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Jen Evans had fun riding her mountain bike with the guys. Pedaling with more skilled and powerful riders all the time could be frustrating, but they were patient. And she tolerated life at the back of the pack, struggling — sometimes walking — through rocky sections while the all-male posse charged ahead.

But she needed help, some advice about negotiating technical trails and riding a machine that sometimes threatened to eject her like a rodeo horse.

"I needed somebody to tell me to keep my butt back," she says, describing a mountain bike balancing act that seasoned riders understand. "That was a big deal, when I learned that."

Evans needed to learn from other women. She found help in the Women's Mountain Biking Association of Colorado Springs (WMBA), a nonprofit that empowers women by teaching them to ride in a non-threatening social environment, where judgment of fitness and ability is cast aside in favor of camaraderie and the inclusive spirit of the trail.

WMBA emerged in 2008 when local riders Hillary Hienton, Betty Gilbert, Jessica Conner, Tracy Hankinson and the late Mary Hoyle envisioned a community of women cyclists sharing their knowledge and building relationships. Membership doubled in 2009 and has since grown to about 300 members. Yearly dues are $45. The WMBA riders have forged friendships and pedaled thousands of miles together.

About 200 women cyclists packed into the Ute and Yeti pub at CityRock last week for WMBA's season kickoff party. Hienton, a well-known cyclist who has helped many beginners become accomplished riders, says the rowdy scene was refreshing. There were many new faces in the crowd.

"I walked in and nobody recognized me," she says. "I think that's a good thing."

WMBA will pedal into this season with its first group ride, slated for 6 p.m. this Thursday at Red Rock Canyon Open Space. All women cyclists, regardless of their fitness level and ability, are encouraged to attend. The group rides are WMBA's signature activity, and take place each Thursday through September at Red Rock Canyon, Ute Valley Park, Palmer Park and Bear Creek Regional Park.

Evans says the first three rides are free, then cyclists are asked to pay the membership fee. There is a "no drop" policy, meaning no cyclist will be left behind, and you'll ride and learn with cyclists of your ability. Accomplished riders lead each group. (Check out wmbacos.org, or the group's Facebook page, for more info — including news on any weather-related cancellations.)

Amelia Taylor tagged along on a group ride in 2008 and has loved WMBA since then. She needed somebody to ride with.

"I didn't know anybody here," she says. "Then I saw a flier for WMBA. The women there were so friendly and helpful. I just kept coming back."

Andrea Bruder, an assistant professor of math at Colorado College, enjoyed riding, but never guessed she would become a bike racer. She learned to slay challenging and technical trails at WMBA's skills clinics, picking up pointers from professionals such as 2001 world cross country champion Alison Dunlap. Bruder will wear WMBA's purple team jersey in races this year.

But it's not all about racing. Bruder's WBMA experience has helped her feel safe and confident on the trail. She'll ride singletrack in the morning to prepare for a stressful day in the classroom.

"It can be intense," she says. "If I can ride in the morning, my day is so much better. It keeps me sane."

Firefighter Andrea Caraway spent much of her time in a male-dominated workplace and didn't know a lot of women. She enjoyed road cycling with her husband but decided to give the WMBA a try. She says she's addicted and encourages all women riders to participate.

"There are a lot of women, I think, who are afraid about their lack of technical skills or their fitness," she says. "But we have every type of rider with diverse abilities."

She helps with the Thursday rides and keeps the attention focused on the newcomers. "We're not out there to get our ride in," she says. "We're there to get people into the sport and introduce them to the trails. It's not about us, it's about them."

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