Julia Violich is on a mission to "keep kids on bikes"
Julia Violich had a “proud mama bear” moment after the first men’s Pro XCT elite race in Arkansas last month. Eight of the top 16 finishers were current or former members of Bear Devo, the development mountain biking team she co-founded and runs.
“It’s bringing tears to my eyes right now,” Violich says. “I mean I got to that finish line and I was just throwing my arms around all these kids that still are in it to win it. They’re working so hard, they love the sport.”
Wherever Violich looks across the American mountain biking scene, she sees Bear’s influence. The program was started in 2011 with a primary mission of promoting bike culture and fostering community; developing elite talent came second. Bear has succeeded wildly in both regards, which Violich credits to the way they’ve stuck to their core values.
Violich started Bear Devo with two mottos. The first is “get stoked” — “It’s always been our tagline. Have a good time, do wheelies, go volunteer at your local NICA leagues, go do trail work.” The second is “keep kids on bikes.” She sees Bear as synergistic with NICA — the National Interscholastic Cycling Association — which often gives young riders their first taste of mountain bike racing. Bear helps a select group of those riders with bigger ambitions within the sport, with an emphasis on bringing in good human beings.
Violich reviews every application to the program herself. Last year, she received 212 of them.
“I’ve never podium picked. I never go out and recruit kids,” Violich says. “[With the applications] I really want to get into the psyche of that child. Are they kind? Are they grateful? Are they going to be a good teammate?
“I’ve got kids at the front of the race that are crushing, and then I’ve got kids that are in the middle, and I’ve got kids that are at the back. And those kids in the middle often get to the front, and those kids in the back, often get to the middle, but some will never go beyond that and that’s fine. They become the ambassadors and cycling advocates that are excited, they’re embodying the spirit of the sport.”
Arkansas was proof that “keep kids on bikes” works. Violich is a former pro herself, and a long time NICA coach — the longest serving active coach, in fact. She has seen firsthand what happens when young athletes are pushed too hard, too early. “I’ve watched so many just never touch a bike again — literally never touch it. They were just like, ‘I hate the bicycle.'”
Over a period of time when results-oriented development programs have often struggled to sustain themselves, Bear has only grown. What started as a group of roughly 10 riders has swelled to more than 40, encompassing ages 14 to Elite U23s with the potential to go pro. Bear has sent 39 different riders to World Cup and World Championship events. According to Violich, that on-the-bike track record is correlated with off-the-bike development. That why when she reads applicants’ personal essays, she looks for athletes who do more than ride their bikes “24/7.”
“Other kids are like, ‘Hey I learned how to play the guitar,’ or, ‘My grandmother got really sick and I spent every afternoon in her nursing home.’ Those things really resonate with me because that’s who I want on my team,” Violich says. “They bring in a different perspective. And the kids that are kind, I know at the end of the day they’re going to give up a wheel for their teammate.”
Violich also wants kids who are self-sufficient. The team is at its capacity limit, with three full-time staffers and one part-time staffer in addition to herself to help prepare bikes, organize travel and corral more than three dozen athletes. At races, Bear has roughly one adult for every 10 kids, who are responsible for their own cooking and cleaning when they get set up at a house near the course. “I tell the kids all the time, ‘Your parents are not here. I am not your mom. None of my mechanics are your dad. We are not your parents. You get your stuff done.'”
But Violich likes the chaotic atmosphere. She believes there’s power in numbers.
“I mean, there is a beautiful synergy of having a team that’s more inclusive than exclusive,” Violich says. “For those 15 and 16-year-olds, they’re just like, ‘Oh my god I’m riding right next to Bjorn [Riley] who just got 10th in the pro race.’ And then I’ve got my U23s that are so excited to give back and share the things that they learned through trial and error with the younger gen.”
All Bear Devo athletes have to do at least eight hours of community service before they can race at Nationals, so a large group of kids also adds up to a lot of giving back to the world around them. And in the past year, more than ever, the program emphasized expanding riders’ bubbles beyond their bikes. Though everybody involved in the program was scattered across the country due to the pandemic, they still met regularly on Zoom to talk about topics like Black Lives Matter and, more recently, transgender issues.
“We had really intense, emotional sessions where you didn’t have to say anything, but if you wanted to share just what was going on in your world [you could],” Violich says. “I really utilized technology to keep the kids together and motivated, but especially last year it was just insane because that’s what they needed to talk about what they were doing in training.”
At Bear Devo, the tight-knit atmosphere influences the results, and vice versa. For example, 19-year-old Riley Amos is one of the most exciting up-and-coming XC riders in the country, finishing third and fourth in his two races in Arkansas, finishing behind professional riders at least four years older than him. His individual future as a rider is bright — a future that may soon outgrow Bear Devo — but he still contributes wholeheartedly to the team.
“I was cautious about whether he was going to come in with an ‘I win everything’ attitude, but he proved when he was 16 that wasn’t the case, when he was 17 that wasn’t the case, and when he was 18 that wasn’t the case,” Violich says. “And I’m even seeing it more now, like never before.
“He just wants to be a kid and he wants to give back and get other kids fired up and inspire them.”
In Arkansas, Violich says Amos’ attitude and preparation set an example for the team.
“He’s up every morning doing his core strength, doing his muscle activation, meditating with his earphones on. And the kids see that,” Violich says. “I can sit and espouse to it all the time, ‘You guys need to do this.’ But when they silently watch Riley actually doing it, and he’s so fast, they’re like, ‘OK, maybe there’s something to it.'”
Race days feel like a litmus test of Bear’s system. Violich cares most of all about what her own eyes tell her — not where riders finish, but how well they competed. “Even if you come in last but you’re out there racing, I know you’ve got the chutzpah,” she says. By any measure, the team’s performance in Arkansas was a success, but most of all Violich is proud of how her riders comported themselves, and how many familiar faces have stayed passionate about their bikes.
“Some of those kids that are racing in that Pro League, they were not my fast kids back [when they raced for Bear],” Violich says. “They were my middle kids. They’re still in it, and they are crushing, and they’re getting stronger every year, and learning lessons about themselves and their own development.
“And that’s it, that is success for me.”