," she said. "Biking just facilitates camaraderie."
"It just a different dynamic," echoed Tracey Posner, who attends the Wednesday rides on behalf of MORE. She has been a leader of regular all-female rides for seven years.
The aim, Wells said, is to "bridge the gap between, 'Hey, that looks really cool, but I don't really have a bike.' and 'I don't know the trails.'"
Compared to other sports that have successfully expanded to include women, "mountain biking is so far behind," Wells said. "They think women just want pink and flowery things."
But "it's much more emotional than, 'Let's put a pink tag on it and call it women's,'" she insisted.
"They want teaching," Wells said. "They want to be taught how to do it."
The thing that Wells said surprised her most in her time working with Muddy Pedals has been the demographics of the women she meets through the classes the organization hosts. Instead of the mostly college-age to late-20s crowd she was expecting, she has been seeing a large number of women in their late 30s and into their 50s. For many, their kids are out of the house or old enough to care for themselves for the most part, and the women have decided to seek out a hobby they can indulge in their spare time.
Each rider comes in with different goals and expectations.
"It ranges from, 'Hey, I want to learn this skill' to, 'I just want to survive,'" Wells said.
On a recent Wednesday night, the group joined together with women from MORE for an all-women's bike around the Howard County side of the Patapsco Valley State Park. About a dozen women tackled hills, mud and logs on a ride that lasted more than 1 1/2 hours.
With the state park right in their backyard, Wells said Catonsville is the perfect place to learn to ride.
"It's really a unique place," she said, adding that she and her husband, who also mountain bikes, decided to settle in Catonsville because of the proximity to the park and its vast network of trails.
"I've ridden everywhere across the United States, but Patapsco is great," she said.
In addition to the easy access to trails, part of Muddy Pedals' success as a club is due to the emphasis on safety and learning the appropriate technique before attempting more advanced trails, Wells said.
Muddy Pedals offers introduction to mountain biking classes, like the one Bromley took, level 1 biking classes, level 2 one-on-one sessions and race training, along with lessons on trail-side bike maintenance and repairs to fully prepare women before they hit the road.
So far, Wells said, the support from the local biking community has been great.
Yet there is still more to be done in the mountain biking world to attract more women. For one thing, she noted, many women want to start with a solid foundational knowledge of the basics before they attempt any real off-road trails. They also want to be part of a group of other motivated bikers with similar goals and skills.
The Muddy Pedals-MORE group rides together every Wednesday at Patapsco Valley State Park year-round. Through most of the year, the rides are female-only, but in winter months, when turnout is low, both men and women are invited to ride. Muddy Pedals hosts clinics and lessons on a regular basis for cyclists of all skill levels, even those with no previous experience with off-road biking.
For newcomer Bromley, the experience she's gotten with Muddy Pedals has made a world of difference.
The first time she tried mountain biking, 20 years ago, she bought a bike and tried to teach herself. She can't recall seeing almost any women out on the trails.
"A lot of people thought I was crazy," she said.
Now, Bromley is concentrating on learning the basics and building from there. She recently registered for private lessons and hopes to soon be able reach the level of skill and comfort so she can join an intermediate female ride group and even enter some races. She hopes the group will turn into a social environment as much as an athletic endeavor.
""It was really awesome to try these clinics and meet other women who are interested," she said.