Straight Talk with Sydney Schalit

This Coloradan likes to suffer, or at least she wants to make you feel the burn. The organizer of The 12 Hours of Penitence talks about how to fund a local race—and how to survive it.

Sydney Schalit’s zest for life shines through her infectious smile. Get this 30-year-old Colorado native talking about her passions—mountain biking, coaching, inspiring others to ride—and it’s obvious she’s an unstoppable force of nature. Luckily, for those of us living here, Sydney returned to the Centennial state after college and now calls Salida home. As you’d expect, Sydney, who’s been in Salida for eight years, isn’t content with just living, working and playing in this mountain town. Almost everything she does—from sitting on the planning and zoning commission where she advocates for affordable housing to coaching the high school mountain bike team—comes from a deep-rooted desire to build a better future and create change not only for herself, but also for the entire community. We sat down with Sydney to talk about her life and her latest endeavor: The 12 Hours of Penitence, a mountain bike race on a 21-mile loop through magical Penitente Canyon on October 18.

Why organize a race like 12 Hours of Penitence?
I love the San Luis Valley. The area has so many amazing trails that no one knows about—with flowy spots, crazy rock drops, cactus fields, petroglyphs, rattlesnakes—that it’s prime for a race. I want people to come here, see how special it is and I want them to come back and bring their friends. It’s my hope that this will draw people to the area and that, in turn, will help to put small, but awesome, communities like Del Norte and Hooper on the map as bike-friendly destinations.

How have you funded it?
I applied for grants from Rio Grande and Saguache counties and I received both, which was exciting and surprising. Local businesses have also been huge in making this happen via sponsorships and in-kind contributions. I’m doing everything I can to use local companies in every aspect from socks to Porta Potties to the timing company to the prizes. The outpouring of support from local businesses, big and small, has been overwhelming.

Why did you choose to donate the race money to Volunteers of Colorado (VOC)?
VOC gets a ton done to improve trails across the state by helping volunteer groups of all kinds channel the energy and manpower they have—but don’t necessarily know how to utilize—into something constructive. This is what makes them special and unique, and I think they deserve more recognition because they do so much. So few folks realize it.

Why would people want to sign-up for a race you call “suffering on Two wheels?”
It’s a strange and wonderful thing when—for fun—you push yourself to see how far you can get and what you can actually accomplish. We all have those moments when we’re in it, we’re scared, everything hurts and we want to quit, but we push on and come out the other end smiling. That’s how you know you did it right, why you love it and want to do it again. I hope this race inspires people to push themselves further and that everyone comes out smiling—maybe not that day, but at least a few days later!

You also organize a women’s mountain bike ride every week. Tell US about that.
I know so many women who want to ride, but they are scared or intimidated, so I wanted to create a non-judgmental, friendly space where anyone can come try it regardless of ability. This first year has been amazing. We’re gaining momentum and popularity with riders and businesses. For instance, Absolute Bikes offers free rentals to women who want to join and Elevation Brewing Company has now come on as a full sponsor.

You also coach the high school mountain bike team?
Riding has a huge impact on these young girls. You can have a bad day at school—where you were bullied or did poorly on a test, but then you get on your bike and though you might not ride the first bit of trail cleanly or you might not get over that rock, eventually you’ll clear something you didn’t think you could and suddenly, everything else is okay. This is why I do both—coach high schoolers and organize the ladies ride. Seeing that sense of pride flush over girls who are 14 (or 54) is liberating and empowering. I know it sounds cliché, but really it’s true.

Where do you get all this energy?
I get so much out of contributing to the community in any way I can. Mountain biking was therapeutic for me. In the Peace Corps, a man attacked and beat me. When I got home, friends urged me to try riding and at first it was just fun, but then it started to turn into something different. I wasn’t thinking about anything else when I was on my bike. It was an escape. I could take in the scenery, get away from everything, and though there were inevitably crashes and bits of blood, riding got me through the tough times. There’s a lot to be said for what solo endurance sports can do to help healing and confidence. But, I think these impacts are multiplied when you ride or run or suffer with a group. Getting to watch other people have similar revelations is amazing. It actually gives me energy.

To register, volunteer or become a sponsor of The 12 Hours of Penitence, go to 12hoursofpenitence.com. For more info on the work Volunteers of Colorado does, head to voc.org.

—Photo by Sydney Schalit

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