Levi’s Is Happy to See Girls Spinning Their Wheels

A partnership between the legacy clothing brand and Little Bellas is turning more young girls into hardcore athletes

By Kristen Pope May 4, 2016

Clouds of red, blue, and green powder hung in the air as a pack of giggling, mud-spattered pre-teen girls between 7 and 13 charged down a dirt trail on their mountain bikes. An adult standing alongside the trail grabbed a handful of red powder and tossed it in the air as the pack of girls raced down the trail. This particular color fight is just another day in the life of Little Bellas, a girls’ mountain biking organization headquartered in Vermont that aims to bring more girls and women into the fold of a male-dominated sport. Eight chapters throughout the country participate in “color day” with a total of 450 girls enjoying the event.

Little Bellas. Photographs (C) 2015 Rajan Chawla Photography.

Little Bellas. Photographs (C) 2015 Rajan Chawla Photography.

But it’s not just splashes of color and gobs of single-track mud for this all-female mountain biking organization. The girls in the program get to work with inspiring female mentors as they pedal their way around challenging trails and push themselves to do things they didn’t think were possible.

Sisters Lea and Sabra Davison and their friend Angela Irvine teamed up to start Little Bellas in 2007 while they were all attending Middlebury College. All three women are dedicated mountain bikers, and they have all competed in a variety of events, ranging from the UCI World Championships to the NORBA national mountain bike series. Lea is a nine-time national champion and 2012 Olympian.

Little Bellas. Lea Davison.  Photographs (C) 2015 Rajan Chawla Photography.

Little Bellas. Lea Davison. Photographs (C) 2015 Rajan Chawla Photography.

The women were disappointed by the gender gap in cycling, especially in mountain biking, which inspired them to create a biking organization for girls. “If you look at a lot of high school participation in cycling, it’s typical to see 12-percent participation for girls,” says Sabra Davison, executive director of Little Bellas. “People watch the Tour de France for men all the time and never think about the women’s Tour de France.” As far as the Davison sisters and Irvine were concerned, 12 percent is far too low a number. Their Little Bellas is an attempt to ratchet up that number, and they’re getting help from a big donor: Levi’s. As the platinum sponsor of last year’s Outsiders Ball, the denim company reaffirmed its commitment to getting more youth outdoors, and by nominating Little Bellas to receive a portion of the funds raised at the ball, Levi’s sends a powerful message.

“We’ve got a lot of different girls on bikes and excited about it,” says Davison. “Mountain biking is a very hard sport. People don’t intrinsically know how to ride over a root or what to do when it gets slippery. The thing I think is really important for kids isn’t winning or losing but [the opportunity to turn] challenges into successes. On any given day, one girl might have a hard time getting enough momentum to head up a hill. Then she gets it, and that challenge that day [becomes] her success.”

Now with chapters in 16 communities across the U.S., Little Bellas girls gather together to go biking nearly every week. Programs range from two-hour rides to half- and full-day programs and overnight camps. Typically, 45 to 50 girls will ride with 15 to 20 adult mentors. A typical ride session will start with a check-in where the leaders chat with the girls and see how they’re feeling that day. If they’re exhausted from school or yesterday’s soccer practice, they might keep the ride a little mellower, but if they’re ready to charge, it’s time for a full-speed-ahead kind of day.

Little Bellas. Lea Davison.  Photographs (C) 2015 Rajan Chawla Photography.

Little Bellas. Lea Davison. Photographs (C) 2015 Rajan Chawla Photography.

They gain a new sport and identity through that, they gain confidence, says Davison. “In Vermont, my sister Leah is training for [the 2016 Summer Olympics in] Rio. She’ll pop in on a Sunday and ride with 7-year-olds. Her group is the dirtiest group. One of the parents went up to her daughter and said, ‘you should get Lea’s autograph.’ The girl said, ‘Mom, I don’t have to get her autograph—autographs are for fans, not friends.’ These girls are equating themselves as friends to pro athletes and trying to show them what they can be.”

Halfway through a typical two-hour session, they’ll stop for a snack. “With girls, it’s so important to reinforce food as fuel,” Davison says. “Don’t deplete your system without filling it back up.” Then it’s time for a game and, before long, parents arrive to pick up their grinning, muddy kids.

“When we pass them off to parents, they’re always muddy, always dirty,” says Davison. “That’s what it’s meant to be. There’s not a lot of time for kids that’s unstructured play. A lot of times, I’ll show up to my group and say ‘what do you want to do?’ We allow them that creativity just to be kids.”

Originally, the program stopped at age 12, but as girls were about to age out, they couldn’t imagine life without Little Bellas.

“Girls got to 12 and said they weren’t leaving, and we couldn’t say no,” says Davison. “There’s a huge drop-out rate for sports at age 13, and to have girls say ‘we’re not leaving’ is a huge success, so we created more programs for them.”