Forever stoked: John Alcantara from NYC to the mountains

In Interviews, New York by Claire

Seconds after saying hello, New York courier John Alcantara is immediately halfway through a story about his upcoming ride from Seattle to Portland and out into the Oregon Outback. He talks quickly, excitedly and happily about cycling, and it is infectious. He refuses to sit down for an hour, wiggling about whilst talking and leaping up to get the door for people. Later we go cycling around Brooklyn’s bike shops afterwards and he frowns, for perhaps the only time in the day (there is a reason people call him ‘Stoked Johnny’). “Everyone’s in such a hurry” he says of the summer commuters. He’s obstinately chill about riding, when he’s not working at any rate. But back to the point. In the bike shop cafe where we’re talking about cycling, he takes a breath and I sneak in some questions.

How is being a messenger for you in New York?

I do courier work but that’s not my main focus. I don’t do alleycats anymore and I don’t focus on messenger events at all. I just do bike touring and get out of the city, and discover the next place to hang up my hammock. That’s it. I’m very simple.

Did you used to be more into messenger events?

I used to be into them so much. Every weekend was an alleycat and I was always there. But the thing is, I thought: why would I want to race an alleycat on a weekend when I’m going to be here on Monday when I’m going to race the deadline?

“That was a good Monster Track for me cause I got to ride with Lucas Brunelle and everyone that was up front with him during the race.”

Were you having fun?

Yes and no. Sometimes the races are very brutal. They’re fun but it gets to the point where you’re racing an alleycat and it’s so long.. I do this at work. I could do this during the week and get paid instead of getting street cred. I was getting burnt out. It was fun while it lasted. People who stay in this game for such a long time, I don’t know how they do it.

The thing I do love about alleycats, is doing it when it’s not in New York. When it’s out of town. When I go somewhere different, because the thing is you get to use your brain a lot. And you get to use the skills that you learned as a messenger.

How did you get into adventure cycling?

My adventure cycling was started by a trip from New York to Boston. Right after that I got more into [adventure cycling] and I started making friends who did it. It felt sort of like a dead end going around the city but with adventure cycling, there’s more to it. You learn more about yourself. You learn “Ah I never discovered this before, but it’s been here the whole time.”

Riding in Oregon

Exploring Connecticut

What made you do that very first trip to Boston, that started all of this off?

It’s reachable. You can do that trip in under three days and still go back to work. I did that in under three days and as I was coming home that night, Greyhound [the bus operator] didn’t let me put my bike on the bus – you have to take it apart and put it in a box. This was the last thing I need to do, to take everything off my bike and put it in a fucking box. So I didn’t get on the bus, and I got a China Town bus that cost $20 but left at 3am in the morning. I slept in Boston for four hours, and then at 3 o’clock I put my bike on the bus. We got to New York at 6am and I started work at nine. I went home really quick, dropped my bike off, took a nap for an hour, then came back into the city, and got the cargo bike.

The thing is, there’s so much to discover. So every weekend now, I’m always out.

Did you get back from Boston and look at the map thinking: ‘Where else can I go?’

When I came back from Boston I planned a couple of trips after that. I kept doing trips around here.

I was reading about the Oregon Outback on the Radavist and how they did it one year – it was a big event one year. I was like I wanna go there and do what they’re doing. It wasn’t an event after that year (because people were leaving garbage, so they closed it down) but I told myself ‘I’m going to do it next year’ so I booked a flight, went out there and that trip was one of the best trips I’d ever done.

It made me realise we’re just a small little dot, compared to these canyons and surroundings that you’re in. They’re huge. You don’t get that if you just stay here.

Because the city feels smaller and smaller, and you feel bigger and bigger?

Yeah, that’s it. I remember waking up one morning out of my bivy and seeing the canyons right in front of me with the sun hitting it, and just staring. You don’t see that every day. I realised how small we are compared to the canyons and the mountains we have in this world. It’s pretty bizarre. After that I keep on doing it.

The thing is, you don’t have to wear a suit to live the American Dream. You don’t need a suit to find your dream job. That idea is so wrong. I know people are out there, touring and adventuring and stuff every day, and it’s like they’re living the dream. They accomplish so much from sacrificing a lot – like not being a regular human being.

How do you mean sacrificing a lot?

Not being comfortable or having money, for example. I talked to a few friends and the first thing that came out of their mouths was ‘you really have to sacrifice a lot.’

For me, I don’t care about money. Money is not the root of happiness. I remember saying I could survive with a dollar. It’s true because when I was a little kid right after college, I just moved and left New York, and booked a one-way ticket to Oregon and lived there for three years. The first couple of months, from my first day there, I was literally broke. I only had $100 under my name but I still managed. The place that I really wanted to work at, when I was really into snowboarding, I told them I’d work for free. I’d do like yard maintenance, cement work and everything you can name for free, only if they let me stay here and and get fed. They did. Instead of getting paid – for me, getting paid is getting free food and free housing – for a couple of months. I did that for a couple of months. After sacrificing and working for free, I got paid the next year. After that I got my own little house in the woods where my next door neighbour was almost ten miles away. It was a little cabin, very very nice quiet, next to a river.

What’s the obsession with Oregon then?

The cycling in Oregon is just magical. There’s so much there. You could do all three sports in one day: snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing all in one day. I did that one year. I went snowboarding in the morning, skateboarding in the afternoon, and then towards the evening I went surfing at night. Then slept on the beach to end the day. It’s so beautiful.

Did you do the Oregon ride solo or with people?

I was planning on doing it by myself but then I met people who were doing it the same week as I was. So I tagged along with two strangers, who are now my friends. We did it in six days.

How did you prepare for doing it last time?

Being a courier helps. Preparing for such a big trip like that with 40lbs of gear is like riding a cargo bike, except you’re riding up a mountain.

What I did last year is to find a route here that involved lots of climbing, and you camp 6000 feet up. I did that the month before I went. It helped. It’s Mount Everett. It’s on the border of Massachusetts and Connecticut, with the mountain on the Massachusetts side. All day you’re just climbing to get there. It prepared me for what’s going to come. Then you sleep on the top of this mountain, where you can see forever.

So you’re heading back to the Oregon route this year again?

Yes, it’s going to be my second year. All my friends that wanted to do it last year are doing it this year, and they’re all excited. It’s basically a big party. I’m excited that I already know what I’ll see. The full sky, the stars – you get to see the Milky Way. I’m pretty excited about that.

What are the other highlights, the good bits?

All the descents. Some of them are 15 miles long and you’re just downhill for that long. There’s a stretch on the route where you descent through mountains and you don’t have to do anything, just enjoy it. The pavement is so smooth. It’s refreshing because you’re just descending into a valley. And we were so happy about this because right before we were descending for 10 miles into the valley, we were climbing 5mph for an hour going up. Right after we woke up, too. We were drinking coffee, eating breakfast and looking at the mountain right in front of us.

After crazy gravel sections and dirt tracks, seeing pavement is a godsend. Those are the good times: all the views you see, all the descents. Some of the climbs are really good too because some of the views over the mountain are really good but there are times when some of the hills are really steep and you’re thinking “Oh god this is horrible. Why am I doing this?”

And you were thinking: Is this my version of fun, really?

That’s the thing about bike camping and adventuring on a bike. Not every trip is glamorous or how people make it seem like. It just sucks sometimes. You just have to accept it.

For example, two weeks after the Oregon Outback trip I went with my friend Brent Knepper. He’s a friend from Chicago and runs the website Everything Will Be Noble. It’s mostly about female cyclists who are into adventuring. He invited me to ride from Mississippi to New Orleans. You gotta remember I’d just finished the outback, so two weeks later I got on a train and went down to Mississippi. I can tell you this: never go to Mississippi in July. It’s brutal. It’s hot. Very very hot.

It sucked. Even me and him, we talk about it to this day, that it was one of the stupidest trips we ever experienced.

We did it in five days. It’s 345 miles from Mississippi to Louisiana, New Orleans. Throughout the whole ride we were in this natural forest called De Soto National Forest. There’s two sections, North and South, with a gap in between, which is full of little towns and then you head back into the forest.

I remember it as if it was yesterday. When we were in there for three days straight, it was hell. There’s no cool breeze – there’s just hot hot air stuck with you. It doesn’t matter what shirt you wear because that shirt is going to be as soaked as the next one. I wore the same shirt for like four days. It sucked.

Credit: Brent Knepper

But it’s good. That trip, all we tried to do was not have heat stroke. Brent almost came down with it, and I asked “Do you want to just call it quits?” and looked up the nearest hospital which was miles down. “If you’re in bad shape, it’s not worth continuing on.” But he was okay, having nausea and drinking a lot of water.

In Mississippi, every time we’d go to gas stations, they’d always ask us: “What are you doing here? What is your purpose?” We told them we’re young and stupid and make very bad choices.

At the border of Mississippi and Louisiana

I think it was on the third day, when we saw the Gulf of Mexico, you could feel the breeze. We were trying to get to the beach as fast as we could but the way people drive there, they don’t know how to deal with cyclists. One of the truck tried to run us off the road. They’re very aggressive and don’t give a crap. For one bit, I had to go on the side of the road and collect myself from how crazy the drivers are.

At the beach, we just lay down. The breeze, oh my god. All the camping stops were for RVs so we booked a hotel and we put on the AC full. I just lay there like “OH. MY. GOD.” Brent was nearly passed out on the floor, just groaning. I took the coldest, coldest shower for an hour. Then Waffle House. Brent said that was the best way to recover from being in the forest.

It was like a procedure. A step-by-step.

…in becoming civilised again.

Yeah, then for the last part of the trip [travelling west from the Gulf of Mexico on the southern part of Mississippi, across to New Orleans] there were a lot of thousand-yard-stares. You think you’re almost there but then you come around the corner to see endless road. The roads are so so so long. Every time you see a sign that says ’20 miles’, and you think ‘What the fuck.’ I think I went into that zone where I don’t like anyone. There was a point where my mind was playing tricks on me. So I turned off my head. I remember Brent told me he was listening to Beyonce just to keep himself sane. Then when we reached the outskirts of New Orleans, I was just glad it was over.

Why did you choose to do it in that ridiculously hot month? A case of ‘that looks nice on a map, let’s do it without too much research’?

Yeah. If you tell me “We’re going to do this,” then I’ll usually say “Okay, let’s do it.” That’s the bad thing about me; I don’t put so much research in.

That can be nice though. I think that’s really good for your head, to a point.

It is. That’s the thing. Every trip I’ve gone on, I’ve seen the route and thought ‘That looks good,’ but I never put so much thought into what we’re going to see, going into it blind, like ‘What’s going to happen?’ But it always works out. No matter where we are.

What things do you think about, before you go?

If I’ve got the small stuff. I always think about the smallest things – I don’t care about my clothes, I care about my toothbrush, bug spray, and sun screen. Brushing your teeth in the morning makes you feel good and makes you feel clean because when you do Oregon Outback, you’re covered in dirt from here to here [gestures].

Oh and bike tools.

Have you had any major bike catastrophes?

At the start of Oregon Outback last year I was so excited that I didn’t realised I forgot to pack spare tubes. As we start, 30 miles in, my front valve on my front tyre broke apart. We were in the middle of nowhere.

Parallel to our path was a highway. I was trying to figure out all the situations to fix this thing, like put the dollar bill over the tube – and it worked but as I started rolling it went flat again. I tried to patch the hole.

My friend said to hitchhike and they’d meet us in the next town over. In my mind I didn’t want to do that and just wanted to fix it. I’m very stubborn when things like that happen – I just want to fix things right there. I don’t want people to help me… until it came to a point where I realised i need someone to help me. I told my friends I’d see them in a couple of hours and walked to the highway with my thumb out. A lot of cars don’t want to pick up a hitchhiker who’s a guy wearing a sombrero, with a bike full of stuff. But as I was walking, a couple pulled over and they were going to exactly where I was meeting my friends. They were so kind.

When you don’t panic and don’t freak out, there’s always a way to deal with those things.

Travelling’s made made me look at life differently. There’s always something to discover. I feel like people need to chill the fuck out and look at the bigger picture for a second. I love that people are out there, just living life. They’re not in that bubble where everything’s so fast. They’re just there living.

Thanks Johnny.

Then we went on a tour around Brooklyn bike shops. Find him on Instagram.

ClaireForever stoked: John Alcantara from NYC to the mountains