Women Overcoming Mental Barriers in the BMW GS Trophy

Riders compete in world’s toughest adventure motorcycle challenge

By Amy Hunter and Kandi Spangler, Photos by James Holbrook

What is the GS Trophy?

On October 12–14, 2023, 72 riders competed in the U.S. GS Trophy Qualifier held at the BMW Performance Center in Greer, South Carolina. The competition, held every other year, is a multi-day event sponsored by BMW Motorrad to showcase the capabilities of its GS adventure motorcycle model line-up and the badasses that ride them.

GS Trophy qualifier 2023 woman rider
BMW’s GS range of motorcycles are the “Swiss army knife” of bikes, comfortably handling roads and twisties at highway speeds as well as dirt, mountain trails, over rocks, roots, and mud. All models of GSes are welcome in the GS Trophy.

The BMW GS Trophy is open to amateur riders only with no pro riders permitted. It is set up to explore each rider’s capabilities through a series of challenges that put their on- and off-road skills to the test. The intense three days culminate with a finale that resembles a trials motorcycle competition.

2024 BMW GS Trophy USA team
Emily Wiggs (Florida), Jessica Hofherr (Colorado), Kirk Graydon (South Carolina), Billy De Wet (Texas) and Scott Acheson (Florida) came out on top against 71 very talented and determined GS Trophy Qualifier USA competitors, the largest number of participants in U.S. GS Qualifier history.

The top three male finalists make up the U.S. men’s team, who head to the International GS Trophy competition in Namibia, South Africa, in October 2024. The top two female finalists, Emily Wiggs and Jessica Hofherr will represent the U.S. women’s team. These ladies are in Malaga, Spain, this week to compete for one of six teams that will go to the International GS Trophy in Namibia.

Women Competing in the BMW GS Trophy

51 women have competed in the GS Trophy since its inception in 2009. Brienne Thomson was the first woman to compete, and BMW was so impressed with her skills that they used her in multiple advertising campaigns that year.

2023 2024 GS Trophy US women's team
This year a record number (12) of women representing a range of ages, heights, sizes, and experience levels competed. All of them have one thing in common—these courageous badasses set their fears aside to ride outside their comfort zone. Some are super-competitive while others are simply there to challenge themselves to become better riders.

2023 GS Trophy Qualifier Competitor, Amy Hunter

That “thing” I do that makes me feel alive has always been riding motorcycles. Early on I had to tuck my hair into my helmet and act like a boy, as girls were not welcome in this space yet. I didn’t mind, though, because it meant I got to ride and feel the freedom of two wheels. Combining my passion with a paycheck by selling motorcycles seems natural, but I’ve had to battle the chauvinistic ideas that women don’t belong in this space.

Amy GS Trophy qualifier 2023
I surprised myself that I got as far as I did in my first GS Trophy Qualifier, but I honestly entered for the “experience.”

Fast forward a lifetime to my first BMW R 1250 GS. I did not get this bike with the intentions of going on epic adventures and competing on said 600-pound bike with my 5-feet-1-inch, 110-pound self. I bought the bike to learn more about it and do my job selling them better. Turns out, I fell in love with the offroad adventure riding and the people who also ride GSes.

All roads led me to the GS Trophy Qualifier where I first competed in 2021. The obstacles were bigger than I expected but so was the cheering section. The 20 challenges included gravel, sand, water crossings, and tons of cone work.

Competing Again

In October 2023 I competed in the GS Trophy Qualifier for the second time. Excited to see all the friends I had met and have been watching on social media, my excitement was explosive, and you could feel the energy in the air.

This time I knew what to expect on the other side of the huge sand hill climb, and I nailed it. I had practiced my cone work and giggled in my helmet when I successfully navigated those obstacles. I was not in my best shape and didn’t make it all the way to the semifinals, but I had achieved what I set out to do.

2023 US BMW GS Trophy qualifier woman rider
Changing focus from “competing” to “cheering” for the other 11 badass women riders was one of the best parts of the event for us ladies.

GS Trophy Competitor and Coach, Kandi Spangler

I was one of two women on the 2019 and 2021 Women’s U.S. GS Trophy teams, and competed at the International Female Qualifier in 2019 in Malaga, Spain. Since then, I’ve focused on coaching and inspiring other women to compete in the GS Trophy Qualifier. The best part of training and competing in the GS Trophy are vastly improved skills that allow me to have more fun during normal day-to-day riding.

GS Trophy woman rider
Committed competitors emerge as highly skilled riders who have improved their riding substantially through the training process. That’s why I enjoy coaching, which allows me to help other riders achieve their goals and become more proficient riders.

I’m not going to lie, being a competitor was way easier for me than being a spectator and coach at the Qualifier. I’m not saying competing is easy, but when competing you only have to focus on yourself. As a coach who assisted the competitors in this year’s competition, I felt a sense of responsibility for the success of each of these ladies. I could sense their emotions as each of them approached the start line. I was a basket case, especially because I was forbidden to coach once the competition began.

GS Tropy qualifier
Balance, technique, and stamina all come together on the “cones” course, all while being watched from every angle.

GS Trophy Qualifier and Semi-Finals

Day one of the event includes all competitors, with men competing in randomly selected teams of three and women in teams of four. BMW’s sprawling 137-acre property includes racetracks, forests, giant dirt hills, trails, water, mud, sand, gravel, and bridges. None of the challenges require the rider to go much faster than a brisk walk, making it feel like a trials motorcycle event, except that they’re done on giant adventure bikes. One of the biggest challenges for many competitors is that they can’t flat foot when they come to a stop. The riders’ balance is incredible, and their aversion to stopping at all means they have phenomenal balance.

GS Trophy qualifier BMW Performance Center
Five women and 16 men made it past the qualifier to move on to the semi-finals. The course looked very challenging, and I could feel butterflies in my stomach early in the day during the debriefing process.

Going into coach-mode, I dutifully checked in with all the women competitors to help them get their heads right. I encouraged them to focus on their health, hydration, and their bike’s mechanical condition. There’s a real comfort to us non-professional competitors to have a team and support system, even if your support group are rag-tag enthusiasts who simply love the sport. We made each other laugh, gave hugs, and took pictures. Those are the memories these competitors will cherish from this experience. 

Spectators were allowed for the semi-finals and the finals. The crowds grew and formed a line along the edge of the course where there were speakers and an emcee to announce all the action. There was excitement in the air and nervousness amongst the competitors.

The Challenges

The challenging course consisted of a 50-yard sand pit, followed by a ribbons course, offset weaves, a balance beam, a series of 10 flimsy uneven tires, and back through sand. Then riders head up a steep staircase onto the ridge of a concrete culvert, up a narrow dirt spine on a hill to a loose ledge descent with a 180-degree turn into another steep descent and into a tight zig-zag lined with hay bales. Then riders traversed over a ramp, through some rocks, and out the other side.

BMW GS Trophy qualifier women USA
Physical and mental skill and concentration is obviously necessary to complete the tough challenges. Jessica Hofherr demonstrates her competence well in this shot.
BMW GS Trophy qualifier women
There are also challenges off the bike that combine strength, agility, mechanical skills, and teamwork.
GS Trophy woman lifting motorcycle
Having the physical strength and stamina to lift your dropped bike is also par for the course.

The men’s teams went first while the ladies watched the carnage. This is where the pressure of competition can really get in your head—the waiting and watching. The mental focus to even ride the semi-finals course is nothing short of inspiring. Their skills, grit, and focus were on full display and I could feel myself getting emotional, filled with pride.

The Winners

After the semi-finals, four women and ten men moved onto the finals. This course, on a far corner of the Performance Center grounds, was a cones course set up on a flat dirt lot and looked like one of those police rodeo courses, except on loose dirt. 

After the competitors received their briefing, including how points would be scored and how riders would be expected to ride each challenge, they began the finals. While this course was a lot less scary looking, it certainly wasn’t any easier.  Time and points were the name of the game here, and one-by-one, all riders rode impressively.

Jess and Emily GS Trophy women USA
Congratulations to the 2024 U.S. GS Trophy Female team, Jess Hofherr and Emily Wiggs, who are headed to Spain on January 26–27 for the GS Trophy Female Qualifier. They’ll be vying to be one of the six women’s teams that will be chosen to compete alongside the 16 men’s teams in Namibia later in 2024.

Learn more about the BMW Motorrad GS Trophy here. Cheer on Emily and Jess by sharing your messages on the Women’s GS Trophy Team USA Facebook page here.

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