“YOU’RE CRAZY!” IS COMMONLY SAID TO Rafael “Rafa” Millan-Garcia, with varying degrees of animosity mixed with awe. At the root of most of these comments is the fact that a bicycle is Rafa’s exclusive mode of transportation — which is impressive everywhere, but especially in Leadville, Colorado, where Rafa lives. At 10,200 feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in North America.
“Leadville has harsh weather conditions for sure, but for a Mexican, I love snow. I love the cold. I love being out when it’s super crazy weather.”
Rafa has never owned a car, and he doesn’t have a license. He uses his seven bikes to move furniture, haul scrap metal and travel long distances — for the fun of it.
“I never fully consciously made the decision to center my life around bikes — it kinda happened by default,” he said.
Rafa received his first bike for Christmas when he was 6 or 7. “No one taught me how to ride it. After a few bloody knees, I figured it out and never stopped.”
Rafa admitted that, as a young kid growing up in Mexico City, he wanted (like all of us) to be cool.
After many years of smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, he quit both. He was 15.
He said he hated drinking and smoking but did in response to peer pressure. His bike gave him more joy, freedom and independence than he ever felt using drugs.
“It made me feel like a superhero. As long as I had a bike, I felt invincible, like I could go anywhere and do anything.”
When Rafa became of driving age, the fantasy of owning a car to “pick up a date and make out in the backseat” was enticing — but Rafa said it didn’t last long. Witnessing the downside of vehicles — accidents, permits, fees, fuel costs, environmental impacts and animal casualties — drove the fantasy forever from his mind. Rafa has never owned a vehicle.
“I kept biking. It is such a beautiful and peaceful vehicle. Cars make people neurotic. It doesn’t appeal. I’m happy with my bike.”
In 2002, with a freshly broken heart, Rafa packed up his bike trailer with his dog, Rosco, and peddled away from his home in Mexico City.
Without a plan to speak of, Rafa realized he was headed for Colorado, so he decided to visit a friend in Fort Collins for a few weeks. While there, a massive snowstorm overwhelmed the city, resulting in a brief shut down. Rafa explained it succinctly: “I got snowed in and never left.”
Rafa launched a community bikes shop out of a friends’ garage. He taught people how to work on their bikes, and he turned it into a legitimate 501(c)(3) nonprofit. It is now named the Fort Collins Bike Co-op.
“I get goosebumps looking back. I’m so proud. It is the largest, oldest and most successful community bike shop in Colorado. It is so beneficial for the community and the environment. I can’t believe I started that in a garage.”
Soon after Rafa left the Co-op, his friend Jason Shelman, who is the co-owner of Subculture Cyclery in Salida, asked if he’d come down to help him move and organize his shop.
Rafa said he had no hesitation. “I’m forever grateful to Jason for importing me to the mountains.”
Rafa lived in Salida for 6 years; during that time he slept outside as much as possible, exploring the region, fishing, hunting and of course, biking. “All adventures started at my door.”
The move to Leadville in 2018 happened because “I followed my sweetie. We aren’t together anymore but love brought me here. And love is what is keeping me here — this amazing community.”
With the help of “all his friends” chipping in and investing, Rafa opened his own bike shop, Leadvelo Bicicasa, in August 2019.
“Grateful isn’t a big enough word to express how I feel for this shop. Gift is a good word. I’m just so fortunate for my friends saying, ‘We’re going to chip in to see this happen because it’s what your supposed to do.’”
For Rafa, building community and giving back is a huge part of the shop. He encourages people to drink coffee and talk about bikes, skiing and other human-powered adventures.
People often donate things to his shop for him to pass along, like the time he met a Latina mother who needed transportation to get to work. Rafa fixed up a bike, people donated lights and a helmet, and now that single mother has reliable transportation.
“I feel so enticed and motivated to give back. It’s the spiritual fuel to keep going,” Rafa said.
He joked that it’s a “Robin Hood situation” but clarified that he doesn’t steal from the rich, they give willingly.
“That is my mission. It’s why I came to this earth — to help people get enamored with bikes and fall in love with bikes.”
In general, Rafa often talks his customers out of a sale. He teaches his customers to fish. He’ll end up selling them a multitool along with some free advice on how to fix bike issues by themselves, saving them time and money. (Another Robin Hood-like characteristic.)
“I get teary eyed when I think about (this shop.) This is my art and my passion. It is the culmination of all things bike. I’ll never retire. This is what I do for fun.”
Rafa’s zest for life and bikes is contagious. It’s hard to frown when chatting with him. He lives day-to-day, embracing uncertainty.
“For some reason that keeps me excited. Not knowing what will happen tomorrow or in a week or a month, that is the same bug that makes me ride my bike long distances. A few more pedal strokes, another 100 miles, to see what’s around the bend. Or beyond the bend.”
Cailey McDermott is quite fond of bikes, and after talking with Rafa, is more motivated to get back in the saddle.