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Little Bellas, big goals: Mountain biking program encourages girls to dream big

  • Clare Higgins, of Hanover, gets an autograph from two-time U.S. Olympic cross country skier Ida Sargent during a Little Bellas mountain biking event on June 19, 2019, in Lebanon, N.H. (Will Friehofer photograph)

  • Emma Fauci, of Norwich, center, talks to a pair of fellow participants in the Little Bellas mountain biking program during an outing on June 19, 2019, in Lebanon, N.H. (Will Friehofer photograph)

  • Dakota Drummond, of Wilmot, N.H., rides on one of the Landmark-Boston Lot trails during an outing with the Little Bellas mountain biking program on June 19, 2019, in Lebanon, N.H. (Will Friehofer photograph)

Special to the Valley News
Published: 8/15/2019 9:40:25 PM
Modified: 8/15/2019 9:40:14 PM

A motto for riding mountain bikes: If a girl can learn to choose her challenges, she learns to own her individual path.

Over the past three summers, Lebanon’s Landmark-Boston Lot trail network has become the summer training ground for teaching girls how to be brave, how to give and receive positive peer pressure, and how to ride over some super-cool features.

Every Wednesday evening, a group of 40 girls and their 18 female mentors huddle in small circles in the field above the parking lot. Donned in all shades of neon helmets, matching jerseys and CamelBaks, they’re a colorful team — both in attire and spirit.

Nearly 60 bikes are strewn across the grass while the girls play games: name games, dance games, various forms of social play. Some girls are in the middle of the group leading the charge, fearless and outgoing. Some are standing quietly to the side, feeling nervous.

No matter what pose they strike, whatever stance they take, all 40 girls are met and mentored from exactly the pose they’ve chosen in this very moment. It’s a metaphor for Little Bellas, a mountain bike mentoring program for girls ages 7-13: Meet the girls wherever they are in life and on bikes.

From mid-June to mid-August, this is the Wednesday night scene at the Landmark-Boston Lot preserve. Girls and mentors — plenty of them — play games as they warm up to ride together on mountain bikes for two hours. It’s a forum for bonding and growth.

What it isn’t, in particular, is a forum for building a team of ultra-competitive athletes. The growth is not as linear as that. Several girls may go on to compete in cycling later in life.

While Little Bellas isn’t geared toward competition, the program embraces and holds in esteem the competitive successes of women in all sports, which is why the pro ambassador program now exists. Several times a summer, high-level Upper Valley athletes — such as U.S. Olympic triathlete Sarah True, U.S. Ski Team member and Dartmouth College student Julia Kern, and current and past Big Green cross country skiers such as Katharine Ogden, Sophie Caldwell and Ida Sargent — volunteer their time to ride Landmark-Boston Lot with these girls. Talk about a win-win. It helps the athletes give back (and even feel challenged), and it gives the girls a chance to meet these athletes on level, albeit slightly rooty, ground.

At the end of a pro ambassador visit, the girls have a chance to ask questions. While asking about competing in the Olympics is interesting, knowing how True takes bathroom breaks during a nine-hour Ironman event is absolutely the more intriguing question for a 7-year-old.

What’s most unique about the Little Bellas program is that all the girls feel the energy of progression, of finding suitable, personal challenges and overcoming them. It’s a chance to help girls learn how to choose and grow with challenges. For mentors to joke with a girl about “feeding the bugs” and encouraging her to walk because she’s standing still in a swarm of mosquitoes feeling insecure about riding a bridge is as important as telling another girl to try her hand at negotiating a greasy rock roll-down.

The mentors do their best to engage everyone and to be honest with them within the framework of their current ability. They’re not cheerleaders, nor are they simply spotters. They’re here because they can guide these girls in personal development.

When the girls enter the trail network, they encounter roots and rocks and bridges and bugs. And, rightfully, some have fears. Mountain bikes are, in an instant, transformed into a tool for learning to navigate the world and a chance to feel a little uncomfortable within a web of social support.

Ultimately, the constructive flow of mountain biking on trails and over obstacles in the woods links us to the flow of energy within ourselves. It’s invigorating. It’s integrative. It’s sometimes scary. And it’s like life — sometimes unpredictable. Occasionally we come to a screeching halt. Sometimes we fall.

But that’s the spirit of the sport. It’s a dance of risk and reward and, within the parameters of support Little Bellas provides, the risks don’t feel so daunting. And the reward is always shared.

Landmark-Boston Lot is the perfect playground for engaging in this metaphor. It’s a place where girls can feel the freedom of exploration and discovery. It’s a little like entering the wild, but yet there are paths — rocky, muddy, twisty paths — and always options for tackling those paths safely, boldly and collectively, right here and right now.

Jane LeMasurier is an Upper Valley Mountain Biking Association board member and the lead of the group’s Little Bellas chapter.

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