When Cate Mertins first started racing mountain bikes as a high school sophomore, she cut a lonely figure on the trails of Northwest Arkansas.
The Bentonville teenager had started the mountain biking team at her school, Haas Hall Academy, in 2016, but she was its only girl.
Not only that, Cate was typically the lone female student athlete in her division to clip in to her pedals at Arkansas Interscholastic Cycling League competitions.
“Other than me, our team was all boys,” she says.
Fast forward one year. At the 2017 State championships, Cate stood atop the podium, having defeated a strong and sizable field of girls to become Arkansas’ junior varsity gold medalist.
It was a triumph for Cate as a racer – but also as a budding mountain biking advocate committed to recruiting more young girls to the sport.
Tired of riding alone, Cate spent the off-season following her sophomore year urging friends to join her on the trails so they could learn firsthand “just how much fun” it is to ride and race. She spread her enthusiasm to a larger network through social media channels and at information booths set up during school events.
Her efforts are part of a larger campaign by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) to get more girls active in mountain biking. NICA is a governing body for school racing leagues across the country, including in Arkansas.
“It was pretty rough at first,” says Kyla Templeton, NICA’s league and race director in Arkansas. While mountain biking has exploded in popularity across Northwest Arkansas over the past decade, the sport has been more popular among men than women.
Kyla was among a core group of women riders who, through groups like Girls Bike Bentonville, set out to bring more gender diversity to the sport.
Since joining NICA, Kyla has focused on getting more girls racing and recruiting more women to coach teams.
“In my first year with NICA, we had the lowest percentage of girls riding in the league. But we’ve had the highest percentage of women coaches in our league – in the whole country. I have to trust that is going to trickle down and make it easier to recruit more girls over time.”
It's an incredibly empowering experience ... You go from being really scared to ride on the trail to being able to ride it with ease.
For Cate, the journey to the State championship started at around the age of 10, when she rode novice trails with her father. However, she quit the sport for several years “because no one really taught me how to ride” the proper way. “I was young and really scared of falling off my bike.”
NICA coaches taught Cate essential skills – like bike-body separation – that both improved her technique and made her more comfortable in the saddle.
“The things that get girls out on the trail are not seeing people do tricks. It’s seeing other people having fun on the trails, learning skills and doing things you didn’t think you could do,” says Kyla.
“It’s an incredibly empowering experience for girls, to learn how to do something that’s challenging. You go from being really scared to ride on the trail to being able to ride it with ease.”
The Walton Family Foundation has provided support to NICA as a way to encourage a new generation of mountain bikers – and believes it’s important girls have the same opportunity as boys to learn the sport. Of the 295 student athletes racing in Arkansas, still only a few dozen are girls.
But there are signs NICA’s diversity efforts are paying off. At Haas Hall, Cate is now joined by more than a half dozen other girls on her team alone.
“There has been so much growth. I think we had maybe 15 girls in the entire (state) league last year and now we have 15 girls just in my category,” Cate says. “That’s a huge improvement for us in our state.”
She credits Kyla, and other female NICA coaches, for being role models who show younger riders what they can achieve.
“I think a lot of girls start out doing school sports when they are young, but drop out as they get older because they feel they aren’t good enough or strong enough,” says Cate.
“I think it’s really important that girls don’t get discouraged. NICA is really good about showing girls that they can do this.”
Cate says the experience racing mountain bikes has done wonders for her self-confidence. In addition to riding trails, she runs cross country and has joined the cheerleading team at school.
“I have learned that I am really competitive,” she says. “I love going out with my team and riding fast. I just love racing.”