The weather doesn’t seem ready for a bike race, and neither do most of the girls. At the 4 Eagle guest ranch north of Wolcott, spring sunshine may have thawed the pastureland that will serve as today’s course, but snow still cakes the surrounding peaks, and the late-afternoon sky sparkles with stray flurries. Yet the Cycle Effect teens and their coaches haven’t once griped about the conditions. They’re too busy unloading their newly built bikes from the trailer and prepping them for the short course competition, the second showdown in the summer-long Vail Beaver Creek Mountain Bike Race Series.
Dubbed “Wednesday Worlds,” the series attracts Vail Valley hardbodies whose set jaws announce how seriously they take each contest. That includes the youngsters who show up for heats in the 6-to-9 and 10-to-12 age groups: while their moms stay warm in idling Audis, pint-size racers are circling the parking lot doing warm-up laps on their Konas and Felts.
The eighteen riders representing the all-female Cycle Effect team, however, are seeing their rigs for the first time. Riding the shiny new bikes Giant provides at a steep discount, they puzzle clumsily over saddle height adjustments and wrestle with tire pumps and valve stems. The squad’s few veterans have a year or two of mountain biking under their belts, but even they are struggling to dial in their shocks—“this is my first year on full suspension,” one explains. But what makes these girls really conspicuous—beyond being greenhorns in a male-dominated field of experts—is that the team is almost entirely Hispanic.
That fact is more coincidence than anything. As a program chartered to make mountain biking available to all young women, particularly those who may not be able to afford the sport on their own, Cycle Effect is open to all middle- and high-school-age girls. But perhaps a half-dozen of its forty riders are Anglo. The rest hail from a demographic that doesn’t exactly dominate the cycling scene in the Vail Valley—or elsewhere.
Most niñas don’t ride bikes, but that doesn’t mean they can’t. Several Cycle Effect girls rode with the Vail Valley High School Mountain Bike Team at last year’s state championships—and won first place. One of those podium finishers, 17-year-old Rita Gutierrez, plans to take on the big boys at tonight’s short course. Instead of competing in the Novice division with the rest of her teammates, she’ll race against the bulging quadriceps in the Sport class. Her coach, Cycle Effect’s founder, Brett Donelson, tries to recruit her some company.
“Coco, you racing Sport?” he asks a sparky girl with long brown hair.
“No.” Eyes downcast, she’s not even on the fence about it. Tonight, she’s a Novice.
“Why, you big baby?” Donelson taunts.
“We’re all about compassion around here,” jokes Tam Donelson, Brett’s wife and copilot on the Cycle Effect project. Elite athletes and cyclists themselves (they’ll race that night in the Expert division), the Donelsons dedicate tremendous energy and resources to their protégés. Coddling them, however, isn’t part of the program.
“All we’re working on, girls, is the line on those turns,” Brett calls as the team pedals off for a warm-up lap. Dressed in matching white bike jerseys, they look like a flock of doves—albeit drowsy ones. Many riders teeter around the switchbacks, and one girl topples after she can’t unclip her shoe from the pedal.
“We’ve got huge representation from our women, the Cycle Effect, which is totally cool!” enthuses the emcee over the PA system as the Novices cluster behind the starting line. None of the girls’ parents is among the spectators, but one racer’s cousin has arrived and shyly waves a white pom-pom.
It’s not enough to cheer any Cycle Effect riders to a podium finish. The winning biker pumps his fists in triumph upon crossing the finish line; the first-place female thanks her boyfriend for pacing her through the race. And then it’s Gutierrez’s turn to line up with the rest of the Sport division.
Surrounded by tall, ripped men, she looks as vulnerable as a calf among bulls until her white jersey becomes indistinguishable amid the kaleidoscopic jumble of spandex. Her teammates roar as she sprints away from the starting line, but Gutierrez’s eyes are locked on the dirt in front of her. She’s on her own, yet she’s one of them, racing with the pack.
Given Vail and Beaver Creek’s preoccupation with luxury, even locals tend to overlook or ignore the sizable number of cash-strapped residents who live and work in the valley. Yet 14 percent of Eagle County residents live below the federal poverty threshold, and 43 percent of its public school students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches. Most are children of Hispanic parents who came to work minimum-wage jobs in the area’s resort-driven service industry. Consequently, Hispanics represent 51 percent of all public school students enrolled in Eagle County, which leads Colorado in the proportion of English as a Second Language (ESL) students it serves (37 percent).
“I would drive by those neighborhoods and think, How many of those kids are dying for something to do?” recalls Brett Donelson. Short, wiry, and intense, Donelson has a crackling energy and obsession with sport that have established him as a local icon. As a longtime head coach of the women’s alpine team at Ski Club Vail—training the likes of U.S. Ski Team super G racer Abby Ghent and Ghent’s sister, Christa, now a pro road cyclist—he spent years grooming the area’s most motivated (and, often, most affluent) youngsters as ski racers. But, having burned out on the incessant travel and 6 a.m. lift loads, in 2008 he became cycling director at the newly opened Westin Riverfront Resort and Spa at Beaver Creek. Together with Tam, a buff and hyperkinetic Aussie triathlete with a wicked sense of humor whom he met through the ski circuit (she was a Beaver Creek instructor before also defecting to the Westin), he developed a cult of spin-class devotees who exalted the power couple and their inspirational training methods (see donelsoncoaching.com). But he missed coaching kids.
Drawing on his experience at Ski Club Vail, he approached the Youth Foundation about offering a program that would identify and nurture gifted young female athletes—in particular, off-road cyclists. After helping launch a bike/yoga hybrid called Girl PowHer in 2011 that included an off-road cycling team called the Ells Angels (named with a nod to sponsor Ellsworth Bicycles), in September 2012 he started filling out the paperwork to establish his own nonprofit. Tam plugged in the name: Cycle Effect.
“I’ve never found anything that teaches you as much about yourself as cycling,” says Brett, himself a veteran of twenty-four-hour endurance races who envisioned a team that would introduce bikes and their revelatory powers to populations that hadn’t discovered them yet—like low-income Hispanics.
It proved a hard sell. “The first person I contacted for helmets just laughed at me,” he says. “People think Vail has no poor people.” And because most bike companies feel they’re already appealing to young males, they weren’t interested in sponsoring a team catering to both sexes. Only a girls’ biking group piqued the interest of financial supporters.
Would-be participants were also skeptical. “There were seven girls when I joined,” recalls Estefania Loera, a 19-year-old Cycle Effect graduate who started when the program was still called Ells Angels. “There were fifteen, but half of them quit after the first day. They didn’t like to work out, I guess.”
Not that Loera found it any easier. “The first day I rode a bike, I fell five times,” she says, before correcting herself. “Actually, I spent the whole day on the ground.” But she discovered some fun along with the punishment, and noticed that she got better and better with each practice.
The momentum grew: dropout rates slowed, skill levels skyrocketed, and Cycle Effect expanded to include forty girls on three teams (in Edwards, in Eagle, and, debuting this season, in Summit). Tam joined the effort as head coach and mother hen. And last summer, Cycle Effect contributed seven riders to the Vail Valley High School Mountain Bike Team, which claimed the 2013 state title. “They were on the podium with people they never expected to call teammates,” says Brett.
Cycle Effect riders have also raced in the GoPro (formerly Teva) Mountain Games, which proved both intimidating and inspiring. “Riding the practice course, I thought, There’s no way I can do it,” Loera recalls. But to her surprise, she did it. And she’ll never forget the encouragement she received afterward from one of the top-ranked pros, who told her, “‘I started biking at 30, but you’re just 16, so imagine how much farther you can go,’” says Loera.
For most girls, the ability to realize previously unseen potential is more meaningful than the mountain biking podiums. “It is a biking group, but it teaches them much more than just biking,” explains Rob Parish, assistant principal at Battle Mountain High School (attended by all of the Edwards and Eagle team riders). “If they feel good about what they’re doing on the bike, hopefully they will start putting more energy into other parts of their lives, like grades and homework,” he says. Biking, AP classes, skiing, college—these aren’t dinner-table topics for most lower-income Hispanics. “But once they’re exposed to it and shown how to get there, then they want it,” says Parish.
That was true for Loera, who now studies early childhood education at Colorado Mountain College at Edwards. Whenever she finds it hard to balance her course load with a forty-hour work week behind the counter at Vail Vision, she draws on her experience with Cycle Effect. “I think, I’ve done hard things. It’s a huge uphill, but if I just concentrate I’ll get through it,” Loera explains.
Tam Donelson doesn’t just preach that truth; she exemplifies it. After finishing as the first overall amateur at both National and World Xterra Championships in 2011, Tam now races in the pro category—nationally, and at the local Mountain Bike Race Series. “I never quit a race,” she says. And in fact, “Finish what you started” is the team’s motto, reminding girls to push on whether they get a flat, break a chain, or blow up with exertion. “The girls know I can relate to their riding and racing,” Tam adds, “because I am right there with them in the same race series.”
Her muscled shoulders have mopped up plenty of tears, and after practices and races, needy girls hover around her for an extra word of encouragement. “I care about every single girl on our team, and they know it,” she says. The Donelsons are more than just coaches to these girls. As Nayeli Garcia puts it, “Tam and Brett are like my other parents.”
And as it goes with parenting teenagers, most girls on the team yearn for a compliment or word of encouragement from their elders to spike a sense of self-worth. Often, that translates to their other relationships. For Gutierrez, biking won her the respect of her dad. “Last summer he kept saying, ‘I could do this in my sleep,’” Gutierrez relates. So she rounded up a bike and helmet for him so he could join her on a ride. “He was on his brakes the whole time,” she says, still delighted at her test results. “You’re a boss,” he told her. “I didn’t know it was this hard.”
But in the Garcia household, the daughter’s biking actually emboldened other family members to make it their pastime, too. “Everybody in my house has bikes now,” says Garcia, now in her third summer with Cycle Effect. The family rides them around town, or drives them to Glenwood Springs. One weekend, they rode the bike path and hiked to Hanging Lake.
The full-suspension mountain bike Garcia races with doesn’t belong to her, but it will if she sticks with Cycle Effect through graduation (when participants receive their bicycles as gifts). The bikes are stored in a trailer in the high school’s parking lot and are ridden only during sanctioned practices or on certain trails, when accompanied by another team member—guidelines intended to reduce injuries while on the bike.
Starting in January, teams practice twice a week on Mondays and Wednesdays. Sponsors such as the Westin and Eagle Ranch Fitness host indoor workouts until the trails dry out in April or May. By then, races sometimes bump practices. The state championships, held in late October, signal the season’s end.
Financially, the barrier for entry into the program remains artificially low—$140 per season, which “doesn’t really offset our costs very much,” Brett admits, noting that the nonprofit typically spends $2,000 annually on each girl. “It’s mostly to get the families to have a stake in the program.” For families that can’t afford $140, girls can pay their way with community service, over and above the hours required of every participant as part of the program.
Such largesse is what distinguishes Cycle Effect from the broader array of sporting opportunities that are available (but, in many cases, unattainable) to teens throughout the Vail Valley. Cycle Effect relies on a roster of national and local sponsors including Giant bikes, Venture Sports, and Primal Wear, which provide discounted or donated equipment. Grants from Eagle County and the Town of Eagle have contributed some cash, as have corporate sponsors such as the Dionysus Hospitality Group restaurant chain, parent company of the Dusty Boot and Luigi’s Pasta House. (Owner John Shipp has charged his entire staff with raising money for and awareness of the nonprofit.) Individual donors also contribute to an annual budget totaling some $247,000.
True, Cycle Effect is hardly the only sports-oriented Vail Valley program appealing to young Hispanics. SOS Outreach, an Avon-based youth development nonprofit that caters to a similar demographic, recently rounded out its learn-to-ride snowboarding program with a summertime curriculum that includes mountain biking. And the Youth Foundation continues to run an eight-week soccer tournament draws its athletes from the valley’s Hispanic community. “It makes these kids more involved in their schools and their communities,” says Melisa Rewold-Thuon, the Youth Foundation’s vice president of education. “It brings the bottom up to a higher level, so that schools aren’t held back by struggling students. That raises the bar for everybody in the valley.”
That includes Anglos like Brett Donelson, who recently reduced his coaching load at the Westin to focus full-time on Cycle Effect after realizing that in the process of helping Hispanic kids find meaning in life via mountain biking, he’s finally blazing a trail that’s all his own. “I know this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” he says. “I’ve never felt that before.”
It’s a late April afternoon, and rock music blares from the thrown-open doors of the Dusty Boot on Main Street in Eagle Ranch. The restaurant is donating a portion of the day’s sales to Cycle Effect as part of the team’s Trail Jam fundraiser, which will net $7,500 for the cause—nearly covering the cost of four riders for an entire year.
Events began earlier in the day with teammates leading recreational rides on Eagle’s burgeoning trail network, while diners bid on silent auction items and others performed yoga on the adjacent lawn. But as in Wolcott on short-course race day, the weather today isn’t cooperating: afternoon gusts have driven everyone inside except for a few preschoolers on Striders and a posse of Cycle Effect riders roosting on a picnic table, apparently oblivious to the goosebumps erupting on their sleeveless arms.
Coco Andrade, the rider from short course day who was sheepish about riding Novice, shows off her scar. The livid, eight-inch gash on her thigh prompts shivers and giggles from the girls sitting nearby, some of whom watched her tumble last summer into a length of wire that sliced into her leg and required thirty-five stitches to mend. Then she pulls out her phone and flashes a selfie taken after she crashed her bike during the Mountain Games. Bruised, swollen, and concussed, she looks almost as badly beaten as Emmett Till. Now whenever she leaves home for a race, her mother trills, “Cuidarte!”—Be careful!
Another rider sympathizes: “My mom was so upset with me, with my quinceañera coming up and scratches all over my body!”
Rita Gutierrez shakes her head. This young woman, who climbed the podium after a second-place finish in the Sport division at Wolcott, wears her cycling wounds like badges of honor. “My mom’s really mad about how my legs look, but they’re my battle scars,” she says. “When I’m older, people are going to say, ‘She was a good mountain biker.’”
Their mothers evidence a different toughness, earned through battles that haven’t included muscling a bicycle up a root-lined trail. For these daughters, though, mountain biking has transported them into uncharted territory. With the Donelsons as their guides, they’re riding off the map together, pioneering new boundaries not just on bikes, but beyond.
Editor's Note: Meet the staff and team at the Haymaker trailhead on Sat. May 11 in Eagle at 3 p.m. then join the girls on an intermediate group ride up the trail (RSVP with firstname.lastname@example.org), followed by a fundraiser at Moe's (5 to 8 p.m.) that includes a raffle, prizes and live music. More information here.