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Cycling's Singular Sisterhood

Jacquie Phelan's WOMBATS offers women mountain bikers tea and sympathy

Before she shows off any of her half-dozen bicycles or talks about her three national championships or explains just how she became the most successful mountain biker in the sport's brief history, Jacquie Phelan introduces you to her pet rats. She owns seven of them, six beige babies and an enormous white mother. They live in a plastic cage in the foyer of her ramshackle home in the San Francisco suburbs, and Phelan—as committed to bad puns as she is to good cycling—points out Georgia O'Teeth, Frank Lloyd Wrat and Auguste Rodent, among others. "Rats have as much of an emotional draw as dogs," she claims as she removes the mother from the cage and slips it into the sleeve of her T-shirt, laughing hysterically as the foot-long rodent burrows into her armpit.

It is a fitting welcome to Phelan's eccentric world, a place seemingly adapted from the pages of Lewis Carroll. Her house, which she named Offhand Manor, is a colorful jumble of bicycle parts, bike-race T-shirts and antique tea sets; it is far too cluttered to contain a proper bedroom. Instead, each evening Phelan, 37, and her husband, Charlie Cunningham, 45, a mountain-bike designer, climb 20 feet up a rickety ladder to reach their tree house, complete with its indoor plumbing and electric blanket. "It's total bliss," says Phelan. "The air just swoops in and blows your hair. It feels like you're bicycling in your sleep."

Mountain biking, therefore, occupies nearly every moment of Phelan's life. And if not her life, then the frenetic life of Alice B. Toeclips, Phelan's megalomaniacal alter ego, an intense persona she says she slips into whenever she "wants to thrash the guys" in a race. As Alice B., Phelan has consistently thrashed all the women and most of the men during her 13-year racing career. Once, during a bizarre race in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales, in which she was the only female entered, she beat 20 other bikers, 50 runners and a pack of horses. Phelan won the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) championships—the premier race in the U.S.—three times, in 1983, '84 and '85. Since turning 35, she has continued her success, in the veterans' category. In the 1992 veterans' World Mountain Bike Championships, held in Bromont, Que., that September, Phelan won the silver medal. (She was injured during this year's race and finished 15th.)

But what makes Phelan more a biking legend than a successful jock are her accomplishments off the race course. In 1984, after competing for four years in races throughout North America and never losing a race (she's the sport's winningest rider, male or female), Phelan got fed up with people telling her that her success was due to lack of competition. "If you've got two X chromosomes," says Phelan, "nobody shows you a mountain bike till you're 25." So she decided to do something to encourage other women to try the sport. During her training rides she passed out cards with her name and phone number and a message that read, "Sunday rides with tea following" to every woman she spotted riding a bicycle. The response was overwhelming, leading Phelan to found the Women's Mountain Bike and Tea Society, better known as WOMBATS.

"Wombats," says Phelan of the Australian marsupials, "look like 50-pound rats, so the name is perfect. As for the tea part, well, it was better than terror in the acronym. And the dissonance between rough-and-tumble mountain biking and the genteel tea culture is so bizarre that it works."

Thanks to a combination of Phelan's endearing silliness (one of the group's mottoes is, Live long and perspire) and her fanatical dedication to the sport (she has all but forsworn automobiles and will ride as a passenger only if absolutely necessary), WOMBATS has become a cycling phenomenon. There are now 800 members spread through 43 states and four foreign countries, making WOMBATS second only to NORBA in mountain-bike membership. Since WOMBATS's inception, female participation in mountain biking has soared. According to the Bicycle Institute of America, women purchase more than 55% of all bikes sold. The prize money in women's races is approaching that of the men's races; more sponsorship dollars are going to women; and best—and worst—of all, Phelan's fellow WOMBATS are starting to beat her in local races. "I think of WOMBATS as a constantly evolving performance piece," she says. "I'm not real good with watercolors, so I've made WOMBATS my art form."

Part of Phelan's success is due to the fact that she is as much a WOMBATS member as she is its leader. As a child Phelan had used her trusty bike to get wherever she wanted, but she wasn't introduced to a mountain bike until she was 25 years old and working as a veterinary assistant in San Francisco. In 1980, three years after graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont, she pedaled her mountain bike the 450 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles to visit her parents. Upon returning, by car, she entered a small local race and won it.

These were mountain biking's salad days—today's version of the sport was invented in the Bay Area during the mid-1970s—and Phelan befriended all the local bike gurus (and later married one). Her powerful attack (Phelan is tall and muscular, with a "nasty scar on every part that sticks out") made her virtually invincible in women's races. In 1984 she became the first woman to receive sponsorship money from a mountain-bike company, and a money-making career was finally launched.

Though Phelan still makes a living selling advertising spots on her jersey, her racing has taken a backseat to WOMBATS. In 1987 she founded WOMBATS News, a quarterly newsletter that reads like an extension of Phelan's personality. Items in one issue included "Fifty Ways to Love Your Helmet"—Phelan suggested using it as a salad bowl, popcorn holder and wine bucket—and "WOMBATS Hints," one of which was that "used mascara brushes are perfect for cleaning bicycle chains."

There's also Phelan's "25-hour 'BAT-line," a frequently updated answering-machine message that ostensibly informs the WOMBATS members of upcoming events. Actually, the recordings border on blank-verse poetry, with Phelan recounting convoluted cycling anecdotes and rambling jokes as well as providing a running commentary on local news. A recent message began, "My head's in the clouds, my heart's on the trail, my foot is in my mouth."

Phelan organizes several women-only "cramp-outs" each year, including the five-night Fat Tire Finishing School and the one-night Camp Winna WOMBAT, both held at the secret 'BAT hideaway. The camps, says Phelan, are bike bonding sessions that emphasize the WOMBATS' two favorite activities, riding and eating.

But most popular of all are the Thursday-evening rides, when the Bay Area WOMBATS get together for short workouts. The day's designated leader, by WOMBATS rules, takes up the rear, and the ride seems more like a rolling party than serious exercise. Most weeks there are about a dozen women ranging in age from 25 to 45, and they stop frequently: to compare their cycling scars, to swap stories about the thrills of a long descent, to discuss the foibles of the male biker—how, for example, husbands and boyfriends have a strange proclivity for riding 50 yards ahead of a woman for an entire ride and how, when a woman passes a male biker, he complains suddenly of a physical ailment.

"WOMBATS don't have meetings," says Phelan, "we just have rides that gradually decline into relaxation." When the Thursday riders have become sufficiently relaxed, Phelan guides the group to a grassy held and reaches into her backpack. She removes a large silver thermos and a stack of plastic cups. Then the WOMBATS, all of them covered with sweat and grease and mud, sit cross-legged in a big circle and slowly sip their tea.



Phelan has won more races than any other rider, male or female.



Phelan (fourth from right) and her 'BATS savor the refreshments on a Thursday ride.

Michael Finkel, who lives in Bozeman, Mont., writes often for Sports Illustrated.