By Hannah Bahn
For Kelsey Miller, the founder of the Northwest Arkansas chapter of Little Bellas, bicycling has always been about community. A self-described “Walmart Kid,” Kelsey moved to Bentonville, Arkansas, when she was eight and, while she had always enjoyed riding bikes in her neighborhood, it was not until she befriended a girl named Ali in junior high that Kelsey became an avid bicyclist.
The teenage duo fostered one another’s love of the sport. Together, they found bike routes to each other’s houses and to school; and they braved the slopes behind their homes, woods that would eventually become the Slaughter Pen mountain biking trail system. As the girls grew older, they left their mountain bikes behind and began to focus on road biking. For many years, this, not mountain biking, remained Kelsey’s passion. In fact, it was not until Kelsey moved back to Bentonville after graduating from the University of Arkansas that she again discovered the soft trails. Kelsey was planning to sell her mountain bike when some friends invited her on a ride. Thanks, once again, to her community, Kelsey became enamored with mountain biking.
Today, Kelsey seeks to foster a similar sense of community for young, female mountain bikers in Northwest Arkansas through the Little Bellas program. While she had long been involved in programs such as Girls Bike Bentonville and Dirt Divas, Kelsey first discovered Little Bellas in a surprising location...Instagram. After scrolling through the Minnesota chapter’s photos and reading the organization’s website, she knew she wanted to start the program here in Arkansas, so she did.
The Little Bellas is a mountain bike organization whose goal is to help young women realize their potential through cycling. According to the organization’s website, Little Bellas aims to “create a community that will empower girls through the sport, emphasize the importance of goal-setting, promote healthy lifestyles, and recognize the positive effects of strong female bonds.” While the program is centered around creating camaraderie for girls on bikes, Little Bellas emphasizes that it is most importantly about “having fun in a constructive environment.”
Founded by sisters Sabra and Leah Davison, and fellow mountain biker Angela Irvine, Little Bellas was created in 2007 to remedy the lack of female mountain bikers. The three women felt that the status quo in sports at the time too often decreased girls’ self-esteem and discouraged them from participating in the sport. They wanted to create a program in which respect and support were keystone values, and a where a community of women could encourage the next generation of girls to participate in mountain biking.
Kelsey started Arkansas’s first Little Bellas program in Bentonville in the Spring of 2017. The program serves girls aged seven to fifteen, and it has been a hit so far. The Northwest Arkansas chapter of Little Bellas offers winter, spring and summer sessions, each of which is supported by a team of mentors, so that participants have opportunities to form close bonds with one another and the adult leaders.
On a typical day, the girls and their mentors start with a warm-up game. They then divide up the snacks, break into three groups (who they will ride with each week of the program), and hit the trails for a ride that typically lasts about 45 minutes. Each day ends with fun games that the girls play as a whole group. For example, participants might have to navigate a tight maze of cones without “dabbing” (putting their foot on the ground) or they might compete in a water gun biathlon event. A program favorite is the color day, in which the girls ride their bikes around and splatter each other with color powder.
As their daily schedule makes clear, the program emphasizes fun first and foremost. As Kelsey put it, “Little Bellas is a mountain biking mentoring program that focuses on building confidence and having fun. We want girls to gain mountain biking skills but that’s not the main goal. Our main goal is for them to build confidence in themselves and to know they can accomplish challenging things.” This emphasis on confidence building is captured in the program’s language. The adult leaders are mentors, not coaches. Their job is to cultivate a supportive environment for the girls to challenge themselves, all while building lasting friendships.
When asked what she loves most about the program, Kelsey says she likes that Little Bellas is about a community of women helping to foster a future community of women: “I like building that confidence in girls, whether or not they stick with mountain biking. I want them to be able to see themselves as successful, even if they fail in the short term.”
On the mountain biking trails, failure can come quickly and often. Falls are common, as are the scrapes, bumps and bruises that come along with them. But Kelsey and her fellow mentors love to encourage the girls to see these brief moments of failure as opportunities for growth. Mountain biking, in Kelsey’s mind, is often dependent on overcoming one’s fears. Kelsey wants her Little Bellas participants to approach life’s challenges, whether a difficult mountain biking trail or something much larger like applying for a job or navigating a tricky relationship, and to think, “I’m scared but I know I can do this. I am capable.” And the Little Bellas participants are just that, confident and capable.
In these ways, Kelsey Miller’s story has come full circle. She cultivated her love of biking alongside friends as a child, and she is now creating similar opportunities for young girls to bond on their bikes.
Those interested in getting involved with Little Bellas in Northwest Arkansas, whether as an adult mentor, as a participant or starting their own chapter elsewhere, should visit the organization’s website: https://littlebellas.com/.