Eighteen-year-old Yoana Gonzalez was soaked to the skin, but determined to finish her trail ride despite the pouring rain.
Then she hit a slick spot and down she went off her mountain bike. Momentarily stunned, she noticed the people staring at her from a nearby house.
Then she did something that surprised even her: She got up, gave the onlookers a smile and a bow, got back on her bike and finished her ride.
“We were all cold and wet that day, but it was a fun experience,” Gonzalez said. “Everybody fell that day. But it was exciting.”
Score another victory for Ells Angels, a competitive mountain biking team in the Vail Valley made up of an unlikely assortment of 15 at-risk high school girls.
None of the girls would previously have been any coach’s top pick for any sort of team, let alone a tough sport like mountain biking.
But Brett Donelson isn’t just any coach. And Vail isn’t just any community. And the Angels aren’t just any group of girls.
Donelson believes that what he’s done for a handful of girls in the Vail Valley, he can do for girls around the state.
Donelson is the cycling director at the Athletic Club at the Westin in Vail. It was while working with a client one day three years ago that they began to talk about a mutual desire to help at-risk youngsters, especially girls who struggle with issues of body awareness and self-image.
They began brainstorming ideas. His client was into yoga. Donelson was into mountain biking.
“We came up with an idea where girls could do both to build self-esteem, and be around positive role models,” Donelson said.
Girl PowHER aimed at middle and high school students
Donelson took the idea to the Youth Foundation, the educational arm of the Vail Valley Foundation.
The foundation got behind it, and the result was Girl PowHER, a girls-only after-school program for middle and high school girls that focuses on fitness and nutrition, as well as leadership and academics.
One part of Girl PowHer is Ells Angels.
“Biking is just one piece of a bigger picture,” said Katie Santambrogio, education development manager of the Vail Valley Foundation.
“The girls get academic support, and we’re really pushing character development. Many are behind in school. Many are English-language learners. Academically, they struggle because they’re learning the language while they’re being educated.”
About 100 girls have been admitted to the Girl PowHER program, and they are expected to attend at least 80 percent of the after-school activities. There, they get three hours a week of one-on-one time with academic tutors, as well as at least three hours a week of recreational and physical activities.
“A lot of it is sports-based because we want to encourage sports as a healthy outlet,” Santambrogio said.
Ellsworth bikes comes on as prime sponsor
While the Youth Foundation was busy organizing the tutoring and enrichment activity part of the program, Donelson got busy organizing the mountain biking team. He began by approaching biking equipment makers to see if they would come on board as sponsors.
“We hit the gold mine,” Donelson said. “I was writing sunglasses companies, shoe companies. Then Ellsworth bikes, the Rolls Royce of bikes, said they wanted to help us. Grown men say they wish they could sit on an Ellsworth bike. So to have this level of company step in and help opened up our eyes to what is possible.”
That’s where the name – Ells Angels – comes from: Ellsworth.
Two years ago, the Youth Foundation invited girls to interview for a spot on the team. In January of 2011, interested girls started doing yoga and fitness classes at a Vail fitness facility. By April, they had selected the 10 who would be the first Ells Angels, and begin their training program.
The girls were outfitted like professional cyclists with high-end gear: $100 sunglasses from Smith; $100 Kask helmets; $35 Jett gloves. And, of course, the Ellsworth bikes, valued at more than $2,500 apiece.
At last, they went out for their first practice session on their new bikes. It wasn’t pretty, Donelson recalled.
From awkward beginners to seasoned veterans
“They didn’t know how to clip into the bike pedals. They didn’t know how to put on their helmets. They had no idea about really basic stuff,” he said.
“We really took them from sitting in a field, riding around trying not to hurt themselves. It was a process. But they learned that a lot of things they thought were impossible are very possible if you work at it. Some good life lessons can be easily taught through mountain biking.”
And the girls, coached by Donelson and his crew of personal trainers, began to ride. They rode all over the Vail Valley.
“We go out into the woods, to places a lot of them have never been before,” Donelson said.
Beginning in April and throughout the summer, the team met twice each week after school, with an optional third ride on Saturday mornings. Some days they did skill work to practice their techniques. Other days they went on long rides. Wednesday night was for racing.
“It’s a competitive team, and that’s one of the most important things,” Donelson said. “I’ve played a lot of other sports at high levels, and nothing is as hard mentally as mountain bike racing. Just the courage it takes to climb up hills in Vail is significant. So these girls really got out of their comfort zones.”
At first, the girls were tentative and weak. But gradually, the changes in them began to become apparent. And not just on the trail.
Looking at food as fuel, not as the enemy
“We had some girls who weren’t eating,” Donelson said. “But through this program, we were able to teach them that proper nutrition isn’t just about eating, it’s about fueling your body to do the activities you want to do.
“For a lot of young women, that’s a different way to look at things. Food is not the enemy. Athletes look at food as their fuel source. What makes you go fast? These girls started wanting to go fast, so they changed their eating habits.”
Some heavier girls began to shed pounds. Grades went up. The girls began to look on their coaches as mentors in life as well as in biking.
“One young lady was struggling with some anger management,” said Santambrogio. “She identified herself as a bully. One day, she texted her coach saying ‘I’m really frustrated. I want to hit something.’ And within 10 minutes, she’d sent another text saying ‘Can we go for a ride tonight? I need to get my aggression out.’ ”
This past year, with the donation of five more bikes, the team grew to 15 members. Nine of the first 10 rejoined for a second year, plus six new girls came on board.
With a year of experience under their belts, individual team members began to perform well in competitions. The competition season ended for most member in August, but two girls are still racing in the high school league, and will race in the high school state championships next weekend.
“This is a big deal, to get our girls to race in the high school league,” Donelson said. “All the other kids have their own bikes, and their parents are able to help them with their equipment … this group of girls never thought that was an option.”
‘I never imagined I’d have these fun memories’
Gonzalez, a senior at Battle Mountain High School in Edwards, finished her biking season with an injury, but she has no regrets.
“When we started, none of us knew how to mountain bike,” she said. “We were barely beginners. Whenever we’d get to the starting line in a race, I’d be freaking out. But over all, it was a really nice experience just to know you’re a part of something. I never imagined I’d be biking one day and actually enjoying it. I never imaged I’d have these fun memories of my teenage years.”
Her biggest accomplishment, she says, was finishing races, even when she felt like quitting.
“It felt so good!” she said. “Even if it was 8 in the morning. When you’re done, you feel like you finished something.”
Gonzalez said that after she started mountain biking, she also started doing other things, too.
“I started doing more sports,” she said. “I started playing soccer. We didn’t know what we were getting into, but not a lot of people get chances like this. When I got that chance, I took it. And I’m glad I went through it. It’s one of the best programs I’ve ever experienced.”
Taking The Cycle Effect statewide
Donelson’s next dream is to take what he started in Vail and expand it. He’s launching a new initiative he calls The Cycle Effect.
Come January, he wants to have three teams of 8-10 apiece girls in the Vail Valley, plus one in nearby Summit County. After that, he hopes to see teams started in Denver and Boulder.
“There’s also lk that we might want to start of team for boys,” he said.
“A program like this had never happened before, where we got these girls high-end equipment and coached them all through the summer. This was a first in the country. But it’s a replicable program. It will work in a lot of towns in Colorado.”