A Week in Mexico City Part 1: Makers
Based in Oaxaca for the better part of two years, Cass finally ventures to the metropolis of Mexico City to meet makers, ride with newfound friends, and get a taste of what this unexpectedly bicycle-friendly city has to offer bikepackers. Check out part one of this photo journal here…
Whenever I visit a city for the first time, especially a capital, I invariably try to make sense of it from the perspective of a cyclist, or better still, from the comfort of my own saddle. Because bikes are a universal language that I love to speak, I’ll try and gain a deeper understanding of the life within its streets by meeting up with fellow cyclists who can help interpret them for me. Likely, I’ll make a beeline for bike shops; the more characterful the better. If there are framebuilders or bag makers around, I’ll also see if they have time to accommodate me.
Cycling for transportation is a passion, so I’ll also try and gain a feel for its bike infrastructure and those who use it, both within the city itself and its fringes. Even if there’s little chance I’ll ever put down roots there, I always have the same litmus test that I ask myself: could I live here car-free without risking life and limb, get around with my 9-year-old son, and ride to trails from my front door?
Exploring urban spaces so feature high on my tourist agenda – be it the best city parks to ride in or the scraps of land that course with unlikely singletrack – along with visiting recommended coffee shops, of course, sampling the best pastries in town, and any other cycling necessities that mustn’t be missed.
Although I’ve passed through on a number of occasions, I recently had the chance to spend a more immersive week in Mexico City (CDMX) and get to know it in the ways that I enjoy most – morning rides with locals, dirt road rides into the surrounding mountains (Mexico City lies at 2,200 metres and is surrounded by volcanoes), shop visits, and refuels for the best tacos, coffee and pastries.
These days, CDMX is a destination that’s very much in vogue for international travellers, especially connoisseurs of fine food, art, and architecture. It’s also a city that’s a relatively short bus ride away from Oaxaca. The logistics are straightforward: book an ADO ticket online, ride to the station here in Oaxaca, load my bike into the belly of the bus (no box required), emerge six or seven hours later in the UFO-like TAPO (Terminal de Autobuses de Pasajeros de Oriente), and pedal straight into the epicenter of this sprawling city via a network of bike paths. In fact, taking the bus between the two cities is a grand and surprisingly beautiful journey in itself, because it bisects the deep gorges of the Reserva de la Biósfera Tehuacán-Cuicatlán, home to two dirt-road routes we’ve published on this site. For those heading to Oaxaca to ride one of these routes, or anywhere else in Oaxaca, it may well be worth putting aside a few days in the capital first, as it certainly has a lot to offer.
Still, making sense of a city of 22 million people can feel overwhelming. For part one of this CDMX report, I’ll keep it to three photographic vignettes of makers that I was fortunate enough to meet: the people behind CHÁAK Gear, Básica Studio, and Bamboo Cycles. Check back for part two soon, in which I get the chance to meet fellow bikepackers, learn about the city’s impressive bike infrastructure, and enjoy a #coffeoutside.
Lying to the north of the city in la Anahuac, CHÁAK gear has become one of Mexico’s more established purveyors of bikepacking bags and messenger gear. It’s run by Mexico City-born Abraham Sleman, who warmly welcomed me over to his workshop and happily showed me around, even though he was slammed with an order of handlebar tube bags for a race event.
The building in which Abraham is based was built by an uncle and is shared by various members of his family, who came and went as we chatted. In fact, CHÁAK gear’s modest space is shared with his dad’s office. “Comparto el taller con mi papá aunque cada vez lo desplazamos más!” as Abrahim put it, hence the row of ring binders and an old PC half lost under rolls of colourful material, boxes of paracord cord, and a bank of sewing machines old and new. Two sewers, Julio Cesar Velasquez y Josefina de Marcos, were also busy too.
The very best materials of the kind we’re used to having access to in the US and Europe, can be hard to source in Mexico. Abraham pointed out that while he takes care to find the best he can, he also likes to work within a price bracket that keeps his gear affordable to almost everyone. He showed me a number of projects he’s working on – a waterproof seat pack and a hip pack – and his various backpacks caught my eye too, including one he built for himself for a trip to the Mexican Carribean that attaches to a rack and is designed to hold fins and a mask – Abrahim is a keen freediver.
Combining touring with free diving was actually how it all began: “It all started on a bike trip to Merida with my girlfriend almost four years ago. For that trip, I dusted off my mother’s sewing machine and started making my own gear… such as a tool bag, a net to carry my equipment on the bike, a freediving buoy, and a hammock. After that trip, the idea arose of improving the quality of what I’d made and selling the products. It wasn’t until December 2019 that the CHÁAK GEAR brand emerged, but it was already selling bags among acquaintances and on Facebook.
As for the name, it’s also born from the first trip to the Yucatán Peninsula, home as it is to an vast underground river network and some 6000 cenotes. ‘CHÁAK es el dios de la lluvia, el agua y del inframundo Maya y habita en los cenotes.. Ese viaje que hicimos lo llamamos Rodando en Apnea porque íbamos parando en cada cenote para ir a la profundidad. Siempre al entrar al agua le pedimos permiso a CHÁAK.‘
CHÁAK is the god of rain, water, and the Mayan underworld and lives in the cenotes. We called that trip Rolling with Apnea because we stopped at each cenote to dive to its depths. When entering the water, we always asked CHÁAK for permission.”
When I asked Abraham if he has any bikepacking trips on the horizon, he told me, “The next bikepacking will be short to Monte Tlaloc in a couple of weekends’ time, and then I’ll head to Oaxaca City to ride to the coast. We’re also scheduled to ride the Autogestiva de Real de Catorce, in San Luis Potosí, in July.”
I look forward to showing Abrahim my local Oaxaca city loop when he makes it over.
For more on CHÁAK gear, visit their Instagram @chaakgear.
Putting Google Maps to the test once more, I then pedaled over to Básica Studio in the neighbourhood of Juárez, a few kilometres back into the city – more about how I got there using the city’s extremely impressive bicycle network in part two of this report.
Básica Studio is a framebuilder’s crossed with a bike repair shop, and it’s a true feast for the eyes. In fact, there are so many bicycle treasures dangling from the rafters, and handmade frames hanging on walls, and vintage parts squirreled away in corners, that it’s hard to know where to look. Owned and run by the accomplished frame builder Eli Acosta – and overseen by Tiggy the Pitbull – I was given a rundown of the workshop in rapid Spanish, which I did my best to understand.
Eli took time to explain all the various framebuiding processes to me as well as a tour of the paintshop, in which hung a freshly finished late 80s Marin, bedecked in nostalgic paint splatter reminiscent of the era. Eli’s workshop also acts as a bustling repair shop – for all kinds of bikes, not just handmade ones – and two mechanics were busy servicing the bikes that were on their stands. Dovetailing back with Oaxaca, Bane had recently been bikepacking in the Sierra Norte, tackling one of the routes we published with friends.
Aware that everyone had work to do, I contented myself to poking about the workshop, marveling at all the bicycle memorabilia to be found, and taking photos. Scroll through the gallery below for some of what caught my eye in this wonderful space.
To find out more about Básica Studio, follow them on Instagram @básicastudio.
Lastly, I rode over to Bamboo Cycles, another relatively short bike ride away in Miguel Hidalgo – again, separated bike paths led me much of the way there and left me feeling much safer riding in this bustling city than many in the US.
I’ve always been espcially fascinated by bamboo and bamboo bikes – be it the strength and beauty of this knuckled plant, or the hands-on way of fashioning it into something that can actually be ridden without the need to braze or weld. I’ve seen enough bamboo bikes on my travels over the years to appreciate what a viable material it makes.
Not only does Bamboo Cycles sell bamboo bikes, as you might expect, but it also offers city tours in the enormous Bosque de Chapultepec (one of the largest city parks in the Western Hemisphere), and most excitingly, organises frame building workshops. Put aside a weekend, bring along durable clothes and some bike parts, and you can build pretty much any bamboo bike you want, be it an MTB, a beach cruiser, or even a cargo bike. Bamboo bikepacking ATB? Sure!
I’d read that its owner, Diego Cardenas, gives hands-on workshops across Latin America to promote the use of bamboo for bicycles. I dropped him a line and he quickly replied to tell me he was in Uruguay doing just that, but to go by the shop anyway to see it for myself. “Pero al taller si puedes pasar!”
The bamboo structure outside was a giveaway that I’d arrived, and I quickly spotted all manner of bikes parked up or hanging from bamboo scaffolding, as well as neat rows of raw material stacked up like an eco-friendly lumber store – the bamboo used for Mexican frames is sourced in Vera Cruz, I later found out. Apparently, it takes up to 15 years for a regular pine tree to grow and produce lumber, but for bamboo, it’s only three, making it a very renewable source. According to the site, “bamboo generates 30% more oxygen than trees, helping break down CO2 generated by cars.”
Clearly, Diego’s business has grown from when it was formed in 2007, when he began by building bikes in his mum’s garage. The two employees – Bárbara Álvarez and he is Beto Vásquez – looking after the workshop were busy working on frames, painting, and putting the finishing touches to various builds bound for Europe. Bárbara Álvarez and he is Beto. Seeing my excitement, they welcomed me in and graciously allowed me to try almost every bike in the space – apparently there are now 11 models in the range. Beto hails from Oaxaca, so we had plenty to chat about.
Taking the long-wheelbase beach cruiser for a spin in the alleyway was definitely a highlight, as was a ride on the Omnium-style cargo bike. I’d love to learn to build a cargo bike of my own, or perhaps even better, take my son with me and help him build the bike of his bamboo dreams.
Find a gallery below, and expect a follow-up post and more on bamboo bike construction when I next visit and meet up with Diego.
For more on Bamboo Cycles, including details on the workshops that they run in Mexico City and beyond, visit their website.
And, check back for part two shortly, which includes an early morning ride for Mexico City’s Coffee Outside and the traffic-free delights of Sunday’s Ciclotón, along with meeting up with some of the capital’s bikepackers, day rides into the nearby mountains, art, museums, architecture, and more…
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