Exploring the Rio Grande Valley on a Bike

Cycling this year has been different for me. Aside from the usual bike routes, I have started to venture out and explore the Valley on my bike. It started when I passed up a road that I’ve never been on that was going through resurfacing. Passing it several times on my outings I always wondered where it led to. I knew it was in the general vicinity of a 900 year old tree but I never knew exactly where it was. It wasn’t until one day, when I was doing my usual route, that I noticed that the road was finished and open to traffic. On the way back I decided to make that turn and go look for that old tree. It was then that I began exploring the Rio Grande Valley on my bike.

So far it has been fun riding places to check things out. Sometimes I go by myself and other times I create an event on Facebook and invite others to join me. Many cyclists go out riding for either speed or distance. They get their workout in and hang up the bike until next time. Others ride the same route over and over until there is a rut on the road. Don’t get me wrong I’m just as guilty, but lately I want to explore other routes. I check the Strava Heat Maps and look to see where people are riding. I look for those lesser known routes that I can go out and see for myself, what is out there?

So far I’ve gone to see a 900+ year old Montezuma Bald Cypress tree that I heard about through the grapevine. Some of my friends have been to it, but I have never made the trip to view it with my own two eyes. I was stuck in that rut like the majority of people here and couldn’t see myself going there. The tree tends to catch on fire with visits and then things settle down and it goes back into obscurity until the next discovery by a new batch of cyclists. Currently, I’m the new batch. I shout its praises and take who ever wants to see it.

Next came the old town of Penitas. It’s a little further down the road on Abrams past the tree. Penitas is one of those little towns that if you blinked you passed it. That’s the bad thing about driving, you tend to pass things up. This is an old town that has survived the ages. Settled in 1520 it is the oldest city in the United States. Penitas is Spanish for “small stones”. There is a lot of history there of exploration and colonization from Spain.

Abrams road is a fantastic newly resurfaced road with shoulders that turns into old military road and parallels the expressway (or should I say the expressway parallels military road since military road was there first). This is perfect for cyclists traveling in that area as it’s a good way to travel from town to town without getting on the expressway. You really get to see more of the countryside on this route. Lots of farms and wildlife preserves with small communities dotting the route. Following this route will take you to Abrams, Penitas, and La Joya. Shortly after La Joya the road turns into a caliche (dirt) road to Sullivan City.

Recently, a fellow cyclist and good friend made a trip to see the Los Ebanos Ferry (south of Sullivan City). What’s so great about a ferry you ask? Well it’s the only hand drawn ferry between Mexico and the United States. That’s right, hand drawn or pulled. There is a rope that is anchored on the US side to a huge Ebony tree and stretches across the Rio Grande River over to Mexico. The ferry operators use that rope to pull, by hand, the barge across the river. As a result, only three vehicles and foot traffic can cross at any given time. My friend, Letty and her riding partner are like me, explorers. They took the off beaten path and went exploring the area for new sights and sounds.

I thought that was a neat place to go check out. Although Letty didn’t get to see the Ferry, that didn’t stop us from creating an event and rounding up some cycling friends to make our own trip. It was a good 40+ mile round trip with excellent weather. What a site to see that old barge in operation. Not only did we get to see it we also took a ride on it! Two dollars later we were on it on our way to Mexico!

Once on the other side we were not sure what to do. Turn around and take the ferry back or press on to the town nearby for some tacos. After talking to the Mexican officials we decided to press on. We rode on over to the nearby town and although we didn’t find any tacos we did find some pastry treats. On our way back to the ferry we did stop at a street vendor and got our tacos from them. Great homemade food.

Another treat down Abrams/Military road is over in La Joya that I never knew existed is Rancho El Charco. El Charco is a 150 acre ranch / event center that has picnic tables along Walter Lake, a Restaurant, three swimming holes and many different exotic animals. Some people have heard of it before and other cyclists have not. After another event was created on Facebook, we had a ride over there to celebrate the end of summer. We did pick up some new cyclists for the ride and lost others due to other last-minute conflicts.

Going further West there are places that I’d like to cycle to such as Rio Grande City, Roma and Falcon State Park. These could be day or over night trips. Rio Grande City has the Fort Ringgold history while Roma was a steamboat port of trade. Who knows. I might find other places to check out while I’m there.

Going East towards Brownsville has many other destinations to visit. Numerous state parks, old towns, farms, civil war sites and battle fields during the Mexican-American war. In fact, it was my cycling friend, Letty, that has opened my eyes to the eastern part of the Rio Grande Valley. She has cycled that area before and has posted a lot of pictures from her cycling travels. These are sites that you have probably passed by in your car and didn’t even notice. On bike, you have the time to notice things you swear were not there when you drove. That is the beauty of cycling, discovering things you missed while zipping by in your car.

So, yes, the Valley does offer a lot to explore by biking. The terrain is relatively flat with good roads to travel on. The weather can be pleasant during the Spring and Fall seasons. Very doable during the mild winter months. the Summer months can be a scorcher with 100+ degree (Fahrenheit) during the day, but if you travel in the early mornings you will be fine. You are limited to going West, North and East due to the proximity to the border with Mexico but that offers a lot of farm-to-market roads to choose from. There is plenty to see, you just need to conquer your fears or perceptions of traveling on those roads or locals.

Los Ebanos Ferry tour

The PosseSeveral weeks ago a friend of mine, Letty, rode her bike to go see the Los Ebanos ferry. Although she couldn’t see it due to customs blocking the view it did spark something in me. I want to go and see it myself. After talking about it we decided that we would go one weekend and cross over to Mexico for a taco and a Coke. Well, one-thing led to another and we decided to open it up and make it a public event and invited our Facebook friends to join us.

What all the commotion over a ferry ride? A little background on it. The Los Ebanos Ferry is the only hand-pulled ferry on the Rio Grande River between Mexico and the US. The barge has been operational since the 1950′s and it is anchored to a large ebony tree. Since the ferry is hand-pulled, only three cars can cross at a time. Three cars and foot traffic that is. Here is what the Historical Marker at the site says (note, you can no longer go up and read the marker):

This is an ancient ford. The first recorded usage was by Spanish explorers and colonists under Jose de Escandon in the 1740’s on the Rio Grande.  A salt trail led from here to El Sal del Rey (40 mi. NE).  The ford was used by Mexican War troops, 1846, by  Texas Rangers chasing cattle rustlers, 1874, by smugglers in many eras, especially during the American prohibition years, 1920’s and 30’s.  The ferry and inspection station were established in 1950.  Named for the ebony trees here, this is known as the only government licensed, hand-pulled ferry on any boundary of the United States.

This ferry has been in our back yard ever since we have lived here and we have never seen it before. We have a nice route that we can bicycle out to it and make it a nice 40 mile ride. So why not go and spend a half day with friends on an adventure to the ferry and for those that can, take a ferry ride crossing the Rio Grande River over to Mexico.

With invitations sent on Facebook, we collared 11 riders for the event including someone to SAG the ride. Great! Riders of all skill ranges joined Letty and I for the tour that day.

On the RoadThe ride started at 6:30 am to avoid the heat and have a pleasant day cycling. The route took us West of Mission along Business 83 where we eventually turned on Abrams Road. Abrams road goes for about 2-3 miles before curving to the right and becomes old military road. Abrams and Old Military road as been recently resurfaced with smooth asphalt and shoulders on each side which makes a really nice ride out in the country with ranch and farm land to provide the scenery.

Along this route is the 900 Year Old Tree. We decided to visit the tree on the way back as a treat for those that have never seen it.

Pumped Up!Onwards we pressed until we reached our rest stop at the back-end of Walter Lake. Walter Lake is a private lake in La Joya that is enclosed in a gated community. There is no way in unless you are visiting someone there. You really can’t see the lake from the road either, but at this stop you can. You have to climb to the top of canal inlet, that feeds water to the lake, to get a view of it at a distance. Why is this lake private? I wish I knew. Seems like a waste of recreational resource for the Valley.

After this stop, we pressed on until old military road ends (turns into a dirt road) and we have to detour through La Joya to get to the express way. The express way is not all that bad with it wide shoulders. I did spot a Wildlife Management track of land that was actually open to the public. I’ll have to go back and check it out at a later time.

After a few mile we make our turn towards the border and to Sullivan City and finally Los Ebanos. Los Ebanos is a small community with many streets that zig-zag around. Luckily Letty has been here before and she guided us to the border crossing.

The Border Crossing

Was I ever surprised when we got the border crossing. I envisioned a small shack next to the river with a lone border custom’s official. Was I ever wrong. There is a complete border crossing with buildings, lanes, custom officials and a long line of cars waiting to cross!

Waiting in LineDown the Ramp

Not knowing what to do we pulled up behind the cars like everyone else and started to wait. A woman in the Jeep in front of us asked if we were going to cross and after learning that we were she said that we didn’t have to wait but to cut to the front and cross as if we were pedestrians. What a time saver that was. She got the award for the Best Tip of the Day!

After moving to the front of the line a few members of the group opted not to cross because they didn’t have any form of ID with them. The rest of us had either their passports or drivers license. The plan was to cross on the ferry and turn around and cross
back. For $2 that seemed like a good plan.

After walking down tFerry Viewhe embankment we had to wait until they loaded up the three vehicles first then the pedestrians (and our bikes) could board. The ride was smooth as several men pulled the ferry across using the rope that stretches across the river. A sudden jolt was the signal that we made it across. The ferry crew were very friendly and wished us well as we departed.

Once on the other side we had to decide what we were going to do. Do we turn around and hop on the ferry the next interval or do we press on to the small town in Mexico. Not sure what to do, two members of the group went up to the Mexican customs personnel and asked some questions. A few minutes later they arrived back and told us that we are okay to proceed with no issues. With big smiles on our faces we hopped on our bikes and gave our best “Gracias” as we rode on through.

Cycling in Mexico

Cycling in Mexico

The road in Mexico was like any other road here in the US. Small country road that passed by farm lands and at some points you could see the river as it winds it way westward.

The town of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz is a small community with a population of roughly 15k. It was a quiet Saturday morning when we rolled in with a few residents peeking out the doors to see what was happening. Within two blocks we arrived at a large plaza with a gazebo at the center. The place was deserted except for a few people at a church in the corner. We were in the mood for taco’s and after surveying the area we found a little store that we could check out.

Store in MexicoMexican TreatsBingo! No tacos but the owner had treats called Gansito El Pastelito. It’s a chocolate covered pastry with a fruit filling in the shape of Twinkies. Best of all they are cold! Not bad for 50 cents. After downing our treats, chatting and the photo sessions it was time to head back.

When we arrived at the border crossing on the Mexican side we were still in need of tacos for fuel for the ride back. The vendor that was selling tacos was still there so we paid him and his family a visit to load up on tacos for us and for those that didn’t cross. Four potato tacos for $2 and another $2 for large water bottles hit the spot just right.

At this point we waited for the ferry to come back to Mexico bring its load of three vehicles and anyone walking. By the time it unloaded we noticed that one of the vehicles was the same Jeep that told us to cut in line when we first arrived! Wow, it took that long or her to finally make it across the river.

On the US side we had to go through Customs and present our Passports or any other form of ID that we had. Even though most of us didn’t have passports they still let us through with just a Drivers License. It did take longer to clear us and they did give us pamphlets on how to apply for a passport and sent us on our way.

Past Custom we met up with the SAG and the two others that didn’t cross and shared the tacos with them and exchanged stories of what we saw and did in Mexico. It was exciting to see that everyone was having a good time on this tour.

The Ride Back

Our journey back is the same route we took getting out there. The wind was in our face and that slowed down the pace for everyone along with the heat of the sun. The group  was starting to splinter so I stayed back with the slower group and caught up at the rest stop under a tree.

900+ Year Old TreeThe 900 year old tree was close by and I was looking for the entrance to the levee to head over to it. After finding the right ramp we road a little ways on dirt road to find he right Border Gate. When someone see the tree for the first you can see the “Wow” factor on their face. It never fails to impress them on the sheer size, age and the fact that the tree is still alive! I would guess that it takes 6-7 people holding hands to form a ring around the trunk of the tree.

The ride home was hot, windy and slow going but we arrived at the end, everyone had a smile on their face with excitement in the air for the next ride. As far as I can tell, mission accomplished.

One thing to note about the ride over to the ferry. This being along the border with Mexico we saw a lot of Border Patrol, DPS (State Police) and some county Sheriff patrol vehicles along with an occasional helicopter and the Border Patrol Blimp in Penitas. Couldn’t have been safer on the road with the large presence.

The Valley has a lot to offer especially on a bike. Many cyclists do the club rides, going on the same routes, ride-after-ride and never venture out of their comfort zone. This one ride encompassed two or three attractions in a different part of the valley that they have never ridden before and hopefully will encourage them to continue to explore the Valley on a bicycle.

Picture Gallery

For fun I created a small video of the ride.

Quadlock Case for iPhone 5

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Quadlock Case - Image from MacWorld

Recently I decided that i need a way to mount my iPhone 5 to the bike somewhere. I have been having problems with the Wahoo RFLKT+ bike computer and I needed a way to mount my iPhone 5 to the bike. I’ve seen the Quadlock Case advertised and seen the Kickstarter project and really liked it. One check with Amazon and I ordered it with the bike kit.

photo 1The bike mount is one of those where you use the – rubber bands to secure it. I’m generally not a fan of those types but it also comes with zip ties. In the end, I ended up using the rubber bands. Initially I tried to mount it on the handlebar stem but I got one of short stems and it didn’t fit on it. The handlebars were out as I already got stuff mounted on them. The only other option was the top tube near the front. I joined two of the larger rubber bands and wrapped it around the top tube and secured the mount.
photoThe case is a simple slip on type which I love. I can easily take it off or put it on. I tend to leave it on but with dirt/dust making its way to the inside back of the case, I occasionally take it off to clean it. It does come with a clear cover to slip on over the top of the phone if it is raining outside. I haven’t tested the effectiveness of it.

Mounting and dismounting the phone from the base is quite simple and easy to do with one hand. Riding over some harsh chip seal roads as well as some calichie dirt roads the base stays put and doesn’t slide around. Being mounted on the top tube has it’s advantages. I can easily see when a call or text messages comes in. I can also quickly pop it off to take a picture and then put it back. To me, it’s very convenient.

The Quadlock case is not just for bikes. They have accessories to facilitate the use of the mount in a variety ways. There is a car mount where you can use the suction cup to mount your phone on any flat surface. Don’t like the case but like the mount? No worries, they got you covered there too with an accessory to convert your favorite case. They even have little pods to mount to phone on a variety of surfaces like a wall or bookshelf. On my next road trip I’m gonna get the car mount.

Over all it’s a very flexible system that I like and fits my needs. Would I recommend it to others? Absolutely! In fact, I’m going to recommend it to a friend of mine that would simplify attaching her phone to her bike. Go get one!

What you like about it or what peeves you about the equipment are welcome in the comments section. Drop me a line in the comments and let me know your experience with the Quadlock Case.