A chain of inspiration grew mountain biking in the Navajo Nation, from the Tour de Rez to the Rezduro
If happiness is contagious, then it moves even faster on two wheels in the Navajo Nation thanks to the defenders of the Southwest. One ride can change one life and that life can change countless other lives. Tom Riggenbach, Claudia Jackson and Nigel James – among other runners on the rez – prove it.
Riggenbach moved to the Navajo Nation decades ago and started the Tour de Rez, a fundraising effort that turned into a race series. Claudia Jackson rode the Tour de Rez a year and was inspired to start the Tour de SiiHasin, a suicide awareness race, which in turn leads young female mountain bike athletes and develops some of the first trails optimized for the mountain biking in the Indian Wells area. Nigel James, who raced the Tour of SiiHasin when he was in his mid-teens, started the Rezduro, known as the first enduro race on the Navajo reservation.
All three programs are generating growing interest and show that there has been an unmet demand for mountain biking in the Navajo Nation.
Tom Riggenbach, leading a bicycle movement on the reservation
Tom Riggenbach has lived on the Navajo Nation reservation for 35 years. Originally from Illinois, Riggenbach moved unseen to Shonto, Arizona after graduating from college to take up a teaching job. He now organizes the Tour de Rez, which has grown from a few people trying bikepacking through the reserve before its heyday to a series of five different events, including the Chuska Challenge, the Beclabito Bike Race, and more.
Riggenbach described the first ground tower like “flying away” for a good cause. “We just took off from Shonto and our goal was to raise money for some community programs. And at the same time we were trying to see how the bike could go.
They left Shonto and headed for the southern part of the reservation, then to Window Rock in the east, then through the Chuska Mountains. “It ended up being a great race,” he said. They did it again in 1992 with a group of young riders, and in 1993 it became an established event. In 2019, the Tour de Rez has grown from a week-long race to a series of races/rides starting in March and stretching throughout the long, hot summer. The Chuska Challenge is the exclamation mark of the season and takes place the last weekend of September with race and race options, with route choices ranging from 15 to 55 miles in length.
Riggenbach says The Chuska Roadan 80-mile route that can be traveled by bike, is a new option for people who want to explore the reservation by bike, as private land can interfere with driving, and singletrack is rare in the Navajo Nation.
Although the reserve still seems robust and vast, the infrastructure is not necessarily suitable for bicycles. In Monument Valley, where he now lives, there is a 17-mile road that riders can share with vehicles, but mountain bikers are encouraged to go to Moab. Riggenbach says residents of the reservation have used bikes as tools to track livestock, and biking is growing, but even getting around with bikes is difficult because the towns are so far apart. Hiking and mountain biking opportunities on the reserve are growing, however. Riggenbach shared this Navajo Nation Trail Guide which highlights important etiquette, trail networks, and the Chuska ATV route.
In light of common health issues on the reservation, Riggenbach’s hope, along with the Tour de Rez and Navajo Yes, is to “create communities where wellness is sort of the default option for families.” and people from those communities so that it’s easy to be active and adapt.”
Claudia Jackson, the Bike Lady who develops the trails of the reserve
Claudia Jackson is known as “the lady of the bike” around Indian Wells, Arizona in the southern part of the Navajo Nation. When we spoke, she was planning the SiiHasin Tower, an annual bike tour around the reservation intended to raise awareness of suicide, drug abuse, domestic violence and environmental issues on the reservation. SiiHasin’s Tour was inspired by the Tour de Rez after Jackson rode it for a year. Jackson tells people that if they can bike around, they can do anything.
“I found SiiHasin could represent the focus of our race,” Jackson said. “You come in and bring something you’re dealing with, but you leave with some kind of peace or solution in the end.” The word SiiHasin roughly translates to “hope” in Navajo, and she found out from interviewing elders in her community that it can mean a number of things, like nirvana or finding peace in struggle.
Suicide is the seventh leading cause of death in the Navajo Nation, after deaths from alcohol, diabetes and heart disease. Among young people and adults aged 10 to 19 and 20 to 29, suicide is the second and third leading cause of death, according to the Navajo Epidemiology Center.
Jackson started the tour in 2012. Ten years later, the race continues and Jackson leads the Tour of SiiHasin and other bike programs on the reservation. It starts in Red Valley and ends in Twin Arrows, and each day involves riding between 14 miles and 60 miles, for a total of 400 miles over 11 days.
Since starting SiiHasin’s Tour, she has left her former job as a tribal councilor for the government. Along with the Tour, she has increased opportunities for women on mountain bikes and bike-optimized trails on the reserve. After collecting bicycle donations from Specialized and courting the interest of potential student-athletes, Jackson helped establish cycling programs at Indian Wells schools as well as some of the first mountain bike-specific trails. In the region.
Singletrack options are slim around booking. “We have to walk long distances to get to a single track trail,” Jackson said. His team regularly traveled to Flagstaff to ride. Otherwise, the training took place on stock tracks and dirt roads.
Bureaucracy and bureaucratic layers of land management on the reservation make it difficult to approve trails. The process begins at the community level and goes up to the regional level up to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and must clear several channels. “It’s a huge process,” Jackson says.
However, after starting the SiiHasin bike team and working as a board member for the Holbrook School District, Jackson spoke with Indian Wells Elementary about developing trails on school property. The school could authorize the construction of trails because cycling was a school program. Jackson hopes the trails will open in July. Running and basketball are by far the most popular sports on the reservation, but biking programs are attracting more and more people, and even parents are getting involved as coaches.
The first is a beginner level trail, good for kids on Striders, and the second will have berms and rolls. They won’t be extended – both trails will be less than a mile long, but Jackson is thrilled as this is a brand new type of trail for the area and she hopes there will be more. She’s thinking about exactly how to celebrate openings.
“I mean I wouldn’t have tried to make a fuss about it,” she said. “Just make trails where we can ride bikes. But then when people come and say, ‘oh my God, that’s something nobody’s ever done.’ So let’s make a big deal out of it. And I just thought oh yeah, we should.
Rezduro, the Navajo Nation’s first enduro race
Nigel James, 18, started mountain biking through the Tour de SiiHasin in 2016 before a mentor, Silver Stallion’s Vincent Salabye, introduced him to enduro. James knew early on that he loved riding bikes, but enduro quickly became a priority.
Salabye and James rode and used rock features and drops around the reserve, said Germaine Simonson, James’s mother, and then James traveled with Salabye to Sedona, Phoenix and Tucson to ride technical, rocky desert trails in the south. Before long, James toed the line and started racing regional enduro races.
James noticed something at the races; most athletes were white and well-to-do. There weren’t many other native runners, if any, and there weren’t events like this back home on the reserve. James wanted to take a race home to Hardrock, Arizona, south of Monument Valley.
At home on the family lot in Hardrock, James began using some of the existing cattle trails, adding features but being careful with changes in terrain. He wanted to host the Navajo Nation’s first enduro race.
“We are doing our best not to change the landscape too much because we are in a drought situation here and we have to be very aware of what we are doing with our land,” said Adrian Herder, James’s uncle and the organizer of the event. There are difficult sand trails and faster clay trails.
James is encouraged to speak with his grandparents about any potential changes to the landscape. A small change could have big consequences.
In 2021, the Rezduro organized its first event. The race was by invitation only to comply with Covid policies on booking. About 55 people showed up. This year, Rezduro already has as many registered and they hope to have nearly 100 more athletes. James’ mother also hosted the event. She tries to get more sponsorship since the race is relatively long for most people, and they will have more participants, the costs add up.
Simonson noted that with the growth of bike programs across the reservation, James has found more people to ride with than ever before, but there are still plenty of opportunities to grow mountain biking in the Navajo Nation.
“All of these bike programs are going on, they’re all really good and definitely more is needed,” Simonson said. “The pool is very big, and I like that there are different flavors, different opportunities for whatever level and style of riding you want to do. And there could be more. We just need that more people are involved in launching the programs.