EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - It's 4:30 on Thursday afternoon and a group of 10 teenage girls - mostly Hispanic - gather with matching high-end mountain bikes, wearing professional, matching pink and black jerseys, helmets and shoes.
They are Ells Angels, a new local bike team formed by fitness trainers Tamara and Brett Donelson, comprised of a select group of teenage women from the Youth Foundation.
"I was looking for a way to give back," said Tamara Donelson, who is also an Xterra triathlete and an avid mountain bike racer. "My husband and I wanted to put together some kind of program and mountain biking seemed so natural to gravitate toward. The thing is, it's not a very cheap sport. Especially if you want to get good and start racing, you can't just roll up on a Huffy."
Thus, the wheels - so to speak - started turning. The Donelsons first approached the Youth Foundation to find their team. About 25 "at-risk" girls were originally chosen and told about the program and the 15 who were most interested in the program began taking yoga classes at the Westin in January. The 10 who proved to be the most dedicated in the yoga classes went on to start bike training.
"Tam and Brett came to us and we said, 'We can get you a group of girls in no time,'" said Lauren Descombes of the Youth Foundation. "The girls are mostly at-risk - which means any child who feels like they're lacking for some reason, emotionally or financially. They are all kids who have been involved in the Youth Foundation for several years. Most of them are in high school now and they're community coaches, so they volunteer their time back to us."
Part of the Ells Angels selection process was based on thank you letters written to sponsors. Besides selecting the team of girls, the Donelsons set out to find sponsors and support. Before they knew it, Ellsworth - a boutique company whose handmade bikes normally start at around $2,000 - stepped up to the plate offering discounted prices, Moontime Cyclery in Edwards offered to be the maintenance sponsor and a myriad of other local and national companies readily volunteered their time, products and services.
A large chunk of the financing for the bikes and equipment was provided by a single local donor whose name Ells Angels' organizers did not want to mention, but for whom they are very grateful.
"It was like Christmas came," Tamara Donelson said.
Donelson is the one who came up with the name "Ells Angels," and Ellsworth sent 10 small and extra small mountain bikes - all of which will remain property of the Youth Foundation for potential future Angels - emblazoned with the brand new logo.
When embarking on the two-wheel part of the training, a few of Ells Angels had never really ridden a bike in their lives and none had ever tried clipless pedals. This did nothing to deter them.
"They're the kind of girls that fall and get back up," said Ells Angels coach Pamela Davis, who also volunteers for the team because she herself was a troubled teenager and says she would have "really benefitted from something like this."
"We forget as adults that we're not as good at learning. These girls just jumped on the bikes and started going," Davis said. "They get bloody but they keep showing up for practice. We saw a huge improvement just in that they had somewhere to be after school. The yoga was awesome for them. And they're obviously benefitting from the biking. They're pretty tough."
The Angels went from their crash course (literally) with clipless pedals to racing in the local short track series and then last month's first mountain bike race. Rocio Martinez, 16, took a spill in one of the short tracks, getting pretty banged up, but the following week, she was ready to get back on her bike.
"It hurt, but after the pain went away, I was like, 'Oh my God, I didn't even finish!' I was only on my second lap," Martinez said.
Both Davis and Donaldson said that the twice-a-week afternoon training with the girls is really rewarding and that they're constantly amazed at how kind the girls are to one another. They also described the group as "really goofy."
"We have a good times. We're always laughing," said Ells Angel Karen Hernandez, 16. "The best part for me is going down. It was a little scary at first but now, it's like, wow. Such a rush."
Back to Thursday afternoon. The group is geared up and ready for their afternoon of training. Local pro biker Mike Friedberg is here to offer technical tips and Kelly Liken - who rides with the girls and provides nutritional advice - is asking them all who ate breakfast. They joke with her, saying they had a handful of Coco Puffs or potato chips and Coke. When it's time to listen to one of their coaches, the Angels stop talking and laughing and are completely focused.
"They are the most respectful group of girls I've ever been around," Tamara Donelson said. "They're really intuitive. They're polite and aware of manners and are very thankful for the little things you do."