Words by Yuri Hauswald, images by @freihoferphotography

Ed. Note—yearning to get away, in this winter of discontent? Yuri Hauswald, one of the professional cyclists on the Wattie Ink. Gravel Collective Project, journeyed to Patagonia, Arizona to experience a camp with The Cyclist's Menu, a unique company that treats athletes to an experience they never could have imagined back home. As we careen towards Black Friday, remember that one of the reasons we do all of this is so we can get outside and reach places that were previously just beyond the horizon.

This one time at The Cyclist’s Menu Gravel Camp, I straddled the United States/Mexico border in an old ghost town, and pedaled dirt roads Pancho Villa used when he stole cattle from the San Rafael Cattle Company. While we did see many CBP agents patrolling the vast, desert expanse, there were no outlaws, unless you include our gang of gravel campers on their carbon, steel, and titanium steeds thundering across the network of borderland roads.

Patagonia, Arizona, which sits at 4,044 ft. above sea level, was originally a mining town and supply center in the 1890's, and is one of three towns left in Arizona that still has an active Marshall’s Department. 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 a unique mixture of rancher, wild west, and artist/miner/birder/cyclist characterizes the community.

Image courtesy of @freihoferphotography

It’s in this eclectic patchwork that Zander Ault and his wife, Heidi Rentz, run The Cyclist’s Menu, which provides unique cycling and food experiences to curious and adventurous athletes. When I asked him what drew him and Heidi to this remote region of Arizona seven years ago, Ault said “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 expressed through the natural wonders is immense. It's overwhelming at times. I felt that effect the first time I rode here, simply immersed in the surroundings. You leave a more centered human."

At 90,000 acres, a mixture of both private and public lands, it’s easy to feel small and insignificant in the San Rafael Valley, a rare expanse of wide open land that sits around 5,000 ft. above sea level. There’s a stillness and silence that centers the soul, but this parched and quiet desert landscape simultaneously teems with vibrant life. 300 species of birds, 600 species of native bees, 300 types of butterflies and moths, and over 100 threatened species of other types call the San Rafael home. 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 rare and elusive, there have been sightings of jaguars, mountain lions, and ocelots that migrate these mountains every season. 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. 

Image courtesy of @freihoferphotography

So just what (or who?) is The Cyclist’s Menu? Heidi Rentz and Zander Ault are two passionate hard-chargers committed to giving their guests the best gravel camp experience possible. I met Heidi first, when she raced mountain bikes professionally, and we developed a friendship there. Chef Zander 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 regular purchasing in a much smaller radius. These are the types of bonds we create to instill a special connection to place within our clients’ lives.”

On any given day at a Cyclist Menu gravel camp, a camper’s experience starts with some amazing morning motivation, roasted just up the road in Tucson by Presta Coffee Roasters. Breakfast includes (but isn’t limited to!) local artisan bread, almond butter, oatmeal, avocado, and eggs made to order. Following breakfast you’ll also experience some quality pedaling time over the hundreds of miles of Cadillac gravel this area has become renowned for. Over the four days at camp I rode with an ophthalmologist, a gym owner, a veterinarian scientist, a chiropractor, and a cancer research professional (all of whom had to present negative COVID-19 results in order to attend). Campers came from Massachusetts, California, Colorado, and Washington state, all hoping to push their limits and find stillness and solitude in this incredibly difficult year. They found all that ate world-class food along the way, re-finding the power of shared meals in this community-starved 2020 (all meals took place outside and socially-distanced for safety).

Image courtesy of @freihoferphotography

Ride bikes eat food. Eat food ride bikes. Any way you slice it, a week with The Cyclist’s Menu in Patagonia, will satiate your hunger for big days on the bike and craving for wholesome, organic, and locally-sourced meals. 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.

Want to experience The Cyclist’s Menu? You can find out more here, and make sure to check out the Spirit World 100, a gravel event Heidi and Zander built from scratch, as they do with all of their work. The inaugural ride bought 130 cyclists to town, all of whom presumably went home with full hearts and stomachs.

Image courtesy of @freihoferphotography