History of El Grupo by Ignacio, Head Coach
At a time long, long ago and in a galaxy far, far away….well, not exactly.
In the fall of 2004, I was working at BICAS and attending classes at the University of Arizona in Tucson, seeking a master’s degree in Bilingual Education. BICAS (Bicycle Inter-Community Action & Salvage) is a non-profit, collectively-run community education and recycling center for bicycles that welcomes people of all ages and walks of life.
The principal from a downtown high school walked in and asked about purchasing bike racks. I asked how else I might get involved. Within a short time, I was teaching a class on riding bicycles at City High. I suddenly had a group of 8 non-athletic teenagers and some hodge-podge bikes. That first year it took us 8 months to get ready to ride in and accomplish the 27-mile event of the Tour of the Tucson Mountains. The ride took us almost 3 hours, but for every kid that was the greatest physical achievement of his and her life. Shortly thereafter, the kids asked if they could ride more often and work towards a bigger goal. We had no jerseys, shorts, or cycling shoes, but we grew stronger with every mile. I knew then that my goal was attainable; I just had to keep plugging along.
I remembered how much it meant to me as a kid to be on a great team that went to swim competitions all over the US and always raced against the best. I wanted to give this back. Being on a great team gave me the confidence to be who I am and I wanted these kids to learn how to be their best. And so, with my girlfriend, Daniela, I founded El Grupo.
The next year I stayed on at City High, but my group had changed. This time I was given a group of “punk rock” kids. They certainly were not athletes either, but they were into bikes, though not necessarily road bikes. I was pretty excited by this prospect, and so I began, with parts from BICAS, to slowly build a fleet of recycled racing bikes.
In fact, the group of teens spent a lot of time down at BICAS, building and fixing up old, steel-frame bicycles with me. On our group rides, we had every kind of bike known to man, some in questionable condition. Not one kid had ever really participated in organized sports, but they had the kind of grit and determination to compete.
That second year at City High we participated in the 67-mile event of El Tour de Tucson and we truly looked like a team. We had recycled steel road bikes, matching jerseys that we screened ourselves, and some of us even had cycling shorts. It was the first time that we rocked an event. We rode in a double pace line the whole way, all 12 of us staying together. It was the first time in the history of El Tour that a group of kids had done such a thing. And we did it again in 2006 and 2007, then with two groups—one completing the 35 mile ride as novices and the other finishing the 109 mile ride in 5 hours, 26 minutes!
We had a real team and it was because the kids wanted it. They came from every walk of life from all over Tucson. The kids were not jocks or athletes—no one was on the basketball team—and none of them could afford their own bikes or equipment. They did not come from cycling families, or even much family to speak of, for some. They were middle and high school kids who just needed something positive to get excited about.
We started to compete in local races and win. We won our division in the 2008 Annual 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo mountain bike endurance relay race, the first time we entered the event. Teenagers from different schools started asking if they could ride. At the end of 2007, we decided to become a 501(c)(3) non-profit and brought more people on board.
We started with no budget, no place to meet, no team bikes, no uniforms—really nothing but spirit. We wore hand me down shorts, mismatching jerseys, and tennis shoes. All practice rides began at my house, in the backyard, and ended at my house, with my girlfriend making toast for the kids because it was affordable and often they didn’t eat well at home. Funding at the start consisted of what my wallet held, but thanks to Daniela, who became my wife and executive director, El Grupo has grown.
In 2008 we rented a clubhouse at 6th and 6th where we met and ended practices. We now have team jerseys and a fleet of recycled bikes for mountain and road racing. We have gone on bicycle tours; we have been invited to races in Mexico; we have won many State Championships; we have won every El Tour we have ever entered in our division, and have sent kids to Nationals and USA cycling development camps.
However, it is not the State Champions that I am most excited about; not the races we have won; not the many first place finishes the team has been a part of. It’s the fact that ALL of the kids from the original team have earned a high school degree and gone on to some level of higher education; that every kid that has graduated from El Grupo is a life-long bike-lover; that many El Grupo youth alumni are working in bike shops around the country; that the team now is comprised of kids who expect things from themselves and are willing to try harder than they ever thought possible; and that they are setting and achieving life goals that have nothing to do with cycling, but everything to do with being good citizens.
El Grupo has gone from a rag-tag group of kids riding bikes to a respectable organization getting more youth riding bikes than ever before.
“Do or do not. There is no try.” -Yoda