Two-wheel revolution in Gallup

Can a bunch of trails and bikes transform this down-and-out New Mexico town?

  • Gallup resident Jeremy Martinez at the top of the drop in at Gallup's new bike park. Trying to shed its rough reputation, the city has adopted cycling in various forms as a development tool.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Old Route 66 through downtown Gallup, New Mexico.

    Andrew Cullen
  • An aluminum can collector makes rounds on a Sunday morning. The city continues to struggle with economic and social problems.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Bikes for sale at the Gallup Flea Market, above, where locals buy and sell everything from fry bread to horses.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Dirk Holenbeek, a cyclist who moved to Gallup from Michigan in 1998 to work as a teacher, now runs a bike repair shop out of his garage.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Jeremy Martinez takes a breather at the Gallup Brickyard Bike Park, where he often comes to take a break from his duties as a new dad.

    Andrew Cullen
  • A mural in downtown Gallup reflects the town's Native heritage.

    Andrew Cullen
  • A rider on the High Desert Trail, a series of single-track "stacked loops" that range in difficulty from beginner to technical.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Cyclist and Gallup-area guidebook author Peter Tempest on the singletrack High Desert Trail outside Gallup, New Mexico.

    Andrew Cullen
  • "To really have a tourist economy, we'll have to overcome the shitty aesthetics. We need a legit downtown." –Chuck Van Drunen, who was instrumental in creating the Gallup Brickyard Bike Park

    Andrew Cullen
  • "I love it when I see locals interacting with someone in the outdoor community, boasting about the assets we have." –Lindsay Mapes, owner of Zia Rides, a Gallup-based bike race promoter.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Gallup is "disproportionately wonderful and disproportionately terrible at the same time." –Bob Rosebrough, who co-authored The Gallup Guide, which shows climbing routes as well as road biking, hiking and a few mountain biking trails

    Andrew Cullen
  • Gallup's downtown, where coffee shops and art galleries have come in among the payday lenders.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Teens gather at the Gallup Brickyard Bike Park, an area formerly used by vagrants. It's one of several outdoor recreation venues that have helped put Gallup on the map as the Adventure Capital of New Mexico.

    Andrew Cullen

 

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Gallup had long been famous as a gateway to Indian Country. But by the 1990s, the tourist industry and the lodging taxes it generated were stagnant, the coal mines were dying and the uranium boom had busted. In 1999 Patty Lundstrom, then executive director of the Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments, held a forum to figure out how to "use existing assets as an economic driver for the region." Adventure tourism "floated to the top," she says. Moab was the obvious role model and Lundstrom visited there often, hoping to learn how to draw the same number of visitors without provoking tension between old-timers and pedaling newcomers. Unlike Moab, though, Gallup had no bike shop or other private enterprise to encourage the effort. Adventure Gallup & Beyond, the campaign's umbrella organization, would have to rely on volunteers and the public sector to get started.

The first step was legitimizing the spider web of "social trails" that wandered around the sagebrush and sandstone, mostly on land owned by Gamerco, a coal company. The task turned out to be tougher than anticipated. Rosebrough got so frustrated with the lack of progress that he successfully ran for mayor in 2003. He then helped get an easement across Gamerco's land northwest of town to provide public access to the 26-mile-long High Desert Trail, the flagship of the local trail system.

Meanwhile, Lundstrom was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2001. From there, she was able to help secure funding to buy a nearby rock-climbing crag, to upgrade Red Rock State Park and its associated trails and to design, build and market trails to the outside world. Another longtime local, Karl Lohmann, formed a local chapter of the Youth Conservation Corps to turn the rutted paths into a world-class trail system.

This loose-knit group of trail builders and cyclists eventually coalesced into Trails 2010, a nonprofit based on Durango's wildly successful Trails 2000. The organization worked with the U.S. Forest Service to designate existing single-track trails in the Zuni Mountains, some 15 miles from town, as mountain-bike-friendly. Now, the group is working with the agency to vastly expand – by as much as 250 miles – the mountain biking trail network. Today, when you cross the state line from Colorado, you see a huge state tourism billboard sporting a photo of a mountain biker on Gallup's trails.

The immediate Gallup area now has two major networks of buffed-out, fast single-track trails that rival those in Fruita or Durango. Several races are held on them each year – more than in any other community in the state. In 2012, the Department of Interior designated the High Desert system as a national recreation trail, and the community is urging the International Mountain Biking Association to designate it as a "Ride Center," one of just a dozen or so worldwide. Supporters say that would help Gallup capture a decent piece of the billion-dollar bike tourism industry.

 

When Lindsay Mapes walks into Gallup's downtown coffee joint and introduces herself, I'm momentarily taken aback. In her form-fitting black-and-white dress and high heels, she looks more like someone who strolled off the streets of Manhattan than a resident of Gallup. Before even sitting down, Mapes announces: "I'm the success story."

What she means is that, in her role as owner of Zia Rides, Mapes is the only private enterprise making a direct, quantifiable profit from Gallup's newfound status as an adventure hub. Mapes came to Gallup in 2003 as a volunteer with AmeriCorps/VISTA, which had sent a crew to work on promoting "entrepreneurship through adventure tourism." She got a job with the Chamber of Commerce to manage mountain biking and running races and other events, then broke off on her own to start Zia Rides. She now runs and promotes two endurance races in Gallup, including Nationals, as well as rides in El Paso, Texas, and Ruidoso, N.M. As if that doesn't keep her busy enough, Mapes is also the executive director of the Business Improvement District and just received her master's degree in public administration in December.

Cycling is already giving an economic boost to Gallup, Mapes says. Last year's Nationals attracted 500 racers from all over the nation, along with support crews and spectators, and the biking and trail-running events of the Squash Blossom Classic draw around 300 participants. Adventure Gallup figures that the racers and their families and friends spend around $30,000 locally on food, lodging, gas and merchandise over the course of each event.