Mountain Biking

Durango Devo Knows How to Teach Kids to Love Bikes for Life – Bicycling

“Do you want ride-ride, or an explore-ride?” asks Sarah Tescher, surveying the three teenagers who have mustered the enthusiasm to bring their bikes to a local park on this cold, drizzly Wednesday in October.

There’s no hesitation: “An explore-ride!”

Tescher, cofounder of Durango Devo, a youth cycling development program in Durango, Colorado, tosses out some options. There’s a rock ledge that might be fun to check out, or a cave at the top of a steep trail.

Durango Devo

Grady James

Durango Devo

Steve Fassbinder

Then she has another idea: “What about the coal cave?” she asks. The kids’ faces brighten.

Twenty minutes later, we’ve stashed our bikes in a stand of junipers and scrambled up a rocky slope to the edge of a mesa, where a washing machine–sized hole is gouged into the earth.

Piles of bear droppings are scattered around the cave’s entrance, but no one seems concerned that we may be about to follow a black bear into its winter den. Holding out my iPhone for light, I tentatively crawl into the tunnel behind 17-year-old Laurel Trout.

“Oh hey,” Tescher calls out from ahead, “there’s bear scat in here too!”

Um, cool?

Undaunted, the group pushes on. Seams of coal glisten on the cave’s walls. A bat no bigger than my fist hangs from the ceiling, inches from Trout’s reddish-blonde ponytail. “Aw, he’s so cute!” she exclaims.

Meanwhile, John White, a high school senior who will compete in Colorado’s state championship mountain bike races in three days, squeezes himself into a narrow side tunnel and disappears from sight.

Peering into the darkness after him, I can’t help but wonder: This is how he’s training? This is mountain bike practice?

If the name Durango Devo rings a bell, it’s likely because of the 49 national mountain biking championships its riders have won since 2005.

The trophies are nice, but they’re not the point. Unlike traditional junior development teams, which focus on grooming teenagers into racers, Devo’s mission is simple and single-minded: Inspire young people to love biking.

“Our goal isn’t to create the next Olympian,” explains Tescher. “We’re trying to turn kids of all ages into lifelong cyclists.”

Last year, the program served 1,000 kids ages 2 to 18. Of those, 49 received full scholarships, which included almost $10,000 in bikes, equipment, and other assistance.

As kids get older, the opportunities grow. They can practice hitting jumps with Devo’s Flyers gravity group, race competitively with a National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) team, or join the Explorers, whose practice I’m currently tagging along on.

Explorers is one of the few youth programs that teaches kids bikepacking. In a few weeks, Trout, White, and a handful of others will load their bikes with everything they need to survive in the wilderness, then set off on a trail bordering the Colorado River. Two days later, they’ll break down their bikes, strap them onto lightweight inflatable rafts, and paddle back downstream.

Durango Devo

Steve Fassbinder

Durango Devo

Grady James

Durango Devo

Grady James

“I like making fires and exploring caves and finding new places,” explains Trout. Her older sister is on a collegiate cycling team, but that’s not her goal. “This is more fun because it’s less competitive.”

The Explorers’ aren’t the only Devo cyclists who train unconventionally. When I visit Devo’s under-19 NICA practice the following day, head coach Ashley Carruth tells me that she’s more likely to don silly costumes with her students than force them to crank out intervals. A preschool coach later tells me that his students spend as much time catching bugs as they do on their bikes.

The first result of this is entirely predictable: Devo kids end up thinking that biking is fun.

The second result is perhaps less so: Devo kids also end up being good cyclists. Like, really good. Along with the dozens of national championships, they’ve earned 26 state championships and have made appearances at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships.

Olympian Howard Grotts came up through Devo, as did Christopher Blevins, the current under-23 cross-country mountain bike national champion. (Both race professionally for Specialized.) Like all Devo kids, they focused on skill development and camaraderie in lieu of structured training.

Still, some parents, eager for their kids to succeed, push Devo coaches to implement more rigorous training regimens. Tescher pushes right back.

“If you make biking all about training, it’s hard,” she says. “And if you can’t find the love in it, you’re just going to end up quitting.”

Durango Devo has an unofficial motto—Never Forget the Feeling. In other words, don’t get so serious that you can’t recall the joy of riding a bike. This ethos is baked into Devo’s founding DNA.

Sarah Tescher, Chad Cheeney

In 2001, Sarah Tescher was in her mid-20s and teaching middle school in Durango, where she’d recently moved after a stint as a professional mountain bike racer in California. Approachable and outdoorsy, with a tangle of brown hair and striking green eyes, she was the cool teacher who her students wanted to hang with.

A couple days a week, she’d take them on rides after class, but the school’s regulations were limiting. Tescher dreamed of starting a team that was unaffiliated with the school district, a concept that was then a relative rarity.

At the same time, her friend Chad Cheeney—another former pro who was working at a thrift store while piecing together bike-related side jobs—was fantasizing about creating a junior development team in Durango.

Cheeney has a penchant for recording the minutiae of life, and his notebooks from those years are full of ideas for team names, doodles for logos, and even rosters of teenagers he hoped to coach.

When a book on entrepreneurship was dropped off at the thrift store, he’d take it home, trying to learn how to turn his fantasy into a self-sustaining nonprofit.

Other youth cycling programs bloomed and withered in Durango as Cheeney watched from the sidelines, jotting down observations about what might make a team stick.

A lanky, scruffy 39-year-old who peppers his speech with lots of sweets and cools, Cheeney is a guy who likes to have fun, and his own foray into bike racing had been decidedly lacking in it.

When he first got serious about mountain biking in high school, “the mindset was that you just needed to train your motor,” he says. Like many of his junior-racer peers, Cheeney followed a rigorous training plan.

By the time he arrived in Durango for his freshman year at Fort Lewis College, he was burnt out. Pedaling mile after mile on the pavement and being picked on by the cycling team’s upperclassmen caused him to forget why he loved mountain biking in the first place.

Eventually, Cheeney pulled himself from the rut, in part by throwing bike-centric parties for his teammates. But the memory of his freshman year stuck, and he didn’t want local kids to experience similar burnout.

Durango Devo

Steve Fassbinder

Durango Devo

Steve Fassbinder

Over beers or while hanging out at trail junctions, Cheeney and Tescher talked about co-founding a youth cycling program, but they didn’t act until hearing a rumor that a local cycling star was starting his own team in Durango. The rumor turned out to be unfounded, but it was the kick in the chamois that they needed.

“I was like no, you’re not going to start a junior development team. I’m going to start a junior development team,” Cheeney recalls from his desk at Fort Lewis College, where he’s now the head enduro coach. He waves an imaginary notebook in the air. “I’ve got it all right here.”

In 2005, Cheeney and Tescher co-founded Durango Devo with 13 junior cyclists. Although they started with middle and high school programs, the duo soon heard that younger students wanted to mountain bike too.

“We were like, there’s no way we can take second-graders out,” Cheeney recalls. “The bikes are too crappy. The kids are too little. They can’t even lift them onto the bike rack!”

But the second-grade program took off, and Devo started reaching out to even littler riders.

Today, Devo is one of the largest and most successful programs of its kind. And while it owes much of its success to Durango’s bike-obsessed culture and world-class trails, the play-first concept is spreading.

From Fort Collins, Colorado, to Omaha, Nebraska, other youth programs have modeled themselves after Durango Devo, while teams across the country seem to have absorbed the lesson that the first step toward developing elite athletes is to instill a love of biking.

The best ways to do that? The recipe is remarkably simple:

  1. Focus on developing skills, so kids feel confident on their bikes.
  2. Don’t be afraid to be goofy—wear costumes or make up games like bike polo or tag.
  3. Take time to get off your bikes and explore a riverbank, stop for ice cream, or simply hang out and talk.
  4. Build a community around cycling, so it’s something kids get to do with their friends.
    1. “The coolest thing for me was getting to hang out with a bunch of likeminded people and just play around on bikes,” says the Olympian Grotts, recalling his years in Devo. “The unstructured aspect works super well for developing great riders. That mentality—of training that doesn’t feel like training—produces not just lifelong cyclists but also really well-rounded athletes.”

      Durango Devo

      Grady James

      Durango Devo

      High School Colorado Cycling Leaugue

      A few days after my foray with the Explorers, Devo’s high school team clinched its second consecutive division two championship. A few days after that, the program threw its annual Halloween party for participants, their families, and community members.

      Hundreds of people met to ride down Durango’s River Trail, a ribbon of pavement that winds back and forth across the Animas River. There were grandparents pushing strollers, high schoolers rocking tutus over their bike shorts, preschoolers dressed in furry lion and dinosaur costumes.

      The weather was crisp and sunny, and the leaves of the cottonwoods glowed yellow with autumn light. It was a perfect evening for a bike ride.

      The parade of cyclists surged down the trail to a park, where volunteers dished up ice cream and kids gleefully threw whipped cream pies into their coaches’ faces. The party was a fundraiser for Devo, but it was also a celebration—one last chance to get together before snow covered the trails.

      The ride to the party lasted for only a few minutes, along a route I’d ridden dozens of times before, but something about the light and the joyful atmosphere called to mind Devo’s motto: Never Forget the Feeling.

      When I asked Cheeney to describe that feeling, he grew quiet for a moment. It’s the adrenaline of soaring along a trail, he said, but it’s also the peacefulness of being out in nature.

      “It’s those little moments out in the woods,” he concluded, “when the earth is your canvas and you’re just painting it up.”