Chaos with purpose for Little Bellas
Descriptions of Olympic athletes are rife with overused adjectives: focused, dedicated, intense, rigorous. Professional mountain biker and Olympian Lea Davison is on a mission to work "silly" into the rotation.
Her goal is no laughing matter at Little Bellas, a nonprofit mountain biking organization for young girls that Davison started in 2010 with her sister Sabra. The Davisons are focused on using the bicycle as a means of self-empowerment -- with regular intervals of giggling.
"We sing, we dance, we laugh," Lea said. "We do things girls like to do. We're silly, and we create an atmosphere where the girls can echo that and be themselves."
The sisters base their home camps at Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston, Vt. Over the expanse of Catamount's 20-mile trail system, there's plenty of room for diversity of terrain, and the sisters factor the landscape into the fun of mountain biking. On some trails, the Little Bellas are allowed to speak only gibberish. On other routes, speaking in a foreign accent or singing songs is the required communication, while technical skills and fitness are subtly added to the routine.
"We try to be creative and keep the girls on their toes," Sabra said. "Kids have a lot of people in life telling them they can't do this or that, but Little Bellas is the opposite. It's kind of a free-flowing organized chaos. And we encourage that."
The Davisons, who credit their athletic upbringing in Vermont as the starting block to their success, took to skiing and running and found their way to mountain biking in high school.
"We were used to having equal numbers of girls and boys racing in other sports," Sabra said. "But when we got into cycling and saw the numbers weren't equal, it didn't line up for us. Cycling was different; it felt way behind the times. We felt the need to do something about this, and we wanted to get girls hooked on mountain biking."
Sabra and Lea planted the seed for Little Bellas as students at Middlebury College, and a few months into 2007, the program began to flourish.
As Lea's own mountain bike career began to rise toward four national championships and a berth on the London Olympic team, Sabra covered the logistics of the Little Bellas program when her sister was off to the races. Before long the program turned national. With more than 320 new participants annually, Little Bellas is creating a new niche of female cyclists.
At Little Bellas, the youngest campers are 7, and most stay with the program for years.
"We started at this age because we saw that [cycling] can lose kids once they hit their teenage years," Lea said. "So we started early, in hopes to retain the girls who might drop out of the sport later."
The goal of using cycling to build confidence in kids is working.
Eliza Fehrs, 13, has been a Little Bella since she was 7, and sees mountain biking as her go-to sport when she's stressed or needs a break.
"I also play soccer and ski, but … you don't have as much time to yourself and your thoughts. Mountain biking, on the other hand, lets you be on the trails, all alone, to think about whatever, or nothing at all, which is why Iove it," Fehrs said. "It's always made me feel comfortable, like I can be myself on the trails and not have to worry about being judged by how I look or what I wear."
For Sabra, the success of the program echoes Fehrs' sentiments.
"It's all about being uninhibited and being a girl."
Today, Lea and Sabra are working to expand the Little Bellas program across the country. Weekend events are held as far away as California, often in tandem with women's pro mountain bike races, so the young women can meet the pro riders. This weekend, the Little Bellas are hosting the Catamount Classic Pro XCT Camp.
"Just in Vermont alone, we have 120 girls riding mountain bikes," Sabra said. "We would love to create more chapters like that and see little hotbeds of girls on bikes popping up across the country. There is no reason we can't have 120 Little Bellas in every state."
Simon Dunne of Specialized, one of the nation's leading bicycle companies, agrees. For Dunne, programs like the Little Bellas go far beyond bicycles.
"Women and girls make up more than 50 percent of the world's population, so to ignore them, as the cycling world has done for so long, is just plain foolish," Dunne said. "The more we pay attention to the unique needs of women riders, the more women get interested in riding, the more lives we change. Programs like Little Bellas really highlight why the bike is so important to girls -- the mentoring and the confidence they receive will serve these girls for a lifetime."
Also served at Little Bellas are lemonade socials, where aspiring cyclists can intermingle with world and Olympic champions, and ask their mentors pressing questions.
"At Sea Otter Classic in California, we had 15 pro riders interacting with the kids," Lea said. "It's the most world champions I've ever seen in one place … all having lemonade with little girls and answering questions like, 'What's your favorite ice cream?' It does amazing things for the girls to have access the stars of their sport."