Little Bellas

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How Did Gear Up Get Started?

Mountain bikes — especially the ones ridden by pro mountain bikers — can soar up to $9,000 or more. Of course you can’t ride without a helmet ($$) and sometimes gloves ($), or shorts ($$), and cycling glasses ($$$). As those numbers add up, so does one of the biggest barriers to participation in mountain biking: access. The perceived cost of a sport like mountain biking can be so discouraging that many would-be participants whistle themselves out of the eligibility pool even before trying to dive in.

No bike, no problem with Gear Up
Photo by Oscar Charles Hultz

The first Gear Up bike

Way back in 2008, when Little Bellas was just getting started up in northern Vermont, there was a girl whose bike was broken, which could have spelled trouble for her participation in the program. The only uphill battle to mountain biking she should have to experience with Little Bellas is choosing the right gear for climbing and picking the right line for riding — having a bike to ride should be the least of her worries.

Little Bellas has always been a community — and family — affair so when Jeff Davison volunteered a solution, he had an “in” with the then board of directors, which included his daughters, Lea Davison and Sabra Davison Connell. If Little Bellas had a bike to loan her during the program, then that barrier vanished…but only for that one girl during that specific program. Now what if Little Bellas had bikes to loan out to whomever needed one wherever she was?

Do you know Rachel Ciancola?

Starting with Jeff’s idea for that first bike, Little Bellas has organized itself around increasing access to its programs through various initiatives. By adding a few bikes at a time, there are now 142 bikes (plus helmets) available to any program participant that needs them through Little Bellas’ Gear Up program. 107 bikes were loaned out in 2023 with particular success in getting bikes to “not-yet” riders early enough for them to try out riding before their program began. We’ll forgive you if you haven’t yet heard of Rachel Ciancola, Little Bellas’ head of program operations and the wizard-behind-the-curtain of the Gear Up program. As if by magic, Rachel makes bikes appear at programs around the country through a system that’s never satisfied with its own sense of perfection — Rachel is always looking for ways to make it better.

And what happened to Jeff?

He has become the de facto manager of the “Ever-expanding Little Bellas Bike Empire.” His “reign” dates back to Pennsylvania in the 1980’s when he and his wife, Lucia, decided to relocate to Vermont, where he simultaneously went to graduate school and worked full-time at IBM. Working as an electrical engineer when Little Bellas was founded in 2007, he already possessed the kind of analytical, problem-solving mind that lends well to mechanical work. He earned an experiential education in bike mechanics by working on the highly engineered mountain bikes that his daughters brought him at the start of their bike racing careers. So, when Little Bellas bikes began to arrive on his doorstep, Jeff was already a pro at building up bikes and fine-tuning brakes, derailleurs, and suspension with an engineer’s sense of precision. Ask him what drives his involvement in Little Bellas however, and he shies away from braggadocio to give credit to others.

"It is the creativity and help of many other people that make the Gear Up program happen for our Little Bellas," Jeff said. “I feel that I’m just one of the bike caches that Rachel has organized around the U.S. on the way to building a countrywide bike empire.”

His natural tendency to empower young women was evident from the start. He believes that there’s an unlimited upside when you invest in human potential and it’s a belief that’s paid dividends in social currency for the benefit of us all.

Little Bellas’ Bike Empire

Inside Little Bellas' Bike Empire

Since retiring from IBM, he has embodied the mission to “get more girls on bikes” by building up and maintaining the bikes in the Gear Up fleet in collaboration with Rachel. What started with a few hooks to hang bikes in the space above the garage has turned into a full-scale operation to keep Gear Up bikes in pristine working condition. All returning bikes get washed, tuned up, and repaired if necessary before they get shipped out via Bikeflights to destinations across the U.S. Their system for managing bikes is intentionally clandestine so as not to draw attention to the Gear Up bikes. Speaking a language all their own and working with the efficiency of a Swiss clock, Jeff and Rachel swiftly move Gear Up bikes around the country where they are needed.

Little Bellas’ Gear Up and Financial Assistance programs are solutions — tools, if you will — to make cycling more inclusive and accessible to underrepresented communities. Like most initiatives, these didn’t happen overnight but rather began with a problem that needed solving. Jeff has been a member of Little Bellas since the beginning, and while this may be the first time you’ve heard of him, he’s been here all along.

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