How a binational cycling community bridges the cultural and political divide of the US/Mexico border.
“Look at that body to the right!” Mario Lopez shouts. “That was the last guy we brought out here.” It’s a balmy mid-January morning on a dusty dirt road in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Lopez is kidding; it’s his way of acknowledging my apprehension and the world’s misperception of Juarez. The whole reason we are riding mountain bikes here is because it’s safe—or safe enough. We’re on our way to Don Rayo National Park, which, Lopez clarifies, is not actually a national park. Rather, it’s part of the Sierra de Juarez, a jutting cluster of peaks just southwest of the city that holds some of the best mountain biking in northern Mexico, all within pedaling distance from the U.S. border. I am riding in a group of three Americans and six Mexicans convened by Lopez, an elementary school teacher in El Paso whose family is from Juarez. Lopez is kind of like the mayor of the binational off-road cycling community that is bridged by the border. He mingles among our group, talking to each member and greeting anyone we pass, even the stern-looking Guardia Nacional soldiers who stroll up and down the Rio Grande levee.
It’s been a tense time for this community due to COVID-19. The U.S. border was closed for almost two years, so Juarez riders couldn’t cross. But Americans could still ride into Mexico, which a lot of El Paso locals did when their own trails were closed. This created tension and fear that Americans were bringing the virus with them—compounded by the fact that Mexico didn’t begin widespread distribution of the vaccine until long after the U.S. The separation had been burning a hole in Lopez’s 54-year-old heart.
I was going to be in El Paso for the Puzzler, a 50-mile race held every Martin Luther King Jr. weekend that attracts pros from across the Southwest. A friend put me in touch with Lopez to learn more about the local scene, and Lopez offered to take me riding in Juarez during my visit. The night before our rendezvous, he made a couple of calls. One went to Will Palafox, a 31-year-old gringo who works at a bike shop and builds websites. Palafox grew up on El Paso’s west side, which is to say its nicer side. His father is a surgeon and his mother is the former executive director of Keep El Paso Beautiful. Palafox had never ridden in Juarez, which is why Lopez invited him. Lopez also called Pablo Fernandez, 27, a Juarez native known for his thick beard and blinding speed: he’s the only local to win the city’s famed 60-mile Chupacabras race, which in its heyday attracted more than 3,000 riders. Fernandez canceled his plans to go hiking and called a fellow Juarez bike mechanic named Mike Santillanes, who in turn called four of his friends—riders he also happens to coach. Suddenly our group was nine.
Beyond simply showing me the trails, Lopez had a bigger goal in mind—something he did often before the pandemic but hadn’t done in a year due to the new kind of border wall: bring his white friends to ride with his Juarez friends, uniting two cultures that made him who he is but are often pitted against each other politically.
“The reason that I go back and take anybody I can,” Lopez said during our first phone conversation, “is because I want to give them the experience, the joy that I feel. I want to show them that Juarez is not all drugs and killings.” The benefit goes both ways. “Sometimes we’ll take people who are totally anglo and don’t speak any Spanish, and you can just see the sparkle in the Juarez riders’ eyes.”
“As soon as you cross,” Lopez adds, “it’s like you’re on the moon. It’s the same, but not the same.”
Nevertheless, I wasn’t sure I wanted to ride in Juarez. I had read about the cartel wars and random killings. I knew the border was a political chess piece—and thus a potential target. Ciudad Juarez has always had an edge to it, but never so sharp as it was during a five-year period in the late aughts. The Mexican government began cracking down on drug gangs in 2007, and soon afterward the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels started a turf war of their own. The result was an astounding amount of violence that spilled into everyday civilian life. Lopez, a lifelong soccer player who bought his first mountain bike at Walmart in 2006, fell in love with the sport just as the chaos exploded. Initially, he went back to ride in Juarez. But he is also a father, and fear changed his calculus. He stopped going for years as the war hit its zenith. Friends outside El Paso still question his decision to ride in Juarez. “But they just listen to the news,” Lopez says.
We meet at 9:30 a.m. outside his home, a modest two-story structure with a pool in the backyard. Then we drive to the Cordova Bridge and park next to Palafox. Palafox grew up hearing about how dangerous the other side of the border was. He graduated high school in 2010, the same year a reported (and likely much more) 3,100 people were murdered in Juarez, giving it one of the highest homicide rates on earth. He was always curious about riding there, but his mother forbade it. “I wanted to; I’d asked around, people had invited me,” Palafox says. “But the timing either wasn’t right or ... I guess, whenever I talked to my mom about it, she discouraged me from going.” When he told her he was joining us today, she got upset. He tried to calm her down, but she insisted, “You shouldn’t do that.”
We pedal up and over the bridge, under a sign that reads Bienvenidos a Mexico, and past Tarahumara women who hiked out of the mountains to sell their wares in a line of cars. At Las Banderas Park on the other side, we meet our six riding partners: Pablo, Mike, Jorge, Jorge, Alfonso, and Misac. Everyone is dressed for winter, even though it’s supposed to reach 70 degrees. We start pedaling along the Rio Grande, chatting in two languages. Laughter echoes off the concrete. Fernandez pops a wheelie in front of the infamous border wall, which I am seeing for the first time. We ride by a Guardia Nacional soldier carrying a rifle that is longer than his leg. His eyes follow me as I pass. A pickup with a giant machine gun mounted in the bed creeps along the doubletrack behind him.
Eventually, we get farther from the border and enter one of the poorest areas in Juarez. One-story cinderblock homes look out at a rusty playground. “When’s the last time it rained?” I ask. “It drizzled a couple of weeks ago,” someone says. That’s when I realize the putrid puddles we’re dodging are sewage. “Hold your bottle,” Lopez tells me, lest someone else’s feces splatter on my nozzle.
We pedal past a street corner where vendors sell everything from vacuum cleaners to firewood. Dogs, mangy and skeptical, wander out to observe. Young kids sprint up a dirt road as we approach, then stop and watch us ride past.
Finally, 10 miles in, we reach Don Rayo. It feels like a different planet from the slums we just left—arid and open, with long rocky ridgelines and singletrack dotting the desert. Horses peek out from their corrals as we pedal into the mountains, the only humans around. When I flat, Lopez stops to help me. “Check for thorns,” he advises, then picks up a rock and files down two barbs inside my tire. We rollick down a chunky trail called Alien and pass a white cross just off the tread. “Broken neck,” someone says.
Today’s objective is not to ride far or fast. In three hours we cover 25 miles, finishing on a potholed dirt road through an agricultural neighborhood that smells of manure and garbage. The Juarez boys take turns attacking each other on the asphalt back to Las Banderas Park, where we pile into their vehicles and head to San Martin Cantina Tradicional. Lopez orders a round of 40-ounce Tecate Lights and three plates of pork tacos. After we toast the day and each other, he whispers that the restaurant has been the site of multiple fatal shootings, including a massacre that killed seven people.
I strike up a conversation with the older of two Jorges, a 28-year-old telecom entrepreneur. Have you had any experience with the violence? He nods. Around 2014, he walked to the store. On his way home a group of men ordered him to his knees at gunpoint. They took his shirt, shoes, cellphone, and even his milk and groceries.
He suspects it was cartel members; two other times they tried to carjack him. “The change now is criminals don’t mess with regular people anymore,” he says. But that doesn’t mean everything is safe. “If you have a business, you have to pay for protection,” Jorge says. Protection from whom? “No one knows, actually. It’s not guaranteed that you’re given protection. Some guys just appear with masks and say, ‘If you still want to run your business, you have to pay or we will burn it.’” He shows me a news story on his phone about a business that burned yesterday. “Or they’ll kidnap you or your parents. You have to know how to navigate it.”
Jorge pays for protection in four states. The fee varies by region and is “based on what they think you sell,” he says. In one state, he pays five percent of their estimate.
Jorge took up mountain biking because his brother said he was getting fat. Now he rides almost every day before work. It’s his time to relax, he says. In a year and a half, he’s lost 30 pounds. He appreciates how today’s ride introduced him to people he wouldn’t have met otherwise. “It’s harder for us to create new relationships because of the border,” he says.
Sitting off to the side, Mike Santillanes smiles at the scene, something his friends don’t often see him do. Santillanes is tall, well built, and quiet, with an intensity and grit that make him hard to beat on a bike. His U.S. visa expired in 2020, and he can’t get an appointment until January 3, 2023, when he will be 29. Which means he is stuck watching his prime pass in a blur of training rides and domestic races. Lopez has been following him on Strava, but they haven’t seen each other for a year. This morning Santillanes arrived at Las Banderas Park a half-hour early. He doesn’t speak much English, but when I ask how he’d describe the cycling community in El Paso and Juarez, he doesn’t hesitate. “Como una.” Like one.
Back in El Paso the next afternoon, I wander around the Puzzler finish area in search of Lopez. He is hanging out by his car with a trio of friends who also have ties to Juarez and, like him, found purpose on a bike. They all remember the violence—the reason why you simply couldn’t trust the ride we did yesterday. “The crazy thing is how you got used to it,” says Ricardo Lopez, 31, who grew up in Juarez and lives in El Paso. Lopez (no relation to Mario) was sitting at a bar once when a shootout erupted in the parking lot. “I just grabbed my beer, got on the floor, and kept drinking my beer.” Times have changed, but it’s still a small city. “You always know somebody who’s connected.” Just last week, a Juarez mountain biker named Gerardo Avila signed up to race the Puzzler, then was shot to death shortly after.
Mario Lopez isn’t blind to the reality that still lurks. It’s part of why he wants Santillanes to get a shot before it’s too late—cycling can be his way out, his future. “Mike still has his window,” Lopez says, lamenting the visa delay. “It’s sad for me. It’s frustrating. Because he has so much talent.”
Lopez tells me about how Santillanes’ father, who works in a factory making auto parts, supports his son’s dream. It is similar to the commitment Lopez’s own parents made to him and his three siblings. When they immigrated to Texas before he was born, they left his mother’s extended family—she’s one of 20 children—behind in Juarez. It was an enormous cultural sacrifice, and one he has never forgotten. His father drove a taxi growing up, and Mario was embarrassed when they pulled up to school in his cab. His parents sometimes struggled to provide for their children. They ate beans and rice when money was scarce.
“I think that’s why I am the way I am, because I want to give everybody what I didn’t have,” Lopez says. At this, he starts crying and walks away to the bushes to be alone. He apologizes when he returns. “My mom used to hand me $2 food stamps. She’d tell me, go buy whatever you want. I’d go to Circle K and buy candy for my friends.” Every summer, he went back to Juarez to reconnect with dozens of cousins and aunts and uncles at the house his grandfather built. His visits reinforced how much his mother conceded to give him a better life.
Lopez glances at a group of riders sitting around a fire nearby. “See them? They’re happy,” he says, as if to emphasize the power of mountain biking and community. He gets quiet for a moment. And then, finally, I learn why he became so emotional earlier. Lopez tells me his mother just left the hospital today after a week of battling COVID. His father is dead, and her health has been on his mind nonstop. He was torn about attending the Puzzler. But as a key figure with the Borderland Mountain Bike Association, which puts on the race, he felt an obligation. “My mom hates that I ride. She worries about me,” he says. “But she knows I need to be here.”
Lopez’s mission is to expose the world to El Paso’s trails, which include hundreds of miles of singletrack on mountains that reach 7,000 feet. He wants it to become a year-round destination, like Fruita, Colorado, or Sedona, Arizona. But his passion remains to show friends his family’s home city—especially people like Palafox, who’s lived in El Paso since he was 7 yet all his life was afraid of the other side. In the flurry of interviews I conducted at the cantina, I never got to ask Palafox what he thought of the ride. So I called him after I returned to Colorado.
“When Mario reached out to me,” Palafox said, “I was finally like, I don't care. If I get shot or dismembered, I don't care. I want to experience this culture over the bridge.” He felt a sense of adventure in doing so, “breaking the chains my mom imposed on me. The fear,” he said.
“I was just sitting in that restaurant, thinking, wow, I should come out here more often.”
About Devon O'Neil
Devon O’Neil is a freelance journalist and correspondent for Outside Magazine based in Breckenridge, Colorado. His work has been published in the Best American Travel Writing and cited in the Best American Sports Writing, and can be viewed at devononeil.com.