- Courtesy of RAJAN Chawla Photography
It was not yet 9:30 a.m. on a sparkling autumn Sunday in Craftsbury Common — an hour when most women in my demographic are indulging in cider doughnuts with their cup of coffee.
Instead, I was doing doughnuts around a parking lot, gleefully following 15 other women as we lapped circle after circle. "Kitty, you trouble child!" shouted Sabra Davison. "You've got a good femur on you, woman!"
- Courtesy of RAJAN Chawla Photography
We'd barely come to a stop to catch our breaths when someone yelled, "Now, let's go jump some shit!"
Welcome to the first-ever women's mountain-biking camp staged by Little Bellas. The Vermont-based riding program for girls has taken the nation's singletrack by storm, thanks to the singular focus of its founders — Davison and her sister, Lea, an Olympic and World Cup mountain biker — on female empowerment.
Founded in 2007, Little Bellas uses mountain bikes as tools to teach girls ages 7 to 16 the skills they need to tackle not only the trails, but also the trials of life. The Vermont-based programs at Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston have expanded to sister sessions in Colorado and California, and those locations now host national Bellas camps that bring pros to the pint-size set.
This fall, the Davison sisters decided to add a new twist: an overnight camp for women that fosters camaraderie among fat-tired females while teaching technical skills for the trails. Hence the Sunday morning parking-lot session, designed to instruct riders on correct body position.
"This allows us to bring the program full circle," explained Sabra Davison of the overnight adventure, "empowering women of all ages to feel more comfortable and confident on a bike."
The wheels started spinning for Davison and fellow leaders when mothers of girls enrolled in Little Bellas began asking about a "grown-up" clinic. "Their daughters have improved at riding to the point where it was difficult for some of the moms to keep up!" Davison said. "So we thought a skills clinic was a perfect way to close the ability and comfort gap between mothers and daughters who want to ride together, and [for] women to start getting a better grasp on the sport."
At the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, I was certainly grasping the handlebars of my bike as we progressed from body position to handling obstacles. At the same time, I was still daydreaming about last night's wine-and-cheese opening, where we'd confessed our trepidations over Bayley Hazen Blue and bottles of red. The sharing was followed by a locally sourced supper of beef tenderloin with Brussels sprouts and a bonfire that lasted past 11 p.m. as stars filled the Northeast Kingdom sky.
The social gathering, explained Davison, is the adult version of Color Day, a Little Bellas tradition. Dressed in white, the girls are blasted by puffs of colored powder as they ride their bikes through an arch formed by older mentors.
While the grown-up evening shared that celebratory feel, it was also a chance for us to open up about what's holding us back on our own bikes. "I want to break down that fear barrier and deconstruct the sport piece by piece, so each woman leaves having a better understanding of how to feel comfortable on her bike," said Davison. "You can't improve and change everything in one day, so it's about making sure women know what to work on when they ride at home."
Some of my fellow campers, I discovered at the social, grew up enjoying adventure sports in places like New Zealand, Slovakia, Brazil and Colombia. But the demands of day-to-day life have sapped the confidence they need for serious mountain biking. Others, like Sandy Yusen, are simply stoked by the joy of the sport. "Every time I bike, I have this huge smile on my face," she said during the social.
Caroline Crawford of Burlington is one of those Little Bellas moms who was inspired by her offspring to take the clinic. "It's amazing to have this girl who's a badass, who comes home from mountain biking and says, 'Somebody called me Timex, because I can take a licking and keep on ticking,'" she said at the social, getting teary-eyed. "I need to figure out how strong I am, really."
That's something I've been working on, too: Despite 20-odd years of mountain-biking experience, I've never really learned the right way to handle a bike, or how to hop obstacles.
When Kitty Wade of Williston said, "My goal for this weekend is not to die," Crawford added, "My goal is not to cry!"
Davison's co-instructors at the Craftsbury clinic were Michelle Douglas and Clarissa Finks, two top mountain bikers who schooled us in braking, cornering and keeping our weight in our feet, before we headed out on the trails. The Craftsbury Outdoor Center started as the Green Racing Project six years ago; since then, it has built its singletrack network to a length of nearly 10 miles. On this day, I discovered those trails are perhaps the best-kept mountain-biking secret in the state.
There was no dawdling on the doubletrack — we went right into Woodward's Wheelie, which swoops and turns through densely packed pine trees and natural rock gardens. Carpeted by needles and lined with lush green ferns, it felt like a fantasy setting — until a narrow bridge jolted me back to reality. The happy hoots and hollers turned to cries of "Holy shit!" as we put our newly acquired talents to the test, some acing the challenge and others failing and wiping out on the bridge.
But, as Davison reminded us repeatedly, change doesn't happen in a day. Physically and mentally, we were all intact by the time we took a break for lunch, where I learned what brought Lisa Dunlavey-Spaulding, 54, to the clinic. Not quite two years ago, her husband died suddenly. "We rode together — this was our love," she said. "I feel like he's here somewhere."
With such shared stories in our heads, and Strafford Organic Creamery coffee ice cream in our bellies, we headed out for the afternoon session. We stripped off layers of clothing and learned how creating a T-angle is better for taking on a rock or a root. On the lawn outside our lodging, we practiced "alligator arms" and "boobs over bar," then headed back to Woodward's Wheelie. Back on the bikes, we found ourselves faster, more confident and having more fun.
By 4 p.m., when we wrapped up, I was so spent that cider doughnuts were dancing through my head. But before we all wheeled away in our respective cars, back to our kids and husbands and day jobs, there was one more Little Bellas tradition to observe.
We formed a closing circle and filled it with compliments to other riders and acknowledgments of our own accomplishments. Crawford gave another Sarah props for inspiring her to take on a more challenging route. A third woman beamed as she described her newly acquired ability to do left-handed banked corners.
Dunlavey-Spaulding said she'd made it up several hills that she'd never conquered with her late husband at her side. As for me, I couldn't wait to get home and share my experience with my daughter, Dillon, who was a Little Bellas rookie last spring.
This full-circle phenomenon is what keeps Davison pumped on the Bellas program, she later told me. She loves seeing mothers and daughters alike gain the self-esteem they need to approach obstacles with the right mind-set. "The most interesting part was hearing mothers' responses and how closely they echoed responses of their daughters that I know so well," she said. "I was laughing inside, because their tones were so closely matched on all occasions — I absolutely loved it!"