When Anamaria Montes saddled up for her very first mountain bike race, a local uphill grind in Vail, Colorado called the Davos Dash, her expectations were pretty measured—after all, the seventh-grader had only just picked up the sport two days prior.
Montes’ mood paralleled the rolling terrain on that inaugural spin. During the initial climb, she cranked too hard while trying to keep up with more experienced riders and bonked. She wanted to quit. That is, until she crested the loop’s highpoint, which revealed a gorgeous panorama of the snowcapped Rockies. Perched at the drop, her exhaustion suddenly replaced by pure psych, Montes bombed downhill. “I was like—Yeah, I feel like a bad girl!” she says. “I felt really free.”
Oh, and that race she attempted two days later? Montes snagged second place.
It was only a few months earlier that Montes, now a 16-year-old high school junior, first heard of The Cycle Effect, a nonprofit that uses mountain biking as a conduit to promote not only physical activity, but also emotional wellness, community engagement, and leadership development among middle and high school girls.
Her best friend participated in The Cycle Effect’s core program, which includes weekly training sessions and a stout race schedule, and begged Montes to join the team. But even though she was raised in the shadow of the Vail Valley’s world-class trails after her parents relocated there from Mexico, Anamaria never pictured herself on a bike. She had a cousin who always wound up in the hospital after pulling wild stunts on his own rig; she wasn’t like him.
But one fateful night, Montes sang at a school talent show. Her best friend was there, too—and she’d invited Brett Donelson, The Cycle Effect’s founder, and his wife Tam, a pro racer and coach with the organization, to sit in the audience. When her friend encouraged Montes to introduce herself to the couple, Donelson replied, “Why aren’t you riding bikes with us?” It took several months of cajoling, but she eventually relented. Almost five years later, she can’t imagine a life without dirt under her tires. “It’s leaving all my worries, all the stress, the anxiety—every little thing—behind,” says Montes. “And just letting go.”
Long before The Cycle Effect launched, Donelson helped other young people follow their dreams in the mountains as a coach for elite ski racers, the kind who gun for a spot on the U.S. national team. Tam was also a ski coach, and the two spent years chasing winter before putting down roots in the Vail Valley, where they started mountain biking as a summer hobby. Though he and Tam pursued careers in personal training, Donelson missed working with a younger demographic. But instead of coaching well-resourced kids already stacked with advantages, he wondered if it was possible to establish a mountain bike program that would allow less privileged kids—say, ones whose parents form the mostly Latinx, low-income workforce that powers the area’s famous ski resorts— to access the same kind of serious long-term training and support? After spending a few years in pilot mode under the umbrella of another organization, The Cycle Effect launched as a standalone in 2013.
Although she’d already gone pro by the time the organization launched, Tam’s earliest experiences on a bike were less than inspired. She struck out when searching for mentors and women-focused education, and felt frustrated on trail, despite the joy of riding. “I was like a bull in a china shop. I had the power and fitness, but didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” she says. “There weren’t any clinic or workshop opportunities for me, so I wanted to provide that specifically for girls.”
Donelson was on board—and after an exhaustive search for sponsors, so was Liv Cycling, a brand that’s focused on getting women of all ages on trail; they now provide bikes and other gear to The Cycle Effect. Some in the community weren’t as convinced, however, that a single-gender focus was the right one. As the program grew and its participants began competing in local and state races, the Donelsons repeatedly fielded the question, “But don’t boys deserve this, too?” Donelson’s answer is always “Yes.” But The Cycle Effect is going to keep its single-gender focus because it works: getting girls on bikes helps get everyone on bikes.
“A father shows up to the end of practice and he’s like, ‘Hey, can I borrow your bike? I’m going to race my daughter.’ And then his daughter goes out and smokes him. I mean, absolutely crushes him. And then the brothers will jump on bikes because their sisters are doing it,” says Brett. “Whether that’s right or wrong, it still means that if girls get on bikes, more people in their families are going to get on bikes.”
And he’s right—Montes’ 13-year-old sister is now part of the program, and her parents, once skeptical of their daughter’s new hobby, want to ride, as well. In fact, they’re not the only ones—after a community member asked whether Donelson would consider teaching a few of the participants’ mothers some bike basics this fall, he volunteered to host an unofficial one-off clinic of sorts for ten people; more than double that showed up, with another sixty asking to be waitlisted. To Donelson’s surprise, they kept showing up, even as the mercury plummeted. Now Tam says that volunteering to host these Tuesday night rides, full of laughter and joy and community, is her favorite part of the week.
While the organization certainly offers professional coaching and racing opportunities, The Cycle Effect is just as much about what happens off the bike. Participants are supported in their search for jobs and college applications. They’re required to participate in community service and public speaking activities, both of which help with employability and college acceptance. And they’re encouraged to become mentors to others in the program, something Montes has taken to heart. “I looked up to a lot of people when I was younger, but I never really had someone I looked up to specifically for being brave, for being outgoing—especially a woman. So, when I met Tam, I was like—Wow. I want to be that woman in a girl’s life.”
Some of the program’s effects so far have been fairly measurable—say, the fact that there’s a 100% high school graduation rate for those who stick with the program. Or that forty participants so far have gone on to college. Or that many of those graduates and college students are the first in their family to have achieved those milestones. But Donelson is most excited about how The Cycle Effect’s participants excel when it comes to the concept of “grit”—what he calls a “long-term perseverance toward goals.”
“We’ve measured our girls against the national Gallup polls for grit indicators and determination indicators, and we show up 10 to 15% higher than the average local kid—and 20% higher than the average national kid. And this idea of ‘grit’ is one of the single best indicators of college success,” he explains. “I think it’s because they get to a root or a rock feature that they can’t ride one day and then after two or three weeks they come back and they’re riding them. They learn, I may have failed today but eventually, [my] skill and power just overcome that obstacle.”
For Tam, success is measured by something more esoteric. It’s in the young women who show up week after week, month after month, determined to do their best. It’s in the emotional bonds they form with one another. It’s in what Anamaria calls the development of “a second family”—complete with phone calls, text updates, invitations to ride long after a participant has aged out of the program. Tam talks about one in particular who seemed to struggle on every ride; she finally asked why the young woman kept showing up. The reply? “Because Brett said that he was proud of me, and nobody has ever said that before.”
As The Cycle Effect continues to demonstrate its worth to the young women and communities it serves, the program’s funding has stabilized enough that the Donelsons hope they can expand to other parts of Colorado. In the more immediate future, they’re preparing for an annual shredfest on the famous Moab slickrock. Even though she’s currently healing from a hip injury sustained while running track, and exacerbated by going hard on the bike, Montes hopes to join the crew. For the views. For the camaraderie. But most of all, for the way it all makes her feel.
“If you think about it, it’s a dangerous sport; you really put yourself out there. You come to realize—Wow, I’m really brave. I’m really strong. I think I can do anything,” says Montes. “It makes you feel unstoppable.”