At any given time during the five-day Sea Otter cycling festival in California last month, you’d see tens of thousands of people roaming the sunlit venue, browsing the booths and, of course, racing and riding bikes.
The hustle and bustle, the maze of people, the glaring sun — it can be an overwhelming sight at first. Yet there was a group of riders that easily stood out amongst it all. Looking tough as they cruised around in their knee pads, baggy shirts and mountain bike gear, the Litte Bellas received cheers and high-fives wherever they went. They may not know it yet, but in an industry and sport that is overwhelmingly male, these 8 to 13-year-old girls aren’t just turning heads, they’re turning the tide.
Now in its ninth year, Little Bellas is the brainchild of mountain bikers Lea and Sabra Davison and women’s cycling advocate Angela Irvin. It’s an organisation on a mission to help young women realise their potential through cycling with girls-only camps and clinics. It’s their answer to the ongoing question; how do we get more women on bikes?
It’s a question that the Davison sisters have been asked since they were teenagers themselves, competing at World Cups and the UCI World Championships.
Studies from the League of American Bicyclists and the Portland State University show that in their childhood, boys and girls tend to share the same attitude toward cycling and that is reflected in how much they ride, but once the teenage years hit, the rate of girls riding bikes drops dramatically.
What happens? Where do they go? How do we prevent it?
Start them young
“[As women] we have all been there, hanging off the back of a pack of boys. And when that happens, only 10 to 12 percent of the female population has the confidence to say ‘I’m OK with that’ and keep going. The rest disappears,” explained Sabra Davison, co-founder and executive director of Little Bellas.
“So when we started [Little Bellas], what we thought about was how do we keep these girls engaged? How do we keep them riding? Most will not go on to compete, let alone become pro, but how do we keep them enjoying this lifestyle? Our gut reaction was to get them into [the sport] at a younger age, and make it a part of their lives early on.”
Little Bellas started small with a series of day clinics for 7 to 12 year-olds in Vermont in 2007. Nine years in, they’ve got chapters, mentors and programs across the country. At Sea Otter this year alone, 100 girls came in for camps, adding to the roughly 2,000 girls that have already gone through the program.
A neat side-effect, too, is that when kids start riding at a young age, the cycling habit can trickle upward in a family. Statistically speaking, women with children are more likely to ride than women without them.
“We see that in our chapters all the time. Once the girls start riding, moms start riding too,” said Davison. “After nine years of running the Vermont program, I had a bunch of moms come to me and say ‘hey, we ride with our daughters and we can’t keep up anymore. We need a skills clinic!’ And so, as a fundraiser for camp scholarships, we did a skills clinic and it filled up, all with Little Bellas moms.”
In offering a girls-only environment, Little Bellas hopes to empower girls through the sport, emphasise the importance of goal-setting, promote healthy life styles and recognise the positive effects of strong female bonds.
“To really cut down that barrier of intimidation or fear of getting dropped by boys, we had to make [Little Bellas] just for girls,” said Davison. “There is very little judgement in the program, and because of that, we have been able to retain so many girls that want to be involved, even after they’ve outgrown the program.”
Let them take the lead
A supportive, girls-only environment is a great start to getting girls on bikes, but to keep them going, we need to let them take the lead and adopt a “say yes” policy, Davison said.
“The key is having the patience. Every girl is different. We say yes to them. If they want to ride the pump track twenty times in a row while singing Taylor Swift; that’s a yes. Make it fun and do what they want to do,” Davison explained.
“If we keep it within a boundary in which they are comfortable and which they set, that boundary will grow. Once you have gone over their threshold, pushed their boundary too far, you cannot get that back,” Davison continued. “It’s all about staying within themselves until they are ready to challenge themselves and set new boundaries. Let them take the lead.”
It’s a lesson the Davison sisters learned firsthand when they were kids.
“You would never know it, but when I was 10 I said I hated cycling,” Davison recalled with a laugh. “When Lea and I were growing up, my mom pushed us a little too hard one day. We always did this ride to the candy store where we would be rewarded with Snapple and candy. We loved it but one day she took us a different way, and it had a big climb in it. Lea and I had just three gears and we were in tears. Lea and I said we would not be riding our bikes anymore.”
Recognising she had pushed them too far, their mother then let them decide when they were ready, and both sisters went on to become professional mountain bikers.
“It’s really interesting watching the girls. If they’re scared of doing something, I ask them how they want to work through it and so they have to check in with themselves. It’s really rewarding to see them work through it and eventually ride whatever obstacle they were afraid of and that confidence is 100% transferable off the bike,” said Davison. “As coaches we do not see this directly but we hear it from parents. It’s a louder voice in class, or a shy girl coming out of her shell or it manifests itself in all these other sports.”
A smooth transition
Upon graduating from the Little Bellas program, girls find themselves right at that drop-off age of 13. And so Little Bellas makes an effort to introduce their participants to professional mountain bikers and mentors.
“You have to show them that cycling is cool, that there is a path—even a career – forward. At Sea Otter for example, we had three pros come and talk to them to show them that this can be your job or you can compete for your college,” said Davison. “Showing them that aspect of the sport is huge.”
And a growing component of Little Bellas is their mentor program.
“Our girls graduate and move on but they come back to serve as mentors. It’s a complete lifecycle in the sport that has not happened in the past,” said Davison. “We are seeing that really establish in our long standing chapters.”
And for those girls wishing to race, Little Bellas is partnering with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) to offer a path forward.
Davison said that as her organisation continues to grow, so does the industry’s support. From equal prize purses to the perception of pro women athletes, Davison said she has seen a lot of changes in the past nine years, and hopes the momentum will continue to bring good things.
“I think in the industry in general, the attitude towards women is getting better. It is really cool to see that momentum,” she said. “I do think we still have a ways to go but the enthusiasm for what we do has always been constant, and as we have gotten bigger that enthusiasm has grown, too. With adolescents getting into the sport, I think the industry at large has seen the advantages of that, and so the support surrounding youth and youth development is phenomenal.”