Women Involved Series: Heather Russell

Heather Russell, a licensed professional counselor, is the founder and executive director of the Colorado-based non-profit Sacred Cycle whose mission is to support survivors of sexual abuse and assault using cycling and other forms of movement to aid in healing. Heather is trained in transpersonal counseling, EMDR therapy, sexual assault crisis, and mindfulness awareness. Heather has had a life-long passion for cycling and has been addicted to the ‘new bike feeling’ since she received her first bike in kindergarten.

Heather believes in the power of cycling and its ability to heal the heart and soul, and has devoted her life to helping others live fuller lives.

Tell us about your introduction to mountain biking and how it influenced you from then on-
I started mountain biking in 1989 on the rolling hills of Grand Rapids, Michigan when I was a freshman in college. My brother, who was very influential at the time, came home one day and said, “We’re getting mountain bikes”. It was that easy. We had matching Specialized Hard Rock Comp’s and I was hooked from the first ride. From the mid 90’s to about 2005 I was a whitewater person--commercial river guide and kayaker—riding was secondary. When I moved on from whitewater I got back into riding and I haven’t looked back.

Can you take us back to your first few mountain bike rides? What did you learn and what made you say "Yes! This is for me!"
That was a long time ago so the memories are vague, but the overarching themes were solitude and freedom and I’ll never forget riding in the fall on beautiful leaf-lined trails. When I started road biking for fitness in high school and then mountain biking for fun in college I was also in the throes of an eating disorder and struggling with depression while my mom was dying of cancer. I didn’t realize it then, but riding was the only sane thing happening in my life –I felt pure joy for those brief moments and that sense of pleasure is something I can easily tap into when I jump on the saddle.

Clips or flats? What do you use when and why?
Clips all the way. I use both but I’m way more comfortable and confident clipped in. 

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
The most significant injury I’ve had mountain biking was a collarbone fracture. It was an enlightening experience on many levels and helped define my riding/training going forward. I didn’t want to ride that day, I was drained, just coming from a 24-hour race, but I gave into peer pressure and went anyway. Sometimes getting pushed by friends is a blessing but in this case, didn’t listen to my body and I paid the price. It took a while to feel confident again, but the result is I pay closer attention to my body and can tell whether I’m feeling lazy or if my body legitimately needs a break.

When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
All of them! I truly had no confidence, on and off the bike, and I was very hard on myself. For me it all came down to time on the bike, the more I rode the more I settled into myself and my capabilities. When I started riding again, in my mid 30's, I came with tremendous more self-assurance and my riding took off.

I think the biggest mistake I see women make is comparing themselves to others; there will always be someone faster and more skilled than you. I try to encourage women to have fun and celebrate their accomplishments on the bike. With all the gear, how technical bikes have gotten, and the obstacles on the trail, it’s a challenging sport. If you actually make it onto a trail you’re amazing and should feel proud.

Are there still handling or technical riding aspects that you find tricky? How do you not let that drag you down when riding?
I’m challenged in wet conditions. I was reminded of this last night when riding after a rain on one of my home trails in Carbondale. I naturally start to ride slower and take fewer risks when the rocks and roots are slick. It’s something I’ve worked on over the years and at this point, I’ve relaxed into it; it’s just not a place I’m willing to push myself anymore and I focus on other areas. Luckily, I live in an arid climate!

What do you love about riding your bike?
It’s one of the purest aspects of my life and the closest I come to a flow state. From my first bike in kindergarten, bikes have represented freedom. One of the things I love the most is that I’m always learning something about myself or about handling my bike more efficiently. When you’ve spent as much time in the saddle as I have you come to notice the most minute sublimities about yourself and your form that keep you interested and craving more.

Tell us about Sacred Cycle and what it's all about-
We are a 501c3 nonprofit that supports survivors of sexual violence. We offer an opportunity to increase emotional tolerance through healthy risk-taking in nature and sport. Our ideal clients are women who are ready to move from merely just surviving their lives to thriving. We offer financial assistance with evidenced-based trauma therapy, access to bikes, bike gear and coaching, and a new community of fellow survivors.
Why do you feel cycling can be an important part of mental/emotional healing?
I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, incest, and neglect and nearly 25 years of my life were consumed by disordered eating a destructive relationship with my body--I suffered in silence for a very long time. Cycling helped me connect with my body in a new and powerful way. The bike and being in nature became my refuge.

In my second grad school, the realization that many of the people that seek mental health services are survivors of childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault was striking for me and was the catalyst for the development of the Sacred Cycle program. At the time, I was training for some long-distance bike races and the thought occurred, “Wouldn’t it be cool to offer this experience to survivors, literally help them transform their relationship with bodies”. For me, the benefits of cycling are endless but here are a few: I feel physically strong which transfers to a feeling of empowerment, I feel capable of handling challenges, and the sense of freedom and playfulness are unmatched.

How can folks donate or support Sacred Cycle?
They can go to our website https://thesacredcycle.org/ or shoot me an email Heather@thesacredcycle.org
Please follow us on social media too!
Facebook & Instagram

What would you say has been one of your most inspiring moments with Sacred Cycle?
It’s moving when people—men and women-- reach out to me and say they’ve resonated with my story. Ultimately, that’s why I’m doing this--putting myself out there, even though it’s uncomfortable, to create a community so that other survivors don’t feel so alone.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
Though it’s improving, it’s still a male-dominated sport. The ‘bro-brah’ culture at bike shops is alive and well and it’s intimidating for women to walk in a shop.

What do you feel could change industry-wise or locally to encourage more women to be involved?
The sport has grown drastically since I started and I’m pleased with the trajectory. That being said, I really wish there were more highly trained female bike techs and that shops and the industry valued this.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
I think people are their best versions of themselves in nature and I love witnessing the transformation that inevitably occurs from the trailhead to the end of the ride.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
My dad was an avid hunter, trapper, and fisherman. He routinely brought home stray wild animals. My favorite was Chuckles, a raccoon whom we bottle fed and became close friends with our lab Joe.


  1. I love learning more about my very brave, determined, talented and surprising relative.
    You're an inspiration to all women.

    1. Hello Relative!-wonder who you are and thank you!!


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