The last cycling event I attended before the pandemic gripped the globe was Ruta Del Jefe in February of 2020. Returning to the event in 2022, after two years of lockdowns, masks, and vaccinations was bittersweet. Granted, the pandemic is not over but it felt like a good reset for the coming months of bike events quickly piling up on my calendar.
Ruta Del Jefe is a bike event like no other that puts various socio and geopolitical issues surrounding the host land at the forefront. This year’s experience was organized into a new format that helped raise awareness and money for a handful of non-profits that navigate a myriad of obstacles in the Southern Arizona grasslands.
Returning to the Audubon Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch for the event, with camera in hand, ears and heart open, I was once again reminded just how special Ruta Del Jefe and its organizer, Sarah Swallow is. Let’s see why below…
“Our privilege to travel to ride bikes in beautiful places necessitates our responsibility to understand the history of the area we ride, what is special and unique about them, the threats, and how we can make a difference. Riding a bike in the Sky Islands region offers a unique perspective on these issues.”
— Sarah Swallow (founder and promoter, Ruta del Jefe)
Ruta Del Jefe: What Was New This Year
The event’s intention is to offer a fun and welcoming environment to uplift and encourage the growth of community and advocacy while presenting a number of routes for all experience levels. Since the weekend has a cap of one hundred participants, the environment is intimate; there is enough space for all the attendees to hang out with their friends and make new ones.
A donation of at least $200 is required as part of the registration fee. Entrants can pay the “fee” via a fundraising site called Pledgereg, which allows entrants to fundraise their entry fee donation amount (and hopefully more) from their community. For this year’s event, Ruta Del Jefe set an ambitious fundraising goal of $30,000 which runs until March 14th. Currently, RdJ has raised over $40,400 in funds!
What Sarah did with this event is unlike anything I’ve experienced in cycling before. She found the humanitarian and environmental non-profits that intersect this region of Southern Arizona and not only supported them through fundraising but put them at the forefront of the event, allowing each representative to give a short presentation the night before the ride.
This list includes:
- Indivisible Tohono
- No More Deaths
- Cuenca Los Ojos
- Save the Scenic Santa Ritas
- AZT Association
- Audubon Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch (the host site for the weekend)
Come Together: Weekend Reportage
A weekend of friends, riding bikes, and getting your learn on is all I could ask for and more after the month I’ve had. Without making this post about me, I just want to give some perspective as to where my head has been. Last month I was diagnosed with Basal skin cancer and last Monday, I went in for my MOHS surgery. MOHS is a minimally-invasive procedure that uses a special tool to scrape out tissue and test each sample until a safe perimeter is formed. The surgeon can then close the wound and the resultant scar is much smaller than what was offered even just five years ago in the dermatology field. I’ve been a mess since getting this news and honestly, looking forward to this weekend was the tie that bound my sanity. Two days after my surgery, I loaded up my car and drove south to Elgin, Arizona to document the weekend’s festivities.
It had been over two years since I’ve seen many of these faces. Last month I caught up with Sarah at the AWRR to see how Ruta Del Jefe planning was going, which ended up giving me enough stoke to push through last week’s surgery. As soon as I pulled up to the AWRR, I was greeted by friends and immediately felt better. Support comes in many forms and for me, a series of heart-felt hugs was the proper medicine.
The next day, I spent some time documenting a few bikes in the late afternoon sun after a quick and easy 15-mile cruise around the property to get my bearings and shake out the legs from the long drive the day before. Things were starting to feel normal, even with a massive bandage covering my face and the fear of cancer still lingering. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to ride for a week since the surgery but just being around old friends and new made it feel more manageable.
With the world whirling, my conscious focused, and peace found, I slept like a baby that evening, only to awaken to 30mph winds and chaos.
Going into a big ride takes a bit of prep both mentally and physically. The winds weren’t helping the morale on Friday. Our event tent – new for this year due to the event’s strict COVID protocols – had blown away, camping tents became airborne, dust and debris littered the property and tensions were high. Sarah did her best to mitigate the situation and the volunteers helped save the day. My plans for shooting bikes and their owners had to be shelved as well. Drats. Yet, through the vortex of grassland gusts came reports of the ride day’s weather being much more favorable. The news spread and the thick tension subsided.
After the evening’s talks from the non-profit organizations, people found their tents as a great horned owl sang us to sleep…
Awakening to stillness and a clear sky before sunrise, with tired eyes and a craving for caffeine, one by one entrants opened their tents and zombie walked towards the coffee stand of Partner Coffee, who was gracious enough to drive down from Bozeman, Montana to the event to keep us all caffeinated. Soon, the caterers, Ruchikala, had brekkie served and suddenly, we were all ready to take on our own adventure ride. The 130 milers left just as the sun broke over the Sky Islands and soon after, the 70 milers. In between the two groups departing we hopped in a course car and began the documentation of the event.
Dominique Powers and Josh Weinberg joined me in the course car amid a plethora of cameras, glass, snacks, and sunscreen. The day came and went as our SD cards filled, and Super 8 rolls of film were cashed. We returned to the Research Ranch in time to see the top three racers finish and the welcoming finish line party filled the air with raucous, supportive cheers.
One by one the riders came through the finish line, filled their bellies with food, and washed the day’s efforts away in the showers. Before too long, everyone was hanging out by the fire, keeping warm and exchanging stories with one another. It was an unforgettable day in the Southern Arizona grasslands, with the looming Sky Islands surrounding us, and a feeling that had been vacant for two years overwhelming our spirit of community and personal challenge.
Ruta Del Jefe is more than a bike event. It’s a shift in the paradigm of what it means to recreate responsibly and is a precedent that I hope more bike events can follow. To the volunteers, non-profits, fundraisers, riders, and host, the Audubon Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch, I want to extend a huge thank you. Your efforts are larger than you might realize and as an unintended side-effect, you helped this photographer and journalist find his place in the world again.
Follow along for more in the gallery captions!
If you would like high-res files of my photos, here’s a Dropbox Link!