Before HS state champs, locals find power in pedaling with The Cycle Effect
October 23, 2016
When Valeria Fernandez visited her grandfather in Zacatecas, Mexico, a couple of summers ago, he asked why she had so many bruises on her arms and legs. When she told him they were a result of mountain biking, his reaction wasn't what she expected.
"He said, 'Are you having fun?'" Fernandez said. "I was a little surprised, because mountain biking is nothing that you'd ever see in Mexico and definitely nothing girls would do. But he supports me. He knows that mountain biking has changed my life."
A senior at Battle Mountain High School, Fernandez and her teammate, Jacqueline Alvarez, competed in the Colorado High School State Mountain Bike Championships in Eagle on Sunday. Unlike many of the competitors, they are not out to win, or even to compete — at least not against the other racers.
Alvarez and Fernandez are captains for The Cycle Effect, a nonprofit group founded by Brett and Tam Donelson with a mission to empower and enrich the lives of teenage girls through mountain biking. The team, comprised of about 80 female athletes, has branches in Eagle, Edwards and Summit County. They compete in races throughout Colorado and the State Championships marks their last race of the season.
Alvarez joined the team four years ago as a freshman. Fernandez followed her sophomore year. Alvarez's first season was spent pedaling through a curtain of tears, floundering to keep the other riders in sight at every race.
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Fernandez, though more cheerful about biking, was not what you would call a natural on two wheels. The two questioned whether they were cut out for it — and they weren't the only ones.
"I didn't think either of them would make it," Brett Donelson said. "They weren't super-athletic. They were always in the back of the group. It's really hard to watch 20 girls ride away all the time, but now they're team captains and love to ride their bikes. They're going to practice, working and taking care of their siblings. And it's amazing what they're doing in school."
Both Fernandez and Alvarez have managed to maintain a "B" average since joining the team. The Cycle Effect requires that riders keep their grades up and pursue a college path in order to be a part of the team.
Alvarez, whose family comes from Michoacán, Mexico, would like to pursue a career as a paralegal, beginning her studies at Colorado Mountain College in order to stay connected to the team.
"I'm really interested in law and business but my wish is to go to college here," Alvarez said. "I want to help out with the team and give back to the younger girls."
Los Angeles to Edwards
It was a couple of former Cycle Effect captains who recruited Alvarez shortly after she had moved to Colorado. She had spent her childhood moving from neighborhood to neighborhood in Los Angeles and Las Vegas with her brother, living in garages for several months in a crime-ridden area of LA as her mother worked two jobs and struggled to provide food.
"I didn't realize how different it was from there to here," Alvarez said. "Here you can actually enjoy many things and appreciate a lot around you. You can walk down the street and feel safe."
Nonetheless, Alvarez didn't have much ambition when she landed in the Vail area. She was skipping class and her grades were suffering. She didn't do much after school besides look for trouble. She had never ridden a bike farther than a block or two before starting with The Cycle Effect. In spite of her initial tears and frustration, though, she kept at it.
"I would give it my all in every race, but I was still last," she said. "People would ask, 'Why are you still racing?' I didn't know. But every time I finished the race, I would feel accomplished. I would feel positive."
Alvarez fondly remembers the first time she didn't come last in a race. (It turns out Fernandez took that position when she joined the team.)
"I had never been on a bike with pedals, but I thought practice was fun because all the girls were helpful," Fernandez said. "They would distract me from bad things I could be doing. In races, I would mostly laugh and Jacqui would do the crying. I would keep going. I thought it was funny how Jacqui and I would be the last ones."
All about the finish line
To date, neither of the two has ever given up or failed to complete a race. They press on, no matter the difficulty of the course or the struggles along the way.
"We've always finished … even if it's three hours later," Alvarez said, laughing.
As for struggles, the most memorable race for Fernandez was the time she was following Alvarez down a steep descent, when her friend suddenly went over the handlebars after blowing a tire.
"At first she wanted to cry, but we both ended up laughing," Fernandez said. "We had to drag the bike downhill and walked it all the way to the finish."
Fernandez's parents and younger sisters travel to most of her races, cheering her on and dashing out to hug her after she crosses the finish line. She's recruited her 12-year-old sister to join the team, and in many ways considers herself a second mother to her siblings.
"They all look up to me like a role model; that's why I feel pressure," Fernandez said. "But something has to pressure you to do your best. My sisters are that. They are my motivation because they'll follow in my footsteps and do something good for themselves."
Her predilection to provide advice and help others has sparked Fernandez's interest in pursuing a career as a pediatrician. She has her sights set on Mesa State College or the University of Colorado-Denver.
"I want to be here in state, but not here in town," she said. "But I'm carrying my bike anywhere I go."
Mountain biking has helped both Fernandez and Alvarez reach their potential. They view it as a metaphor for navigating life's difficulties and accomplishing their goals — for reaching the finish line, no matter the obstacles or circumstances.
"It's like a quote that I once saw: 'It's not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves,'" Alvarez said.
"It's shown me the true value of hard work," Fernandez added. "Before this I didn't think about going to college. I thought I'd just end up working like my parents do. But now I know if you work hard at something, you can do anything you want. It's all about the uphills and downhills. When you're riding an uphill, it's going to be super hard. But after your hard work, the downhill is the best thing ever."
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