The first time she tried mountain biking, 10-year-old Madden Tjossem wasn’t exactly sure what she was getting into.
“I was feeling like, oh no, I think we’re gonna go on a mountain,” Tjossem said. “But then I thought it was amazing.”
Tjossem’s introduction to mountain biking was through Little Bellas, a nationwide organization founded in Vermont by competitive cyclists and sisters Lea and Sabra Davison.
Martha Flynn, a St. Paul resident and mountain biker, started the Woodbury chapter of Little Bellas four years ago and now serves as a mentor and program lead. The group meets Sunday evenings in June and July at the Carver Lake Park Off-Road Cycling Trail.
Girls ages 7-13 ride alongside adult mentors with varying levels of experience — the only requirement is being able to bike themselves. Before they hit the trails, adult mentors are trained in how to teach bike skills to different age groups. Older teenagers can be junior mentors, providing what Flynn calls a “cool factor.”
“We are interacting with them … so they can see us go through those ups and downs as well,” Flynn said.
For many of the girls, including 12-year-old Ava Kaydea, Little Bellas has been a way to build friendships.
“I really like that we all had something to talk about right away, that it was pretty easygoing,” Kaydea said, adding that mentors often chat with participants and ask about their weekends.
“We would just have full-on conversations while biking,” she said.
Before she learned about Little Bellas, Flynn, a founding member of the Minnesota High School Cycling League, had been looking for a way to increase participation. Introducing girls to biking at an earlier age, before other sports begin competing for their time and attention, seemed like the best way to do it.
After the Woodbury chapter quickly reached its 35-girl cap in 2016, it was clear to Flynn there was a demand for the sport in the east metro and Twin Cities area. In 2018, another Little Bellas chapter was started in Lakeville, along with a chapter in the northern Cuyuna Lakes area in 2019. There is at least one Little Bellas chapter in 16 states and a total of 44 unique programs, Flynn said.
But it’s not your typical skill-based sports camp, and the girls aren’t practicing for a competition. Even more than modeling bike skills, mentors say they want to demonstrate positive interactions and resilience in the face of new challenges — skills the girls can carry through all parts of their lives.
“That’s our goal: that this is something that then the girls are going to do as a lifelong sport and they’re going to continue to be outside and want to try new things,” Flynn said.
Be scared, but do it anyway
The Carver Lake Park Off-Road Cycling Trail is a winding 5.5-mile singletrack loop, meaning it’s wide enough for only one cyclist at a time. Though it’s cared for weekly by volunteers, the trail is unpaved and natural elements like rocks and tree roots are common throughout.
The main sections of the trail are considered beginner or intermediate with elements throughout the course that expert-level riders can take advantage of, said Reed Smidt, recreation manager for the city of Woodbury.
The trail is also home to the annual Cold Catfish Cup winter race.
At first, Tjossem said, she was scared of a wooden bridge obstacle that goes sharply downhill and then up, connecting back with the course by a narrow section of dirt trail.
“I kind of skipped it the first and the second time, but then a lot of people did it, so I just decided to do it,” Tjossem said.
The bridge is a common crux for the young riders, they said. But the girls are never forced to do anything they aren’t comfortable with.
“I like that they don’t pressure you too much to do things — they just give you the option and say, like, ‘Oh, we can come back to this,’ or ‘Whenever you’re ready, we can do this,’” Iris Hauer, 11, said. “They make it so comfortable for you.”
Giving options is intentional, Flynn said. One of the principles of Little Bellas is “challenge by choice”: presenting obstacles to all of the age groups to try if they want. There’s also a recognition that progress isn’t necessarily linear.
“We want to make it very clear that there’s no judging, and it’s fine if maybe you did it last week but you don’t want to do it today,” Flynn said.
One of Flynn’s favorite lines she overheard a mentor say to a participant was: “Be scared, and then do it anyway.”
A family affair
Mentor Briana Westrum met Flynn through the still relatively tight knit Twin Cities mountain biking community. When she heard about Little Bellas, Westrum had been looking for extracurricular opportunities for her daughter, Kaydea, and volunteer opportunities for herself.
Because she and Kaydea are related, Westrum rides with a younger group while her daughter rides with the fifth through eighth graders. Outside Little Bellas, Westrum, her husband and two daughters frequently ride together, taking trips to mountain biking trails throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
This kind of family involvement is common in Little Bellas, Flynn said. When the Woodbury chapter first started, most of the girls who joined had already been exposed to mountain biking through a family member. In the following years, more and more girls have been the catalyst for getting their families involved in mountain biking or biking in general, Flynn said.
In 2018, the Woodbury chapter put on a clinic for moms of participants. Flynn said there is a group of moms who have become friends and ride together because their daughters are too fast for them.
One participant, Avery Patterson, has convinced her dad to ride the same trails she does during session.
Scott Patterson said he’s seen his daughter grow immensely since she started riding.
“This is the best program,” he said while perched on his bike at the top of a hill. “My daughter’s more confident because of it.”
This summer was Kaydea and Westrum’s first with the program. Though Westrum said she was always supportive of the Little Bellas mission, she was a bit skeptical at first that it could live up to the hype. But the second session she was a part of, things just clicked. Afterward, she emailed Flynn to say “I get it.”
“Girls being empowered to be girls without any pressure to do stereotypical girl things,” Westrum said of the program. “It’s just a no-pressure zone. The girls can just be girls and they’re there to ride. I know Ava really feels that same thing.”
Want to get involved?
Registration for 2020 programs opens 9 a.m., February 1. To join the email list for reminders, visit https://littlebellas.regfox.com/parent-interest-form-2019.