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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Van Drunen describes Gallup's changes from the seat of his bike. On an unusually warm but typically windy March afternoon, we do a couple of laps of the Brickyard's berms and jumps. Then Van Drunen motions me to follow, and we tear across a street, down a trail through a vacant lot, across a gas station parking lot and into Route 66 traffic before leaving a frontage road to climb up a narrow path onto the "Northside" trail.

We stop on a high island of slickrock with an expansive view, and Van Drunen points out and praises all the trails – some for hiking, some for biking – that surround the town. It occurs to me then how odd this whole concept of trail-as-economic-development really is: You take a piece of long-abused land, you establish some paths through it, and you invite people to ride or run or hike. It sounds crazy, yet it seems to work.

A quarter of a century ago, I spent summers living and biking in Cortez, Colo., another reservation border town that resembles a smaller version of Gallup. Back then, the place was downright hostile to bicyclists. Rednecks in pickups thought it was hilarious to lay on their horns at the sight of a skinny lycra-clad guy, and roadside mutts thought I was a tantalizing piece of steak on wheels. But a few years after I left, a little bike shop opened on the main drag, a few renegades started mountain biking on desert hiking trails, and others carved trails on a stretch of public land that had previously been used for dumping and then shooting old appliances.

Today, the local Chamber of Commerce touts the county's trail network as one of its primary draws, along with Mesa Verde and Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. The little bike shop has grown into one of the biggest and best in the region, and a few road and mountain biking pros have even based themselves in Cortez and nearby Dolores. Meanwhile, Cortez's main drag, once a cultural and culinary wasteland, has gained a brewpub, a sushi joint, a farm-to-table restaurant and a few coffee shops. I think my 17-year-old self would have been a lot less lonely there today.

Gallup will never be another Moab, and some say that's just as well: These days, Moab too often resembles a spring-break beach town set amid red rock. Gallup has too much culture and character to become totally sterilized and steamrolled by the industrial recreation machine, and despite its poverty, it has an existing economy. But it may still experience a trail-driven, cultural and economic shift similar to Cortez, only on a larger scale.

"We're on the cusp. It's just a matter of time," says Van Drunen, who makes road and mountain bike excursions with the local team – Rez Dog Racing – deep into the reservation, where he says there are rides on vast slickrock formations that put Moab to shame. "The assets are there. ... The gold is there. ... Someone just needs to dig it up and polish it and market it."

HCN senior editor Jonathan Thompson writes from Durango, Colorado.