How one organization is working to close our sport's gender gap.
Growing up in the small town of Jericho, Vermont, Lea and Sabra Davidson were the only two girls on the trails and at the races. They taught themselves to ride by mimicking the boy riders. "We just learned by ripping around trails behind our male teammates and trying to keep up," said Sabra. "It wasn't the coziest entry into the sport. I mean we were pretty beat up."
After racing together at Middlebury College, the sisters asked themselves what they could do to get more girls into the sport. "We would see women in college that had taken a collective break from riding a bike," said Sabra. "They would ride when they were little kids, and then stop. We wanted to see if we could mitigate the break they were taking and fill the void somehow,” Sabra recalled. So along with local cycling advocate Angela Irvine, Sabra and Lea launched their passion project: Little Bellas. A non-competitive program for 7-18-year-old girls, Little Bellas exists to create life-long mountain bikers.
It's a judgement-free zone where just being yourself is as important as whether you can get over a log or not.
With the dedication of over 300 mentors and volunteers over the years, Little Bellas has grown from a single Vermont location with less than 20 girls participating in 2007 to getting over 2,000 girls on bikes in the last ten years. For 2017, seven hundred girls in 11 states are signed up for one of the many programs they offer including half-, full-, and multi-day events. "We looked at our experience growing up and thought, had we not had each other, I don't think we would still be in the sport in the same way," said Sabra. "We found success because we leaned on each other. We couldn't imagine having no one to debrief with at end of a ride–'Oh my god! Did you hit that root too?' It's an important part of the inherent collective struggle that sometimes happens in mountain biking."
One major reason for the large growth of the program is the sense of community amongst the mentors and the girls. There is no such thing as having the wrong bike, clothes or shoes. It doesn't matter if you are a new camper or a returning camper. It's a judgement-free zone where just being yourself is as important as whether you can get over a log or not. "I love the community that this program creates," said multi-year Little Bella, Auggie Spagnuolo-Chawla. "From the first day, I was welcomed. The women and girls in this program are so supportive of everyone. It makes me happy just being around them. And, I still have the friends I made in my first couple of seasons," said the fifteen-year-old junior mentor from Essex Junction, Vermont.
Just as important as the community is the methodology they use to teach. "In teaching someone how to mountain bike, you have to rewind and remember what is was like when you first started pedaling and feel that off-balance feeling and how you have to stomp on the pedal and get it in that right position to do that," said Sabra. "Every time I teach a girl I rewind back to my four- and five-year-old self, which is kind of fun!" One-time mentor and Boulder, CO resident Kristen Weber agrees."It is about putting your head in the mind of a girl at that age–how they are feeling and what they are doing."
To keep skills development less intimidating, the program incorporates games and other strategies to focus on bringing out the fun in the sport. "We stressed teaching legitimate skills in a fun set of games and challenges," said Weber. One of the most popular games is teaching the girls how to maneuver the bike between the mentors while avoiding being hit by colored balls being thrown at them. "One of my favorite memories from Bella's is Color Day," said Spagnuolo-Chawla. "Every summer, we have a day when we just play games that involve getting covered in colored corn starch. The girls absolutely love it, and so do the mentors! The smiles on their faces–their blue and pink and green faces–after they’ve been covered with color from head to toe are absolutely priceless."
With fear and lack of confidence being the two major factors keeping girls (and people in general) off the trails, Little Bellas is trying to change that. About being timid about signing up for a camp, Spagnuolo-Chawla had this to say: "I would tell any potential camper that this is exactly the thing for you. The mentors are the best teachers you could ask for. When I started Bellas, I’d just barely started riding a bike confidently, much less mountain biking, but through countless games that I now teach my littles [as a junior mentor], I quickly gained confidence on my bike, and off it too."
Another factor which makes the program's environment so dynamic is the camaraderie between the new riders and the more experienced ones. Whether it's singing at the top of their lungs on the trails to giving a high five when tackling a tough skill, they are all a team encouraging each other every pedal stroke. "If a potential camper was worried about being the only one new to whole mountain biking thing, I’d tell her she’s in the exact same boat as everyone else," said Spagnuolo-Chawla. "Most of the young girls, and even some of the older ones, are new, too! This program is all about trying new things in fun, exciting ways!"
"For us, the focus is on teaching girls how to be self-sufficient, pick their own adventure and go for it.”
Most girls don't even know that some of their mentors, including Lea, a two-time Olympian, are among some of the most accomplished riders in the sport. But that’s by design–keeping that uninhibited environment is stressed as part of the mentoring model. "She often rides with the seven and eight-year-olds," said Sabra of Lea. "A lot of times they don't even know who she is. They ask what state the Olympics are in and if she can ride to the top of a mulch pile."
While the program focuses on getting girls out adventuring safely, Little Bellas also works alongside NICA, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, for girls looking to race or further develop their riding. “Whether they know it or not, I think Lea is an inspiration for some of those girls to pursue it further,” said Sabra. "Cycling is one of those sports that can help them in whatever pursuit they are most excited about. And whether that [pursuit] is cycling or not, we are encouraging girls to participate in the sport regardless of what else they are doing. We want riding a bike to fit in their lifestyle. For us, the focus is on teaching girls how to be self-sufficient, pick their own adventure and go for it."
And from day one, their mission has remained the same. Last week, the program hired a new employee, someone who has been a mentor and volunteer with the program from the start. "She wrote in her bio that we've been trying to achieve the same goal since day one and really fulfill our mission of getting more girls on bikes whomever the girl is," said Sabra. "We have the same goal as ten years ago, but we have just gotten bigger and are in more places with mentors giving a consistent message. The goal remains the same, and that’s something I am proud of."
The messages taught on those dirt trails aren't just from mentor to little shredder, however. The teaching comes from both sides, says Sabra, and sometimes simply saying “yes” is the most fulfilling thing a mentor can do. “They are ten-years-olds, and if they want to ride through a stream ten times and you say ‘no, this is what we have to do today–this is our schedule,’ that's not any fun,” Sabra reflected. “Let them ride through the stream ten times and throw the schedule out the window.”
After all, those experiences–where schedules are botched and fun prioritized–are the ones that make the biggest impact on the girls, according to Sabra. “There's not enough organic play with kids anymore, so let them do that. Even if it’s that they want to shove cattails all over their helmet–whatever it is, go for it." Though Little Bellas has a noble and serious mission, Sabra gives herself one exceedingly important reminder at the beginning of each session: “They want to be kids!"