Harriet Burbidge-Smith on a mission to get more women mountain biking

<span>Photograph: Emily Barker/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Emily Barker/Getty Images

Canberra cycling prodigy Harriet Burbidge-Smith had been on her BMX bike for almost two decades, ever since she was a four-year-old. “My parents realised even at that age I was really enjoying the bike,” she recalls. “They looked up local activities and the BMX club was one of them. They took me there and I couldn’t stay away.”

Burbidge-Smith, known simply as “Haz” in the BMX community, was an instant hit. “From a very young age I was going overseas to compete,” she says. The Australian won two amateur world championships and eight national crowns. A future of success beckoned – Olympic and world titles were within her grasp. And then she stopped.

“I enjoyed [BMX racing] until about 21, 22,” says the now 25-year-old. “I was doing elite races, World Cups – not doing too badly. But I slowly started getting invited to mountain bike events.” Despite a bright future looming in BMX, a parallel universe soon opened. “I tried to do both for a while,” she says. “And I realised I was enjoying the mountain biking a lot more – and had found a scene that fit my personality better. It was more creative and fulfilling for me, I felt like I was expressing myself much more.”

And so, in her early 20s, having spent her entire childhood on the BMX bike, collecting titles, sponsors and a following, Burbidge-Smith took a leap of faith. Just as today the rider might launch herself into the air for a vertical manoeuvre, she did the same with her career. “To leave BMX, all the sponsors and support I had, and start fresh in mountain biking – where I was really starting from the bottom,” she says, “that [personality fit] was a big factor.”

Immediately, “Haz” realised she had found her tribe. “Straight away I found connections in the sport in a way I never found in BMX,” she says. “Mountain biking is all about having fun and riding. Everyone’s riding is different – your personality shows in how you ride, it’s all about being creative.”

The sport also puts a premium on content – video footage and images – beyond the competitive scene. “The film-making, the content creation, is a big thing – it’s not just racing,” she adds. “With BMX it was very strict – schedule, training, gym, who was the strongest, who could squat the most. That’s great, but it didn’t fulfil me.”

Burbidge-Smith is back on home-soil for Crankworx in Cairns, the first-ever Australian leg of a global mountain-bike competition. On Thursday, she won gold in the speed and style final; more events are still to come over the weekend. “Crankworx is the main mountain bike series globally outside the World Cup series,” she explains. “It’s great to have Crankworx here – it’s special when it is in your home country.”

Notwithstanding her latest medal, it has not been all smooth terrain since switching sports. “I think it took longer than it might have looked [to adapt],” she says. After competing in a few events in 2019, Burbidge-Smith had a big crash and ended up in hospital. Covid-19 then ruled out much of the 2020 season, meaning 2021 was her first full season in the sport.

“It’s been long, but also short – and the last two years have been pretty much non-stop,” she says. “I’ve been overseas pretty much 24/7 – I just got back to Australia this week and it’s my first-time home since March.”

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Beyond her competitive ambitions, the Redbull-sponsored athlete is also passionate about making her sport more accessible to women. While the data varies, estimates indicate that women only make up about 20% of mountain bikers. “It’s a male-dominated sport,” Burbidge-Smith says. “It’s hard to break into that – if you don’t have people to ride with, you don’t ride. It’s hard to go to events if it’s literally just guys.”

Burbidge-Smith is trying her best to change that. Earlier this year she ran a “progression camp” to provide opportunities for women in free-ride mountain biking. “Things like that are making a massive push,” she says. “And it’s starting to show.” She’s also encouraging greater female participation at the grassroots level. “Having an environment where people are comfortable to give it a go [is important],” she says. “Before people didn’t have the opportunity, or know how to get into it. When you offer these opportunities, that’s when people feel comfortable.”

Between racing, creating content for her popular social media channels and driving greater female participation in mountain biking, Burbidge-Smith has thrown herself into her new sport. She has no regrets. “If I can keep doing all that, and enjoy it, then that’s what I want to keep doing.”