Words By: Yuri Hauswald
Photos By: @freihoferphotography
This one time, at The Cyclist’s Menu gravel camp, I touched the border at an old ghost town and pedaled remote gravel roads that Pancho Villa used when he came up from Mexico to steal cattle from the original San Rafael Cattle Company. While we did see a lot of Border Patrol agents patrolling the vast, desert expanse, there were no outlaws, unless, of course you include our gang of gravel campers on their caborn, steel, and ti steeds thundering across the vast network of borderland roads.
Patagonia, AZ, which sits at 4,044 ft., was originally a mining town and supply center for the region in the 1890's, and is one of three towns left in Arizona that still has an active Marshalls Department. Located sixty miles southeast of Tucson, the town is part of one of Arizona’s unique Sky Island ranges, and lies at the intersection of the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Madre, the Sonoran Desert, the Chihuahuan Desert, the Great Plains, and the Neo Tropics. Today there’s a unique mixture of the cattle rancher and wild west past with a growing artist/miner/birder/gravel cycling community. When asked what drew he and Heidi to this remote region of Arizona seven years ago, Ault says, “one of my favorite aspects of Patagonia is the community's connection to the landscape here. Whether someone ventures out into the woods or mountains or not; the energy and beauty that is expressed through the natural wonders is immense, it's overwhelming at times. It is this effect that is felt while riding, while simply being here. You leave a more centered human."
At 90,000 acres, a mixture of both private and public lands, it’s really easy to feel small and insignificant in the San Rafael Valley, a rare expanse of wide open land that sits near/above 5,000 ft. There’s a stillness and silence that is soul centering, yet this parched high desert landscape is teeming with vibrant life. This region happens to be home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, including 300 species of birds, 600 species of native bees, 300 types of butterflies and moths, and 112 Federally threatened/endangered/and sensitive species. Ever heard of a catamundi? I hadn’t either until we saw a band of twenty or so, dart across Harshaw Road. (Imagine a really slender racoon with a long snout) While very rare and elusive, there have been sightings of jaguars, mountain lions, and ocelots that use the mountains to migrate between Mexico and the United States. Cattle ranching, very much still a part of this community, has been the predominant activity in this region for the past 175 years and the pristine nature of this unique biome is due in large part to the stewardship of these ranchers.
Who are The Cyclist’s Menu? Well, it’s the dynamic duo of Heidi and Zander Ault, two passionate, hard chargers committed to giving their guests the best gravel camp experience possible. I actually met Heidi first, when she raced mountain bikes professionally, and we developed a friendship from there. Chef Z doesn’t mess around when it comes to the food that is served at camps, and says “The Cyclist's Menu sources directly to support local food sheds in each destination they travel to. This creates community, strengthens that local food economy and helps reinforce the importance of coordinating your regular purchasing from a much smaller radius. These are the types of bonds we create to instill a special connection to place within our clients’ lives.”
Speaking of connections, Zander was recently voted on to the Resource Advisory Council for the Coronado National Forest, in addition to that both The Cyclist’s Menu and the Spirit World 100 actively fundraise on behalf of the Borderlands Restoration Network, a regional non profit working to reconnect humans to the natural landscape through proper ecosystem management.
Patagonia happens to be one of three gateway communities with access to the 700 mile Arizona Trail, which means the town sees its fair share of through hikers and mountain bikers on this iconic, and challenging, trail. The town has always been a world renowned paradise for birders and hikers, but lately, due in no small part to the efforts of The Cyclist’s Menu, the town’s seen a boom in gravel cycling and bike packing. Last year saw the inaugural running of the Spirit World 100, a gravel event dreamt/built by Heidi and Zander, which brought over 130 racers to town to share in a very special weekend of riding bikes.
What’s a day in the life of a The Cyclist’s Menu gravel camper look like? Well, it starts with some amazing morning motivation, roasted just up the road in Tucson by Presta Coffee Roasters and then usually includes Time Market’s tasty artisan bread, almond butters, oatmeal, avocado, and eggs made to order. It also involves some quality pedaling time. Over the four days I rode with an ophthalmologist, a gym owner, veterinarian scientist, a chiropractor, and a cancer research professional to name a few, all of whom had to present negative COVID results to attend. There were campers from Massachusetts and California to Colorado and Washington state who made the pilgrimage to this far flung corner of Arizona to push their limits, to find stillness and solitude, to expand their horizons, and to enjoy some world class gravel riding. And, of course, to eat some really good food. Did I mention all dining was done outdoors for safety?
Ride bikes eat food. Eat food ride bikes. Any way you slice it, a week with The Cyclist’s Menu in Patagonia, AZ, is going to satiate your hunger for big days on the bike and craving for wholesome, organic and locally sourced meals that will leave you looking for seconds, or thirds in my case. Camp concluded with tired legs, full hearts, and new friendships forged in the San Rafael Valley. It ended with happy campers who had proven that they could ride farther than they thought they could, while doing it in a uniquely stunning landscape that very few get to experience.