*Originally published in Far Ride Magazine
I wish that guy would put those gloves on me
By the time he reaches Tibet, Joe Cruz is a machine. He has been riding the roads of northern Pakistan, India, and eastern China for over three months. Upon arrival in Lhasa, he promptly gets the worst haircut of his life and spends the night drinking “a bit too much of the expensive whiskey” with some new expat friends.
At the break of noon the next day, he sets off on his full-suspension race bike plus trailer (it’s 2006 after all). The plan is to head west out of Lhasa and climb Kampa La pass. At around four o’clock in the afternoon he reaches the base of the pass—the obvious camping spot for any sane person—but he keeps going. He climbs for hours. After a while, delirium sets in. Everything becomes ghostlike, the countryside passes as if in a dream— kids run alongside him, crazy three wheeled tractors chug by. The hours stretch on. And then it’s dark, the stars have come out. He continues on, creeping towards 15,000 feet in a cross-eyed fugue. And it’s cold, so fucking cold. Then a thought occurs to Cruz: I wish that guy would put those gloves on me. That’s where things get really blurry, or perhaps impressionistic. He’s on top of the pass. Descending. Cold. Stars. And then—BANG!—he wakes the following morning—shoes on, fully dressed inside his sleeping bag and tent, three hundred feet off the road, covered in Oreo crumbs.
* * * *
Cruz likes to suffer—though he’s quick to point out the difference between real suffering and the self-inflicted pain of a bicycle vacation. “I like to ride hard and sometimes it’s uncomfortable,” he tells me. “Getting sick and stuck in a place for three days is suffering, but it’s not existential suffering—the stuff that really deserves the word. It’s just enough to teach the lesson.” Cruz is a tenured professor of philosophy and cognitive science at Williams College in western Massachusetts. We met several years ago through mutual cycling friends and I was immediately struck by the incredible contrast of his life in academia and his wild cycling adventures across the globe.
The son of a Puerto Rican taxi cab driver with a 7th grade education, it’s a bit of a miracle that Cruz would find himself in a place like Tibet—or Syria, Peru, South Africa, the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, the list goes on and on—at all, much less on a bicycle. “I didn’t go anywhere as a kid,” Cruz tells me. “Vacations weren’t part of the itinerary.” Cruz grew up in Sunset Park, Brooklyn with his ten year older half-sister, Susie. His dad worked seven days a week, but Cruz has fond memories of long summer days riding around in the taxi, speeding up New York City avenues, standing on the front seat and talking through the window to passengers in the back.
By 1983, New York City was at the height of violent crime and it became too dangerous for his father to drive a cab. So the family relocated to Hialeah, Florida, a latino community on the outskirts of Miami. Cruz attended Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School, which was shared with the more affluent neighborhood of Miami Lakes. “My parents worked so hard so that their son didn’t have to drive a cab,” he says. “There was no sacrifice they wouldn’t make.” Hialeah-Miami Lakes High offered AP courses, chess club, and early computer programing and this is where Cruz found his stride. “I settled into being a nerd, and in 11th grade when the other kids were talking about SAT and college prep, I thought, ‘great, maybe I should go to college too’,” he remembers.
After high school, Cruz was transported to an ivy drenched liberal arts fantasy: Williams College. But new challenges awaited him in western Massachusetts. Growing up in multicultural communities hadn’t prepared him for the reality of his socioeconomic status. Made up of mostly white, affluent students, Williams was another world. Cruz felt out of place and struggled socially and academically. “It put a massive chip on my shoulder. Instead of feeling gratitude for the financial aid that made college possible, I was mad at my parents for being poor and stupid—completely irrational.” He nearly washed out that first year.
But studying philosophy changed everything. At the start of his sophomore year, Cruz was realizing that college, indeed life, didn’t have to be about nice cars or new clothes, it could be about books and ideas. “Having good mentors and getting fired up about what I was learning buoyed me above the surface,” he remembers. It was that year that Cruz saved up enough money to buy his first mountain bike, a GT Tequesta for four hundred dollars. In 1988 mountain bikes were a fairly new concept. “When I first started riding I may have known that people were touring on bikes, but it wasn’t anything I was interested in. For me it was all mountain biking. We’d go for a two hour ride in the mud with friends, come back, hose the bike down, and tell stories.”
It was a weird confluence of Cruz’s budding interest in bike riding and a curiosity for travel that led him to his first trip. “At that point in my life, the extent of my traveling was an amusement park in New Jersey, Disney World, and a single trip to Puerto Rico.” Guys at the local bike shop in Vermont told Cruz that people out west had started touring Utah’s legendary White Rim Trail on mountain bikes. “I was just a nerdy kid with a mountain bike who liked the idea of reading American Transcendentalist poetry outside—Emerson and Thoreau and shit.” But he was determined. Cruz made a long-distance call from his dorm room to the Rim Cyclery in Moab. He mailed them a check and return envelope and in a month he had a map.
That spring Cruz and his girlfriend Kris stepped off the Amtrak in Thompson, Utah. They dumped their borrowed gear into big rear-mounted panniers, and rode ninety miles of pavement to the trailhead. “That ninety miles was the longest ride I’d done up to that point,” remembers Cruz. “I was beaten to the ground that first day.” His girlfriend, on the other hand, was on Williams’ division one Nordic team, Olympic prep. “She had a huge engine. I had no business doing anything athletic with her. Here I am exhausted on day zero—we hadn’t even started the White Rim—and she wasn’t even fazed.” But somehow they finished—and then some. They had a blast, ending the trip camping in Moab and riding Porcupine Rim and Poison Spider Mesa. So began Cruz’s love affair with bicycle travel.
* * * *
The term “bikepacking,” as far as Cruz can tell, dates back to 1973. Legends Dan Burden and Greg Siples coined the term in order to differentiate typical touring from the more adventurous dirt route rides they were completing. Over the years, Cruz has spent a lot of time exploring bikepacking as a concept and philosophy. “It doesn’t matter what bags you use or if you’re riding on dirt. It doesn’t even matter what kind of bike you’re on,” he says. “To me, bikepacking is about cultivating a certain attitude and aesthetic sensibility, a certain quiet and a degree of self-sufficiency.” Then, after a moment, he adds with a self-deprecating laugh: “But let’s not kid ourselves, we aren’t Lewis-and-fucking-Clark here.”
Towards the end of undergrad, Cruz had identified two major loves in life: philosophy and racing bikes. He’d also managed to purchase, via layaway, his first high-end mountain bike, a Wicked Fat Chance, from a local bike builder in Massachusetts. “That was my only bike for over a decade. Every trip I took, every race I raced, was on that bike. I still have it.”
In 1991 Cruz relocated to Tucson, Arizona to continue pursuing his studies in philosophy as a grad student. It was 119 degrees when he arrived to his new home—a far cry from Williamstown. But Cruz’s horizons were expanding. “I worked hard as hell, but the work could happen anywhere. I was riding southern Utah, Flagstaff…nine months of the year! Slowly I started carrying my shit for an overnighter, then a four day loop.”
Eventually, bicycle travel evolved into a real-world outlet for Cruz’s academic curiosity. As he became increasingly interested in the philosophy of the mind, he discovered that the pace of bike travel not only fostered the degree of disconnectedness, but it also allowed him to discover things about his subconscious. His experience as an outsider and underdog informing the kinds of trips he was drawn to—off the beaten path and remote. He found himself focusing on regions that he felt connected to, spending time with the underrepresented and marginalized. “The deepest fact of everyone’s life is that they were handed a certain set of circumstances that they can’t do anything about. It’s just the way the world is.” He admits to having developed an “unfortunate habit” of wanting to go to places you shouldn’t want to go. “Maybe it’s a bit of hubris, or a certain kind of arrogance, but I do have this feeling that if people are talking shit about a place, I’m going to go there and find out that it ain’t like that.”
It’s the unknown that Cruz looks for on his expeditions. This is what I’ve always found so fascinating about him, his ability to walk the line between adventure and foolishness. With the inherent vulnerability of bicycle travel, how does he quantify risk? “If you think of danger as binary—either you’re in it or you’re not—then you can confuse yourself into thinking that if you do nothing, that switch is in the off-position. But it’s much more complicated than that.” He continues. “The kind of trips I do are meaningful because I don’t know how it’s going to go. And because I don’t, I get to have my own humanness unfold in front of me. That fills out what it means to be a human being.”
* * * *
After finishing his PhD, Cruz spent three years teaching at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts before being offered a position at his alma mater, Williams College. In a strange twist of fate, he found himself in the very environment in which he had so struggled, but suddenly in a position to help students feeling as lost as he had been.
Cruz received tenure in 2007 and was awarded a sabbatical year to begin a new research program. So he packed up his Santa Cruz Superlight, race kit, and gear and caught a plane to Pakistan. After a stage race benefiting the victims of the 2006 earthquake, he rode through the mountains of northern Pakistan for a few months, stopping in Lahore to give the Phi Beta Kappa lecture at the university, before crossing the border into northern India. His two months of riding in India included another nine-day stage race from Manali to Leh, before catching a plane from Delhi to Chengdu, China and riding through Tibet and into Nepal. He finished the trip by returning to India and taking up a position as a scholar-in-residence at a monastery for a few months.
“That was a good trip” Cruz tell me. “Everything I’d learned up to that point went into it and it was precisely the kind of riding I wanted to do. Because it was the first, it stands out as the best.” When I suggest to him that it seems insane to ride a bicycle through Pakistan during the Bush years, he just shrugs. “Before I went to Pakistan I knew that people in villages there, with the muslim tradition of hospitality, would be good to me. And I’ve was massively reinforced.”
* * * *
Another memorable ride came in the winter of 2010. At the end of the fall semester, Cruz hustled to the airport, keen to make the most of the holiday break. After a few days exploring Istanbul, he continued on to Aleppo, landing in the now war-ravaged city a mere four months before the Syrian conflict broke out. “Syria is in the news in a way that completely misplaces and obscures the beauty and history you feel when you are there,” he tells me. “In the countryside of Syria there was incredible warmth and hospitality—including from the military that I was in contact with at checkpoints.”
For this trip Cruz had chosen a Surly Long Haul Trucker with a couple of front panniers—very much like today’s gravel riding setups—and equipment for warm weather touring. The plan was to tour Syria and cross the border into Jordan, ride the length of Jordan—including the incredible Wadi Rum sandstone formations in the southern part of the country, cross the Bay of Aqaba by boat and arrive in Egypt to do a circuit of the Oasis Road—Luxor to Cairo. After touring the ancient obelisks and sphinxes of Luxor, Cruz continued south along the Oasis Road, parallelling the Nile on dirt and bad tarmac for ten days.
It is late January on his return north that Cruz notices a palpable excitement in the air. People warn him over and over to be careful when he returns to Cairo, to keep his eyes open, that “change is coming and it’s coming soon.”
On the outskirts of Cairo he encounters a massive traffic jam like he’s never seen before. “People have shut off vehicles and are milling about. Housing developments to my left and the Great Pyramids on my right.” Awash in the emotion of the moment, but not understanding what’s going on, Cruz rides between cars for miles. It’s Friday the 28th of January 2011. Later Cruz would hear reports in the western media of tension and a feeling of menace, that was not his experience. There was no police presence whatsoever. Everything just stopped, people flooding towards the city center. “There is all this emotion. A tall Egyptian stops me and asks where I’m from. I say the USA. He says to me, ‘I love you’. His eyes filled with tears, he shakes my hand and gestures up the road and continues on as if we were marching together.”
An hour later he arrives at his hotel. Around the lobby, westerners are holed up, drinking tea. A tank sits outside the hotel’s revolving door. Cruz hears that there has been an attempt to take over the government. He makes some calls back home and speaks to an Egyptian colleague who is glued to the news. The city-wide march is towards Tahrir Square, where the revolutionaries are taking the stand. His flight out is scheduled for the following evening.
The next morning he packs his stuff onto the Long Haul Trucker for the last time and sets out to ride the ten kilometers to the airport. Machete wielding civilians are manning hastily erected checkpoints made from burned out cars and pieces of fencing they’ve drug onto the road. “Who are you?” they ask. “American tourist headed to the airport,” Cruz responds. They wave him on, time and time again, with well wishes.
The airport is a zoo when he arrives. People are camped out everywhere. Cruz checks in six hours early and the airline agents tell him to stick close. Two hours later they take his bike (he never sees it again, but is compensated fairly). Most of the people leaving are monied Egyptians fleeing the uprising, Cruz is the only American trying to get home. Suddenly he hears shouting, “Mr Cruz! Mr Cruz! We have a seat for you, but you have to run!” Cruz sprints through the airport and onto the plane. He is one of the last people to board. After two uncertain hours on the jetway, the plane climbs into the sky amidst the first stirrings of what would later be known as the Arab Spring.
* * * *
In late summer of 2011 at a Williams alumni event, Cruz meets the woman with whom he is destined to marry. The timing is lamentable as it affords them only a single date before Cruz heads to South America for a year-long ride down the spine of the Andes. Hundreds of emails and postcards are to follow, before Margaret picks Cruz up at the airport in New York City—for date two and the beginning of their lives together.
Before leaving, Cruz decided to ride his Surly Pugsley—a fat bike that he’d recently ridden through Alaska. The bike is a bit of a gamble because while parts might be available in Alaska—he could easily become stranded in remote South America if things went sideways.
With front and rear racks, panniers, and the capacity to carry lots of food and water, the Pugsley weighed 75 lbs—dry. Eric Parsons, a friend who started Revelate Designs in Alaska had made him custom bikepacking bags for another bike. Experimenting, Cruz realized the frame bag fit the Pugsley. The weight difference was an incredible thirteen pounds. No looking back. “It’s 2011. Nobody, to my knowledge, is using bikepacking bags for international travel, way off grid, far away from resupply, for such long duration. Not to mention on a fat bike,” Cruz remembers. This was well before “fatpacking” was a thing.
This discovery marks a huge evolutionary step in Cruz’s style of expedition bike travel. “I switch to bikepacking bags and a backpack, pare down, repack my stuff.”
Cruz flew to Ecuador and rides to the southern tip of South America. If that doesn’t seem like challenge enough, he’d chosen to stay high in the Andes, riding single track paths between remote villages. Occasionally he’d dip down and explore places like the Amazon.
Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. For the first time on a big trip, Cruz speaks the language. “Peru remains one of my favorite, flat-out adventure destinations. Like Nepal, it has just enough infrastructure to let you in, while still being wild.” By speaking to ex-security guards in Aguas Calientes, Cruz learns that security at a hydroelectric plant takes a break from two to five in the morning. So he shows up during the middle of the night, sneaks through the gate, and in the cone of light shed by his headlamp, rides an hour along the railroad tracks to where he stages his ascent to Machu Picchu. “It was incredible to be there on a bike. Probably impossible now, due to increased security, but only doable then because I was on a fatbike!”
A month into his trip, he hates his helmet and gives it away. Next, the backpack has to go, but how to carry water—especially across the Bolivian salt flats? Using hose clamps he attaches four water bottle cages to the front forks. Not enough. Then he attaches two more cages by the rear dropouts—bolting them to the rack mount on the Pugsley’s seat stays He’s also carrying stove fuel in a bottle below the downtube. Traveling light: Six bottles, plus fuel, with nothing on his back.
* * * *
Cruz’s progression from mountain bikes to off-road bike touring to bikepacking encapsulates the last five decades in bike exploration. When he first came on the scene, the minimalist nylon panniers of the 70’s were being replaced by the heavier, waterproofed four-bag-and-rack setups of the ‘80s. At that time, no system had yet been developed for off-road touring that allowed a rider to travel along rough terrain on a loaded down GT Tequesta. “There were too many rigid attachments. The bolts or the racks themselves—something was always giving way.”
In the beginning, he toured off-road with a two pannier set-up, sometimes adding a square front touring bag and a mapcase on the stem of his Wicked Fat Chance. “You just lived with poor handling,” he remembers. “That shit was always breaking.” By the 2000’s he switched to an off-road trailer. “You could attach it to any bike. There’s one big duffle—pretty simple. It changed the way the bike handled, but not as bad as panniers.” For his year-long trip through Asia he’d pulled a trailer that had two dry bags suspended off the frame around one 26” wheel, attaching to the rear axle of his Santa Cruz full suspension Superlight. “That trailer worked, but it was an additional source of anxiety and another set of things to have break and go wrong. Plus, they’re heavy”
With the advent of bikepacking bags, Cruz finally had the equipment he needed to do the kind of expedition riding he was most interested in. “The motivation was to remove the attachment points. The elasticity of the straps finally allowed you to do technical stuff—jumping, drops.” This enormous reduction in weight meant unlimited possibility. Bikepacking bags changed what was rideable and pushed Cruz to optimize the stuff he brought with him—lighter, smaller gear. He looked to ultralight backpacking equipment—down quilts, tiny cartridge stoves, and steri-pens. “I hate backpacks and stuff dangling. I used to hang my mug off the rear saddlebag” he says with a laugh, “but now I try to resist the dangle.”
“Bikepacking is in this debate with itself about what is at its center—mountain bikes versus gravel-oriented adventure bikes,” he muses. Although he does plenty of gravel bike oriented trips, Cruz has always been more of a mountain bike guy. He still lives part-time in Williamstown, Massachusetts but he’s far from his college days of buying bikes on layaway (“I grew up poor, so I spend all my money!” he says with a laugh). He now has a fleet of bikes, including a custom titanium fat bike made specifically for him by his bike sponsor Seven Cycles. He’s also sponsored by Revelate and enjoys showing off their prototype bags. Additionally, as an editor of Bikepacking.com, he has access to new bikes across several brands.
Cruz is still at it. He is still riding in places that challenge his assumptions, places that haven’t yet been homogenized into the western conversation. “We have to go there or else we will think where we are from is the only place to live and the right way to live—and those things probably aren’t true.” As a married man his trips tend to be a bit shorter—a month instead of a year. But he doesn’t mind. “There is no linear relationship between time spent riding and how good a ride is.” As a professor of philosophy and cognitive science he enjoys the balance provided by a liberal arts lifestyle and the free time of sabbatical. In his classes he is asking deep philosophical questions—the future of human beings, how the mind works. “It keeps me charged up—keeps me alive. It’s what I’m thinking about on a bikepacking trip” he tells me. Then he pauses and admits with a chuckle, “even if during the semester I’m sometimes thinking about bikepacking.”