The Cycle Effect: Changing Girls' Lives
We sat down with Brett Donelson, Founder and Executive Director of The Cycle Effect, an organization providing young women in the community the opportunity to participate in organized mountain biking to build "grit" on and off the bike.
Tell me about Cycle Effect's mission?
We aim to empower young women through mountain biking, to achieve brighter futures, and to build stronger communities. Essentially, we work with young women in the Vail and Eagle Summit Counties to help them race and ride mountain bikes - girls who would never have that opportunity. Most of them don't have that opportunity because of financial need. We break down all the barriers for financial need for these girls to really be a part of a year-long program that's going to build a lifestyle with the girl instead of just giving them an experience.
There are a lot of programs that give them two or three days at a time and then go back to their normal life. We coach these girls - some of them - from January until the last weekend at State Championships; and we're with them every week. Of course, if they go away they're not going to be with us, but if they're in town, they're with us every week riding bikes.
We put a lot of emphasis on building a long-term lifestyle with these girls.
As they get older and grow, we help them find college scholarships. We help them be ready for college admissions, interviews, things like that. We are constantly working on public speaking with them; making sure their grades are up; making sure if they honestly want a job out in the community, there are a lot of local businesses that love to employ our girls because they are responsible, they do understand accountability and things like that. We really have a system where a six grader doesn't have much accountability but by the time they get to Sophomore/Junior/Seniors and are captains, we are really working with them a lot.
Wow. And why did you decide to do mountain biking? Like instead of road or cross or track?
Personally, I just like mountain biking so much more. Where we live, the road biking is great, but there's not a lot of flat road biking and we want the girls to get up into the woods. They live 200 yards from trails and have never been on them. They don't get up there. So we wanted to get them into the wilderness. We think that teaches kind of a more tougher mindset: being out and dealing with the elements more than you would certainly with track or that kind of stuff, but even on road up here. We're out and we're constantly seeing deer and animals and falling and getting hurt. From an organizational standpoint, the safety of it. We don't want a group of not necessarily experienced girls riding bikes on the road.
The downhill on a mountain bike is a lot more fun than a downhill on a road bike. You know, it's just more fun, so we've always done that and every once in a while we'll get asked to do road or something like that and we're just like, "No, that's not our thing." There are plenty of other organizations out there that ride bikes in all sorts of ways, but we think that mountain biking is really what teaches these girls the most.
And one other piece of that is that we have a great mountain bike race series up here, whereas there's no road series around here. These girls can race in their backyard on a mountain bike.
We believe racing is really important because it teaches them to deal with the emotional nerves you feel when you get up on a start line; the not giving up every 30 seconds when you want to on a climb; the calming your fears as you're about to descend with a bunch of people around you.
We think the emotional aspect of it is huge in racing, so we make all our girls race and like I said, there's no road options up here for that.
Yeah. How have you seen their mountain bike skills transfer over to their lives off the bike?
One of the major things we try to build in our girls is this term called, "grit," which is long-term determination and perseverance towards a long-term goal. The reason why we try to make sure these girls gain that is that it's one of the biggest and best indicators for college success. You know, having these kids be able to hit a wall or hit an obstacle and find a way over it, around it, under it, whatever; creative problem-solving that a lot of kids are not learning these days.
We think that sending them out into the woods, dealing with even just a little rock step-up from a skill standpoint. They're not going to get it their first time, but then they come back a second or third week and when they get it, that gets implanted into their brain: "Hey, I couldn't do that before and now I can." Or a certain climb or a certain technical downhill feature or they didn't know how to change a flat. Well, you learn really quickly when you're out in the woods.
You start paying attention. It's not like some massive, "A-ha" moment for each girl. It's these long-term, repetitive, tiny little successes and failures and successes and failures over years that builds this grit mindset. We can't take all the credit for it. It's not like our program is the only thing they're learning this in, but we see a direct relationship with the sport we chose and the girls learning this a lot.
From a skill standpoint, we have girls that absolutely don't how to brake, don't know how to shift gears, don't know how to do anything when they get on a bike.
Some of them have ridden a bike on a paved bike path, you know, when they were four, and then they show up to us brand new to biking and then, within 4-5 weeks, they're racing in a mountain town's race series. It's pretty amazing.
Of course, there are definitely learning curves, but one of our girls from Summit this year just won the State Championship for Sophomore girls. Those are fast, fast, fast, fast kids and so, not only are we trying to make them better people and build them towards college - that's our end goal - but these girls actually have – if they show up to practice – get a lot better.
Kind of how life works: you show up, you become better. You practice, you get better. There are no secret sauces here.
You know, they have good coaches, but it's really showing up and getting experience.
Are there any requirements for the girls to get into this program? Obviously, if you're telling me if they've never had to learn how to brake before, they probably don't need bike experience, but are there any requirements to get in?
We're five years into our program and it definitely had to grow very organically. The first couple of years, it was actually a real challenge to get the girls we work with to come out and ride bikes because it was so foreign to them. It was just such a different activity. They played a lot of soccer, they're incredibly family-involved, and things like that; but going out in the woods and getting dirty is not exactly what these girls were used to. So, it's really happened organically and we've never turned any girl away. Any girl that's shown up to our program, we have accepted.
We've had a lot of experience working with kind of a lower income, Hispanic culture. That's kind of what we're known for. But we have girls from all schools in our valleys, in our counties, all schools, all demographics, and what we're excited about is this year, the school district and us are partnering so that they can start identifying girls they think will be a great fit for us.
We want to continue to focus on girls who need financial help because that's what we're good at.
We have 75 bikes, we have helmets, we have shoes, we have everything. We have kits from you guys. We've done a really good job at finding that in-kind sponsorship portion, so there's - this is a very long answer to your question - there's no real strict requirements. Essentially, fifth grade to twelve grade. By the time they get into college, some of them are coming back in the summer to help coach for us and things like that. We will try and continue to focus on lower income kids, but we see just as big a change in more affluent kids that maybe just need more emotional support, or they need a new group of friends because they're getting bullied or things like that. We've seen amazing changes in the social and emotional realm within these girls no matter what demographic they're coming from.
Wow. That's amazing. So what kind of mentorship do you do? It sounds like it's not just training and learning how to ride a bike. Like, you made it abundantly clear that you guys are helping them in all aspects of their life. You just mentioned bullying.
We don't have a specific curriculum to deal with bullying. We have a mentorship program that basically, our coaches become these girls' mentors; they become their best friends on some level; they become the people they turn to when they have problems because a lot of their families are very busy. They're working potentially multiple jobs to make sure their kids have a great life. Or, there's definitely a language barrier, so the college scholarship application process is completely foreign to them.
In fact, before they met us, a lot of them didn't think college was even an option. They didn't expect their kids to go to college, so when these girls have those kinds of questions about the world, a lot of times it's our coaches they come to first. Our coaches are in constant communication with, I would say, half our girls. The other half, you know, maybe our coach isn't the most important person in their life, but for a lot of these girls, they're really important. So, that being said, it's not like we have some strict anti-bullying curriculum, but if something's happening, our coaches are going to find out about it. We’re going to be the ear that they want to talk to and we can help them find the right resources to help them in a specific situation.
If a girl is getting an F, we're going to make sure she has the right tutor. It's that kind of stuff. For some of our girls, there might be an immigration problem, or something like that, and we're going to probably be the ear they go to and we will find either a lawyer on our board or somebody in the community that can help that process. We're kind of just the go-to and then we, as an organization, will go out and find the resources they need.
Is the mentorship sort of part of this personalized programming that you guys offer? I noticed on the website you said that there's kind of a personalized programming. Can you tell me more about that?
Because we're five years old, we change pretty much every three or four months. Any sort of personalized programming for that girl is simply set up by their coach. It's not like they're on TrainingPeaks getting a personalized endurance plan or something like that. That being said, we have had three or four girls who've come to us and said, "Brett, this is what I want to do. These are my goals. Help me get there." Two years ago, we had a girl go to California for US Nationals. That's so far beyond what the majority of our girls do, but that's what that one girl wanted to do.
Another girl came to us and said, "Brett, I want to be Top 10 by my Senior year in state, for State Championships." It's like, "Okay, that is a big, big goal. We're going to have to work separately." So, 80% of the girls fall into the same type of category.
If a girl comes to us with that kind of level of dream or goal, then we'll create a more personalized plan and make sure her coach is following up with that.
How many coaches do you have?
We just hired two more people, so we have four full-time people in our organization. By 2018, we'll have 6-8 quarter-time coaches; part-time coaches, that are unbelievably committed. They do a lot more work than that, but that's what they've agreed to get paid for because they used to be volunteers.
Then we'll have another group of 15-20 volunteer coaches that show up as best they can within their schedule. It takes a lot, you know. To have a group of ten girls out there, you really want three coaches because again, this group is so new to the sport. Some girls need their own private sweep or coach for a couple of weeks to get them up and running and then you get two girls who get flats in that practice and it really spreads out the group. It's not like a soccer field. It's girls getting spread out over miles in the woods and things like that. So yeah, we try to get a lot of people involved.
Are they mostly women coaches or is it a mixture of men and women coaches?
It used to be about half and half, men and women. Now I think I'm the only male involved. We’re not opposed to having men involved at all because I think these girls need to see strong male role models in their life, but we've made a shift to move from the "bike coaches" to more teachers and non-profit people that understand the diverse needs of this population.
We started out with just bike coaches and we didn't necessarily have the softer side that these kids needed. They needed more support, they needed more fun, they needed more laughs. They didn't need to do more intervals.
When you say "intervals" then they're like, "I'm not coming back." They needed more champions in their life, so we've moved really towards having more teachers involved and that just happens to be a lot of women right now. So again, we're not opposed to it, but the majority of our coaches are definitely female.
That just led me to thinking of the newest video you guys just released and I first saw it at the Colorado Bike Summit. It starts off with that quote, "empowered women, empower women."
I love it. It's a great quote. I don't even look at it as the "empowered women" in the first half, I've never even looked at it from the coach’s aspect of it. I've only looked at it as when our girls become empowered, they empower more. I've always looked at it as the older girls are empowering the younger girls. And as they grow up, they're going to empower the young women in their families. I've never even looked at it from the coach’s perspective. I love that the girls in our program are being empowered and what they do to the rest of the people in their lives.
For instance, their little sisters who are now in third grade, begging to be in the program and I'm like, "Just give me a year. Give me two years and you're in."
That's amazing. That's really cool. So then, where did the name, "Cycle Effect" come from?
I think my wife. I'm pretty sure she came up with it. So, this was five or six years ago, we knew we were starting our organization, and we wanted to make a logo and a name that wasn't super female-specific. We thought, that you know, yes, it's going to be a female-specific program, but I think a lot of programs go over-the-top with how gender-specific it is.
I didn't want people to look at it and look at the name, and go, "Oh, it's just a cute little bike team" or something like that. I mean, we have bigger goals than that.
We sat there and drew on notepads for weeks and weeks and weeks and we were calling it all sorts of different things and then she just linked those together and we were like, "Absolutely. That's the name." There was no like, amazing, a-ha, rock band moment.
You know, where we're sitting on a rock and realize, "Oh, that's it." No, it was just sitting around our table and all of a sudden she was like, "What about this?"
You used to be a Head Coach for a woman's alpine team, so why did you make the switch over to teaching girls how to mountain bike?
I thought I was a lifetime alpine coach. I had actually left that job thinking that I'd probably get a job with the U.S. Ski Team at the time. And so I was fully on my way to lots of skiing. That’s how my wife and I met. We met in Australia. We've gone back-to-back winters for many years and that was my entire life.
When I left and this other job didn't work out, I was kind of stuck, and I just kind of became a commercial personal trainer because I knew that you could make some money that way and kind of hit my wheelhouse at some level. I liked it, but during that time is when we started riding bikes, so I didn't really ride bikes a lot until 2008.
We were so sick of the snow that biking was the great antithesis to that and it was like, "Oh man, we love being in Fruita in dry dirt in February." We'd go there for the weekends instead of going 10 minutes to the ski mountain near our house.
When I was personal training, I just really missed seeing kids on a regular basis and seeing them improve over years and years and years. There was kind of these incredible circumstances that came together and next thing I knew I was volunteering, running this little tiny bike team under a youth-serving non-profit's umbrella.
After two years of that, I thought, "If I don't do this, somebody else is going to and I'm going to hate myself if I don't do it."
Basically, selfishly, I thought, "I'm going to see if this works."
The other reason, going back to the name, a lot of things are geographically-named and we wanted to make sure we didn't limit ourselves geographically either. The non-profit we were working under was a Vail Valley-only non-profit, so when we left, we wanted to make sure we had a name that said, "Hey, this can work in Summit; this can work in other mountain towns we're going to try to get to in the next couple years; or on the front range or something like that."
We wanted the name to be somewhat vague, in a way, so we'd have a lot of options 'cause we didn't know exactly the direction we'd go when we started. We had an idea. We had a concept, but our model changes. It's obviously pliable. It's not something we've had for 15 years and studied.
What's been your proudest moment so far with Cycle Effect? It's a toughie.
It is and I guess I have two.
Okay, that's fair.
First, we had a coach get-together last week. I stood around and saw a group of about 15 women coaches that didn't know each other 6 months ago. They are now essentially best friends that are going riding together, they're going out, and all of a sudden taking trips to Moab together. Personally, one of the things I'm proud of is the network we've built and the really amazing culture we've built that only is going to reflect on to our girls. I guess that does translate to the amazing people we've put together to help work with these girls. So that's one thing.
And from a girl's perspective, this is almost impossible to choose. I'm just gonna go with this one:
Any girl that's been in our program for three years has gone to college and about 80% of these girls would be first in their families to go.
And we had a couple girls this year that told me they were on track to go to our local community college, Colorado Mountain College, which is a fantastic school. I was like, "Great, that sounds awesome, good for you. You can stay involved in the program." That kind of stuff. I find out six weeks later from their little sister. I was like, "Tell your sister to come to practice" and they're like, "Well, how, she's in Grand Junction." I was like, "What do you mean?" And the girl basically didn't tell me - which is great because that means that they're becoming a responsible, young adult - that they had received full scholarships to Colorado Mesa University and are going there for four years on a full ride.
They didn't even think to tell me. That, to me, is showing that we are building these kids to be self-sufficient and to look after themselves and to take care of themselves.
The fact that we've helped them. They will directly say that our program was the way they got those scholarships and that they handled it themselves and weren't kind of paralyzed by the deer-in-the-headlight look like, "Oh my god, what do I do. What's my next step?" The fact that they took it upon themselves and got those scholarships and they're there, to me, that's what we're trying to do.
I'm sure there's tiny, smaller, cuter anecdotal stories, like "Oh, my parents came to my first race ever" or something like that, but really, I mean, that's what we're building.
We're building this self-sufficiency and this grit that these girls are displaying in their life every single day.
I mean, I was never taught what I needed to do to apply to College and stuff and it's awesome you can get that from something that you'd never expect. You'd never expect to learn those kinds of things by going to a mountain bike club, essentially.
And we have to be really careful with this wording because we used to put in our stuff, "College-Prep," and people thought you're studying for SATs and that's not what we do. We make our girls so dead-set that they're going and then if we're successful then we don't have to do anything for those girls. They're on top of their application. I mean, we check in with them.
The girls that need more help, we'll find help for, but if we're doing our job right, when they get from 6th to 10th grade, then they take on these challenges essentially by themselves using the resources that are there and they learn how to use them. That's what we're teaching them by taking them up into the woods and having them deal with stuff and fix in 7th grade.
Opposite of that, what do you struggle with? What's your biggest struggle? And you can interpret that however you want.
I guess I'll give you two again:
One of the biggest struggles is the girls are used to soccer seasons or volleyball seasons or other sports seasons that are two months long and we're asking them to commit to our program two days a week, maybe three days a week if we're volunteering or there's another race like that, for ten months. Switching that mindset is really hard.
From an adult standpoint, we can conceptualize 10 months. A 6th grader does not conceptualize 10 months, so that's always a struggle. We'll have girls who'll be with us for 3 or 4 months and we look at it like, "Aw, she didn't make it to high school season" or something like that, but she just committed to something for three times longer than she ever has in her entire life.
You know, so we're focused on these numbers, and what we need to continue to celebrate is the fact that these girls are getting out of their comfort zone all the time and that girl that's only there for 3 or 4 months, the next year she'll probably come back for six. Then she'll probably come back for 8. By the time she gets to be that Junior, Senior, she's really engaged with us and sees the whole vision. So that's really one of the biggest struggles is to get the girls and their families to see our long-term plan and buy into it.
Obviously, it has to be fun, but they also need to know that we have a plan for your daughters and if they just keep showing up then they will have the success you see all these older girls having. So that's one thing, just displaying that message to them.
From an organization standpoint: I think fear of just the unknown. We're a fast, fast growing organization and you know, our next step will probably be geographical growth and just kind of wrapping our heads around that like, "What does that look like?" It's an unknown. We're an organization that's pretty much every day hitting an unknown and that if you have a program for 20 years and you're pretty much doing the same thing every day, you kind of know what's coming.
For us, we don't know what’s coming and sometimes that can be really scary. It's also very exciting.
The biggest thing: the fear of the unknown, of how fast we're growing, and what the next steps are, things like that. You know, you can have as many strategic plans as you want, but that's just continuing to stay true in that direction and realizing everything's new for us.
Well, I guess you're embodying your grit. You're pushing through.
Yes. No kidding. I read the stuff that we write about on the girls and I think, "Oh, I should believe that. I should have some of that too." It's definitely 70% exciting, but that 30% can creep in there sometimes. Of the unknown, it's like, "Oh god, should we do this?" and so far, well, I guess the other last hard part is we're getting approached by so many organizations, so many people that want us to do certain things, and it's continuing to stay true to exactly what we want to do, which is mountain bikes, girls riding bikes, and going to college.
In the early years, we said yes to everything because we were new, we had to get our name out there, we were like, "Yeah!" Now we need to stop saying "Yes" to so many things and start saying, "No, this is our focus. This is where we need to be."
All that comes into play and I think that 30% where you just don't know. I'm a control freak and I like to know those things, so I totally get it.
Yeah, us trying this with somebody new in a new town, that's a big commitment. And you're putting some control in other people and so far, it's all been under my control, but now as we grow and grow, I can't have control over everything, so we gotta trust the people we bring in. And we're bringing in amazing people, so we're good with it.
Last question and I'll let you get back to packing: why do you ride a bike?
It's the best way for my wife and I to spend time together. We do it together all the time. You know, people talk about the endorphin rush and all that kind of stuff - I'm not sure if I get that. I think it's really fun. I like it and I like knowing that if I'm going to be out for 3 or 4 hours, I'm going to get in a crazy good amount of exercise. Instead of other sports where you may not get that much exercise for putting in that amount of time.
The main reason is that I get to go hang out with these kids. I used to like to race. I used to race bikes and that's how I got into it, but as I'm getting older and kind of busier with work and things like that, I kind of look at it like, the best part about going out and riding bikes is Monday and Wednesday afternoons when I can go hang out with these kids.
For me, it's a way to connect with really great people.
It's a way for me to comfortably connect with these people. It's not like I'm out of my comfort zone, scared, when I go ride with people, so when I get to go ride with the girls, I get to have great conversations with them. I get to meet these amazing people, coaches, that are working with us now, and it's a healthy way to live.