'Little Bellas' blazes trails for next generation of female mountain bikers

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Photo Gallery | Little Bellas mountain bike program at Pittsfield State Forest

PITTSFIELD — They call themselves, "Little Bellas."

They're the next generation of female mountain bikers being guided down the trails by a growing national group of women mentors supporting them.

Together, their goal is to show they can both ride with the boys and blaze trails on their own. So what if they're fixing their muddy flat tires using pink tire levers? At least they can do it themselves.

Local cyclist, yoga instructor, educator and outdoor enthusiast, Mary Hannah Parkman, is responsible for bringing the women and girls empowerment program to the Berkshires, along with her team of mentors Tracy Remelius, Marta Kirsis, Alison McGee and Ruth Gemperlein.

"There's a really strong riding group here in the Berkshires, of both adults and kids, so Little Bellas seemed like a natural fit," Parkman said. "I knew there was no shortage of good space and networks of trails, and good female mentors here."

The program is part of a national movement, started in Vermont, to help women and girls build networking and training opportunities to help them build their skill and expand their potential through the sport.

The first session of Little Bellas launched last week in Pittsfield State Forest, meeting from 8 a.m. to noon, Wednesday through Friday, based by the shores of Lulu Brook. The inaugural group of participants included eight girls from the Berkshire region, ages 7 to 10, with varying backgrounds of biking experience.

Kirsis said she "jumped at the opportunity" to be a mentor.

"Mountain biking has given me a lot on and off the bike," she said. "I've met other mentors through biking. There's small circle of women who have become my lifelong friends through this sport, and I hope I can enable the generation below me."

Kirsis said mountain biking tends to be a "guy-dominated" sport with "somewhat of a bro culture. ... I want it to be more welcoming for women," she said.

Case in point. On Friday morning, while the girls were learning from their mentors how to fix a flat tire, a group of older boys zipped across the field.

"Whoa," one girl gasped.

"They're, like, way better than us," another said.

The moment was fleeting, however. As soon as the boys were out of sight, the girls returned to their own quieter work of practicing how to repair and clean their own bikes.

"The more you watch and practice how it's done, it's easier to do," McGee told the girls.

"And when you ride with friends, they can help you too," Remelius added.

Jeremy Manzolini said he was thrilled when he heard about the opportunity for his daughter, Hannah Manzolini, 10, to participate in Little Bellas.

He was about the same age as her when he discovered mountain biking, a lifelong passion, which he's shared with his daughter.

Together, they go to the Tuesday night Berkshire Cycling Association Berkshire Mountain Bike Training Race Series, a co-ed program that brings together kids of all ages and their families.

"But I can only teach her so much," the father said, noting how Little Bellas seems to have opened up new opportunities for Hannah.

In addition to doing trail and obstacle rides, the program introduces yoga to help the girls build an awareness of keeping their bodies stretched. The girls also spent their mornings playing with hula hoops, searching for frogs, sharing snacks, moving to music and playing games, including one like musical chairs on bikes. The young cyclists built a sisterhood.

Meanwhile, Manzolini said he and other fathers who dropped their girls off to the program, began riding trails together.

"She made new friends, and I made new friends," he said. "Mountain biking has done nothing but good for me. For her, I hope it does the same, because instead of doing something else not so good, you're hanging around with a group of kids doing things you like. Not to mention the confidence it gives you to achieve something."

Parkman and her Little Bellas mentors said the sense of accomplishment is huge.

"It's fun," said Hannah, who successfully rode over a footbridge that required her to navigate a change in elevation, terrain and surface.

Noelia Salinetti, also 10, came into the program with mostly road biking experience. "I didn't know if I was going to like it. A lot of us here didn't know if we were going to like it, but I think it was worth giving it a try," she said.

"Now I have some skills to hold over my brother," she added with a grin.

Parkman and her Little Bellas mentors hope to continue to build upon and expand the Berkshire Little Bellas program, along with other opportunities for women and girls to support and mentor one another through outdoor sports and experiences.

Back in May, Parkman became the first winner of 1Berkshire's business pitch competition. She was awarded $1,000 to help establish BFF Adventures, to lead women and girls on outdoor sports and guided biking, hiking and ski excursions.

"There's so much these girls can do," Parkman said. "They've been really fearless."

Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.

On the web ...

• Learn more about Little Bellas at littlebellas.com

• Follow the progress of BFF Adventures in the Berkshires at facebook.com/bffadventuresberkshire

• Get involved in the Berkshire Mountain Bike Training Series at berkshiremtb.com or on Facebook


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