The highlights include having mountain biking icon Tinker Juarez take her under his wing in the early 1990s, signing with the juggernaut Volvo-Cannondale team a few years later, winning the Volkswagen Challenge stage race and placing third in the cross-country stage of the Tour of Hawaii, capped by an interview with legendary cycling commentator Phil Liggett.
But the adrenaline rush of those achievements was matched earlier this year when a trio of stalwart musicians performed a raucous set of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix covers during one of Ellis’ spin classes, providing a riotous soundtrack and an inimitable moment for all involved.
Sara conceived of the idea with her brother Atom Ellis, a bassist who was a founding member of the thrash funk band Psychefunkapus and played with the Tubes, the New Cars and famed songwriter Linda Perry. Ellis reached out to his former Psychefunkapus guitarist Jon Axtell. The linchpin was drummer Prairie Prince, a member of the Tubes, a founding member of Journey and whose resume includes work with a who’s who of rock legends: David Byrne, George Harrison, Glenn Frey, John Fogerty, Tom Waits, Brian Eno and Todd Rundgren, among others.
Ellis’ friend Mike Duffy brought in local photographer and documentary filmmaker Gary Yost, and the rocking, 14-minute video below is the result. Yost, who previously made a short film about the late Russ Kerr’s Mill Valley Barber Shop, calls the experience “so incredibly strange and endearing… it’s probably the only time a power trio like that has ever played at a spin class, so in that respect alone it’s in a class by itself.”
By the time she moved to Volvo-Cannondale – it “was like getting on the Lakers of the NBA, where all you had to do was focus on results and everything else was taken care of” – Ellis was climbing 4,000 feet a day and winning a slew of races, all despite seriously impaired vision in her left eye from a freak accident as a toddler. Ellis’ pinnacle on the mountain biking scene serendipitously paralleled the high point of the sport’s popularity, as ESPN broadcast major events and a bevy of top-notch brands competed to sponsor teams.
As the coverage and sponsorships began to erode in the late 1990s, Ellis started thinking about the next phase of her life. A successful four-year run on the road cycling circuit, including a win at the Copperopolis Road Race, delayed that next phase for a bit.
But 11 years ago, with the backing of a group of investors, Ellis opened Ultimate Fitness, offering spin classes and slow-motion strength training.
“It became the reality of what are you going to do next,” she says. “I always wanted to have my own gym. Now I can’t believe I’m still here.”
Over the years, she expanded her offerings to include a Pilates practice, weathered the economic swoon of the late 2000s and says her business is “definitely doing well.”
“You never know with fitness because people have a mentality of seasonal fitness, but you don’t do strength training because the summer is coming up and you want to show off your shoulders, you do it for the impact on bone density and long-term health,” Ellis says. “People come to Ultimate because there is a real structured environment.”
Ellis says her clients are a diverse lot, from skilled cyclists and weekend warriors to people simply trying to use strength training to improve their day-to-day health. That includes a pair of 83-year-old women who are using resistance training to stave off the impact of their age on things like balance and mobility.
“It’s amazing to watch them,” Ellis says.