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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That's less important, say Mapes and others, than the event's power as a marketing tool. The races introduce the trails to the kind of people most likely to plan a hiking-and-biking vacation in Gallup, bringing still more money to town. A 2011 University of Wyoming study, for example, found that the Teton County trail system around Jackson Hole generated $18 million for the local economy in just one year. In Oregon, bicycle tourists spent $400 million in 2012, according to a study done last year by a marketing research firm. And an extensive Arizona Department of Transportation study found that out-of-state bike-related travelers there spend an average of $263 per person per day on lodging, food, gas and bike parts.

That can mean a lot in an economically challenged place. When Moab's uranium industry, which employed some 25 percent of the area's workers, busted in the 1980s, it left a shell of an economy and community. But as the masses started flocking to the Slickrock Trail, as well as the area's rock-climbing, rafting and jeeping opportunities, the place experienced an abrupt turnaround. Between 1990 and 2000, employment grew by 65 percent, according to a Headwaters Economics study. There are now more than 3,000 service and retail jobs in the county, quadruple the total number of mining jobs when that industry was at its peak.

In Gallup, lodging tax revenues have increased by almost 70 percent since 1999, when the adventure tourism push began, and two new hotels, one along I-40 and another downtown, are currently under construction, adding to a handful of other lodging establishments built in the last several years. It's impossible to say exactly how much of this is attributable to adventure tourism, but the estimated 15,000 people who ride, run or hike the High Desert Trail each year are certainly having an impact.

But a lot of cycling money bypasses the city. Trail riders who do no more than fill up their gas tank, grab a fast-food bite, even stay a night in a hotel, contribute little more to the economy than random interstate travelers. But when they slow down and spend time downtown, they tend to drop more cash. The problem is that Gallup largely lacks the sorts of establishments that would draw bikers, such as a brewpub – one of the prerequisites for being a "real" bike town and for getting IMBA Ride Center designation – or even a downtown bike shop. And would-be entrepreneurs are not likely to risk opening a business until they're convinced the bikers will venture into town. It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing.

Van Drunen puts it bluntly: "To really have a tourist economy, we'll have to overcome the shitty aesthetics. We need a legit downtown."

Progress is slowly being made. During Rosebrough's time as mayor, the city refurbished infrastructure, spruced up parks, gave land and money to affordable housing initiatives, and generally spiffed up the historic downtown by planting trees, fixing up the old El Morro theatre and having local artists paint murals on graffiti-covered walls. It also passed a quality-of-life bond measure to fund such improvements, along with trails and the like. The local Business Improvement District is trying to attract businesses to downtown by touting the cheap rent, round-the-clock security guards and various other incentives.

Gallup now boasts a popular weekend farmer's market and a couple downtown art galleries with a broader range of wares than the usual Southwestern kitsch. There's even a monthly, well-attended Arts Crawl, "where people are drinking cappuccinos," says Lundstrom, "and they actually know what that is. It's just really cool. Who would've ever thought Gallup would attract that kind of attention?" And yet, for all that, the problem remains: To most outsiders, Gallup is, well, still Gallup.

"It's a real remarkable community," says Rosebrough. "It's disproportionately wonderful and disproportionately terrible at the same time."