Lea Davison high-fives Little Bellas at the Catamount Classic Pro XCT race in Vermont. Photo: Rajan Chawla
VELONEWS.COM | Spencer Powlison - It’s the final day of the Sea Otter Classic and the entire Laguna Seca raceway is alive with cycling action. On one side of a chain-link fence, several dozen cross-country racers nervously await their start. On the other side, 30 young girls stand on a patch of grass, their bicycles parked nearby on the ground. Suddenly, the girls scream out in unison, “Wahhhh,” their inflection rising at the end of the drawn-out word.
The entire group bends at the waist, each mimicking a Kung Fu master. Their faces contort with giggles. One girl, named Olivia, pantomimes a unicorn, while another girl is an octopus. A third player is a crocodile, although she quickly changes to a sea otter. More girls trickle in, and soon a game of tunnel-tag begins.
Nearby, Calvin Jones, a Park Tools mechanic, inspects each girl’s bike. There’s a pile of G-Form kneepads on the table next to him. The group’s leader, Sabra Davison, 32, interrupts the games.
“We’re gonna pad up and get face paint,” Davison says in a voice that’s simultaneously loud and commanding, yet fun and welcoming. This is a typical Sea Otter Sunday for the Little Bellas, a mountain biking program for girls between the ages of seven and 18.
Founded in 2007, Little Bellas helps young girls overcome mountain biking’s sizable participatory hurdles by making the sport a fun, laid-back activity. Cycling mentors teach the girls leadership skills and the tools to pursue a healthy, active lifestyle through the sport.
For these 30-odd pre-teen girls who have come to Sea Otter to attend the Little Bellas camp, mountain biking looks like the game of “Wahhh,” or tag, or face painting, rather than interval training, crashes, or cross-country racing. After half an hour of various games and activities, the group dons helmets and picks up their bicycles. One by one, they ride toward the trail and into the cool and breezy morning.
Photo: Rajan Chawla
NEARLY FIVE DECADES AFTER the implementation of Title IX (the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education), female participation in some sports is booming across the United States. That’s not the case in cycling, where the sport has historically struggled to attract female participants. It still does today. Just 15 percent of USA Cycling’s approximately 64,000 members are women. Even at lower levels of the sport, female participation lags behind. In many National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) leagues, female participation is anywhere between 20 to 25 percent.
Those numbers stand in contrast to the trends in other endurance sports, such as running and triathlon. According to the running industry group Running USA, 57 percent of all running race finishers in 2015 were female. USA Triathlon’s membership is nearly 40 percent female.
There’s no clear reason why cycling attracts so few women and girls. Team sports like soccer and softball tend to win over boys and girls alike because they encourage the social interaction that strengthens friendships. By contrast, cycling can be a solitary pursuit for youngsters. Pete Webber, a former pro mountain biker and director of Boulder Junior Cycling, has found that it takes a critical mass of girls before casual participants will hop on bikes.
“Girls really are very social. They want to be with their friends,” Webber says. “Cycling is small, and without that critical mass, even if they want to ride, they have to be a brave personality to join a cycling team that’s going to be 80 or 90 percent boys.”
“We knew what we wanted it to do for the girls and the mentors. We let the mission lead the process in a sense.”
– Sabra Davison
Social hurdles also exist for girls when the community is largely male. Michael McLaughlin, a board member and coach in the New England High School Cycling Association, finds the disparity between boys and girls in the league can chase girls away.
One of McLaughlin’s female riders, Caitrin, sums up the feelings of many girls. “When it’s mostly guys, sometimes it can be hard for girls to say they don’t know something,” she says. “It’s to avoid that sense of, ‘Because you’re a girl you don’t know how to do it.’ Having times when it’s just girls helps because that allows a chance to speak up and ask questions.”
The sport also presents other hurdles for all genders. Riders fall and get hurt. Bicycles are expensive. Racing is painful.
When Angela Irvine and Sabra and Lea Davison founded the Little Bellas program, they did so with these hurdles in mind. The three women love mountain biking; Irvine raced as an expert-level cross-country racer for five years and was also the advisor to the mountain bike racing team at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. The Davison sisters grew up as ski and mountain bike racers on the national circuit; Lea represented the United States at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
The Davisons envisioned a mountain bike program as a way to develop young female racers. Both noticed how few girls were on the start lines of junior national-level cross-country events. Irvine, however, had a broader vision: Mountain biking could teach leadership skills, and a youth program could help girls develop passion and off-road skills at a young age.
“Sabra and Lea were highly competitive athletes,” Irvine says. “They wanted to grow a team. And I was like, ‘I don’t think that’s going to make this successful.’”
Lea Davison, Angela Irvine, and Sabra Davison (L-R) founded the Little Bellas program in 2007.
WHEN SHE WAS PICKING UP mountain biking at the age of 40, Irvine faced many of the challenges that keep women out of the sport. Without a process for skills development, she simply chased groups of male friends around the rocky, rooty trails in Vermont’s forests, trying to avoid crashing.
Irvine applied this experience when forming her philosophy for Little Bellas. She also wanted to give the sisters an opportunity to expand their potential in the broader cycling community, beyond pro racing. “I personally approached it from the standpoint of wanting it to be something that Sabra and Lea could have no matter where their careers ended up,” she says.
Though Lea and Sabra still had racing on the brain and Irvine sought a less competitive approach, the three agreed that the girls and mentors should be central to the program’s structure. With $500 in seed money from Fellowship of the Wheel, a local mountain bike club, they launched the first Little Bellas camp at Catamount Family Center in Williston, Vermont. Only 12 girls showed up that Sunday afternoon in 2007, but they kept coming back all summer for weekly two-hour sessions.
“In the first year we didn’t know what we wanted it to look like on the ground,” says Sabra Davison, who serves as the organization’s president. “We knew what we wanted it to do for the girls and the mentors. We let the mission lead the process in a sense.”