Taking the Lead

The Cycle Effect gets latinx girls who have been overlooked for far too long when it comes to racing bikes out winning races and changing the cultural conversation when it comes to cycling in Colorado.

On an overcast day last fall, before the snows came, though they weren’t that far off, I rode my bike with a group of girls on a trail not far from the Colorado High School Cycling League championship course, at the Haymaker Trail in Eagle, Colorado.

Perhaps I shouldn’t call out the fact that the girls I rode with were Latinx. This may signify something about the story I am going to tell, or about the girls, which should not matter. But in the situation I was in, the girls’ heritage did matter, as did the fact that many came from lower-income families. Many were the first girls in their families to ride mountain bikes, and all were the first to race bikes.

Many of the girls were faster than I’d imagined they would be. After we met in the Haymaker parking lot, smiled through introductions, and donned our helmets, bike shoes, and CamelBaks, we started riding down a dusty trail to a series of streets, and down the streets to another trail, and on that trail to a hill, where several of the long-black-ponytailed girls pumped their legs with concentration, which resulted in them leaving me in the dust with a few of the newer (and slower) riders.

Their quickness surprised me. I mountain bike regularly at an elevation higher than we were riding, so I figured I might just dust them. But I had failed to remember one very important fact. The girls weren’t on just any team, they’re on Brett and Tam Donelson’s Cycle Effect team. And if you are on The Cycle Effect team it means that you are required to take mountain biking seriously—as in attend bike practices every week and cross-train on days when it’s snowing. They also race—in the Colorado League and in other events. By October 2019, they had started about 15 races, finished most of them, and had stood on podiums multiple times. But while all of that matters quite a bit, the most important thing about The Cycle Effect is the impact it makes on these girls’ lives both on the bike and off.

Cycle Effect
Bringing It Home: when girls start mountain biking, the entire family back home wants to learn, too. Joe Kusumoto Photography / Instagram: @kusumotophoto

The Girls Lead

Here’s an oft-overlooked fact about the region surrounding the $200-a-day-lift-ticket resorts of Vail and Beaver Creek. The demographic most people see—in the media and promotional materials—is a white, wealthy, recreationally advantaged one that can afford extravagances like mountain biking along with their second homes and au pairs. But some 50 percent of the population consists of Latinx families who moved to the region for jobs, to join existing family, or for other opportunities, and who often lack a cultural context for outdoor recreation.

Once they arrived, many stayed because of the natural beauty, the sense of belonging, and for the opportunities Summit and Eagle counties offer for all children to learn to ski, raft, camp, fish, and mountain bike. Yet in many of these Latinx families, girls are never acquainted with mountain biking due to financial and gender barriers as well as a lack of familiarity with the sport. “One thing you never saw 10 years ago here was a Latinx girl riding a full-suspension bike,” says Donelson.

But he saw the potential. In the mid-2000s, he began thinking of ways to bring his favorite sport to a new population, and started a pilot program in 2010. It wasn’t easy: So many times at the end of a hard day, Brett would collapse at the kitchen table, and tell Tam, “We can’t do this anymore, it’s too emotionally and financially stressful.”

But Tam believed that everyone should have the opportunity to ride a bike, “for the fun, the adventure, the freedom, the empowerment, and the [human] connection.” So she’d tell Brett, “[Running a non-profit] is super hard, but riding with the girls is the best part of our lives. It’s what we talk about when we come home.”

They kept their project targeted to girls because they believed it was the way they could best help the community. “I fell in love with doing it that way because if you get girls involved [in a sport like biking] automatically the boys and dads think they can do it, too. But if you invite the dads and brothers [into the sport], the girls won’t do it,” says Donelson.

Another positive to keeping The Cycle Effect single-gendered: “When girls get involved in biking, the whole family will become bikers,” says Donelson. “And honestly, women’s equity in sports has been lagging for so long that even when we’ve had pushback from families wanting us to include boys, we’ve stuck to our guns, saying we can’t be everything to everyone.”

As a pilot program, The Cycle Effect was called Ell’s Angels. Their first year, they had 10 girls, to whom they taught basic mountain biking skills. Soon, they’d amassed significant sponsors, including women-specifc bike brand Liv, and as The Cycle Effect, they offered a year-round, several-day-a-week program complete with a bike, bike kit, race entry fees, pro coaches, and staff support, which valued a whopping $5,000 to $6,000 but which they offered for $140. The price has remained static though they now have 175 riders. Currently, the Cycle Effect is expanding into Mesa County where Donelson expects they’ll attract another 200 participants.

Riding Past the Challenges

Cycle Effect racers start in 5th grade and continue riding, if they want, through 12th grade. A couple of years ago, one girl went to U.S. Nationals and now they have girls on three different high school teams and state championship podiums; last fall five attended. They race in the wildly popular Colorado High School Cycling League where they regularly podium. But one of the most satisfying things Donelson sees is when a younger girl watches an older girl break through a barrier, and a younger girls’ eyes light up with the recognition that she can break barriers, too. This ranges from negotiating tricky singletrack to lining up at the start of a race with several hundred other riders.

But maybe more importantly, it includes moments when the girls transfer the strength, stamina, boldness, even joy into tricky, complex, or difficult situations in their lives.

In a graduate school essay, longtime rider Coco Andrade summed up her Cycle Effect experience, writing that when she started the program with 10 other girls in 2011, each was considered at-risk “whether that was [for] emotional or financial reasons. We were all going through something at that moment… and…Tam and Brett took the time to understand our cultural and social challenges. When they heard the cultural expectations of a woman, they didn’t question it; they simply listened and maintained a straight face. They knew that most of us had never been on a bike and never heard of clipless pedals, but they knew we had the power to do anything. Every practice they would keep encouraging us to do better and try harder.”

Through the program, Andrade continued, she learned “important valuable qualities of responsibility, respectfulness, and courage.” She now passes these on to younger riders. She knows she must respect everyone’s cultural differences. And she is helping these young girls to discover their own ability to overcome obstacles they face in mountain biking and in real life. As a coach, she says, “you are there to guide them through difficult moments by helping them discover their own power…”

But the best part is when she and the girls, along with Brett, Tam, their staff, and volunteer coaches head to the trails at Haymaker as the clouds start to build before a storm.

They make big circles in the parking lot, listen to the day’s plan, and then ride out, single-file into the sagebrush. Some girls race their bikes up the hills there, using the strength they’ve been building for several years, while others push with all of their might and still have to hike some sections.

As a unit, though, the Latinx girls in their Lycra shorts and brightly colored jerseys command your attention. When I rode with them last October, I could feel their confidence pulsing throughout the team, pushing them onward and upward.

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