Dignity and Truth, Part One: Bicycle Nomad Retraces the Historic Buffalo Soldiers Route from Missoula to St. Louis

When I first met Erick Cedeño (aka Bicycle Nomad) I had no inkling that a day we spent together shooting lifestyle photos as part of his new role as an ambassador for the outdoor apparel company swrve would blossom into a deep friendship. Nor did I realize at the time that our friendship would take me halfway across the country to help document his ride to honor the 125th anniversary of the monumental expedition of the volunteer Bicycle Corps of the Buffalo Soldiers who rode from Missoula, MT to St. Louis, MO.

But in retrospect, it’s something that really shouldn’t have been a surprise. To put it simply, Erick is one of those rare people who immediately feels like an old friend. Despite vastly different backgrounds, our mutual Venn diagram of cycling, creativity, and being fathers to young kids provided a sturdy foundation for our friendship. Plus, I really respect his work ethic.

This was something I thought of as I packed up my photo gear and said goodbye to my wife and daughters and left Los Angeles for a 1,200-mile solo drive to rendezvous with Erick in Missoula ahead of his departure on his journey that was years in the making.

“Runaway from the culture to follow my heart” – Kendrick Lamar – Mirror [Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers]

A day and 27 podcasts later, I arrived in Montana. As a Golden State local, seeing an endless, lush green landscape all the way into June was a sight to behold. If we’re lucky, winter rains will provide a few weeks of green hills before our local topography dries out.

As I rolled into downtown Missoula, I quickly settled into the more relaxed pace of a city that’s 98% smaller than my hometown but it was still a surprise to see Erick standing in the doorway of my hotel room two minutes after I texted to let him know I’d arrived.

Decked out in his now signature monochrome, head-to-toe swrve suit, it was a relief to see his glowing smile was still intact despite the looming stress of his upcoming journey. Erick’s goal was to be as faithful to the path of the Buffalo Soldiers as much as possible which meant his route details were still very much a work-in-progress.

Beyond his last-minute adjustments to his bikepacking set-up, he also had a hefty to-do list of appearances and visits to complete before he set off for the 41-day, 1,900-mile route that would pass through five states and two time zones. Erick’s expedition is a historical retrace of the 1897 route of the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, aka The Iron Riders. The 25th Infantry was one of the six U.S. Army regiments that were entirely composed of Black enlisted men known as the Buffalo Soldiers. This journey was the longest of three the corps took on, and all were meant to be an experiment in testing the legitimacy of the newly invented modern bicycle in the Army.

It was a Sunday evening and our food options were shrinking to a very short list. We decided to run across the street to an organic cafe/market so I could grab some dinner. Erick had already dined there earlier, but being a strict vegan for the last 30 years, he never missed an opportunity to actually have some options, especially in the vegan-friendly oasis of Missoula.

We finished up our meal with some vegan ice cream and set a time to meet up in the morning (our last open day before the ride began) and said goodnight.

Monday came too fast for me after two 10+ hour days on the road. We set out at 7:00 am for breakfast and nailed down our list of to-dos for the day. First on the list was a meeting at Fort Missoula with a film crew from Hammerhead. The museum at Fort Missoula, which is home to the Bicycle Corps, has probably the most extensive exhibit on the 25th infantry. I felt the weight of this project on Erick as he walked through the museum and explained certain parts of the exhibit for the camera crew. This wasn’t his first time in the building or on the grounds. The research aspect of the trip brought him to Montana more than a few times already.

After we left the museum, we headed to the downtown Holiday Inn where a week-long event about the Buffalo Soldiers was kicking off. He stopped in, shook some hands, accepted a custom jacket they made for him, was quickly interviewed by the local ABC news affiliate, and was out.

Next, we made a quick stop at the HQ of Bedrock Sandals. Erick was greeted by the team, had a nice chat, and was given a quick tour of the operations. They kindly offered him a pair of custom sandals for his trip, and, yes, they matched his outfit.

During all this running around town, we were continually distracted by something big that was missing. Erick’s bike had yet to arrive from LA. For some reason, FedEx sent it to their Louisville, KY hub before Montana. Originally slated to arrive on Friday, they promised to have it delivered Monday morning by 10 am which didn’t happen and caused us to start a tense hourly ritual of checking the tracking info. Finally, around three o’clock he got confirmation it had been delivered and was already being built up at Spotted Dog Cycles. The relief on Erick’s face was real.

The Bicycle Corps rolled out of Fort Missoula at 5:40 am on June 14th, 1897. The plan was to mirror that departure time exactly, so sleep was going to be hard to come by between final preparations and pre-ride nerves. I set alarms for 4:00 am, 4:05, 4:10, and 4:15 to be safe and finally rolled out of bed at 4:23, washed my face and double-checked all my camera gear over some in-room instant oatmeal. When I headed downstairs at 4:45 to do a final load-in on my car, Erick was already loading his bike onto a 15-passenger van for the 8-mile commute to Fort Missoula. Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the Fort and an awaiting circus.

Dexter Thomas from Vice News is here with a producer and 3-person camera crew for a short film.

Will and Nick from Hammerhead are here to capture video content.

And the local ABC affiliate isn’t about to miss the day’s big story.

Meanwhile, NatGeo is still working out the logistics of sending Erick a full GoPro setup to provide some self-shot footage. Film the grizzlies, turn the camera on yourself and capture the emotion they say.

And I’m here. Taking notes for this article and shooting stills for Blackburn, swrve, and more. Looking around, I feel partially to blame for this circus.

Back in February during an overnighter we did up past Malibu, Erick told me what he really envisioned for this trip and my only comment was, “If you’re going to do something like this, it can’t just exist on Instagram.” Erick agreed it had to be bigger, but had never done anything beyond finishing the ride he set out to do. Just keeping up with the miles is enough for most people, let alone filming, posting, coming up with captions, and responding to comments. Yes, Erick’s ride resume is extensive– he’s ridden in every state in the lower 48, done the complete route of the Underground Railroad twice and toured from Vancouver to Tijuana along with countless other bikepacking trips. He was set on making this one different. He’s taken on the burden of trying to get this story out there, he’s been thinking about these men from 125 years ago that look like him and did something truly epic.

I know how badly he wants to share their story and deliver the dignity and truth these men deserve. They took on a route where the best “road” was often a freshly laid railroad track. Nevermind the hammering of the railroad ties under their sixty-pound bikes, the topography on either side of the track was often unrideable at best. Were they the first bikepackers? Probably safe to say yes. The first mountain bikers? Probably a yes also. That might be hard for some older folks in Northern California to hear, but it also might be time to open up the historical narrative a bit more.

Media is a big part of this project. Shit, it’s the reason you’re reading this here. Getting this story out to a wide audience is Erick’s only goal besides his safety on the route. He’ll tell you if he saw images of the Buffalo Soldiers earlier in his life, he might have started traveling by bike sooner. A major part of this journey is about representation, but it has to be about more, and that’s what he’s working so hard at making happen.

He’s got one chance to tell this story to anyone interested in turning their lens, microphone, eyes or ears his way as he travels through history for 1,900 miles. This is the most personal journey he’s ever taken on, and one of the most personal stories he’s ever wanted to share.

5:20 am. Buffalo Soldier reenactors are on bikes seemingly identical to those on the original expedition. They’re flanked by a diverse group of local cyclists who are here to ride with Erick for a few miles before he says goodbye and takes on the remaining journey by himself.

I see Erick doing the final prep on his bike and fiddling with the inventory in his Blackburn frame bag. I know this is a lot for him, we’ve talked about it many times. Just leaving your family behind for 41+ days is a lot. I know he feels the weight of getting this story right. Mentally, he’s in the heavy lifting arena. The actual bike ride might prove to be easier than the preparation and the research. I’ve heard him tell people he’s not a cyclist which floors me every time. How can you not be a cyclist? You’re the self-proclaimed “Bicycle Nomad”. Maybe that moniker was applied too soon and part of his evolution was of course born on the bike, but as he sees it, the bike is just a part of the storytelling.

The bike carries him through history that he needs to experience at a certain mile per hour and within a certain level of arms reach to a people and community that only a bike can give you. As anyone who rides knows, there’s no hiding when you’re out on two wheels. No window to roll up, no door to lock and hide behind. Erick is exposed, a rolling contrast across the wide open landscapes of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Missouri. Sure, all of us in the cycling community know his smile can disarm a bomb, but he’s still a Black man on a bike, an immigrant at that, cycling through a multitude of cultures, opinions, and preconceived ideas in the United States of America.

5:37am. Erick walks out into the large grass field by himself, we all know not to follow, and we simultaneously pause the clicking of our cameras and give him some space. Two minutes pass, and he turns around to walk back after what looks like an abyss-sized deep breath leaving his lungs. He quickly wipes his eyes and he returns to his bike.

5:39 am. One minute to go. Erick is lined up, one foot clipped in, ready to push through the first pedal stroke. I look around and see the group of cyclists behind him excited and talking. Erick is silent. His eyes are set on the road ahead, the road to St. Louis.

5:40 am. Onward.

The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps were:

Lieutenant James A. Moss
Dr. James Kennedy – Surgeon
Edward Boos – Reporter
Sergeant Mingo Sanders
Lieutenant Corporal Abram Martin
Lance Corporal William Haynes
Private John Findley (Mechanic)
Private Elias Johnson (Musician)
Private Elwood Forman
Private George Scott
Private Hiram L. B. Dingman
Private Travis Bridges
Private John Cook
Private Richard Rout
Private Eugene Jones
Private Sam Johnson
Private William Williamson
Private Sam Williamson
Private John H. Wilson
Private Samuel Reid
Private Francis Button
Private Frank L. Johnson
Private William Proctor