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Why Roam Fest’s Brand of Inclusivity is Working

While the broader bike industry talks about how to better represent marginalized communities, Roam Fest is doing the work.

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What does it mean to be truly inclusive?

While many brands, events and the cycling industry as a whole are collectively scratching their heads attempting to answer this question, the founders of the Roam Fest have been quietly doing the work for years, and have successfully created a space where traditionally under-represented communities can safely gather and simply have fun on bikes.

But it wasn’t always this way. It’s taken a lot of work, listening, flexibility, and commitment to allyship by Roam Fest founders Ash and Andi Zolton. The couple started Roam Fest five years ago in Sedona, Arizona, and it’s since expanded into a three-day women’s mountain bike festival, featuring group rides, a film fest, panel discussions and the best dance party you’ll ever attend, held in three different locations throughout the year.  

This past fall I attended and spoke at two of the festivals, and what I found was a peek into the future of what the bike industry could be.

As a tall athletic trans woman, I often get misgendered, and it was no different at my first Roam Fest in the fall of 2021. Every time this happened, my heart sank and it made for an awkward interaction for everyone. I had to go through the discomfort of correcting them, then they would have to go through the embarrassment of realizing they misgendered me.

The author taking part in a speakers’ panel at Roam Fest.

Garrin Evans, another trans woman who works in the bike industry was also being misgendered, so she proactively put her pronouns ‘she/her’ on her name tag. At the end of the event, Ash sat down with us to ask what she could do to help make future Roam Fests feel safe and more welcoming for the trans community. We suggested adding pronouns to name tags for all attendees; that way it didn’t out us but was just the accepted norm.

As a result, at the next event in Sedona I was only misgendered once, and the person instantly corrected the mistake, so it made my experience as a member of an under-represented community so much more welcoming, and I am sure made other people’s interactions with me much more clear. 

It was a free fix,” Ash says. “When we found out people were misgendering, there wasn’t a question about making this change.  It didn’t cost us any money. It takes four seconds to write your name on a name tag, five to seconds to add your pronouns, it doesn’t take much.”  

Roam Fest wasn’t always this magical safe space that it is today, but that has always been the goal of the Roam Fest team. To understand the event’s magic, we have to go back to the start, and Ash’s “Gemini spirit of getting shit done.”

“I went through and made a spreadsheet of all the women’s events out there. 86 percent of them were targeted for beginners. The others were either skill clinics or races,” Ash said. “I saw a big lack of space for women to simply have fun and ride bikes.”

Women’s events are usually targeted toward beginners. Roam Fest strived to be something different.

The first Roam Fest took place in Sedona in October 2017 and though its spirit was certainly felt revolutionary at the time, the focus soon shifted to reach women from communities who have traditionally been excluded from mountain biking.

“The early Roam Fests were amazing simply because the were one of the only dedicated spaces for women in mountain biking to just have fun, but it still felt like a more traditional mountain bike fest,” said Paz Chinchilla, a long-time industry veteran and two-time Roam Fest SHREDTalks panelist. “But in 2021 they took it to the next level. The community got so much bigger, more inclusive and diverse.”

“To do this, we started by taking a microscope and zoomed in on all the groups that fall under that umbrella of female mountain biker,” said Zolton.

This meant having uncomfortable conversations and being open to feedback. Zolton shared one such story about the music playlists. “The three rules of putting on a good event, and I hope people steal this, is don’t let people go hungry, don’t let people be thirsty, and never let the music stop.” If you’ve attended Roam, you know the music never stops from the first morning yoga session until the dance party gets shut down. “Vibe is an incredibly important part of an event. For years we’ve been told how great our playlist is. Playlist is something I put a lot of intention and thought and time into.”  

Then after one event, Zolton got the feedback essentially it’s great if you are a 45-year-old white lady, but not super relevant to other groups. 

“My first reaction was purely ego driven. I was annoyed, pissed and defensive,” Zolton reflected, but her attitude quickly changed. “If somebody has the courage to tell me that their truth is the music is not fun for them, and they feel that this event is not equitable, it gave me pause. I admired it took courage and some discomfort to bring this to my attention.”

As a result Zolton and the Roam Fest team completely re-invented the playlist. Ash and Roam Fest CFO Effenesia Baker enlisted the help of a professional DJ to revamp the playlist to include music that speaks to more cultures and backgrounds. They also asked BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) scholarship recipients to suggest songs they wanted to hear and began adding them to the playlist. What started off as an uncomfortable conversation turned into an opportunity for personal growth. “The positive is that now I’ve gone on a deep dive, and opened doors to new music and culture I would have never explored. At the end of the day, hearing the hard thing made a better event.”

Alyssa Gonzalez, whom Roam brought on in the summer of 2021 as DEI Coordinator, got involved with Roam through one of those difficult conversations. A new rider in 2021, and a woman of color, she reached out to have a conversation about whether the space would be safe for her. Over the next month and half a number of challenging and thoughtful conversations, led Zolton to hire Gonzalez.

The author in the middle of another meaningful Roam Fest conversation.

“It was not an easy conversation, and I have so much respect for the month-and-a-half process before we got to work. The most important thing was we were honest and transparent. There was a lot of ego being put aside, to focus on what we wanted to do, which at the end of the day is putting people on bikes and having fun,” said Gonzalez. 

Going into 2021, the team shifted from reactive feedback to proactive and intentional investment, making systemic changes to how the festival operated. They created a BIPOC Scholarship that built upon their commitment of holding 20 percent of registrations for women of color, and helped to fund the cost of registration, camping and demos for those who needed it. 

“When we created the BIPOC Scholarship. We put the cart before the horse, we hadn’t budgeted for it, it was kind of just, ‘This needs to happen,’” says Andi Zolton, Ash’s partner in life and business. “This was a bit like having a baby, you’re never ready, you just kind of start doing it. The way we looked at getting into this DEI work, was we are never going to be ready for it, so it just needs to happen.”

Another major change was they started hiring more diverse staff, many of whom didn’t have the traditional mountain bike background, but the skills necessary to put on a world-class event.

This is probably one of the more noticeable changes, as the staff play a huge role in creating the welcoming vibe and are highly visible. “We tell our staff, if you see somebody on the sideline, alone or looking uncomfortable, go up to them, invite them to do something and make them feel at home.” 

Gonzalez, who also works in the outdoor industry at Beta’s parent company Outside, Inc., and is no stranger to outdoor industry events, summed it up: “It’s what I hope all outdoor and bike events look like, where you just walk into, and can be your happy authentic self and feel welcome. That’s not how it is right now elsewhere.” 

The positive impact of the safe and inclusive space that Roam Fest has created is noticeable. As a queer trans woman, most spaces I walk into I have a low-level anxiety and constantly am asking myself: Will people accept me? Will I get misgendered? Will I get harassed? Will I be safe? For the six days at Roam, I get to be just me, and the anxiety that I feel every day disappears. It is truly an incredible gift and I can’t wait to do it all over again this year.

Photos: Brenda Ernst