Gage (that’s a nickname) brought all the necessities to Girls Inc.’s three-day winter cycling camp—bright red and blue Spiderman bicycle, check; spunky grin, check. Her obvious toughness aside, when Gage’s instructors suggested she remove the training wheels, she wasn’t too sure. Nevertheless, she bargained with League of America Certified Instructor (LCI) Jody Nelson and agreed to take the trainers off after four (not two) cycles around the course. Fourth trip done, she held up her end of the bargain, despite shedding a few tears of fear. She bravely mounted the bike. “She pedaled, and that was just huge,” Nelson remembers. By the end of the three days, Gage was cruising on two wheels, all grins. What training wheels?
Photo by ARI RODRIGUEZ
Nelson, a longtime educator and filmmaker, who tells stories of young athletes, mostly girls, was more than on board when SBBIKE’s Education Director Christine Bourgeois asked her to co-lead the Girls Inc. cycling camp in Carpinteria. She was joined by LCI and national cycling champion Sonia Ross. Coaching girls in athletic endeavors is dear to Nelson’s heart. “I have a real affinity for helping them to feel confident, especially with their bodies and with movement,” she says.
In the course of three short days, Nelson and Ross taught the fifteen girls—from first to fourth grade (and nearly half sporting trainers the first day) how to ride, drilled into them the importance of safety skills and road rules, and showed them how to check their bikes each time before riding. “I think it’s important that girls learn these skills, not only because they’re lifetime skills but because they’re so linked with the confidence within yourself,” says Nelson. “It’s your freedom. It’s your way to get places—to be independent.”
Nelson points out that, while things are improving, our culture still holds onto certain stigmas “around girls going out into the world and doing things and seeing things.”
The girls have to work through ideas about what’s “acceptable.” Nelson notes that often girls have to work toward understanding that it’s okay for girls to move their bodies, to be physically active, to sweat.
Photo by JODY NELSON
Instruction like the lessons provided at the camp gives girls a chance to build their confidence and to feel supported. “It’s just special to have girls learning and playing together—especially when they feel a bit iffy about it,” says Nelson.
Another benefit of group instruction is the opportunity it provides to work on social skills. Nelson enjoyed watching the dynamic of the Carpinteria camp. She was initially a bit worried about the girls’ age differences—that either the older girls would be bored or the younger ones would be left behind. It turned out there was no need. “The girls worked really well together,” she beams. “Everybody was very supportive of each other.”
Having strong female teachers is another great benefit for girls. “They see women doing something,” says Nelson, “being confident.” Nelson and Ross are both the epitome of that. In addition to her filmmaking and, formerly, years of work as a physical education instructor, Nelson is a soccer referee for five leagues—the only woman in most of the leagues. Ross holds Race Across America records, as well as the current 2015 Tandem Time Trial State Championship and multiple National Cycling Championships.
Working with these women and with each other helps the girls believe they can, in deed, be strong, smart, and bold—which is Girls Inc.’s motto. “They can take those skills with them into the rest of their lives,” says Nelson.
Nelson’s joy as she talks about how amazing it is to see students getting over the hurdle of the fear factor that comes along with riding bicycles is contagious. To teach hand signaling, she had the girls practice taking their hands off the handlebars for first one second and then two. Some were initially sure they couldn’t do it. But then they did. “And you could hear these shouts of, ‘I did it’ or, ‘I’m doing it!’ Those are my favorite moments,” says Nelson.
She also loves hearing the girls talking about planned rides or how they taught their parents the rules of the road and how, by day three, they were all doing the ABC Quick Check without prompting—kneeling to squeeze the wheels and check out the cranks.
Girls Inc. and SBBIKE were both equally pleased with the camp’s success. Girls Inc., a nonprofit with the mission of inspiring girls “through research-based educational programs, enrichment activities, and advocacy," wants to introduce more cycling instruction. Nelson, who’s recently teaching a wide variety of groups to bicycle (ever since recently completing her LCI certification) is excited for that.
Photo by ARI RODRIGUEZ
“This bike program was a great help to my daughter because she did not know how to ride a bike and was very scared to try. Through this program she became more self-confident and secure in her abilities and learned about safety. Thank you for such a great program and your patience towards my child.”-Maria Mendoza, mother of Michelle Rodriguez, 1st grade (translated)