JUAREZ—Dozens of cyclists move forward in organized chaos alongside the channelized Rio Bravo. Within sight of the steel wall topped with concertina wire that divides Mexico from the United States, they reveled in the miles-long concrete expanse, blasting music, sprinting, pulling wheelies.
The Bastards Border Cycling Club celebrates Juárez arts and culture through cycling. The collective formed in May 2021, when a group of college friends with a shared love of bikes started organizing weekly rides. Every Thursday night, dozens of people ride 10 to 20-mile routes to visit attractions like downtown cantinas and the Juárez Art Museum. Sundays they embark on long rides outside the city.
Cyclists across the globe advocate for space on roadways and respect from drivers. But these riders are taking on another challenge: reinvigorating public space and culture in a city that developed a reputation for violence. Members say the increasing popularity of cycling is making the streets safer. Border Bastards is one of many cycling clubs and collectives in Juárez, while the local and state government have gradually invested in bike infrastructure.
“We’re discovering Juárez together,” said Jorge Castillo, one of the group’s founders. “And we’re trying to change the image of Ciudad Juárez.”
More:El Paso Cyclists welcomes back members from Juárez amid relaxed border restrictions
On a brisk spring evening, Castillo pedaled like clockwork on a black Aventon fixed gear alongside the channelized river, talking into a walkie-talkie in his right hand. Raúl Medina was on the other end of the line, radioing ahead when the riders at the end of the group fall behind.
“This is public space, after all,” Castillo said while riding. “This is one of the few places you don’t have to deal with the traffic.”
The ride in the river channel captures the spirit of Bastards: bringing life to public spaces that most people ignore or avoid.
More:Border art collective unveils Rio Grande mural depicting migration history in El Paso, Juárez
Bicyclists celebrate their hometown
Castillo, Medina and other friends started Border Bastards Cycling Club and invited anyone to join the rides. They say the name emerged from their feelings living in Juárez: a city that grew rapidly out of the desert, a place where cultures and countries collide.
“It’s like with Juárez, there isn’t a positive association with our city. People say we don’t have any culture here,” Castillo said. “But being the Border Bastards … that’s something we can be proud of.”
The Thursday night ride along the river channel started at the Juárez Art Museum, which stayed open late for the cyclists to visit a photography exhibit.
Museum director Christian Diego Diego said even though the museum does not charge admission, many Juarenses have never visited. Staying open late for the cyclists was worthwhile to attract new visitors.
Other rides have stopped at the Rezizte bakery downtown for a cello concert or ended at the historic El Arbolito cantina. A Sunday long ride went to the Casa de Adobe, the quarters of Francisco Madero during the Mexican Revolution.
The collective supports cycling both as a means of transportation and a catalyst for arts and culture in Juárez. They lament that their hometown is known in both Mexico and the US for violence, maquiladoras and the border. They want to change that.
“We want the collective to be one of many cultural outlets for Juárez,” Castillo said. “So that the people our age know there is another option instead of just going to work for maquiladoras.”
Castillo studied graphic design, and while cycling is not his day job, he believes in its potential to connect Juarenses with possibilities beyond the maquila industry.
“We want to highlight the good things in Juárez,” Castillo said. “That can be in a cantina, at a mural, at a museum.”
More:El Paso I-10 highway deck plaza receives funding, but some wary of what project would bring
Cycling infrastructure gradually expands
Castillo and Medina both started commuting by bike as students at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez (UACJ). They said a decade ago urban cyclists were few and far between.
“Back then you’d only see vendors with bicycles or road cyclists with all their fancy gear,” Medina said, who is an education consultant. “For those of us who started then, all of us were hit by a car one time or another.”
Gradual groups like Critical Mass, which hosts nighttime bike rides in cities around the world, became active in Juárez, raising the profile of urban cyclists. Castillo said today there are at least a dozen bike collectives and clubs for all types of riders and group rides almost every day of the week. Fixie Beat for urban fixed gear riders, mountain bike groups that explore the Sierra de Ciudad Juárez, road cyclists racing under the sponsorship of Joyerías Meza.
Public investment has followed the growing cycling culture: the Chihuahua state government spent 47 million pesos ($2.3 million USD) on 27 kilometers (16.7 miles) of bike lanes in Juárez, completed in September 2021.
But there is still a long way to go. Juárez ranks as one of the most dangerous municipalities in Mexico for pedestrian and cyclist deaths, according to the Informe de la Situación de la Seguridad Vial (Street Safety Situation Report), with 34 pedestrians and two cyclists killed in the first eight months of 2021.
Advocates such as Cynthia López de la Fuente, named Juárez Bike Mayor by a non-profit, call for more investment in cycling infrastructure and expanding bike sharing. López de la Fuente works with the Bici Blanca collective, which hangs white “ghost bikes” where cyclists have been killed. The collectively documented 22 cyclists killed in Juárez between 2017 and 2021.
Cyclists build camaraderie
Border Bastards members said they are seeing slow improvements as more riders take the streets. More men than women join the Bastards rides. Children as young as seven join their parents on the rides. Castillo said members have gained confidence on group rides and then started biking on their own.
“There’s more safety when there are more people,” said Medina, who commutes to work by bike.
As a college student, he had to lock his bike to a tree on campus because there weren’t any bike racks. Today, he’s not the only one who arrives on bike to his office in Juárez.
“There’s a camaraderie that didn’t exist before,” Medina said. “I see people on my ride to the office every day who I recognize and they recognize me.”
Analyst to El Paso County Officials: Expanding I-10 Downtown won’t solve congestion
Staff writer Martha Pskowski may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @psskow on Twitter.