C U L T I V A T O R S : Volume 1 :: Sarah Swallow
by Dan Gullbongs·
A Life Designed by Bicycle: a Sarah Swallow Profile
The things that matter always seem to intersect. Bad or good, overlap of the big stuff is inevitable. Such is the alchemy of this world. Such is the magic of Sarah Swallow. A self-described “grassroots shapeshifter”, Swallow is a bicycle-powered force of good. A pied-piper of gravel-grinding nirvana. A route-maker. An educator. A writer and a wide-eyed lover of nature. She is an organizer of people, a cultivator of culture, and a seeker of balance. Even better, her vibe is contagious. “It’s all about purpose.” says Swallow, “It helps you stay positive and stay motivated. More to the point, if you aren’t living with purpose, your life won’t ever be truly sustainable.”
Born in Ohio, Sarah Swallow now lives her life between the mountains of Durango, Colorado and the deserts of Arizona. Riding bicycles is at the root of most everything she does. Her first job, at the age of 12, was at a bike rental business in Cincinnati. She kept at it straight into her college years when bikes, as she puts it, saved her life. She started working at a traditional bike shop and began riding any which way she could, be it road riding, cyclocross, gravel, or mountain biking. “I was on a pretty bad trajectory before I found biking.” explains Swallow, now 34 years old, “It provided me with health and friends and adventure. And yes, it gave me a purpose.”
She doubled down on that purpose and opened her own bike shop shortly after school, Swallow Bike Works. The storefront quickly became a mechanism for creating community and feeding passion. It had a great half-decade run but eventually her path began angling towards the wide-open spaces of the west. Devotion to your purpose sometimes demands that you be able to change and grow and explore the unknown.
“I grew up with the understanding that there were only a couple directions in life; I could get married and have kids and be a stay at-home mom or I could get a different job, maybe something corporate, and become a serious adult. I didn’t know there were other ways until I started riding a bike.”
Swallow went full sadhu in pursuit of her bicycle satori. Nights spent in a tent or a camper became the norm as she created a life in the shape of her evolving purpose. Eventually, Specialized Bikes noticed and offered her sponsorship, not because she was some competitive race queen, but more because she wasn’t. It was her commitment to adventure and her lifestyle spent in pursuit of passion that caught their attention as opposed to some collection of trophies. Soon enough, a few other brands aligned with her version of what a “professional” bike rider might look like and she began to see a path where once there was none. This vision was enabled in no small part by her writing, her emerging advocacy work, and her growing awareness that everything is connected to everything else. Sarah Swallow’s purpose was expanding.
Take, for example, Ruta del Jefe, the annual bike riding weekend that she puts on in the Sky Islands region of southern Arizona every Spring. In the narrow, the 4-day event is a wonderful gathering of the tribe complete with world class routes, high quality humans, laidback vibes, and an ample amount of hacky sack. But the real power of the Ruta is in the broader, overlapping meanings of the gathering. Participants get to live on the land in one of North America’s most precious landscapes, the Sonoran Desert, and experience the soul arresting biodiversity of the Santa Rita Mountains, the Whetstone, and the Baboquivari “islands”. Camp is made on the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch, a beacon of native restoration and sustainability. Riders don’t show up for an ego-motivated ritual of extraction and competition. Instead, participants are expected to learn a little about the southern Arizona borderlands region before they get to devour it by bike. Speakers from local non-profits visit camp on the eve of the big rides and engage in conversation. Topics range from indigenous issues and the human cost of life on the US/Mexico border to the various environmental challenges of the region and the overarching importance of stewardship for our lands. Entry fees are actually donations. In fact, the 2022 edition of the Rute raised over $45,000 for the various non-profits involved. Indeed, Sarah has created something that is devoid of corporate overlords and sparkles with the genuine and the altruistic. Ruta del Jefe is her hope for the future put in action.
“My goal is to create these things where we all get to go on an adventure together.” sums up Swallow, “But I also want to create an awareness and a context for people before they go out and ride. It has to be about more than just the trail or the party or the race…What better way to grow empathy than to go on a human-powered adventure through these amazingly rich and diverse landscapes with some actual awareness?”