Neon Ron’s Fall Fundo and the Festival of Bromeliads

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In the company of Vermonter Ron Manganiello and his virtual Fall Fundo fundraising event, Cass uses a 71st birthday ride as a reason to hang with bromeliads and study Oaxaca’s remarkable botanical cosmos during an eye-opening overnighter…

Since replanting myself from New Mexico to Oaxaca, I’ve become acquainted with quite the assortment of cyclists. And whilst I haven’t coaxed them all into bikepacking trips just yet, I do try and join them on weekend rides when I can. We’re an eclectic bunch, drawn from around Mexico, the US, the UK, and El Salvador. Age range? Mid-twenties to seventy-four!

We’ve all ended up here in Oaxaca de Juárez for various reasons, both intended and unexpected: whether to start a chocolate business (Antonio), retire in the company of an Oaxacan family (Larry), blast down enduro trails (Alex), journey into a world of botanical marvels (Emma), or pause mid Latin American odyssey (Jake and Andrea).

And then there’s Ron, also a retiree from the US. Ron’s normally back home with his friends and family in Vermont for the summer. But for 2020, well… things have been a little different. His decision to stay put in Mexico has been my gain, because I’ve enjoyed a number of rides with him over the last few months, from short outings that showcase the city’s cycling ‘infrastructure’ (aka hidden urban doubletrack), to all-day outings into the beautiful Etla Valley. On our very first ride we realised we had friends in common; artist Julia, with whom I rode in Baja California earlier in the year—and we profiled on the site—has long been a part of the same Vermont bike community. Which stands to reason, because Ron’s been active in the bike scene for what would appear to be his entire lifetime, including many years helping run the Old Spokes Home, Burlington’s longstanding bike co-operative.

Although I’ve yet to actually ask him, I like to imagine Ron rides a classic bicycle at home. Perhaps it’s lugged and steel and it’s been his trusted companion for many years. Or maybe it’s a salvaged 90s hardtail he coaxed back to life. Here in Oaxaca, however, he treated himself to a spangly full-suspension Giant Reign, propelling him straight into 21st-century MTB tech: dropper, stubby stem, hydraulic brakes and all, bought locally as Ron likes to support his bike shop. Although no stranger to cycling, he claims he only recently took up mountain biking, relative at least to a long bikes-as-transportation career, and years of touring in New England, Canada, and around the Great Lakes. But that doesn’t stop him from ripping along the rutted and rooty trails here with a somewhat alarming sense of abandon. Ron’s the kind of guy who likes to detour to pop up or down a couple of stairs, just for the hell of it. I’ve seen him splash through puddles for the simple joy of splashing through them, like a kid. He lives car-free, too. Aside from his neon wardrobe (for which he’s well known), Ron is rarely to be seen without his side mirror affixed to his helmet, which sticks out like an insect’s proboscis sensing danger, as he navigates the city’s somewhat chaotic streets.

The inimitable Ron Manganiello, embracing full suspension, hydraulic brakes, droppers, neon buffs, and helmet mirrors.

Ron’s 71st birthday coincides with a yearly event that he usually takes part in at the Old Spokes Home, a cash-raising Fall Fundo for the co-op. An organisation that, aside from having one of the best names in the bike co-op world, grew out of Ron’s own Bike Recycle Vermont, a grassroots initiative he set up in his backyard. Dig into Old Spokes’ archives and legend has it that “a friend working for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program asked Ron, a voracious everyday cyclist, if he knew where to get a bike for a Somali man who recently settled in Burlington and needed to get to work. Ron found a bike in a dumpster, fixed it up, and delivered it to the man. Soon after, dozens of requests for bikes started pouring in and Ron recognized that bicycles have a tremendously positive effect on people’s lives; bikes expanded people’s mobility, healthfulness, and freedom. Ron wanted to provide bikes and these opportunities for people who needed them the most.” His initial goal was to provide bikes to the resettled Somali refugee community there, before expanding to provide refurbished bikes and services to all low-income Vermonters in the Burlington area. To date, thousands of women, men, and children have been served.

But this year, seeing as Ron was ‘stranded’ in Oaxaca, he figured he’d partake in the fundraiser virtually, and use the chance to ring in his 71st birthday, with a 100km ride. And not just any 100km ride! This one was predominantly off-road and included 1,500 metres of climbing, from the fertile Valles Centrales that surround the city to the small, close-knit Zapotec settlement of Benito Juárez, in the Sierra Norte. This extended mountain fold towers above you wherever you ride, adding drama to every outing, especially when its upper reaches are half engulfed in cloud wisp or usurped by inky thunderstorms, as they often are right now at the tail end of the rainy season.

There’s a reason why it’s so green! The rainy season brings afternoon deluges and regular cloud clashes in the high country.

Being the everyday cyclist he is, Ron loves riding from his front door, so of course our ride started right from the centre of town. First, there was a 30km traverse across the valley floor following a traffic-free bike path out of town. This former railway line leads riders to the world’s stoutest tree, an especially elderly Mexican Cypress whose thicket of branches are home to six species of birds. Then it’s mostly quiet dirt roads that course through a patchwork of head-high cornfields, past the ruins of Dainzú’s impressive ball game court (aka the Hill of the Organ Cacti, to translate from the Zapotec), on roads that we shared with Mesoamerica’s descendants, in both pickup trucks and horse and carts. These folk have worked this very land for the last two and a half millennia.

Leaving the open expanse of the Valles Centrales behind – and its endless acres of cornfields and agave plantations – it’s a steady 1300m climb to Benito Juárez, perched up at 2800m in elevation.

From Teotilan, known throughout Mexico for the quality of its woolen textiles, the climb into the Sierra Juárez begins in earnest. Touristy as the town may be nowadays – at least, outside of Covid-19 – its many textile shops are far from cookie cutter in style; often, three generations of a family live under one roof, honing their craft on wooden looms, using natural dyes traditionally derived from plants, minerals, and insects. In fact, it’s at this very time of year that many are collected from the surrounding hillsides; for instance, the reddish hue seen in some carpets is achieved by grinding down and boiling up cochineal bugs, which feed on nopales, or prickly pears.

Nuts, roots, and indigo pigments are some of the natural dyes used in Teotitlan del Valle to make distinctive sheepswool carpets, ponchos, and bags.

Beyond, it’s a 20km, sinewy 1,300-metre ascent to a cool and misty 2,800-metre ridgeline. The grade’s gentle and the climb is steady throughout. With each metre climbed, it also becomes a roadside festival of bromeliads, otherworldly epiphytes that cling improbably to the branches of trees, as prickly pear give way to moss-covered scrub oak, before intermingling with tall pines.

Welcome to Bromeliad World! Stand still for long enough and the chances are one of these guys – a Tillandsia or an epiphytic snake cactus – will grow on you.

It seemed appropriate that the birthday cake Ron’s wife Ellen – who met us at the very top – had bought was both enormous and made by the coffee shop that’s just around the corner from where the couple live. Ron was the business’ very first customer and its young owner now joins him on Sunday rides.

As for bikepackers in the group, the original plan was to push on and turn the ride into an overnight by linking in a network of trails in the high country and dropping directly into Oaxaca city. But these villages remain closed, understandably, to outsiders. So instead, as rain fell, we followed Ron on his descent back down the mountain, pulling off at a trailhead to camp for the night in a glade of manzanitas and shrub oaks, dripping with moisture and mosses. Ron and Jake continued home, clocking up an impressive 100km to their names.

There’s not much more to add, other than to share how enjoyable it is to ride with cyclists of all ages, nationalities, and backgrounds. And to offer a reminder of the value of stopping, too. I paused for no other reason than to spend a night under the stars, to take off my shoes, to feel the earth under my toes, and to wake up at sunrise as the light dappled my tent. Because just like Oaxaca’s unexpected assortment of cyclists, this southern Mexican state has surprised me with its breadth of plant life. With a keen eye, every step can reveal a new world, so I spent the rest of the afternoon happily observing them through my camera lens, whilst Emma used the opportunity to paint the succulent delights and fun-sized fungi that could be seen a stone’s throw from the tent.

Paintpacking. Emma, an Outdoor Educator and botanical illustrator, gets up close and personal with some mushroom gills.

After all, bikepacking doesn’t always have to be about moving ourselves from place to place. It can also be about finding a deeper understanding of the one where we’re at. It can be a means to thoughtfully explore the space directly around us – its history, its culture, its biodiversity – even if it’s just a day’s ride from home. As I’ve discovered from my time here in Oaxaca, it’s also a way to meet people, both local and transplants.

In these times when backyard explorations are perhaps our best outlet for remaining connected to the outdoors, long may we celebrate birthday rides and microscopic overnighters!

Scroll through the image carousel below for some of the plants and creatures found within a three-minute walking range. With thanks to Emma Bucke for her detective work, via the hivemind behind iNaturalist. Isn’t the slimy one that digests insects especially cool?! If you’re interested in learning more about the area, check out the San José del Pacífico Grand Dirt Tour; the route guide includes day rides to Dainzú and Teotitlan too.

Addendum: Two days later Ron was out on his bike again. This time I shared a compact 40km loop with him, albeit one that boasts no less than 1,300 metres of climbing into the high country above San Pablo Etla, as well as some especially wet, slippery, steep, and technical Oaxacan singletrack. Watching him dive down trails with the enthusiasm of a fearless teenager felt like a well-timed reminder to enjoy cycling on every level – as a fun pastime to decompress as well as a tool for social change. You can learn more about Ron and the Fall Fondo here. Check out the Old Spokes Homes website too; I’m especially drawn to their 365 project, effectively their shop ‘bike brand’. $365 for 365 days of riding a year!

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