I first met Raf in the fall of 2005. He was organizing the inaugural One Speed Open single speed race and I was just some guy on a cobbled together fixed gear 26r. Raf, of course, welcomed to the race with open arms. If I remember correctly, the first OSO was a fundraiser so he could return to Mexico City to visit his sick father. After the OSO, I'd stop by the iconic 400 Smith shop to pick up a random part that only Raf would have and he always welcomed me with that same smile and open arms. As Bike Against grew and grew and grew again and his relationship with Fort Collins ebbed and flowed I'd see less and less of him around town. Raf was busy often busy with things he'd rather not be doing. I'm glad to hear he has landed in Leadville and is again doing his thing.
Thanks to Osprey and Reel Motion for picking up his story.
The following article, photos and video were first published on https://www.osprey.com/us/en/ and were republished with permission by Jesse Levine of Reel Motion. To see more of Jesse Levine's work visit his website or his Instagram @reelmotion.
Written by: Jesse Levine
A beautiful story about the power of two wheels and a community built through bicycling. After a devastating breakup, Rafael finds solitude and restoration on the open road, pedaling his way to emotional health from Mexico City to northern Colorado. With just $500 to his name, he spearheads a revolution to help the underprivileged members of his new neighborhood the best way he knows how—repairing their bicycles.
The idea began in Fort Collins, CO in the fall of 2005. It was my last semester at Colorado State University. I had a few hundred bucks in my bank account and my truck broke down as I rolled into town for my first day of class. With no money to fix my truck I needed a way to get around town and finish my already very delayed college education. A friend of mine told me about an underground bike shop located in a garage a few blocks away. Rumor had it the “shop” was started by a guy named Rafael, living in a small closet attached to the garage. He was teaching people how to work on bikes and helping them fix up old bikes for free. I had an old 10 speed bike I inherited from my stepfather that hadn’t been ridden in a few decades. I figured I might as well give it a shot.
I walked to the shop on a cool September afternoon. I followed faint punk rock music for a few blocks to a garage with old bikes, rusty wheels, and random parts cascading out of every possible nook and cranny. The garage was bustling with every demographic of person you could imagine – young kids, middle aged women, a few homeless people, a gray haired man, hipsters, and a few sorority girls – all eagerly wrenching on bikes of all shapes and sizes. In the middle of it all was a skinny, dark haired, twenty-something man with a little black dog glued to his side. He walked over to me with a big smile offering a tattoo-covered hand and said, “What’s up man – cool bike!” in a thick accent. He told me if I bought a few tools needed to repair the bike and left them in the garage for other people to use he would show me how to fix it — for free. I was in. I returned a few days later with the tools and as promised Rafael showed me how to fix the bike.
I used that bike to get around town for the next five years. During that time I would see Raf cruising around town with his little black dog in tow on a small trailer. We would run into each other at the local coffee shop a few times a month. He would always have some story about starting an underground bike race, a winter group ride, or a sweet travel rig that some homeless guy just built. Each story impressed me more than the last, but he somehow made it out like it was no big deal.
One morning grabbing a coffee I was greeted with an unusually melancholy Raf. He told me the city had just shut down the bike shop, claiming it was an illegal bike repair business. He said, “so if people get together and bake cakes does that make that house an illegal bakery?! We’re not charging any money – we’re just trying to do something good for the community.” He reached down with a smirk and pulled out a rough sketch of a fist holding a wrench outlined with a chainring and said, “so I think I’m gonna make it legit so the city can’t stop us.”
Rafael eventually incorporated the garage shop as a 501c3 non-profit and the city agreed to help the cause by donating space for a legit shop. It became known as the Fort Collins Bike Co-op and quickly became one of the largest bike shops in Colorado.
Fast forward 10 years – I’ve been gone from Fort Collins for years now and that old bike was sadly stolen, but it’s that bike that lead me to the idea that we’re talking about now. An idea that was made possible by Dan Holz, the in-house photographer at Osprey Packs. Dan reached out about a year ago asking if I had any “good bike stories.” A few weeks later the project was green-lit and I went to work gathering a group of friends to make it happen.
Rafael is a person veiled in myth and legend. How did he wind up in Fort Collins? Has he ever owned a car? Does he know how to drive? No one seems to know his real last name. He goes by Rafael “Cletero,” a fake last name given to reporters doing a story in the early days of the co-op. “Cletero” is slang for “the bike guy” in Spanish, and short for bicicletero, a bike mechanic.
Above all the mystery and lore, there are two things we can be certain of – Rafael always puts other people’s needs before his own and he created something that was much bigger than himself. This was the story we wanted to tell.
We kicked off production by heading up to Fort Collins to interview Tim Anderson, one of the early volunteers during the garage days. The first thing I asked him was, “How would you explain Rafael to someone who’s never met him?” His steel blue eyes wandered around the busy shop, then back toward me and paused – “A man on a mission, but not for him, for those around him – the community.”
You can find more of Jesse’s current work on his Instagram @reelmotion