Why you should care
Motorbiking champ Tina Meier is determined to bring more women into the overwhelmingly male sport she loves.
Tina Meier is mad as hell: “From my experience, women underestimate a lot of what they are capable of doing. There are limiting beliefs all over the place, and that pisses me off!” Her particular beef is with women’s participation in a sport she loves — off-road motorcycle racing. With men making up 97 percent of competitors, the sport remains stubbornly male. It’s a dominance she is determined to challenge.
Meier, born in Hamburg, Germany, has been raising the profile of women competing in motorcycle endurance events for more than two decades. The 46-year-old has competed in a hundred-plus rallies and collected more than 30 trophies for first-placed woman as well as stage wins, meaning she beat all competitors, both male and female. In 2010, she took on the Dakar Rally, a high-stakes race that has claimed 59 lives (riders and spectators) since it began 40 years ago. The rally is for off-road vehicles — cars, motorbikes and all-terrain vehicles — and that year the course stretched 5,553 miles and 16 days over the roughest terrain that Argentina and Chile have to offer.
Of the 200 bikes on average that start the Dakar Rally, only three to five are ridden by women, and the overall attrition rate is north of 50 percent, with less than half of riders reaching the finish line. The hostile terrain, the physical toll, the punishing miles … the odds of defeat are overwhelming. But in 2010, Meier joined an elite club the moment she crossed that line. “It’s the smallest medal I’ve ever received,” says Meier, “but the biggest achievement.”
It is mindful empowerment, and the vehicle is the bike.
Since then, she has continued to compete and triumph in rallies, but her focus has shifted. Identified by the hashtag #sisterhood, Meier has become a mentor to a new generation of female bikers she’s emboldening to break into this testosterone-fueled sport. Racing, she says, she can do, but her mission now is to help other women rise: “I see the others who don’t trust in themselves and it’s heartbreaking. It is a much higher goal for me to support women to define and move their boundaries to achieve anything they want.”
Meier got her first taste of biking at 10 years old when her dad took her and her younger sister for a spin on his BMW R100/7 to get ice cream. She liked the raspberry cone just fine, but it was the ride that sparked a lifelong passion. Her father eventually sold the BMW in an attempt to temper Meier’s obsession, but she secretly rode friends’ off-road bikes. Then, at 22, she fell in love with a man who had two bikes: a Harley and a Yamaha XT500. She ended up ditching the boyfriend, but she bought the XT500.
Fast forward to today and Meier is bringing the same determination that carried her across the deserts and dunes to a new endeavor: teaching women to trail ride in her native Germany. Her goal, she says, is “to overwrite the disturbing mindfuck that causes high tension in the muscles and mental obstacles.” The mindfuck she’s talking about is the fear she sees in many women as they approach a sport that’s so aggressively male: They worry they will be too slow or not strong enough or a burden to the group.
To dismantle these negative perceptions, Meier started Dirtgirls Camps, where riders interested in off-road biking get practical instruction and navigation experience. The camps are a safe, “mindfuck”-free space for women to ride and learn, and Meier keeps them focused on the possibilities, not on what might go wrong. As participants gain confidence, their riding abilities improve and, for some, the next step is competing and winning.
Ina Viola Blasius, an artist and singer from Berlin, signed up for Meier’s camp in 2012 and joined the Dirtgirls Rally Team to compete in the Baja Deutschland, a kind of “kindergarten rally” consisting of eight 40-kilometer loops. With that under her belt, Blasius homed in on navigation and ways to ride smart, not just fast; her efforts paid off when she placed third at the 2017 Serres Rally in Greece.
Still, with the number of women riding motorbikes rising rapidly — in its last national survey of riders in the United States in 2014, the Motorcycle Industry Council found that women account for 14 percent of all U.S. motorcycle owners — why aren’t these stats translating to off-road?
Like Meier, Jane Daniels, 24, is the rare statistical exception. A competitor in enduro off-road racing since she was 12 years old, Daniels sees no obstacles, physical or otherwise. “Maybe as females we do lack a bit of strength compared to men, but I think if we work hard enough in the gym and while training on the bike, we can work our way to being as good as, if not better, than the men,” she says. “It’s how we ride our bikes that makes the difference to the end result.”
Charlie Mackenzie, former chair of the Enduro Scottish Auto Cycle Union, says he’s keen to have women and girls compete in extended “enduro” and motorcycle races, but on average just two or three women enter events that draw 90-plus male riders. He’s quick to point out the enormous physical demands of the sport — before acknowledging that the women who do choose to compete at a high level are extremely accomplished and race-ready. “In the 12-hour Dawn to Dusk race … the Clubman class was won by a woman a few years ago,” Mackenzie says. “She just plain rode more laps than the men — I was riding and she rode more laps than me!”
For Meier, the challenge remains to attract more women to her sport by breaking down perceived barriers at the starting line. So she will keep teaching, training and touting the benefits of competition: “It is mindful empowerment,” she says, “and the vehicle is the bike.”