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Sarah J. Swallow, La Ruta del Jefe

Recently caught our attention a race in states, in the south of the country, the environment is what first caught our attention. The race, called La Ruta del Jefe, it runs between San Rafael Valley and Santa Rita Mountains, near the southern border of Arizona. The visual roughness and beauty of the place awakened our interest, who’s organizing this? Sarah J.Swallow is one of the most active women in the world cycling scene, writer, brand ambassador, award-winning as ‘Explorer of the year’ by bikepacking.com in 2015… Sarah can organize events or open a new path on an undiscovered bike route, impressive.

We wanted to talk with Sarah to find out more about the race that she organizes in one of the most, for different reasons, suggestive places in the USA.


What is La Ruta del Jefe Ride?

“Ruta Del Jefe is a 125-mile self supported adventure race following dirt roads around the Santa Rita Mountains, the lair of one of the only North American Jaguars to live in the U.S., El Jefe. The event was born from a bikepacking route I developed for Bikepacking.com called, The Sky Islands Odyssey. The Sky Islands Odyssey (and Ruta del Jefe) is set in the Sky Islands region of the Sonoran Desert, in the US/Mexico borderlands in Southern Arizona. It is one of the most biodiverse places in the world and once of the most beautiful places to ride a bicycle yet, the region is plagued with many environmental threats and a humanitarian crisis that most folks are unaware of.”

About the place and the race…

“I first visited Southern Arizona a few years ago for a cycling training camp with Benedict Wheeler (Ultraromance) and was blown away by the diversity of scenery, the network of gravel roads, and the ideal climate in the winter months when I was craving sunshine and warm weather. After the camp, I immediately started scheming for a bike-packing route to explore the region more thoroughly. I visited the region seven separate times in 2017-2018 to scout, ride, and link up the many mis-mapped roads in the region, ultimately putting together three routes in one; a full loop, a west loop, and an east loop of varying lengths and difficulty. As I scouted these routes the environmental, political, and humanitarian issues in this region were apparent and as I began to do more research for the route guides it became unavoidably obvious to me that they are a huge part of the story of this land.”


“The goal for Ruta del Jefe is to challenge riders to take on the Sky Islands Odyssey East Loop in one single day while also raising awareness to the environmental and political threats affecting this region. Some of the key issues I highlight through Ruta del Jefe is the environmental threat of the proposed Rosemont Copper Mine (a one mile deep-one mile wide open pit copper mine) and Executive Order 13767 (which calls for a physical solid wall to be built along the border) would have on the wildlife habitat and migratory species, the water quality, and outdoor recreation in the Sky Islands region. Another issue I highlight is the current U.S. national policy to regulate illegal migration through “Prevention Through Deterrence” which deters illegal migrant traffic to more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and better suited for enforcement. As a result of this strategy, hundreds of undocumented migrants suffer or die from dehydration, starvation, and the extreme journey through the desert each year within the borderlands where Ruta del Jefe takes place.

I believe that riding a bike in the Sky Islands region offers a unique perspective on these issues. In addition, since we have the privilege to travel to ride bikes in beautiful places, it is our responsibility to understand the big picture of the history of the region we ride, what is special and unique about them, what the threats are, and how we can help. So with Ruta del Jefe the cost of registration was a suggested donation to Save the Scenic Santa Ritas or No More Deaths. I also asked representatives to speak to the riders on behalf of organizations such as Save The Scenic Santa Ritas, No More Deaths, The Northern Jaguar Project, and the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch of the National Audubon Society. The presentations took place the night before the race to give riders a greater context for the land they would be racing through the following day.”


WEEKEND, planning to prepare an epic race in an epic place

“The event was hosted at the remote and private setting of the historic Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch in Elgin, Arizona which is surrounded by 30-year-old preserved tall-grasslands and preserved habitats for hundreds of bird species, reptiles, and bugs! Riders making their way from Tucson were greeted by a winding dirt road through tall grass and 360 degree scenic views of the Sky Islands region and ultimately the respite of the historic adobe ranch houses where they checked-in, set up camp (or car camp), and mingled among other cyclists arriving from far away places such as Canada, New York, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, and California. Not so long after check-in Dan Levenson and The Cat Mountain Rounders serenaded us with old-time music as Benedict (Ultraromance) cooked up some vegan/dairy free/gluten free tasty dinner which was much appreciated by all. [Benedict studied sports nutrition in college and has a long and successful history with fueling himself to be a superior athlete stemming back to his bodybuilding days, his road racing days, and even today as a professional “lifestyle” athlete. He is well trained in the field of healthy eating, cooking, and providing appropriate nutrients to athletes]. Not long after our bellies were properly filled, the band packed up, and presentations began wrapping the evening together in an enlightening, educational, grounding, and inspiring way.”

RACE, that’s waiting for a runner who wants to do La Ruta Del Jefe

“The race started Saturday at 7 am sharp with breakfast provided by Benedict and espresso beverages by my friends Ty and Julia. We were so lucky with the weather (it snowed a foot 2-days later) and within a few minutes of the start of the race, we watched a beautiful sunrise over the Mustang Mountains. It was a nice start to the day. The race was fast paced. Tailwinds on the west side of the course made for some incredibly fast times (First place time was 7.5 hours) despite the technical terrain along the route. My personal goal was to finish to see the sunset on the ranch again and that’s just what I did. After a month and a half of planning, a week of filming for the Ruta del Jefe Film, and 10-hours of racing, riding back onto the ranch property watching the purple and pink sunset light over the Mustang Mountains was a surreal and euphoric experience for me. The highlight of my day was sharing war stories around the table with other riders as we waited for the remaining ~30 riders to finish in the dark with temperatures dipping below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. From where we were waiting we could see cyclists headlights cresting the hill of the ranch property in the dark. From that point, it would still take them 45-minutes to an hour to arrive at the finish line but I loved seeing there headlights as they were coming in. I was so impressed that despite the long day, riding in the dark and freezing temperatures, that everyone returning had a smile on their face. This was a hardy and grateful bunch.”


CYCLING, what’s cycling for Sarah J. Swallow?

“For me, cycling is the best way to experience the world and to connect with the land, and other people. It also physically and mentally challenges me in ways that make me stronger for whatever life throws at me and nourishes my soul in a way that motivates me to work hard so I can keep exploring the possibilities the bicycle can offer.”

WOMEN’S CYCLING, the future of cycling?

“In terms of women’s cycling in 2019, I believe that there is a movement brewing for more representation and more opportunities within the bicycle industry as a result of a greater connection and community developing among WTF (women/trans/femme) cyclists themselves. There are so many of us getting out there and doing extraordinary things with bikes in yet until as of late, none of us knew each other or talked to one another. As one of the co-founders of the WTF Bikexplorers Summit and Rides Series, we saw the impact of connecting, supporting, and celebrating WTF cyclists who use their bicycles to explore by creating a space where we could share our experiences and discuss what we would like to see in the future. Within months of the summit, we started seeing more WTF and POC represented as brand ambassadors for the sport of cycling, and more marketing campaigns designed for our market. I think in 2019 it’s all about building more community for a greater and louder voice to keep this momentum up for the future.”

MULTIPURPOSE, Writer, Cycling adventurer, brand ambassador, event organizer you’re involved in many ways with cycling, which is the part that you enjoy more about it and if you got a favorite?

“Obviously, I do all these things so that I can live a life where I can ride my bicycle because that is truly my healthy happy place. Over time though, I have come to realize that I need balance in my life. I can’t just ride all the time because that makes me feel selfish and isolated from my community. I am also one of those people that if cycling hadn’t saved my life, I’d be over-working in an office somewhere. I’m a hard worker, I really like working so cycling helps me break away from that and be present with myself and those around me. On the other hand, the event organizing, ambassadorships, writing and route developing, allow me to work the hustle in a healthy, fun, and rewarding way that sustains my lifestyle. I love all of it!”

Photos by: John Watson / The Radavist

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