Durango is famous for its world-class mountain biking and road riding, and it’s the home to many professional and Olympic cyclists. But until the last decade, the town did not have a successful, dedicated, long-term program for junior cyclists. That all changed when two former Skyhawks cyclists founded Durango Devo, a program dedicated to developing young riders in a traditional team setting.
“Our main mission is to get kids on bikes and create lifelong cyclists,” says Chad Cheeney (Exercise Science, ’03). “We’re mainly teaching them to love the sport in a team setting. And we hope we’re also teaching these kids to be respectable and good community members.”
Today, Durango Devo offers programs for kids ages 1½ to 18 and across all bicycling disciplines, from push bikes to mountain bikes, and from bike packing to bike polo. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit program engages more than 900 junior riders each year, with the support of between 70 and 100 coaches from the community and the FLC cycling team. Youth participants are grouped according to grade level and interest. And while Durango is a mecca of world-class competitive cycling, Devo’s programs put the emphasis on skills and teamwork rather than racing success.
“We just do races as a life-building experience,” Cheeney says. “It teaches a kid how to handle stress and overcome obstacles. Probably the trickiest thing about our organization is that we’re not just for the racers. And we stand out from all the other teams across the nation because we have just as strong a non-racing group as racing. And still, our racing group is the highest level. It’s crazy. No other sport can do that.”
Cheeney was a big-time ball sports player in his youth, he says, and he was motivated in co-founding Devo to bring ball sports mentalities to cycling, which he found lacking. He saw so much cycling in Durango when he moved here for school, but he saw little connectivity. With that mentality in Devo, riders show up for their scheduled practices each week. And even if you’re the fastest kid in the nation, you’re going to show up and ride with the slowest kid in town, because you’re on the same team.
“They learn from that interaction,” Cheeney says. “They’re going to figure out that dynamic and learn to be a model for the slower kids. Then they’ll learn from the slower kids, too. You ride with other people because it’s going to give you all these skills for life.”
Part of the Devo model is identifying coaches whom the riders can relate to, in addition to learning cycling skills from them. Co-founders Cheeney and Sarah Tescher, ATT ’04-’05) still coach teams themselves, and they are always finding new people to take over different groups. One fertile coaching training ground is the FLC cycling team, for which Tescher is a former rider and Cheeney is the head mountain bike coach, head cyclocross coach, and assistant road coach.
“I think having those young, fun people to work with the kids helps,” Cheeney says. “A lot of programs can’t stoke as much enthusiasm as a young college student who’s doing tricks and going to races. The kids cling to those. And we have a lot of those kind of coaches. I think we just have this amazing influx of local passion and young cyclists.”
It’s nearly impossible to imagine Durango’s cycling landscape without Devo as a crucial part of it. But not only are such youth programs rare in the cycling world—they used to be rare in Durango, too.
“If you wanted to be a bike racer, you had to go ride with old guys or read the magazines, which would tell you how Lance Armstrong trains,” Cheeney says. “So kids, juniors, were trying to train like a pro at a pubescent age, just destroying themselves and not even loving it.”
Cheeney himself felt the lack of helpful junior programs himself, when he was growing up and riding in Bend, Oregon, another strong bicycling community. Every event he rode, he looked for people to help him learn what to do. But he found nobody to offer him good advice for being on a cycling team.
He felt lost. So after he came to Fort Lewis College and rode with the cycling team, he started coaching some local high school riders who felt the same way.
“They were riding and training, but not able to perform,” he says. “They weren’t getting good national results, but they should have been, in my mind. Just like I could have been helped more.”
After graduating, Cheeney continued to ride professionally, but he always kept a notebook where he wrote down ideas for team names and doodled team logos. The idea of working with young riders stuck with him.
In 2006, he connected with Tescher, who had been leading middle school group rides. The two of them hatched the idea for a new team. They invited every junior rider they knew to a classroom at the Durango Arts Center and pitched them the concept of a local team. Three practices a week. One race a month. The riders would learn how to manage themselves through a big race weekend, how to support each other, and how to perform their best.
Then Tescher had the idea to start a feeder program for their new team: a noncompetitive weekly outlet for younger riders. The idea was a smash success. They had twenty-five or thirty riders that first year, and by year five, Cheeney says, they had nearly five hundred riders.
Despite the impressive participation numbers, he admits that a nonprofit program like Durango Devo is a challenge to keep afloat. Many junior programs in the past lasted about five years, he says, before they outgrew the coaches and participants and their families. The fact that Devo is in its 13th year is pretty special, he says. And he sees the potential for so much more, if Devo’s alumni from the first decade-plus are any indication.
For instance, Devo’s professional alumni include Howard Grotts (Mathematics, ’14) (Team USA’s sole mountain biking representative for the 2016 Olympics), Christopher Blevins (national champion in U23 mountain biking and U23 cyclocross), and Quinn Simmons (two-time mountain biking junior national champion).
“I rode with those kids ever since they were little,” Cheeney says. “And now they’re all around the world winning huge races at a young age. I think in another ten years, it could be really sweet.”
There’s a lot of dedication and a ton of time that goes into creating these lifelong cyclists, whether they’re elite-level racers or weekend cruisers. Cheeney’s and Tescher’s stewardship has brought Durango Devo this far—with some help from this corner of the world, for sure.
“It’s not just Devo that’s putting these faces on the map,” Cheeney says. “It’s the perfect storm. There are places in Brazil where all the stars come from these little communities. There’s the Russian communities that produce tennis stars. They just have all the things that help someone go to the top, and we have that here.”
“I can’t claim I knew it when we started Devo,” he says, “but now in hindsight I see that we have this rich history of hosting the Worlds. We have pros living here. We have so many shops to support all these cyclists. And our trails, and the College, and this successful college team. The high country, the season, the elevation, the terrain. We have really challenging terrain that's really close to home. It’s easy for kids to ride after school, go to a trailhead and get world-class level riding in under their belt, all in an hour and a half. All these little things connected.”
“We just scooped up all the good stuff and put it in a package and made that easy to see for families and kids,” he adds. “It was always there, but it wasn’t always connected.”
Now, though, the connections are mapped out for the entire community to access. When Cheeney finishes a ride and the kids all want to linger to talk bikes one more time—“That’s when I go home and I’m stoked,” he says.