It’s (finally) a gorgeous summer day in Milwaukee and I’m sharing a table outside of the service entrance of Crank Daddy’s Bicycle Works with Jillian Imilkowski and Becky Tesch, ride leaders for The Bella Donnas– Milwaukee’s other all-female bike group.
What? Another girls-only bike gang? No way! I know how you feel- I hadn’t heard of the Bellas either until a friend (who also happens to ride with BD) clued me in. I contacted Jillian immediately to pick her brain about the Bellas, and began to wonder how this particular group- officially founded in 2007 and has grown to over 40 members strong- had slipped beneath my radar.
For Jillian, creating an all-girls cycling group stemmed from the desire to feel competent and comfortable when riding. Though the Bellas were formed about three years ago, the idea for the group had been in the works since 2001 when Jillian found herself struggling to prepare for the Heartland AIDS Ride: a 500 mile trek from Minneapolis to Chicago over the course of five days. After she signed up, she realized that she was riding a ridiculously heavy mountain bike that saw little time on the road outside of quick trips to the grocery store every now and then and was in no shape for the ride.
She says that the biggest challenge was training- male cyclists left her in the dust, bike shops proved to be more intimidating than helpful and attempting to ride with other cycling groups left her feeling frustrated and alienated.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says, “people weren’t incredibly supportive, there were no women’s cycling groups … I felt like crap.”
But she soldiered on, completed the ride and developed a deep-seated love for cycling she could never have imagined. This is where the real inspiration for an all-inclusive ladies biking group started.
“The Bellas formed out of that desire to not have other girls feel like crap,” she says.
Jillian un-officially founded the Bella Donnas in 2006 when she began training for the Trek 100, a- you guessed it- 100 mile bike ride sponsored by Trek Bicycle Corporation and the MACC Fund to support research for pediatric cancer. She rallied together a group of ladies to ride with her, but hit a bit of a speed bump after that.
“Out of the five of us, some had never done a 100-mile ride and three of the girls didn’t even own a bike,” she says.
Undeterred, the group continued to train (some on borrowed bikes) and successfully completed the ride. A friend of Jillian’s designed a logo for their bike team that year, and the “Bella Donnas” was born. The group continued to ride together after the race and as word spread about this group of ladies, the Bellas started to grow. Jillian and some of the other riders organized meetings to plan group rides and events, and with the help of a friend at the Journal Sentinel, over a dozen women showed up at one of the first meetings ready to ride.
To accommodate their members various cycling styles, the Bellas offer two different types of group rides : Road and Mountain biking. Jillian leads road rides every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and Becky leads mountain bike rides each Thursday- but beware, those rides are for the brave at heart.
But her statement is not meant to exclude riders from participating, only to warn them of the challenges mountain bikers encounter. Rides usually take place on rough terrain like rocks and roots and getting used to that type of ride takes time and practice. Once you are able to beat those trails, though, Becky says that the sense of empowerment is indescribable.
“Once you conquer it, you feel like you’re ready for anything,” she says.
Road rides incorporate a bit larger groups and are designed to meet the different abilities of each Bella. On Mondays, Jillian leads “Recovery” rides- about 10-15 mph, designed to keep the muscles loose without bringing your heart rate up too high- from Crank Daddy’s up to Klode Park in Whitefish Bay. Wednesdays are “Pace” rides that typically go faster and are geared towards Bellas that are training for distance rides or triathlons. On Fridays, the gals go where the wind takes them.
No matter what type of ride, safety is always number one with the Bella Donnas. Every new member is schooled on the rules of the road- from proper signals to group riding etiquette and everything in between. That includes wearing a helmet while riding.
“A big part of feeling comfortable on your bike is feeling comfortable biking in the city,” Jillian says.
The Bellas also host maintenance workshops with their members to teach them basic bike repairs like changing a tube or fixing a broken chain, skills that can help women feel more in control of their bikes without having to rely on others or, to put in frankly, without having to rely on men.
Making the Bella Donnas all-female was key for Jillian. When she found herself training for that 500 mile ride eight years ago, she felt intimidated riding with men and found that most of them were more focused on the competitive aspect of cycling when all she was looking for was a helping hand. She says that having a girls only group creates a space where women can get acquainted with their bikes and are able to ask questions without feeling ridiculous, and the Bella Donnas subsequently functions as a support group for its members to help them improve their abilities and reach personal goals.
Lucky for the Bellas, they haven’t had much negative feedback from men as a result of their ladies only requirement, and have actually received a lot of support from men in the cycling community- to the point that men have even asked to join. Jillian tells me of an instance when a male cyclist approached her during a road ride and asked if he could ride the rest of the route with the Bellas.
“I told him absolutely not!” she says with a hearty laugh, as the growing group of Bella Donna riders assembles around our table.
The Bella Donnas is not about keeping up with the boys, Jillian insists, it’s about introducing women to the culture of cycling and making it accessible to them. She wants biking to act as a vehicle for women to push themselves to do something better and pursue other challenges in life. At the beginning of each riding season, every Bella Donna must set a measurable goal for themselves and make a commitment to meet it. Many of the Bellas that I spoke to said they joined simply to have other women to bike with and others joined to help train for triathlons and other races.
“You’ll never get left behind,” Jillian says of the group.
Expect to see a lot more about the Bella Donnas in the near future. This month, they’re planning to dominate the Riverwest 24 Hour Bike Race (a tip for everyone in the Team B class: look out for The Bellas, The Donnas and The Vixens– they’ve been training since May!), and Jillian says that they have a potential “Baby Bellas” mentoring program for teen girls in the works.
As our conversation begins to wind down, twelve women have shown up for the road ride that evening. They range in age from mid-20s to early 60’s and all joined for different reasons. I talked to Francesca, who showed up for the first ride of this season and says that despite her busy schedule, she never misses a weekly ride with the Bella Donnas. Jocelyn had always used a bike as her primary mode of transportation and said that she joined because she wanted to be able to bike with other women. Christie Googled “women’s bike group” after she bought a new bike. Michelle says she wanted to ride with people who had her back. Carmen joined so that she could start training for her firsttriathlon- she’s also in her early 60s.
Before they started their ride to Klode Park, I had to ask where the name “Bella Donnas” came from. Jillian earned a degree in Landscape Architecture and told me that a Bella Donna meant “beautiful woman” in Italian, but that it was also a member of the deadly nightshade family of plants.
“I thought it was a great juxtaposition of the idea of beauty and poise,” she says,”but that it’s also kind of dangerous.”
To illustrate, she calls over one of the Bellas to show me their official jersey. Depicted on it is a lovely woman wearing a bike helmet, vine in hand, standing atop a mountain of skulls.