The Buzz on Coffeeneuring: How to combine two of life’s pleasures into a bike riding challenge

By Nick Legan 

Who doesn’t like a midride stop for a tasty beverage? It’s an integral part of many bike rides, a highlight for some cyclists and the sole reason they ride for others. For fans of coffee, tea, hot chocolate, apple cider and well … bike riding, “coffeeneuring” may be your next favorite fall pastime.

Now in its seventh year, the “Chasing Mailboxes Coffeeneuring Challenge” is a celebration of caffeine, cycling and community. The challenge is simple. Between October 13 and November 19, get yourself, by bike, to seven different coffee spots on seven weekend days. Take a photo and document your time spent riding to and then enjoying a cup of joe. Go solo or form a team of fellow caffeine lovers. Submit your work for inclusion in the Challenge. While there are technically a few more rules, the point is to get out and enjoy two of the world’s greatest inventions: the bicycle and coffee.

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Coffeeneuring is the brainchild of Mary Gersemalina of Washington, D.C., an avid randonneur and blogger at Chasing Mailboxes. In 2011, after a packed spring and summer of training and difficult, long rides, she was speaking with a fellow randonneur rider when the idea of a prize for easy rides to the coffee shop sprang up. Gersemalina thought to herself, “why not?” and set about building a framework for what became the Coffeeneuring Challenge on her blog.

The idea is to celebrate easy rides, slow life down a bit, to sip and spin the day away. As Gersemalina explains, “There are plentiful rules, but it boils down to riding your bike to have coffee. With such short rides, it’s not that similar to randonneuring but its framework is a nod to it.”

“The first year, in 2011, 12 people did the Challenge. Then it took off. Last year there were 250 finishers who successfully submitted all the necessary documentation,” Gersemalina explained. While initially, the majority of participants were randonneur riders who followed the Chasing Mailboxes blog, word of mouth has grown it to include casual cyclists. Some of them are now learning about randonneuring, but Gersemalina readily admits that “coffeeneuring is not a gateway drug to long-distance cycling.”

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The Community

The emphasis is not on grueling rides but rather on sharing your caffeinated experiences with other like-minded cyclists. It is a wonderfully grassroots effort that is entirely participant driven and has transformed itself into an international online community of fellow coffeeneurs.

Social media has been instrumental in the organic growth of coffeeneuring. There is a very active Facebook group. Gersemalina adds that, “a lot of interaction happens on that group and through Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #coffeeneuring. It’s exciting to see the challenge unfold on the different platforms. It’s special to see how supportive everyone is of each other. People connect with each other through coffeeneuring. They can take their kids with them. Social media has allowed for the Challenge to happen every year and for cyclists to do it easily.”

Not all of the community is virtual or online. Gersemalina noted that the Washington Coffeeneurs did a meetup ride after the challenge was over to get to know each other better. She also mentioned that coffeeneuring enthusiasts have contacted her to meet up for a visit when they’re in Washington, D.C., (obviously to go for a cup of coffee). The Pittsburgh Coffeeneurs have built a large community around the concept, with shops hosting rides and providing coffee and donuts.

The Rules

While the concept of coffeeneuring is straightforward, there are still a number of rules that are updated each year. When asked about the reason behind such a lengthy set of guidelines, Gersemalina mentioned that many see randonneuring as “bike riding with paperwork.” As something so important in her own life, she wanted to pay homage to it with her Challenge. The rules were also necessary in order to build a framework that would allow participants to share their experiences.

Each year Gersemalina seeks input from past and prospective coffeeneurs on potential changes to the rules. She says that many of the rule changes come from suggestions.

“One of the suggestions was to make it less consumer based. To give people that option, you can brew your own coffee in seven different places. Someone suggested opening your house as a coffee shop, inviting people over. It really is about getting together if you want. You can also have a solitary experience, but ultimately you’re sharing it in some way,” she said.

Then Gersemalina took a moment. After a short pause she continued, “I added rules to create a framework. It was necessary. Other rules are almost there to see what people will do with them. It’s like an experiment. People have different feelings about rules. Some take great pride in following rules, by the book. Others look at those rules and see room for interpretation or see why the rules should be flexible. Seeing that in their write-ups and their posts is really interesting.”

For those less interested in a regimented approach, fear not. Earlier this year Gersemalina created the Always Be Coffeeneuring Club. It’s a way to be a part of a community without the documentation. Joining will cost you five dollars and that gets you a fetching patch. According to the club page on Chasing Mailboxes, the Always Be Coffeeneuring Club is for “members that know no coffeeneuring season. All seasons are your oyster, or something like that. … Coffeeneuring is your lifestyle.”

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The Buzz

All formalities aside, the idea of coffeeneuring is one that resonates with people. The Challenge is perhaps the least physically tasking cycling endeavor in recorded history. That’s the point: to slow down, take notice of life’s simple pleasures and to share that with other cyclists.

The resulting community is now an international one and that brings great joy to the creator of coffeeneuring. It isn’t just about a healthy caffeine buzz.

“We are creating a virtual neighborhood through this activity,” Gersemalina said. “Not only that, but in some communities we’re meeting up in real life. The focus isn’t on how far you can ride but on the overall experience. It’s a simple activity. It’s not about politics. It’s pure fun.”

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A bike ride through Colombia’s coffee country

By Sean Jansen

If you look beyond the violent history of Colombia you will see a country that not only has moved on considerably from its past when Pablo Escobar was running things, but also a country that has something for everyone. It has the tropical climes of the Amazon, the Caribbean and the Pacific coasts. It stretches from massive cities to the Andes Mountains. If you trek deep into the misty hills you’ll find an area, nestled just south of the city of Medellin, that is famous for the country’s other top export. It is known as the Zona Cafetera, and that’s where the coffee is grown.

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I came to Colombia years ago for the first time via the sailboat crossing from Panama and it was on this boat where I tried Colombian coffee for the first time. I have had Panamanian, Indonesian, Bolivian and Brazilian coffee too, but it is really the Colombian coffee that sweeps all of them off of their feet. It is rich and thick with flavor, but also smooth enough that you need not add cream or sugar to enjoy it.

The region where I ventured on my most recent visit is near a town called Salento, close to the Valle de Cocora, a valley that looks straight out of Jurassic Park. Salento is a small town and it isn’t really known to tourists as the coffee hot spot, but it has fantastic coffee and a really cool way of getting to the plantations and surrounding areas.

Salento is only about 15 miles from a much larger city, but because the Andes are so treacherous it takes 45 minutes to get there. The only way to get to the plantations from Salento is on dirt roads, some of which are impossible to drive on. Therefore you can either walk, ride a horse, or get there the way we chose: by grabbing a couple mountain bikes and heading out to the plantations on two wheels.

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We rolled up and down the terrain of the Andes, all the while peering at vegetation that looked like something prehistoric. While trying to breathe the thin air more than a mile above sea level, it was lost to us what our ultimate goal of the trip was. We were completely taken away by the sheer bizarreness and beauty of a place that God clearly intended on being lost and never found. Going up and down on a bumpy dirt road puts into perspective how many little nooks and crannies there are still undiscovered and most likely untouched on this planet. We were seriously contemplating when a dinosaur would come out of the vegetation and cross the road. To think that the country’s famous coffee comes from this zone was something that dumbfounded us.

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After about 45 minutes of jaw dropping, life changing beauty, we arrived at the plantation and were immediately welcomed into the estate and given an introduction to the coffee. We learned about its journey from the plant in the soil to the black liquid in a cup that people all over the world rely on every day.

Coffee is grown between the altitudes of 1,800 and 6,000 feet on mountainsides and often interspersed with plantain and banana trees as the combination of plants help each other grow. Colombia is special because unlike some other coffee growing regions of the world, Colombia sits almost on the equator and has two growing seasons instead of just one.

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The coffee that we drink and the beans that we buy at the store are black because they are cooked and are ready to be ground and brewed to your desire, but they don’t look like that when they are first picked from the plant.

The guide explained to us how to use the colors of the leaves to see if the beans are ready or not and how to pick them. A coffee picker has to pick around 40 to 100 beans to make a single cup of coffee, which, if I were the picker, would take me about an hour.

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We all picked a coffee beans from the plants and tried our best to peel back the skin to get to the light brown inner bean. It is then ready to put into the caldron for cooking. Then the beans are dried in the sun, which could take up to a couple days. Finally once dried, they are placed into what is known as a popper.

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A popper is a device that not only heats up to an incredible temperature, but also stirs the beans every two to three seconds while they are roasting. In the popper they are cooked and stirred until the dark brownish black color comes about. Once achieved, they are taken out and cooled for approximately 12 hours. Then finally, after the hours it took to pick the beans, peel the skin, dry the beans, cook them and grind them, you are ready to have your first cup of coffee.

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And that we did, and that we were happily coaxed with the energy and stained teeth to continue cruising around the Andes mountains and the Zona Cafetera. Two of my favorite things in the world are coffee and cycling, and to have both of them together with such a spectacular setting, I’m not sure my afternoon could have been any better.

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Correction

An early version of this story made several references to “Columbia.” Columbia is the capital of South Carolina. The area was first visited by Hernando de Soto in 1540 and much of the city was destroyed during the Civil War. Today it is the home of the University of South Carolina and balances bustling redevelopment while maintaining its historic architecture. No coffee is grown there.

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Celebrating National Coffee Day

Happy National Coffee Day! Until this morning, I had so far ignored the #coffeeoutside trend, though it is a bandwagon I probably should have chased down long ago. Like many a cyclist, I love coffee, being outside and bicycles, which are the vehicles commonly paired with this Instagram-friendly activity.

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Coffee outside is easy to mock. It’s a social media phenomenon that looks like the exclusive realm of the lumbersexual and the hipster, neither of which I can claim to be. No flannel? No skinny pants? Then you need not apply.

Meanwhile, my 50-something university professor uncle has been riding his multiple vintage bicycles into the Wyoming woods to cook breakfast and brew coffee for himself for at least a decade. He usually takes a radio with him so he can listen to National Public Radio on top of a mountain. I think the breakfast part has something to do with his love of bacon and my aunt being Jewish.

Still, why spend the time and effort packing up a stove, beans, a hand grinder, a mug, a filter, a blanket and then riding a bicycle somewhere away from your house (where the coffee maker lives) before having any caffeine at all? My coffee maker is set the night before so that I may awaken to the sweet smell of bean juice wafting under the sheets (which are invariably pulled over my head in a desperate attempt to delay morning). I don’t have to take five steps after getting out of bed without the black elixir of life getting to work booting up my systems.

But if you’re going to question coffee outside you ought to question cycling, especially for utility. A car is much faster, dryer and more socially acceptable. You don’t smell funny when you arrive at your destination as you might if you pedaled and sweated. So why bother? Like the coffee pot set on auto-brew compared to a slow-drip pour-over system, our infrastructure and our lifestyles are not as favorable to mechanical things, but there’s something lovely about slowing stuff down once in a while.

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In honor of National Coffee Day I decided that this was my morning. I loaded a waterproof blanket and everything I needed for a cup of joe into a couple of panniers and pedaled away on my 1990s Ritchey mountain bike. Not knowing the rules about stoves in the vicinity, I settled on a secluded river bank spot about three miles up a dirt road.

What coffee outside forced me to do was sit and wait, something I’m not particularly used to in this modern world. The paperwork for my alcohol-fuel stove claims it will boil a pot of water in eight minutes, meaning I had eight minutes to watch the way wind moved through leaves yellowing for autumn. I sip beverages slowly so actually drinking the coffee afforded me another 20 minutes to be still and think, unencumbered and unbothered. When was the last time you did that?

The whole experience of sitting on a rock drinking the resulting cup of (very weak) coffee and dangling my feet in the river felt akin to riding a bicycle. It’s not the most efficient way to go about things, but it’s perhaps the most enjoyable. Taking time to move slowly and to leave behind the electronic devices, at least once in awhile, is a nice reprieve from the modern world.

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I left the river feeling refreshed, energized and with a clarity of focus that had me fully ready to face a Tuesday otherwise chained to a desk. The brief ride, wind in my hair, mountain water over my feet and deep gulps of fresh air had been very good for my mind.

Or, it could just be that I’d finally had that first cup of coffee.

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