Canadian Enduro Series Founder Sells Following Social Media Tumult
How much influence does a meme have?
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The Canadian Enduro Series posted a brief update on its Instagram account earlier this week announcing its sale to HSM Sport + Event, a firm that also holds management roles with amateur soccer teams, and trail running and bike races in the Fraser Valley. Most of the account’s followers probably scrolled right past it—the post only garnered three comments and fewer than 200 ‘likes,’ a mere blip in the social media sphere.
But, like a lot of things on social media, the glossed-over announcement only told part of the story. Ted Morton, the founder and main organizer of the series, Canada’s largest group of enduro races, decided to sell following a tumultuous week last month in which his series was identified on a meme Instagram account, Wombcork, for its lack of representation of women or BIPOC racers. The memes were only up for two hours—the page owners archived the post after they felt the point was made, in an attempt to avoid the mob mentality commonplace in social media comment sections—but it was enough time for Morton to start questioning the value he’s bringing to his role, as the memes spread quickly through shares on other accounts and the criticism mounted.
“It’s a lot. As a small entrepreneur with the weight of the world on you, it’s quick to burn you out and turn you. After this happened, I put my bike in the garage. I was like, ‘I don’t want to go on a ride because I’m gonna see someone. I don’t want to see anyone, I don’t want to see my community, I’m done.’ That’s a horrible place to be,” Morton said.
After several days of introspection alongside productive conversations with multiple female racers and penning an apology on Instagram that was well-received, Morton still felt beaten down. He went to the series sponsor, Norco, and told them he was out—he was open to selling the series if a buyer came forward, but he no longer had the energy or desire to keep up with the demands and expectations, especially at a time of surging participation. Morton contacted Matt Holbrook, the principal of Holbrook Sports Management, about buying the series, and Holbrook quickly entered into an agreement. Morton will stay on to run operations for the remaining three races of the year to ensure a seamless transition for racers, and to pass along his expertise and experience to Holbrook’s team, but he will be in a behind-the-scenes, non-racer-facing role.
While he doesn’t blame the meme and ensuing social media reaction solely for his decision to sell, it was a factor. As the face of the series, and its founder, Morton took the criticism personally and felt like he disappointed the community that he’s spent the last five years building. Morton started the series in 2016, after buying the B.C. Enduro Series from Megan Rose, and turned it into Canada’s preeminent enduro series, with a full schedule of races across the country, including multiple Enduro World Series qualifiers, and thousands of participants every year. It’s work he did alongside his full-time job, with a tight team of three and often without taking a paycheck.
“My skill set is getting shit done on the ground. I’m basically a one-man show. We may look like something online, but we’re really nothing,” he said.
The meme’s message was that the Series hadn’t shown a photo of a woman riding a bike on its Instagram page since March 2020 (there was a POV video shot by a woman riding posted in November, Morton notes), and that the majority of its posts were images of white guys riding, a lack of representation that perpetuates the bro culture within mountain bike racing, critics said. The main image depicted the series in a gravesite scene, calling out that March date.
Morton, who’d hired a social media manager to handle day-to-day posting on Instagram, admits his presence on that platform was deficient and didn’t reflect some of the strides he’d made to improve female participation within the series, such as becoming the first series in Canada to offer equal prize money, mandating 50/50 coverage from contracted photographers and filmers, funding development programs for young female racers, offering reduced entry fees for young racers, shaping video projects around female racers and starting a Women of the Enduro Series spotlight on Instagram, which launched coincidentally in the days following the meme.
About 14 percent of CES’ overall participation is women, a number that’s stayed steady since the series started, but the biggest women’s category is now U21, which now outnumbers both the Pro and Open categories. Morton is proud of that growth because he views that category as a feeder into pro-level racing and potentially the Enduro World Series, and that’s the point of his races.
“The Series was to provide a platform for the highest level of racing in Canada, where up-and-comers could elevate their skills and become competitive against the world’s elite-level racers, on world-class racecourses. Although racing at the highest, the elite level, may not intuitively seem like a platform inclusivity, I really tried through so many avenues to do double duty,” he said.
Despite that, the fact that the response to the meme was so swift and impassioned shows that regardless of Morton’s intentions or efforts, it tapped into a broader cultural issue that the mountain bike industry is grappling with, one that certainly doesn’t just lie with Morton or the race series. It raises bigger questions, like who, or what, is responsible for changing the culture within mountain biking, and for making everyone feel welcome at races and events, or on the trails, especially with an influx of new riders introduced to the sport during COVID?
Renee McCurdy, one of five founders of the Womb Tang brand (which runs Wombcork), alongside Tori Anderson, Megan Wake, Meghan Fenton and Hayley Bischoff, believes the meme was effective in surfacing some of the important issues around inclusivity and equal gender representation that all of action sports are facing right now. Since starting the account last October, the women have seen how powerful a tool memes can be to bring attention to issues by using content to spark conversation within the outdoor industry and community. Several they’ve posted pertaining to the ski industry have led to high-level talks with brand leaders and positive cultural change.
“This shows women want to be involved, they want to feel safe in that space and race,” McCurdy says. “Women’s enduros…they sell out so fast, they want to ride, there’s women, but they don’t race the CES. Why is that—what about this (race) feels safe to you, but this doesn’t?”
But, Zanny Venner, a regular CES racer and friend of Morton’s, says women’s-only races serve a different purpose, and oftentimes the courses aren’t as challenging. After competing in several, she now prefers a mixed-gender environment, and the level of difficulty that comes with a national-level series.
“I don’t need to see representation on social media. I don’t need to see someone to believe it, I don’t need that validation, I just appreciated that Ted created the series and gave me the opportunity to get better,” says Venner, who has used the CES races as a springboard to larger races, like Crankworx.
Morton acknowledges his responsibility in the ordeal, and has urged Holbrook to continue conversations with female racers on how the environment can be improved, but says it’s work that established racers should participate in as well; larger women’s fields rely on mentorship and pro or advanced racers helping to usher in the next generation.
Holbrook, for his part, is prepared to pick up where Morton left off. He has a big vision for the future of the race, with a full schedule of 10-12 races in 2022 across B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, and a renewed focus on inclusivity of riders of all skill levels. He’ll tap into his own expertise with community events, like the Fraser Valley Trail Races and upcoming Fraser Valley Bike Races, a new XC series, to make the CES races more attractive to beginners, as well as maintain a pathway to progression for pros by continuing the relationship with the Enduro World Series.
“I want to create an inclusive, dynamic environment,” Holbrook said. “I have a video call with six or seven folks to talk about what we can do, and how we can be more inclusive. I want to tackle this with both hands.”
Krista Cook, a sponsored rider who was vocal on social media in support of a movement toward better representation at the races, said while she’s always enjoyed participating for the past four years, there’s certainly room for improvement, and she’s hopeful that new management will ultimately lead to larger women’s fields.
“The races are really great,” Cook said. “They’re really challenging and very well-organized, but the culture could stand to be improved.” She hopes that equal representation and beginning the shift away from ‘bike bro’ culture will encourage more women to try the more competitive races. “Enduro is supposed to be about riding with your friends and I can’t convince mine to come.”
A big question left with Venner is whether all of this could’ve been accomplished in a more constructive and productive manner. Is a social media callout the way to effect real, lasting change? Were the commenters actual racers who experienced the series, and had real concerns about its culture or the opportunities for a level playing field for women, or were they eager to hop on a trending topic one day before moving on with their own lives the next?
Ultimately, she worries the series is losing more than it’s gaining with Morton now on the way out the door.
“Ted was so much a part of the Series,” Venner says. “He plays so many personalities in the industry, as a former racer, organizer, working in trail development, working with First Nations. He understands mountain biking and sees it like no other. That’s pretty important to put on a series across Canada. For the next person to have that wealth of knowledge, it’s big shoes to fill.”