When she was 25 years old, restaurant worker Shelby Cunliffe biked with a friend from Guatemala to Illinois. For Cunliffe, riding a bicycle is a “form of liberation.”
For Kit Jones, who evaluates local policies and systems change initiatives across the state for the University of Colorado, bicycling is “a super therapeutic process… [it] helps to kind of, like, reset your nervous system.”
And for Clara Moulton, who is a field specialist for The Wilderness Society, riding a bicycle “is just a simple way of existing.”
Cunliffe, Jones and Moulton belong to the Queer Byke Brigade, a group in southwest Colorado aiming to provide inclusive outdoor activities for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Beginning in spring of 2023, the group has organized a dozen rides. Locations have ranged from the downtown streets of Cortez, Dolores and Mancos to the mountain biking mecca known as Phil’s World to the recently opened Aqueduct Trails west of Mancos. Participant numbers have ranged from three to 20 riders.
“There are queer spaces here, but they tend to be, from my purview, drinking-forward. It’s not advertised, but alcohol is the subtext, if you will,” says Moulton. “And that’s not to knock those spaces… but it’s kind of novel to have a queer space that doesn’t have anything to do with alcohol. Biking is a body movement thing that liberates you.”
Moulton and Jones brought the idea to southwest Colorado after participating in Roam Fest in Sedona, Ariz. Roam Fest, which has also promoted gatherings in Fruita, Colo. and Knoxville, Tenn., “creates space for women, marginalized riders, and genderqueer femme folks to build community while riding in world class bike destinations.” Roam Fest gatherings typically draw 400 to 700 riders.
“We had such a good experience,” says Jones of Roam Fest, “and we said we needed to try and do that where we live. We came back and started brainstorming on how we could build a community here that really brought people together around bikes and our identities, and create a space where we could just be ourselves.”
Bicycles, says Jones, “are the best way of making friends. You don’t have to have a whole lot in common to really find that connection with bikes.”
Jones, who recently moved from Durango to Mancos, is transgender nonbinary. The Queer Byke Brigade, they say, is “essential” to their quality of life.
“I go out into the community every day and live with constant anxiety around how people are perceiving me and whether or not they think I’m allowed in this space or that I belong in that space. It’s exhausting,” says Jones. “And so to have a space where I don’t have to think at all about that or worry about what people are thinking, it’s the only respite I get from the traditional dominant structures that I have to live within every day.”
Jones was married for 10 years. The marriage produced a son. Jones first came out as gay and then as transgender nonbinary. Supportive friends, says Jones, helped with the process of examining their own unhappiness. However, dealing with stress, health issues and the challenges of being a good parent continues to take up “a whole lot of my energy,” they say.
Riding with the Queer Byke Brigade “makes me buzzed and energized,” says Jones. “My day is completely different.”
Moulton acknowledges that publicizing the rides, as well as the existence of the group, might draw unwelcome attention and “jeopardize the safety” of the riders. “That is heavy,” says Moulton.
Cunliffe, who is Moulton’s partner, says the queer rainbow flag on their house has led to hate stickers slapped on their car. “It is always a gamble,” says Cunliffe, when it comes to the public messages.
In the Montezuma-Cortez School District, a school board member was recalled in 2021 for his support of a LGBTQ+ student youth group. Lauren Boebert, a Republican who represents Montezuma County in the U.S. House of Representatives, has opposed the federal Equality Act, which would provide consistent and explicit anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people in employment, housing, education and public spaces. Nationally, political attacks against LGBTQ+ people have grown exponentially since 2015, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Even some members of the LGBTQ+ community do not recognize transgender or nonbinary people. Jones says they feel dismissiveness from people who believe women’s rights are damaged when trans women and trans men are treated the same as gay and lesbian people who have struggled for equal rights and equal protections.
Such people “exist in the community and it’s unfortunate,” says Jones. “I wish all of us who are fighting for liberation could come together and work together.”
But any worries about public gatherings are counterbalanced with the idea that the existence and visibility of the Queer Byke Brigade might help send positive messages to queer youth who are struggling with issues of identity or belonging. Being public with the Queer Byke Brigade’s existence and its ride schedules, says Moulton, is “totally” worth the risk in order to send a positive message to others.
And the bottom line, says Cunliffe, is the pure joy of riding bicycles with friends.
The Queer Byke Brigade rides, she says, “remind me when I was a kid in my suburban neighborhood and riding with all the kids and these issues weren’t on anyone’s radar at all. We’re all out there together. And we just are.”