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.
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.
“We knew what we wanted it to do for the girls and the mentors. We let the mission lead the process in a sense.”
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.”
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.’”
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.”
The program’s curriculum was still a work in progress. In the first year, the programs were more about fun than structure. The Davisons took girls on expeditions to pick berries and climb trees around Catamount. After more outings, they developed a curriculum built around fun. Some games worked, others did not. “We used to play this game with a bubble machine. It was like, ‘Well that didn’t work,’” Sabra laughs.
Although turnout was modest and organization was casual, Irvine and the Davisons realized they had a viable concept that first summer. Awareness spread among parents. In 2008, 30 girls quickly signed up to be part of the growing program. Word spread further over the summer.
“It just exploded and we were like, ‘Whoa, okay!’” says Lea.
The women also learned valuable lessons in the first year. They capped participation at 40 riders per camp. A waitlist filled up quickly. The original schedule of weekly Sunday afternoon sessions all summer long proved a bit too much for the kids and volunteer mentors, so they scaled back.
Lea and Sabra faced their own personal challenges during this time as well. Injuries affected their professional careers. After hip surgery in 2010, Lea sat out a season of racing, temporarily stepping into a lead role with Little Bellas. Sabra quit mountain bike racing altogether that year after suffering yet another concussion; she had suffered head injuries from riding and skiing for nearly a decade.
True to Irvine’s vision, the organization became a sanctuary for the sisters when their racing ambitions began to slow. Sabra says she passed up a professional cross-country skiing contract to focus on Little Bellas. Instead, she strung together side jobs: tending a wine bar at night and packing chocolates for a local store. Lea made time for Little Bellas in her busy training and travel schedule as a pro racer.
The effort paid off when the program made its first step toward a nationwide audience. In 2010, they organized a camp at California’s Sea Otter Classic, the first event they hosted outside of Vermont.
“I said, ‘We need to be where people are. So we should just go to Sea Otter.’ That’s literally how the decision was made,” Irvine says. “It gave us the connections to grow in the areas where we didn’t necessarily have connections right away.”
Their presence at Sea Otter opened the floodgates of enthusiasm for Little Bellas. It also strengthened the bicycle industry’s support. Through the first three years, Lea had tapped her existing sponsors to back the program. At Sea Otter in 2010, Specialized took notice as she led her small band of girls around the venue. The bike company eventually signed Lea to its mountain bike team and also stepped up to support Little Bellas.
More than just logos on a jersey, the group’s sponsors have always been key to keeping the camps affordable for young girls’ families. Industry sponsorship also enables Little Bellas to offer scholarships based on need.
In 2014, Little Bellas took two big steps organizationally, hiring Sabra as a full-time employee and securing its own non-profit status.
Today, Little Bellas comprises 15 local groups around the U.S., with 20 new locations applying to be chapters in 2017, according to Irvine. The program provides the organizational framework and necessities like insurance to reduce the administrative burden for local volunteers. It also gives mentors the curriculum to run events successfully, whether they are in Philadelphia or Boulder, Colorado. The key, Sabra explains, is emphasizing fun, and avoiding the impulse to rigidly follow a set schedule.
“When I train these mentors, I’m like, ‘Throw out the curriculum,’” she says. “We know this plan is fun, it’s tried and true, definitely gonna be fun, but that’s not what the kids will remember, being on a schedule or anything like that. Go and have organic play. Let them ride through the stream eight times if that’s what they want to do.”
Irvine believes the program’s success is also rooted in the lack of expectation for the girls who are involved. The only goal is to get them to love cycling, and nothing more.
“When you bring women who really love doing something like mountain biking, and they’re sharing their passion about something like that, it’s a very different relationship with kids,” Irvine says. “It’s not a coaching relationship. We do teach skills, but there’s no hurry to progress. And I think that really makes a difference.”
“We know this plan is fun, it’s tried and true, definitely gonna be fun, but that’s not what the kids will remember… Go and have organic play. Let them ride through the stream eight times if that’s what they want to do.”
AFTER THE GAME OF “Wahhh” has subsided and all of the faces are painted, the girls move on to riding bikes. They mount up and begin to play “dab,” circling an area marked off with cones. The idea is to keep riding at a very slow speed, and the last girl to put her foot down wins. After Sabra instructs them all to take a big sip from their water bottles, they thank Calvin, who smiles from behind his dark mustache and Park Tool apron, and the Little Bellas roll.
The first ride of the day is on the pump track, where they ride circles around the lumpy patch of dirt. “I love it,” says one of the girls, with a heart painted onto her cheek.
Then comes the scavenger hunt around the Sea Otter venue — on foot, to avoid any potential collisions on a busy Sunday at the races.
At last, they are back to their patch of grass, and more importantly, the shady tents. It’s lunchtime, and it’s also time for a game with Lea, who appears in full Team Clif Bar kit. The girls cover her in the Clif Bar stickers they retrieved on the scavenger hunt. Then, they play “two truths and a lie,” another popular game. Lea stumbles with the game a few times, tired and dazed from a weekend of racing. This only makes it more fun for the girls. Sabra teases her sister mercilessly, and the scrum laughs in between bites of snacks.
As the group roars in amusement, a girl named Chelsea sits astride a white and purple Specialized Hot Rock a few yards away. She scowls. Her sister, Alyson, is part of the Little Bellas group. She appears to be having lots of fun with the games.
Someday, Chelsea will be in a Little Bellas group. This year she is still too young for the group’s seven-year-old cutoff. Chelsea’s mom, Trisha, notices her daughter’s discontent. She gives Chelsea a loving pat on her pink butterfly helmet, and offers a reassuring promise:
“Next year you’ll be out there, okay?”