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Little Bellas: Building Confidence in Young Girls Through Mountain Biking

By Megan Flottorp

‘Mentoring on mountain bikes’ is the mantra of Little Bellas, an organization that helps girls learn the joys of mountain biking—with guidance from top pro women riders. With a goal to ‘help young women realize their potential through cycling,’ the group started as the dream of three friends over a decade ago. It has now blossomed into something much bigger than any of them could have imagined, and this year over 1000 girls will participate under the guidance of 380 mentors.

Little Bellas is a mountain bike organization for girls ages 7 to 16 whose goal is to help young women realize their potential through cycling. © Little Bellas

Sabra Davison is one of the co-founders and has been sharing her passion for cycling with girls across the United States for over twelve years. With a playful title of ‘Adventurer in Charge,’ she plans and facilitates events that give girls the opportunity to come together, learn from professional riders, develop their skills in a safe environment, and, most importantly, have fun.

Taking a little time out of her busy schedule, she talked to us about the importance of strong women mentors, how Little Bellas addresses the needs of each individual rider, and what it’s like working with a team of talented women towards a collective goal.

How did you get Little Bellas up and running?

It has been a labour of love from the beginning—but once I got into it, I never really looked back. After seven years of volunteering, we decided we needed to take things to the next level. I remember sitting over sandwiches with the other co-founders, Angela Irvine and Lea Davison, when we really decided to put a plan into action. We were all coming at this goal from slightly different angles, but knew that if we put them all together, we could make it work. Angela was all about building confidence in the girls, Lea was about embracing the inner motivation that is generated through competition, and along with my holistic approach to physical activity and cycling, we knew we had the components of something great.

Lea Davison with Little Bellas. © Karl Nielson

Who inspired and mentored you as a young rider?

I was lucky to grow up in Vermont and be surrounded by inspiring athletes. I mean, I got to learn about cycling under Andy Bishop. I also had many female coaches, so it was an incredibly rich environment for athleticism and seeing women excel in sports. My mom and sister were instrumental in supporting and encouraging me, and sport has been very much a part of who I am from a young age.

As an organization that tries to promote mentorship over coaching, how do you encourage your mentors and leaders to share their skills with the girls? 

Some mentors are total naturals with the kids, while others appreciate more guidance. Our organization is about finding ways to facilitate women supporting women, both for the girls and mentors. We have five lead mentors across the country who support the other women in that area. We want everyone to feel they have someone they can rely on to share ideas with and ask for advice. We also follow a group mentorship model that allows relationships to develop organically between the girls and the women leading the events.

High-five with the mentor. © Corey Kopischke

What has been one of the most rewarding experiences you’ve had fostering the dynamic of women leading women?

Last year, we were able to get all five leading mentors together for the first time, and it was a really incredible experience. To see that magical thing that happens when people finally meet in person was wonderful. Witnessing how motivated they were by one another and how quickly great ideas emerge when people come together was really cool. When I think about how the organization has developed from when we started and how much we’ve all benefited and grown as a result, it’s pretty astounding.

How do you talk about the role that cycling has on mental health and overall wellbeing within the Little Bellas framework?

Our approach is all about addressing each individual girl, her needs, and figuring out what is going to get her to fall in love with the sport. The more our organization has grown, the more types of girls we’ve encountered, so we are constantly learning. I think one of the incredible things about cycling is that almost anyone can do it, see progress and achieve success. They just need the right kind of support.

Learning to ride. © Becca Loose

The other week, I was out at an event and one of the girls looked at me and said, ‘I think I could be really good at this!’ And I was like, ‘Yes! You absolutely can.’ It was incredible to see her feeling so empowered. That is what I love about this job.

In addition to building confidence while riding, how do you facilitate learning about the technical side of things, like how to fix and take care of their bikes?

It is important to start with the basics. You have to remember we’re often dealing with pretty young kids, so we’ve had to come up with fun ways to get them to learn the parts of the bike. We actually use sticky gemstones to help them remember ☺ But when a 7-year-old can say, ‘oh my chain is sticking,’ or is able to explain that a gear doesn’t feel right, that’s pretty awesome.

No kidding! So what’s next for Little Bellas going forward?

Every year we learn something new and continue to improve on and expand our program. We’re all about understanding what the girls like and what we can do so that they have the most fun. This time of year is super exciting because we’ve been working all winter and now we get to put things into action. We’re gearing up for a gravel grind in Vermont this weekend, which should be a ton of fun! We’ll have a big ‘pump station’ that is very Little Bellas style, all about creating a super encouraging environment where confidence can be built and great memories can be made.

Learning about the technical part of cycling. © Beth Welliver

A big thank you to Sabra Davison and her colleague Sarah Schreib for taking the time to talk to us. You can find out more about Little Bellas here or follow them on Facebook to keep up to date on events.