Esmeralda Parro grabs her bike from a trailer marked “The Cycle Effect” and starts riding to join a group of girls warming up for the day’s practice. Pedaling up a steep hill, the 11 year old stops just short of the top. Her coach is watching.
“Esme! Go back down and change your gear, then try again,” she says. “You got it.”
“But I’m weak!” Esme replies.
“No you’re not,” her coach encourages. “You’re so strong!”
Esme’s coaches hope the lessons learned on a mountain bike will translate into other parts of her life. As the team struggles up steep rocky hills near Eagle that seem impossible from the parking lot, they are developing self confidence they can bring back to the classroom an everyday life.
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Not everyone who lives in Colorado’s resort communities has the means to get involved in the outdoor sports that help define the region. That’s why Brett Donelson founded The Cycle Effect, a nonprofit designed to improve access and develop skills and character that will stick with girls throughout their lives.
“I live in an area where there’s extreme wealth, and a whole bunch of lower-income people that don’t get to just enjoy the outdoors,” Donelson says. “Can we do this kind of model of this year-round training with athletes for kids that generally can’t afford it or don’t have those opportunities?”
Since 2013, 40 girls have graduated from The Cycle Effect, with many more participating for shorter periods. The nonprofit says all the girls who stuck with the program for at least two years graduated from high school and went on to college — and 75% of them were the first in their families to do so.
This year, 175 girls have been organized into four teams in Edwards and in Eagle and Summit counties. Each participant pays $140 for access to a bike and gear, coaching, and race fees. In 2018, The Cycle Effect says, 75% of participants were from minority or low income families — and that’s good news for Development Director Vikki Flynn.
“There weren’t a lot of Hispanic girls in the bike races and in the biking community,” Flynn says. “And so to see that now is pretty awesome.”
The Cycle Effect works to keep costs low to attract kids from every background, and counts on teachers and word-of-mouth marketing to generate interest in the program. The fee also covers after-school programs, summer coaching and race fees for girls who typically range from fifth to 12th grades.
While Donelson thinks getting someone out mountain biking can change lives on its own, he says the coaches use the sport to teach resilience. Essentially, toughness translates.
“I think we’re teaching them in a way to dream big, and realize, ‘Wow, I can do this.’ And then to go out and do it,” Flynn says.
Biking through the low juniper forest with a group of four girls, Flynn stops everyone at a rock in the trail and Donelson starts giving instructions: “We’re going over this rock, what do we need to do?”
“Attack position!” the girls respond, almost in unison.
“If I fall, you guys owe me chicken wings,” Esme says before maneuvering her bike over the rock with only the slightest yelp. She says she heard about the program through friends at school, and decided to give it a try, even though she was already swimming and on the soccer team. “It’s different,” she adds. “I like it.”
Kasi Cortes, about to start fifth grade, takes things at a more rapid pace, nearly giggling as she bounces over the obstacle. She’s the fastest biker in the group, but says when she started she didn’t know if she could learn.
“At first I was like, ‘I can’t do this, I’m probably not going to learn how to mountain bike.’ But then I tried harder,” Kasi says, noting she has even started racing, with two first-place and two second-place finishes to her credit.
Donelson sees The Cycle Effect’s rigor as something that sets the program apart from other biking nonprofits. Racing is encouraged, but not required. A lot of the girls aren’t thrilled about the idea of competing, but learn to enjoy it, Donelson says. Some girls race five times in a year, while some race 25.
Through racing, he says, kids are able to learn to handle their nerves in high-pressure situations.
“The same nervous emotional feeling that kids feel at a race start is the same nervous emotional feelings they’re going to feel before they go into a job interview, before they go into a scholarship interview,” Donelson says. “Racing helps them learn that that feeling is going to come and then it’s going to go away.”
This year, one of The Cycle Effect athletes competed in the U.S. nationals for mountain bike racing. This weekend, 12 athletes will compete in the Colorado High School Cycling League championships in Durango.
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“When they’re on the start line racing against other people, it’s challenging,” Flynn says. “I think it just teaches them the determination and perseverance to try new things, which I think is important for any youth.”
While The Cycle Effect is foremost about mountain biking, the program’s low student-to-coach ratio means adults also help connect kids with resources outside of biking.
Coaches regularly check in with the girls about their grades, and put them in touch with tutors if they can use extra help. One of the nonprofit’s board members meets with kids one on one, helps out with books and teaches test-prep skills. Flynn says that like mountain biking, some girls don’t realize that college is an option for them.
“We’re not necessarily providing college prep, but we call it college readiness, where we’re talking to them at a very young age about college and about dreaming big,” Flynn says. “And by no means are we saying that that is the only option for your future, but that it is an option. A lot of them don’t know that.”
To smooth the path, The Cycle Effect encourages girls to get started on scholarship applications early and helps with the process. If they finish high school and start college, they take their bikes with them. Even before getting their bike permanently, the girls have access to the trailers where they’re stored, so they’re not dependent on a coach for supervision.
“If they have a horrible day on Thursday and they just got in an argument with, I don’t know, a family member or friend or something, and they want to go ride their bike and a coach isn’t available, we want them to be able to go pick up their bike and go ride it,” Donelson says.
College is a long way off for Esme and Kasi. Still, Donelson doesn’t think you can start teaching toughness too young.
“Are we learning anything here that we can use in other parts of our lives?” he asks as the group stops for water under the shade of a juniper.
“To never give up!” Kasi shouts.