When Carmen Berte met The Bella Donnas, Milwaukee, Wis.'s, self-described “premier all-girl, noncompetitive, mentoring and motivational cycling group,” in 2008, she wasn’t sure it was the right place for her. Berte wanted to train with a group for her first triathlon, but at 56, she thought she was too old for The Bella Donnas.
Her hesitation didn’t last long. Bella Donna Founder Jillian Imilkowski greeted her with enthusiasm and warmth, and Berte knew she had made an important connection. “It turns out, it was exactly where I needed to be,” she says. “I found a new home. And the rest is history.”
Imilkowski created The Bella Donnas in 2007 in response to the relative lack of recreational and educational women’s cycling groups in Milwaukee. What started as a group of five friends morphed into a community of more than 300 female riders with varying levels of skill and expertise. Imilkowski set an inclusive tone, and “The Bellas” have maintained that attitude of acceptance and support as the group has grown. They host introductory sessions at various locations around the city—an organizational “open house,” of sorts—and regularly invite newcomers on rides. The youngest member is less than 10 years old, and the oldest is more than 60.
“There is a ‘leave no woman behind’ philosophy,” says Berte. “No matter who you are, there is something for you within The Bellas.”
The Bella Donnas themselves help determine the shape of the program. In addition to holding regular rides and events, the group also provides a mentoring component in which members reach out to their friends and family members and encourage the women in their lives to pick up their bikes once more. Rides are held all around Milwaukee, from trails to city streets and beyond.
Of course, the group rides help motivate The Bella Donnas to spend more miles in the saddle, but the benefits of the rides go beyond just distance. Learning how to ride with others is an important skill for cyclists, and members teach newcomers about proper technique and etiquette when riding in a group.
It is both the social and educational aspects that have sealed the deal for Berte, and having a supportive community of women has made all the difference for her. In the six years she’s been with The Bella Donnas, she has lost weight, learned how to ride with clipless pedals, completed triathlons and met her personal record of 70 miles ridden in a single day.
“If you had told me two years ago that I would ride as far as I have, I would have told you that you were out of your mind,” Berte says. But once she made the commitment to try, having other women beside her to encourage and reassure her was what she needed to reach her biking goals.
Imilkowski says the group has evolved far beyond just biking. Bella Donnas have developed close personal bonds; they are bridesmaids at each other’s weddings and godmothers for each other’s children. “The connections made from The Bella Donnas truly permeate into all parts of our lives,” she adds.
About her own growth as a cyclist, Berte says, “Sometimes, it felt like I bit off more than I could chew, but The Bellas were there, saying, ‘If you want to go for something, I’ll be here, and I’ll do it with you.’ What an incredible gift that is.”
For more information, visit thebelladonnas.org.