Little Bellas: Mentoring and Empowering Girls and Young Women on Mountain Bikes

Little Bellas is a growing mountain bike program for girls ages 7 and up designated for building confidence and having fun on mountain bikes.
Little Bellas, Sabra Davidson, Mentoring on Mountain Bikes. photo: Rajan Chawla Photography

Few of us are fortunate enough to be mentored by our childhood heroes, but that is precisely the opportunity Little Bellas is bringing to young women and girls across the USA. Now in its 11th year of weaving strong communities for girls, the organization has branched out in a number of meaningful directions, allowing the group to support a wider variety of riders in ways that will benefit many other elements of those kids’ lives. Bellas’ executive director, Sabra Davidson, recently carved space in her packed planner to share the narrative of what she and many volunteers have created.

For readers who may not know, what is Little Bellas all about today?

Little Bellas is a mountain bike program for girls ages 7 and up designated for building confidence and having fun on mountain bikes. We really focus on creating a healthy challenge for girls and moving them through challenges in a positive way, instead of competition.

What is your favorite element of the job as Executive Director of the organization?

I love my job! The first 8 years I worked for the organization were completely volunteer, so this organization is a labor of love. I still love mentoring with the girls, training mentors, and working with program leads the most. I absolutely love working with people, but the time spent on the bikes with the girls is my absolute favorite.

Lea Davidson leads a Little Bellas clinic in China Camp State Park

What are some of the most effective ways you have found to build or instill confidence in girls and young women?

We try to make perceived failure shameless and provide tangible feedback. Instilling a sense of grit in these girls is so important and something they aren’t getting from a screen. If we can help her brush off a fall as part of the learning process or conquer a scary obstacle, I believe she is more likely to succeed and live with a tenacious effort in other parts of her life. It’s actually this process of trying and getting better that builds confidence. You have to pay close attention to each girl and make sure they know when they have progressed and celebrated that progression.

What are some drills or games the kids do on and off the bike at Little Bellas camps?

We actually never do drills or skills work in a field!  We are all about fun!

A Little Bella gets Lea Davison in a water fight in Vermont. photo: Nolan Myers

Have challenges/biases for young girls in sports (social or otherwise) changed throughout your tenure?

Yes! There is a moment when a girl in her group goes further into the woods then she’s ever been before. She will stop, look at you for reassurance and say “We are really far out here!  I’ve never been in the wood like this.” Often times in these moments, you can still hear cars.  I’m seeing more and more girls say things like this on their rides. In my eleven years with the program, I’ve seen fewer girls comfortable with trails and being outside.  It’s a privilege to be able to get them more comfortable outside, surrounded by trees.

How did you begin the expansion project of Little Bellas, that now covers 15 states?

We have used a grassroots approach with a strong female lead in each community. It takes a special woman to be able to build a strong community for girls on bikes. We have an army of female volunteers and women around the country. These efforts center around amazing program leads.

2018 World Elite XC Champion Kate Courtney pauses for a selfie with a Little Bella. photo: Beth Welliver

I read that you have a junior’s program for kids older than 16 who age-out of the Little Bellas program. How is that coming along?

We have two options for girls aging out of the program.  They can become a junior mentor or join the B Project. The B Project is an outdoor sports based program centered around building confidence, self-esteem, and esprit de corps among young women ages 14-18. Focused on cycling, the program presents young women with adventurous activities designed to be fun, challenge their fitness and minds, and give them the skills needed to set and accomplish goals. We are currently testing this in Vermont and getting ready to roll it out to our older more established chapters.

Haley Batten visits the Park City Chapter.  PC: Kirsten Dale

In your eleventh year running the organization, what are some of the most important lessons you have learned about leadership?

I own my mistakes and listen intently to feedback.  I didn’t do this as well when we started Little Bellas. My ideas are not the only evolution happening in the organization. We really listen to our mentors, our board, and our staff and try to improve rapidly with their feedback. We have a fantastic team that is open to change and progression because of this mentality.

Can you share some of the most challenging moments you have experienced while running this program?

In growing an organization, staffing never perfectly matches the workload.  When working long hours and really rolling up my sleeves to make new chapters happen, these can be the hardest and most exhilarating moments of growth.

Lea Davison visits the Vermont Little Bellas. photo: Nolan Myers

Do you feel that the bike industry, in general, is changing/improving in terms of promoting and supporting women and girls?

Yes, the bike industry is the reason we’ve been able to grow.  We have amazing, long-time support from our partners like Specialized, Camelbak, LL Bean, Clif Bar, and Garneau.  Their support has made a huge difference in our organization.

What is the most fun trail you have ever ridden?

Downieville!  I absolutely love riding there, and my home trails in Vermont.

How can I get my kid involved in all of this awesome? 

With chapters spread across the USA, you can likely find a Little Bellas camp for the young women you know. The organization has a direct objective of inclusion, and if you know someone who can not afford the camp there are scholarships for kids at each location. “To apply for a scholarship, simply register for the program and click YES when asked about a scholarship.  After submitting an application while registering, someone will be in touch to discuss the scholarship and retroactively charge the card on file if appropriate.”

Lastly, in order to keep growing the program and promoting the greater good of mountain biking for all, Little Bellas needs your help to offset program costs. You can support this stellar work via their website, or mail your tax-deductible contribution directly to their Vermont office.

Has anyone you know attended a Little Bellas camp? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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