Vermont girls should be willing to get a little dirty.
That’s the message sent by two Vermont-based mountain bike programs, Dirt Divas and Little Bellas, which are designed specifically for girls. While participants shift gears, pedal fast, and climb hard, both programs teach a lot more than just cycling skills.
Little Bellas was founded five years ago by nationally ranked mountain bikers Lea and Sabra Davison and their friend Angela Irvine. The program is designed for girls between the ages of 7 and 14 and uses mountain biking as a vehicle for teaching life skills such as teamwork, goal-setting, and healthy habits. Girls are broken into groups based on age and ability with one mentor for every two or three girls.
Sabra Davison runs the program, which includes Sunday sessions in June and August at Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston and several weeklong camps, three of which take place out of state (the program went national in 2010).
The impetus for founding the program was the gender imbalance among junior racers.
“We had just gotten off racing the junior ranks,” said Sabra, “and seeing the difference in the start line numbers was pretty staggering. This is a great lifetime sport for girls. It builds confidence. You can literally get over obstacles.”
The Catamount camps have a cap of 20 girls (40 for the Sunday program). Sabra said parents often say their daughters undergo a transformation after Little Bellas camp.
“It’s not just getting on a bike, but their confidence carries over to other aspects of their lives,” she said. “It’s always a goal of ours for girls to ride confidently and feel good about their bodies. We have such an amazing crew of mentors who infect these girls with confidence. They need to know that they can fall on the bike just as they can fall in life, and still get up.”
On a warm June Tuesday, the Little Bellas were all smiles, having just come in from learning how to position their feet while riding down hills. Katie Holden, a World Cup cyclist from California had joined the camp for a day, and the girls were looking forward to the following day when they’d meet Lea Davison who had just been named to the U.S. Olympic team. In addition to learning cycling techniques, one girl said she had learned not to be afraid. The campers were clearly thriving in the all-female atmosphere. One girl said she usually mountain biked with boys but joined the camp because she wanted to do things with other girls. Another added that biking with girls was more fun because they had similar interests. It was clear the young cyclists would continue biking long after camp had ended. They all chimed in about how they liked that the sport was “fun and fast,” and made them strong and athletic.
Founded in 2001, Dirt Divas consists of several five-day camps for middle school girls at locations across the state “designed to cultivate confidence, courage, and leadership through outdoor adventure and a supportive environment.” In addition to mountain biking, the girls learn to build and maintain the trails and take care of their bikes. Each camp has a community partner: a school, recreation department, or local program for kids.
Dirt Divas has a maximum of 12 girls per camp with two full-time instructors and one junior instructor. Although based around mountain biking, founder Nadine Budbill said the heart of the program is “social and emotional learning.” There are activities based around team building, goal-setting, journal-writing, media literacy, healthy relationships, and body image. This year, self-defense has been added to the mix.
“We let the girls express themselves, take risks, fall down, and get back up,” Budbill said. “They dig deep and find their own courage and determination.”
Students pay on a sliding scale, and Budbill said no girl has ever been turned away because of finances. More than half of the girls qualify for free or reduced lunches, and it is no accident that the program is based in poorer, rural areas like Hardwick and Glover. “We’re committed to being in those communities where there are fewer options for girls,” Budbill said. “This is a powerful antidote to being female and adolescent in our culture. We’re giving them a chance to do something they didn’t think they could do. It gives them a newfound sense of strength, pride, and accomplishment. Mountain biking is a good metaphor for life.”
The Dirt Divas weren’t having good luck with the weather during their June camp in Montpelier. The rain had been coming down for three straight days, and the girls had been out on their bikes only once, supplementing their team-building activities with a trip to Petra Cliffs for rock climbing. They started their Wednesday morning by standing in a circle holding hands and passing a bicycle tire from girl to girl without letting go of each other. The circle of 11 completed the task in a record 45 seconds. Despite the poor weather, they each gave a thumbs up when asked about the previous two days of camp. “It’s fun even though we haven’t done a lot of mountain biking,” one girl opined, adding that a self-defense class the day before had been a highlight.
Like their counterparts at Little Bellas, the girls were enjoying the opportunity to spend time with their peers. “I like being with all girls,” said one, “and this group is really awesome.” Another camper was attending her third Dirt Divas camp, timing her trips from New York to visit her cousin so that she could attend. “It’s fun that it’s all girls,” said one young camper “because we all learn together and sometimes boys are more experienced or learn differently.” Another added that it was easier to feel confident in an all-female atmosphere where they were less concerned about what others might think.“This is less judgmental,” she said.
At the Little Bellas camp, a few girls mentioned disparaging comments that boys had made about their sports interests, with one girl saying that when she biked to school, boys wanted to know why she was doing a boy’s sport. “This isn’t a boy’s sport,” she said. “This sport is for everybody.”
For more information visit www.littlebellas.com