Nevada’s Route 50 was once considered a dangerous passage with “no points of interest” until a group of cyclists rebranded it as a life-altering grand tour.
Rene Linares first heard about the ride on the news—his local weatherman was talking about it.
The 29-year-old was rapt. As a teen, his dad had given him a beloved 10-speed back in Guatemala, in hopes that he wouldn’t kill himself on a motorcycle. The plan worked, to an extent. Linares consistently pushed his limits on the road bike, taking it farther and riding it faster every year. Cycling followed him into his adult life in Reno, Nevada, where he worked as a cable guy and regularly pulled 150 miles on his days off.
But here was something different: a 413-mile tour on what a writer for Life once famously referred to as the “Loneliest Road in America.” According to the meteorologist Linares had heard, this supported ride took place every September and cost less than $500. That was peanuts compared with other organized rides Linares had seen advertised elsewhere. It would also take him out of the urban environment he’d grown used to traversing and onto a stretch of road so desolate that you could ride for hours without seeing a car. The idea of going somewhere so isolated seemed crazy, but Linares figured that even if he did it only once, it would at least give him the opportunity to see a side of Nevada most hadn’t.
“People said there was nothing to do out there,” he says. “They think that it’s boring, that it’s the desert. It’s all a matter of perspective.”
Curtis Fong founded OATBRAN—One Awesome Tour Bike Ride Across Nevada—in 1991. His goal was to reappropriate the “Loneliest Road” moniker and bring tourism to under-visited parts of the state—places far from the cacophony of the casinos. He was weirdly suited for the job: As a member of the Nevada Broadcasters Hall of Fame and a winter sports whiz, he possessed both rhetorical skills and proven athletic chops. He had experience as an organizer, too, having launched a hard-core vertical climb in the California Alps known as the Death Ride. But he’d never done anything like OATBRAN—no one had.
In the Life magazine article from the ‘80s, a rep from AAA warned motorists not to drive Route 50 unless they were confident of their survival skills. That’s because there were only five towns along a 300-mile span, rendering something as small as a blown tire potentially disastrous. Fong acknowledged that being out in the middle of nowhere did come with inherent risk; he simply took issue with the company’s claim that there were “no points of interest” for those who dared to look for them. In fact, the route was home to plenty of unusual attractions. Take, for instance, the Pony Express station that had been turned into a roadhouse with a great burger, or the former naval air-training base popularly known as Top Gun. He knew travelers would also pass through the living ghost town of Austin, where they could stop and buy jewelry made of local turquoise before jumping into one of several volunteer-maintained hot springs. What’s more, the route’s natural terminus was Great Basin National Park, one of the least visited national parks in the country. After an epic road trip, a driver could go explore a massive cave system or climb to the top of Wheeler Peak—all without crowds.
Fong was confident that he could help his home state flip a pejorative nickname on its head—all he needed was for people to see the Loneliest Road for themselves. He started by asking various nonprofits if they would provide food to riders. He applied for grants from the tourism board and then hired staff to travel with the cyclists in support vehicles so there was no danger of anyone getting lost or falling behind. He also knew there would be no shortage of places for participants to camp along the way. With the basic logistics sketched out, Fong started advertising in regional magazines, and a couple dozen people eventually signed up. One of them was a high-powered attorney from the Bay Area, who rode up beside Fong between the towns of Austin and Eureka, seemingly experiencing something like Stendhal syndrome. He’ll never forget the woman exhibiting a strong physical reaction to the aesthetic beauty surrounding them.
“There are probably more cars passing the intersection she works on in a 10-minute span than there are all day on Highway 50,” he says. “That’s what made me realize: People aren’t used to hearing nothing.”
The ride was a hit. Linares joined on a few years later, in 1994. He also found that the rapidly shifting scenery had a hypnotic effect. “It changes from the pines in Tahoe, to sagebrush, to evergreen, to that red-colored dirt when you get close to the border of Utah,” he recalls. “It’s just beautiful being out there in the absolute middle of nowhere.”
The lack of passing motorists might qualify the road as lonely, but its banks are littered with herds of sheep, wild horses, antelope, and elk. What’s more, Central Nevada has one of the lowest levels of light pollution in the Lower 48, which means there’s a clear view of the Milky Way every night, a view that inspired Linares to have what he calls “conversations with God.”
Over the years, these heavenly check-ins took different forms. He initially meditated on questions of child-rearing. Later on, he debated whether he should negotiate for a pay raise at work. On one particular ride, he asked God if he was a good enough husband; the following September, he asked for guidance helping his kids handle their parents’ divorce. As Linares puts it, “When you have that much oxygen going through your system, your mind is always somewhere else.” That long-standing dialogue with his higher power is precisely what made him an OATBRAN devotee (“Curtis is our spiritual godfather,” he says). Twenty-nine years later, he’s probably biked Highway 50 more than anyone else on Earth, apart from Fong. And he’s made a ton of friends doing it—including the same weatherman who extolled the ride’s virtues on the local news nearly three decades ago.
While the ride has been a mainstay for at least half of Linares’s adult life, his time in the saddle might be coming to an end. This past September’s OATBRAN appears to have been the final one. Fong, who is turning 74 this year, is setting his sights on something a little more slow-paced and culturally oriented that he’s calling the Great Ride Across Nevada on Lonely Asphalt. “I would like to have on my résumé that I produced both OATBRAN and GRANOLA,” he says.
Getting GRANOLA off the ground means starting up the same process he underwent decades ago: cruising down a desolate desert road, mapping it out, and building relationships with business owners along the way. He hopes that his new ride will be about more than just bikes and that riders will spend two days in each town along his route on Highway 93, going fishing, checking out museums, and generally seeing what Nevada has to offer. “There’s just so, so much out there besides biking,” he says.
Meanwhile, back on Highway 50, cyclists are now using the infrastructure Fong and his fellow riders created to foster their own solo adventures. What was once considered a hazard has been transformed into a can’t-miss destination for enterprising cyclists. “Nowadays, every time I drive out there, I see five or six or more people touring across Nevada,” says Fong. “People take time off every year to come here, and not simply because the ride is challenging. It’s because they realize what great beauty there is in the Great Basin.”