Mexico Gravel Camp
The Cyclist's Menu & Pivot Cycles Adventure to Alamos, Sonora
Named after its plaza's stately cottonwoods, Alamos, Sonora’s tangle of streets wind their way through row after row of registered historical buildings, the red, yellow, and blue facades gently faded by the desert sun. Dry creek beds bisect the bustle, spanned by stone bridges suggestive of the late summer monsoons. A Jesuit cathedral anchors the city center, a gateway to the Sonoran Desert and hundreds of miles of yellow dirt roads.
The combination was enough to bring Heidi and Zander Ault to vet Alamos as a new gravel cycling camp location for their touring company, The Cyclist’s Menu. The two have made a habit of ferreting out places to ride gravel bikes and eat food for close to a decade, and Alamos seemed very likely to fit the bill.
An eight hour drive south of Patagonia, Arizona, Alamos’s placid square wafts with carne asada smoke and rattles with the sounds of trucks and bicycles moving through the city. The cottonwoods’ canopy shades a dozen or so street vendor stalls, and a man breezes by on a retrofitted tricycle equipped with a bakery box, looking for a spot of shade for his pan dulce and myriad of fresh treats.
Arriving in late April for a final scout, it did not take Heidi and Zander long to pop up the 300 vertical feet above the city on its signature cobblestone lookout road - the “Mirador”. Remaining in the shade of the climbs final pitch, the two peer out over the landscape, tracing curiosities with their fingers to explore in the coming week.
From here, atop the Mirador, a few things are immediately clear: that the gorgeous former state capital has avoided the sprawl of many of Mexico’s other “Silver Cities”, and that the mountain to its left is on fire.
For now the fire is remote - high up in the Sierra de Alamos, the adjacent sky island covered in a thick pine forest. From there, Heidi and Zander Ault’s attention turns back to the hundreds of miles of yellow dirt roads unspooled into the desert ranchland.
“It’s raw, but it is beautiful,” says Heidi. As a duo who has made much of their living guiding by bike in southern Arizona, the feeling is familiar - but here the husband and wife agree the terrain might call for a step up in tire size to soak up the chatter. “That’s why we scout,” she laughs.
Having run food-forward gravel cycling camps across the U.S. and Europe for the better part of a decade as The Cyclist’s Menu, they’re here to scout Alamos as a new destination for camps in the winter months. For now, it is “dry” and in the high 90’s for much of the day. Fortunately the lodging for the camp is a small collection of immaculate adobe casitas - that come complete with a saltwater pool and air conditioning. Perhaps better still is the fact that the owner Jen MacKay is a former cycling guide herself, and has volunteered to lead them out on a ride or two, introduce them around town and slow roast a pot of dark red cochinita pibil.
“I’ll go back just for the pibil,” said Zander.
Mackay seems every bit the type for the Ault’s. A conservation and cycling minded veteran of the service industry, she counts the creation of a large protected park filled with single track as one of her most outstanding projects in the 28 years since she moved to Alamos from the States.
Making their way through the spiny woodland the next day, Jennifer leads Heidi and Zander on a route she’s sketched out - a fifty some mile loop during the course of which they will see about 4 motorized vehicles. The group moves smoothly through the hills and dried creek bottoms.
The Sky Island landscape is expansive, varied and rugged - tall etcho cactus, densely wooded creek bottoms and endless miles of thorn scrub are punctuated by steep, strangely shaped hills and a few very large mountains. Small prayer shrines slightly outnumber abandoned concrete basketball courts, hoopless testaments to construction contracts gone by. The pine -hemmed peaks of the Sierra de Alamos - with their granite spired crowns now ominously shrouded in wildfire smoke - loom some 4,000 feet above the dried arroyos of the valley floor. Home to a rich diversity of mammals, reptiles and birds, they serve as majestic landmarks for Heidi’s evolving rolodex of 30-80 mile routes that wind through the surrounding landscape.
That evening, perched on top of Jennifer's second story deck at Hotel Pedregal, the group is joined by MacKay’s daughter Ellie and their small fleet of various sized brown dogs. Margarita’s are passed around as mother and daughter fill the Ault’s in on the dynamics of town, its surrounding conservation projects, and what growing up in the local public school system as a 5’11 blonde was like.
“Oh yeah, my sister and I blended right in,” says Ellie with a wink, quick to turn back to what a welcoming place she found it. “I love it here.” Ellie has moved back to help her mother operate Hotel Pedregal, and is an integral part of the team.
The clientele at Hotel Pedregal is mostly Mexican - Alamos has long been on the map as a domestic destination within Mexico, where its colonial architecture, biological diversity, and mountain biking are well known. Sonora flies a bit under the radar for tourism from the States, though groups like birders, bikers and lizard researchers (to name a few) have certainly already figured it out. The grounds have stone paths that wind through varied mature trees and cacti, past the pool, the guesthouses, the kitchen and restaurant, and over to the adjacent 250 acre park called ‘Parque La Colorada’ in the foothills of the Sierra de Alamos.
Beyond dialing in routes, scout trips make time for Zander - “Chef Z”, when he’s on duty - to find his way around the local food scene. This installment has not been a disappointment. In addition to the street tacos and sweet breads of the Alameda there are vibrant local producers already sourced by the hotel, and local knowledge of colorful sauces is made evident every morning. Rides wind through cattle country, and the somewhat surprisingly close Sea of Cortez lends seafood to the menu as well. Evenings on operation scout tend to bring tacos poolside at the outdoor kitchen, with Heidi manufacturing a sampling of local agave products and citrus (which extensive testing has found to be both delicious and effective). In this part of Mexico there has been a concerted effort to increase the production of Bacanora, Sonora’s regional Mezcal varietal.
In a food system like Alamos, with a limited variety of staples, the change of the seasons is something that you can taste. “The meals were fresh, and tasted like the vegetables and meat sitting on the plate. It’s a reminder that with each season, comes a few different ingredients to be savored. I’m excited to get to know this place better,” said Ault.
The Cyclist’s Menu dates are set for late February/early March, where temps range in the 70’s-80’s during the day. This latest addition to their travel itinerary will no doubt come with challenges, but with “Ride Bikes, Eat Food” as a company mantra the smart money seems to be on success.
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CHEF Z & COACH HR