It’s a fairly amusing way to make conversation at the bar, but it is also 100% true. When you ask me what I do, I’m not going to tell you how I make a paycheck. Because bicycles rule my life and they are the one thing that I identify my existence with the most. Before I was a college student, a scientist, a skateboarder, a rock climber or even an unemployed traveler (as I am now), I was a cyclist. But what is a cyclist? This is a question I struggle with on a regular basis.
To me, it is a simple answer. A cyclist is a person who rides a bicycle. But somewhere along the way we have lost sight of the simplicity and started breaking up into different tribes. Like some kind of lycra and flannel clad Lord of the Flies. There are roadies, singlespeeders, commuters, downhill, BMX’ers, touring riders … and so on. I’m not sure what causes this compartmentalization. Maybe it is society, human nature or even marketing. But I’ve never thought it was very healthy. Sure, it’s nice to differentiate between disciplines but it shouldn’t be so polarizing.
I am constantly being judged and told that I don’t “look like a cyclist”. Granted, I more closely resemble a fire hydrant or a tree stump. But what does a cyclist look like and what the hell does that have to do with me being able to pedal a bicycle? I wonder how many other people this happens to. I can’t be the only one and it probably scares a fair amount of people away.
You see, I have an agenda with all of this social media blabbing and internet writing I do. I want to be a fun-enabler and get more people excited about riding bicycles. There are a lot of great organizations like Trips for Kids and Ride for Reading that work to get children on bikes. There are also groups like World Bicycle Relief and Portal Bikes who are doing amazing things in developing nations. But who looks out for our friends, relatives and neighbors?
This is a call to arms for all cyclists around the world. A mission to find one person around you and put them on a bicycle. Do you have a friend who “used to ride” and wishes they could get back into it? Well then take them for a ride. Does your significant other want to go for a multi-day bikepack in the Rockies? Give them a high five, a map and get after it. Maybe your buddy at work has always wanted to do a backflip on a BMX bike. Help him find a ramp, take it to a lake and give it a try. The possibilities for spreading this cycling addiction are endless.
I understand that cycling is an inherently selfish endeavor. I have been in this game long enough to know that it’s just you, some calories and a machine. But I also feel that part of being a cyclist is sharing our love of bicycles with others, no matter what discipline we participate in. Most of us have been riding bicycles since we were children and it should still be just as fun and welcoming today as it was back then. Hopping curbs, skidding, riding with no hands and splashing through puddles are there for everyone to enjoy. It’s up to us to break down the barriers, bring more people in and create more cyclists. We are incredibly fortunate to be using a form of transportation as recreation. Let’s not take that for granted.
I published the original version of this story on drunkcyclist and Expedition Portal in March of 2013. I decided to blow the dust off and re-post it here. I think it tells a lot about me and even more about the desert Southwest that I love so much.
I have always just called them long rides. I never felt the need to classify them as anything other than that. Pick a spot on the map, load up the right bike for the job and take off for a few days. I was doing them long before I started thinking of myself as a story teller and I will keep doing them until I can no longer turn the pedals. They are my meditation, my classroom, my time to think and sort stuff out. Sometimes I think about heavy shit like the loss of a friend, a break up or money problems. But more often than not, I wander through the desert and just think about random stuff. Stuff that isn’t particularly important, like how awesome Black Sabbath is, how many different plants I can see in 100 miles, or what would make the perfect mash for my whiskey still. But this one particular ride was for educational purposes.
Back in 1854, the US government drew a line in the sand that is now our current border with Mexico. There has always been some kind of fence along the border but it was mostly to keep our cattle herds separated. Over time, there have been various attempts at making bigger walls and fences. But in 2006 a huge push was made to secure the entire border, all 1,969 miles of it. It is now a monstrosity of steel and concrete stretching to the horizon. Only interrupted in places where the landscape is too rugged and too remote for modern machinery to easily build it. I understand the reasons why it is there, and I am not here to argue politics, but I hate that wall. To me, the desert, in all her rugged and thorny beauty represents everything that is free. To have a wall there just seems wrong. Every time I cross the border, whether it be Tijuana, San Louis, Lukeville, Nogales, or Juarez it is there staring at me. I have never been able to put my feelings about the wall into words. So I did the only thing I knew how. I went for a ride…along the wall
I decided that riding for a couple days in one of the more remote sections of the border might do me some good. Maybe I would be able to find those words I have been looking for somewhere out there amongst the cactus, Mesquite and sand.
My journey started with a bus ride to the border town of Nogales, AZ. I didn’t have much of a plan or even a good route, all I wanted to do was wander and learn. I had a compass, a big ugly wall on my right, 3 days worth of food, and 2 days worth of water. Let’s point it east and see what happens.
I got off the bus and headed straight to the wall just past the port of entry. I was quickly met by a Border Patrol agents sternly advising me to move to the outskirts of town before meeting up with the wall. I took their advice and rode east through a neighborhood before finally hopping on a dirt service road for a few miles. I eventually merged onto the road that parallels the border. Smooth and hard as pavement, I covered a lot of ground in a hurry thanks to a killer tail wind.
As I rode along, I couldn’t help but notice that there were doors in the fence every so often. Now why would a fence, which is designed to keep people out of our country have a door in it? Granted it was secured with a giant steel beam, but was this some kind of sick joke?
After a while, the road and the fence abruptly stopped and was replaced with open desert and what I could best describe as giant steel saw horses. It reminded me of pictures I have seen from the beaches of Normandy, or war footage from Afghanistan. What the hell is this for? To stop the tanks?
This seemed like a good place as any to stop for lunch, so I sat right down and used the re-purposed railroad steel as a back rest. It then occurred to me that there is really nothing but a little barbed wire fence keeping me from being in Mexico right now. So I hopped on over. I did a little dance, threw some middle fingers in the air, and hoped that some eye-in-the-sky was watching me do it. Maybe some poor bastard in a command center somewhere was getting a good laugh out of it.
By this point the road was gone and it was replaced by a faint doubletrack made by ATV’s. I rode that for quite some time, always staying as close to the border as possible. Conditions degraded until there was no more track to follow and I was left to bushwack. I stood on a fence post and glassed the horizon to see if there was any reprieve in sight. There wasn’t, so I made the decision to turn back and reevaluate. I got back to the road about an hour later and was greeted by the Border Patrol. We had an interesting conversation:
Border Patrol (BP): Where ya headed?
Me: Trying to get to Bisbee in a couple days by following the border.
BP: Well, you aren’t going to be able to get there along the line, it’s some pretty rough country. It’s gonna be dark soon and you don’t want to head up into the mountains. I suggest you just turn around and head on back to Nogales.
Me: Well sir, I have a bunch of food and 2 gallons of water. So I think I will just see what I can see around here for now.
BP: I knew you would be OK, I could tell by the way you are dressed. It’s the boys we see down here in the spandex that we worry about. You armed?
Me: Yes sir.
BP: Good. You have a nice night.
Well, I came here to learn and I have never been one for listening to authority, so I ignored the warning and headed up into the mountains. I zig-zagged around the desert for a while following every piece of trail or dirt road I could find. Most trails were made by human feet and were littered with empty tin cans and water bottles. They headed north into valleys and sand washes, staying low to avoid detection. When they went too far off my route, I turned around and headed back to the nearest dirt road. It was a spider web of old ranch roads and they always seemed to dead end at either a corral or some kind of old farm structure.
I finally made camp around 9pm and settled in for the night. I was in plain view, near a large graded road and Border Patrol made plenty of visits. We talked quite a bit and they educated me on the activity in the area. They also explained the abnormal, almost monkey-like sounds that I kept hearing. They weren’t wild animals at all, but actually look-outs camped in the hills who were signaling border crossers below. I woke up dozens of times paranoid that somebody was in my camp, panicked but never actually seeing anyone. Come daybreak I realized that my paranoia was actually warranted. Because now there were new shoe prints in the sand over mine, and I was missing a water bottle. It’s silly, but the first thing I thought was they should have just woke me up. I would have given them some food or even the bottle with the high calorie drink mix in it.
It was a cold morning and there was a little frost in the shade. I sat in the sand and let the morning sun heat my aching body. When in the desert, do as the lizards do. I thought about everything I had already seen and experienced and concluded that one night out was enough. If I put in a good ride, I could probably make Tucson in 10-12 hours by way of the saloon in Patagonia. There was no need to take the most direct route and I decided to explore every side road I saw, as long as it was pointing in the direction I needed to go. The rolling hills seemed to go on forever. Every so often interrupted by grassy fields with bonsai-like trees scattered randomly about. It was like a scene straight from the African savannah and my imagination ran wild. I half expected a giraffe or an elephant to come walking by at any moment. I hit pavement just after sunset and rode towards the light pollution of Tucson. Just like that, it was over.
I went to the border looking for words and trying to find some answers. After two days of travel through this breathtaking countryside, I went home with even more questions. I guess that is the sign of a truly good teacher, and I guess this lesson is to be continued.
I was a bike addicted fifteen year-old when I first saw pictures of Nepal. There, amongst an old stack of National Geographic magazines on my grandparent’s coffee table was a story about Mt Everest. I didn’t care much for the words, but in some of the pictures, people were hiking over little pieces of alpine singletrack. These particular trails happen to be in the biggest mountains on earth and that made it even more exciting. I am a mountain biker, after all, and it was only logical to my teenage brain that I must go there and ride. It was an epiphany for me. It was then that I realized there had to be trails all over the world. In countries and mountain ranges that I never heard of. They might be made for walking and they might be really hard or even unridable, but they are out there. This excited me to no end, and it has led to a life long obsession.
Fast forward twenty years and I’m lying on a wooden bunk in a pitch black and drafty stone room, high in the Annapurna Himal. I have been on the go for two weeks and the biggest day of my trip, and possibly the biggest day of my life, is only hours away. I can’t sleep and, for some reason, I’m crying. Overwhelmed with emotion, sobbing and talking to myself like a goddamn lunatic.
“I did it. I fucking did it. I’m here. I’m really here!”
I got up and went outside to walk it off. Everything was blue. Blue in that way things get at night when you are up that high. It’s going to be a cold start to the day. My eyes are heavy and they stung from the cold but sleep wasn’t an option. I might as well pack up my things and get this day started. I promised the caretaker of the lodge that I would have breakfast before I left at 6am. So I waited out the final two hours, sitting on an old wicker stool, alone with my emotions. Staring at the silhouettes of the mountains around me, I still couldn’t believe that I was actually going higher into the hills. Significantly higher. Four thousand feet higher. It’s already hard to breathe here, what is it going to feel like up there? What if I get altitude sick, what if it is too cold?
Breakfast took a little longer than I would have liked but, despite the language barrier, I think we both enjoyed the company. With my belly full of bread and tea, I rode on up the hill. Six hours of wheezing and pushing my bike later, I found myself staring at a beautiful turquoise lake. For months, I had been dreaming of what this lake would look like. It was like nothing I had ever seen and it didn’t even look real. It was like staring at a painting. A giant 3D mural at the end of the trail. But wait, something isn’t right. I looked at my map and looked out at the lake and then checked the map again.
No, this can’t be right. It was simple plan to go south of the lake and then over another pass to cross the range. Where I’ve heard rumors of an hour long downhill that would take me into a large village. An oasis for the weary traveler filled with cold beer and hot showers. Instead, there is an angry looking glacier directly in my way. To the north, a fair amount of snow and another pass to climb. I sat down on a small boulder and assessed my situation. I’m not going anywhere near that glacier and I just don’t have enough food or warm gear to spend a night above 16,000 feet in the snow. Summit fever is strong in a man alone in the high mountains. Two hours passed before I finally made the decision to turn around and go back the way I came. To this day, it is the hardest decision I have ever made.
The descent was steep and exposed and seemed to be over before it started. The squealing of brakes and chattering of my tires echoed through the entire valley. A downhill this fast and exciting should feel like a victory lap, but it only felt like defeat. I arrived back at the base camp building in the late afternoon, much to the surprise of the caretaker. I dropped my bike in a small grassy patch and sat with my back against the sunny side of the building. Completely shattered from the effort and the defeat. I took a deep breath and made myself take in the scenery. The valley was now filled with a large herd of Yak. The bells around their necks dinging as they slowly moved over the scree fields in search of vegetation. It is a mesmerizing sound when combined with the afternoon wind. To my left, about twenty feet away, two herdsmen were setting up their camp. Through a combination of charades, broken English and Nepali I told them what I had just been through. They shook their head in disbelief and offered me a cup of tea.
That evening, a few of us gathered for dinner. The caretaker, the Yak herders, a couple Nepali guides and myself. The guides spoke good English and helped translate the conversation for me. We huddled around a small wood stove in the kitchen and downed countless glasses of local moonshine, Raksi. One of the Yak herders asked me what it was like to ride a bicycle through the Himalayas. I said that is has been a dream come true for me. My favorite part has been when the village children run after me yelling “Cycle Man! Cycle Man!” as I ride by. We all laughed, clanked glasses, and toasted to Nepal. The caretaker, a small and quiet man, said something in Nepali and everyone laughed. I asked if they could translate it for me. But he kept talking and everyone kept laughing. Finally, one of the guides brought me up to speed.
“He said that you should not be called Cycle Man. Your name will be Yak Man. He has been watching you, and you move through the mountains like an old yak. You are big and strong and always keep moving. Even if it is not so fast”
This is my fifty two week homework assignment. A mission to create and share one thing every week for at least one year. This is something that I have wanted to do for a while and, as cliche as it may be, the new year seems like the perfect time to pull the trigger. It also makes keeping tract of that one year nice and easy.
The Reichel Cycle name goes way back. When I was younger, kids on the school bus would mock my last name with songs like:
“Reichel Reichel motorcycle used a fart to make it start”
As a 30-something I now find that hilarious, but as a 12 year-old it stung a little. In all reality, who wouldn’t want a motorcycle that ran on flatulence? Talk about a renewable resource! As I got older I would use it to help people pronounce my last name “Reichel, rhymes with cycle”. People always seemed to remember it after that.
This is not me leaving my roots as “Dirty Biker” on drunkcyclist.com. But as my friend SnakeHawk once said “it’s just a new gallery to hang my art”. Over the years, I have collected stories that were either incredibly personal to me or just not the right fit for that snarky yellow page. I would also like to share experiences and thoughts about things that aren’t necessarily bicycle related. This will be the home for those stories. But there is no denying that bicycles and bicycle travel rule my life, and that’s what the majority of this page will be about.
I want to experiment with not just words, but photos and videos as well. This simple, bare-bones page will be my blank canvas and I am going to throw a lot of random stuff at it. I don’t consider myself a photographer, videographer or even a writer. But hopefully, through this exercise, I will get a little closer to those titles. I don’t think it is going to be easy, but I do think that it is exactly what I need in my life right now.