What, we got Izzy in da house?” booms Jaime Brede. Lean and chamois-clad, coach Brede looks like a bike racer but talks like a nightclub emcee, and in fact, most of the high school girls showing up for this afternoon’s mountain bike practice look ready to dance. One wears a black, lace-backed tank top bordered with sequins; another sparkles with rhinestone earrings (one stud black, the other white). But late May sunshine rather than pulses from a strobe illuminates this empty corner of the Breckenridge Recreation Center parking lot, where Summit County’s eight-member Latina Cycle Effect team gathers around the bike trailer that Brede has unlocked.
“Welcome to the day, girls!” calls Brede, who high-fives one attendee for having just graduated from Summit High and hoots with happiness that another got to attend a Lana Del Rey concert. Brede introduces a woman wearing a trucker cap as Anne St. Clair, a Moab mountain bike guide who’s helping lead today’s practice. Then it’s time to unload the bikes from the trailer.
Each Cycle Effect girl has been assigned a steeply discounted, out-of-the-box Giant mountain bike and related gear that she can use throughout the season, which is what distinguishes this nonprofit from other bike outreach programs serving Summit County kids. Organizations such as the Mountain Bike Junior League (where Brede once coached) share Cycle Effect’s goal of making mountain biking more accessible to area youth, but by providing equipment as well as coaching, Cycle Effect appeals to a demographic that hasn’t exactly dominated the cycling scene in Summit County (or anywhere else): Hispanics.
In Eagle and Edwards, where Cycle Effect originated in 2011, about 90 percent of team members are Hispanics who’d never ridden a full-suspension mountain bike, much less raced one. Yet after just two seasons’ development, seven of those Cycle Effect riders joined the Vail Valley High School Mountain Bike Team at last year’s state championships, where they won first place.
In Summit County, Cycle Effect is just getting started: 2014 marks this team’s inaugural season. Brede recruited members by reaching out to area nonprofits—including the Family Intercultural Resource Center, the Frisco Workforce Development Center, Mountain Mentors, and S.O.S. (Snowboard Outreach Society)—so it’s no coincidence that all are Hispanic and that none of the girls at today’s practice has spent much time, if any, on a bike. To prepare for today, they’ve been doing circuit training workouts and spinning on stationary cycles indoors at the Breckenridge Rec Center since mid-April, but outside of that experience, most are putting feet to pedals for the first time.
Brede distributes helmets and helps the girls dial in a safe fit. “OK, missie, these bangs have gotta move,” she says, pushing one cyclist’s hair aside so the helmet covers more of her forehead. “This reminds me of when I got my first helmet, and my husband did this for me,” says Brede, a 37-year-old Breck-based professional cross country MTB racer and Xterra triathlete who took up off-road cycling ten years ago and made her racing debut in the Summit Mountain Challenge (where these newbies will also get their start).
“You’ll get your shoes in a little while, but for today, let’s just get rolling,” Brede proposes as she shows the girls how to fit the front wheel into the frame. One rider asks for help rolling her bike out of the trailer. “Uh-uh,” Brede declines. “I’m not always going to be here to do that for you,” she says, talking the girl through the process rather than taking over herself. Then she offers a few pointers about getting on and off the bike—a skill that most Summit County natives first experience in utero—before leading her flock onto the adjacent lacrosse field.
Brede organizes a few laps on the grass to give the girls some practice at turning. Their mission: to look ahead rather than staring down at their wheels. “There’s an important life lesson here that I want to inject,” shouts Brede. “Always be looking where you want to go, on the bike and in life!” Then Brede and St. Clair escort their wobbly charges onto the River Trail for their first taste of actual singletrack.
An easy trail by mountain bike standards, this dirt path paralleling the Blue River is relatively smooth and flat, with only a few small rocks and rollers to challenge riders. The steepest hills unseat a few girls who fumble with their gearing, but they ride on uncowed. When a narrow bridge appears on the path, no one balks at pedaling up the ledge and between the railings. Brede pauses to let her ducklings regroup.
At any given practice involving a team of high school girls, you’re bound to hear giggles and excited chitchat between the focused effort of drills and rehearsals. But the Cycle Effect girls remain silent and focused on their instructor with an intensity that never relaxes. Their gravity provides the only clue that for them, the “easy” River Trail is a trial by fire. Bravery rather than skill has propelled them over the path’s modest obstacles, and though no one utters a word of complaint, their flushed cheeks attest to the mental and physical effort.
“When the trail gets tough, you’ve got to get into attack mode!” urges Brede, modeling a boxer’s low, aggressive stance. The girls nod. Their bodies have yet to acquire the muscle memory needed to efficiently and aggressively tackle the trail, but their minds have it down pat.
Given Summit County’s preoccupation with living the good life, even locals tend to overlook or ignore the sizable number of cash-strapped people who live and work in Breckenridge, Silverthorne, and Keystone. Yet 12 percent of Summit County residents live below the federal poverty threshold, and 23 percent of students enrolled at Summit High qualify for free or reduced-price lunches; 21 percent of Summit High’s students are Hispanic, typically the children of parents who left Mexico to work for minimum wage or less in the area’s resort service industry—and have little disposable income for luxuries like summer mountain biking camps.
“I would drive by those neighborhoods and think, How many of those kids are dying for something to do?” recalls Brett Donelsen, the founder of Cycle Effect. Short, wiry, and intense, Donelson has a crackling energy and obsession with sport that have established him as an icon in the neighboring Vail Valley. 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. Still, he missed coaching kids.
So in 2011, he launched a bike outreach program that took on various iterations before becoming known as Cycle Effect. “I’ve never found anything that teaches you as much about yourself as cycling,” says Donelson, who envisioned a team that would introduce bikes and their self-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, explaining that most potential sponsors associate Colorado’s resort towns with wealth and luxury. 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 in its infancy. “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 she noticed that she got 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 now in Summit). Financially, the barrier for entry into the program remains artificially low—$95 per season, which “doesn’t really offset our costs very much,” Donelson 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.” The real backing comes from product sponsors and local donors such as Dionysus Hospitality (which operates Kickapoo Tavern, Wolf Rock Tavern, and Luigi’s Pasta House, all in Keystone), which contribute to an annual budget totaling some $247,000. For families that can’t afford $95, girls can pay their way with community service, over and above the hours required of every participant as part of the program.
Girls practice twice a week, and racing is a requirement: this area’s riders race in the Summit Mountain Challenge (on June 25, July 16 & 30, Aug. 6 & 20, and Sept. 7; mavsports.com), just as their Western Slope counterparts compete in the Vail Beaver Creek Mountain Bike Race Series. Those girls have also competed with area high school teams, to great success including the 2103 state championship. “They were on the podium with people they never expected to call teammates,” says Donelson.
Still, for most Cycle Effect participants, the ability to realize previously unseen potential is more meaningful than the podiums. “It isa 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.” 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,” Parish adds.
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 workweek 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.
“Biking has made me more committed to things. Before, I always used to quit everything,” she adds. “I learned how to accept that you’re not born knowing everything. But you can become the best just from practicing, and that’s the most important part.”
Jaime Brede might wear her hair in a ponytail, but she’s no girly girl: she has the sculpted physique, and the mental tenacity, of an endurance athlete. Muscles and tendons ripple beneath her tanned skin, evidencing an elite level of fitness gleaned by training every day and racing some thirty weekends a year. But when she got Donelson’s call about heading up Cycle Effect’s new Summit County team, she was reluctant. “I was in narcissist-athlete mode,” she admits.
Liking the idea of giving back to her community, however, she eventually agreed to serve as the group’s head coach, and now she’s clearly giving her all to her protégés. “If I’d had something like this, it might’ve kept me in better stead,” she admits.
Raised by a single mom in Fort Collins, Brede didn’t just flirt with rebellion as a teen—she reveled in it. At 16 she quit the swim team, where she’d excelled. Then she got kicked out of school for cutting classes. It wasn’t until her senior year that she rediscovered her focus, with the help of some teachers and mentors, when she took up distance running. Eventually, she switched to cycling. “It’s a ticket to personal freedom,” says Brede, a third-generation Coloradan who pedals into the wilds whenever she needs to do some soul-searching. “Mountain biking also teaches toughness. It’s the school of hard knocks, and that translates well to other things.”
Those life lessons are what keeps 18-year-old Isidra Luna coming back. Petite and athletic with high cheekbones and a broad smile, Luna thought the team was just going to ride the paved bike path that afternoon, so rolling down the River Trail delivered more than she’d bargained for. “I thought I would hit rocks and fall off my bike!” she says. “But I got through it, which was a big rush. I just kept looking forward like Jaime told me, and it worked.”
With the Summit team just getting their bike legs, its members haven’t yet encountered the kind of challenges that instilled life-altering confidence in Loera. But rolling over rocks fills them with hope, and Brede, who’s overcome her own personal obstacles, supplies the example of what these girls could become—just maybe, with enough perseverance and courage, if they keep looking ahead.
“I know she works so hard at what she does,” says Luna. “One of my teammates told me she wants to copy Jaime, and I guess we all do. We want to do it like Jaime does.”
But more than Brede’s bike skills, these girls want to emulate the can-do attitude that’s powered Brede up countless mountains, physical and metaphorical. The bikes, they hope, are just the first of many vehicles they’ll learn to master in their race to get to the top.