Heather Irmiger
Heather Irmiger (Tom Robertson)

Teva Games Q&A: Mountain Biker Heather Irmiger

Irmiger talks about the gender divide in mountain biking and the challenges of making it big

Heather Irmiger

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There aren’t many big names in XC mountain biking, but if anyone deserves some recognition it’s Heather Irmiger. The 33-year-old Boulder-ite has been crushing the pro scene since joining the Subaru-Trek team six years ago. Currently, she is sitting on the bubble to race at the 2012 Olympics in August. We caught up with her in Winter Park where she and her husband, pro mountain biker Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, have been “torturing themselves at 9,000 feet” in between World Cup races.  

Irmiger at Worry Gill Irmiger at Worry Gill

Where does Teva fit in on your race calendar? Is this just a training race for you in between everything else?
Teva is so awesome. It’s definitely a fun race and, actually, the field is sometimes even bigger than a national series race because the prize money is so huge. You don’t find that in other mountain bike races very often. You’ll win a national series race and be lucky if you get $150. The event in general is super fun, and it’s always on my calendar, but the race itself is getting pretty serious.

How’s the course?
It’s actually tough for a lot of people because of the altitude. It’s technical. It’s good mountain biking the way that it should be. We get a lot of pretty weird stuff at the World Cups where they’ve manufactured a lot of the technical aspects, which can be pretty scary in a bad way. They’ll take a boulder and cut into the slope at a 20 degree angle and you’re just shooting down a mountain like “Oh, my God!” Riding at Vail, you’re going over natural features, river crossings, Aspen tree roots, etc. It’s just fun mountain biking. But between the competition and the altitude it can definitely be tough.

Did you grow up riding like that? 
Mostly, yeah. There’s a race series in Winter Park that I grew up doing, and all the trails in Winter Park are all natural, high-altitude single track. I’m from Boulder so when I went mountain biking with my family we would come up to Vail or Winter Park or Moab. It’s been an adjustment, learning to race on manufactured courses. Even though I’ve been doing it for six years now, some of those World Cup race courses are very different.

I think I know the answer to this, but have you always been riding mostly with guys?
Yeah. I worked in a bike shop when I was in high school and always rode with the boys. I also rode with my mom a lot when I was younger. She’s a really good mountain biker and was definitely my main female influence, but mostly I just didn’t want to get dropped by the boys.

There was a goofy but interesting article on PinkBike recently about the ratio of men to women in this particular sport. 2:1. Do you notice the gender divide?
The number of people on teams is usually even, but there probably is a divide in salary. I don’t know exact numbers but if you’re an entry level pro female versus an entry level pro male you might be making a similar amount of money. But if you move up in your career, I think men get paid quite a bit more. And a lot of times prize money isn’t equal. That’s been an ongoing battle. People sometimes assume that if there aren’t many women, they shouldn’t get paid as much. That said, there are a few promoters that have stepped up to create equal prize purses recently. Teva is like that, which is really awesome.

I’ve heard people say that particularly with mountain biking, the process of getting sponsorship and moving up towards pro can be almost as grueling as the training itself.
I’d say that’s true, mostly because there aren’t many opportunities to make it as a pro. There are probably five or six women on salary and six to eight men. At the next level people usually have a career that they’re trying to balance with their training. They’ll probably have some product sponsorship, and maybe a small travel stipend. Maybe they’ll get $3,000 and then they’ll have to figure out how to make that last all season. Which is hard. We’ve all been there. I worked at the University of Colorado, where I went to school, and used my vacation days to go to national races. And I’d get up at six in the morning to train. Honestly, I don’t know how I did it. I used to not sleep and train all the time. I made it, though. I broke through. But it was a huge challenge, because even if you’re good enough, there are not a lot of spots. Just because you’re winning, if all those spots are taken up, you just sort of have to wait your turn.

I saw some pictures of you getting tattooed at a brewery in Durango. What’s that all about ?
[Laughs] Do you know much about the single speed culture? Biking generally creates some pretty distinct subcultures and single speed tends to be pretty anti-establishment. Anyway, I ended up winning the 2009 Single Speed World Championships and apparently the prize is a tattoo. I found this out about an hour after I won the race. But it was pretty cool, because they always use a local artist from wherever the race is held. Mine was done at Ska Brewery with about a thousand people around drinking beer and watching. There are also a lot of costumes in single speed, which is why I’m wearing that wig in the photo. I went to New Zealand the following year to try and defend my title, but honestly, I’m kinda glad I didn’t win. I wasn’t sure I wanted to explain to my future grandkids why I had eight SSWC tattoos.

From Outside Magazine, April/May 2021 Lead Photo: Tom Robertson