For This Native Team, Cycling Together Is Medicine
Living with type 1 diabetes, I’ve come to prefer placing my Dexcom Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) sensor where people can see it, on my arm or thigh rather than my stomach, because it’s a great conversation starter and an educational prompt. Living with Type 1 diabetes (T1D) means doing all the work for my non-functioning pancreas. This device keeps me alive and reminds me of the life-threatening disease I live with—and it also functions as a recognizable, empowering beacon of identity. Which is precisely what happened on my bike tour last spring as I cycled up a hill in Southern California. A man glided by me on his road bike and did the usual cyclist-to-cyclist check-in. I gave the thumbs up and he continued on—but then slammed on his brakes when he saw the CGM sensor on my arm. “You’re a Type 1 diabetic! ME TOO!”
We cycled harder to catch up with my cycling partner Erik, who also has T1D. The man’s name was James Stout, and he’s a former pro cyclist who has raced across America with Team Type 1. James helps run Team Yaqui, or the Indigenous Road Warriors, a group that empowers members of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Tucson to live healthier and happier lives through cycling. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native Americans hold the highest rates of type 2 diabetes (T2D) of any ethnic group in the United States. Thirty percent of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe are diagnosed with T2D.
A few months after our random meeting, I emailed James asking if I could write and photograph Team Yaqui’s story. In September of last year, the stars aligned for a flight to Tucson and a couple rides with the group, led by Iris Coronado.
I give James a hug in the parking lot of the tribe’s Wellness Center and meet Iris, who’s got the biggest smile. Music blasts as kids and parents start trickling in for the after-school 5-mile youth ride around the reservation. Iris gathers the crowd, goes over hand signals, and checks that everyone’s got their lights on. At golden hour, we start cycling out of the parking lot towards the main road.
Team Yaqui’s slogan is, “Fighting diabetes one mile at a time.” It’s a condition that every cyclist has some sort of connection to whether they have diabetes themselves, have a family member or friend who lives with it, or have lost someone to it. Team Yaqui is growing by the month as more and more tribe members are realizing the lingering risks of diabetes and the tremendous benefits of movement –– especially together.
Iris keeps the energy high with her constant cheers of encouragement. As day turns to night, the clump of cyclists ahead of me looks like a Christmas tree, their backlights glistening in the night. I learn later that they’ve pedaled this loop so many times that the reservation has painted in bike paths.
We return to the parking lot and head into the Wellness Center where the local motorcycle club has surprised the cyclists with pizza and two brand new bicycles for a couple of the group’s youngest members. “I appreciate the group because everyone takes care of each other,” Minnie, a city councilwoman for the tribe tells me later in an email.
The next morning, riders training for El Tour de Tucson, meet back at the parking lot for a longer ride through Tucson Mountain Park. Minnie picks me and my bike up at 5 am and we cycle out of the reservation at 6 am –– just in time to beat the brutal Arizona heat. The sun rises as we ride uphill towards Old Tucson. James whizzes up and down the span of the group of about 20 people, always checking on us.
We pass saguaro cacti and sweeping mountain views. At a water stop, Manse, who seems to be the mother of the group, stops to take in her surroundings. She tells me how much of an emphasis Native people put on respecting their land and the nature around them; how we are all visitors here. The group finally reaches Old Tucson, a movie set and theme park just outside of the city that marks our turnaround point. I take their picture as they wave the tribe’s flag at the entrance sign. Iris turns up the music and pulls out a cooler from the sag wagon with a vegetable platter, Gatorade, and water. This group celebrates each other. There’s a reason people keep coming back for more.
Meet the group
Iris is the bubbly, hardworking custodian who dedicates her free time to lead Team Yaqui year-round. She’s one of those people who is always looking out for you, handing a kid their asthma inhaler at a stop sign, leaving me with energy bars as we hug goodbye, and constantly belting out words of encouragement as she passes riders.
“I don’t have diabetes but I’m a big woman,” she says. “I feel that cycling has helped me with that. I have had weight issues and it’s easier to manage when you cycle. We all know someone with diabetes and I see what can happen. We are at risk if we do not become active and be aware of our diets.”
Victoria cycles because it’s addictive. She started riding with her wife, Iris. “It was ‘our thing’ to do together.” It’s a favorite hobby that’s gotten her from 15 to 40 miles and has grown into something bigger than themselves.
“I have lost many friends and family to diabetes,” she says. “It’s very traumatic for me to see many people lose limbs and their vision. This community helps bring our blood sugars down, bonds us, and is the social medicine that our community enjoys.”
“Riding my first mile was hard!” Mase says. “Sweating and breathless, I never gave up. Today I can ride 35 miles and I’m happy with myself. I have [type 2] diabetes and have been off medication for over a year and a half. The hardest part about having diabetes is it’s expensive. I keep away from canned foods [and look for] fresh or dry foods. My message is, ‘It matters what we eat.’ Riding with the group has helped me manage my diabetes. The group is supportive and inspiring. We are family.”
Minnie, a city councilwoman for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, started riding with the group at El Tour de Tucson in 2018.
“I love riding with the group,” Minnie says. “They give me the inspiration to keep moving and to live a healthier and active life. I especially appreciate the diversity of the group—different ages with different roles in our community. But what brings us together is a commitment to wellness through cycling. Cycling is fun and group cycling makes it even better, especially with the kids! They are AWESOME!”
“I was shy at first but to me, it’s just like a big family now,” Kodi says. “I was only used to doing seven miles a week before. Now I’m used to doing 20. I can’t wait until I can start saying bigger numbers!”
“I cycle because it helps me become more active and keeps me from being on my phone all day!” says Antonio.
Get tickets to watch the upcoming Sept 18–20 Cycling With Virtual Summit, featuring rider and city councilwoman Minnie at: milesofportraits.com/cycling-with
Support Team Yaqui: Nativeexerciseempowermentproject.com