Illustration by: Min Heo
“Eating some shit that I find on the side of the road and calling that nutrition helps further my ideology of, 'Go out, ride your bike, and have fun.'”
Geno Villafano is a cyclist whose videos have racked up millions of views on TikTok — mainly thanks to his uncanny skill of reclaiming, and consuming, seemingly any item he sees on the side of the road. Raw onion, discarded breakfast sandwich, unwrapped Doritos, frozen cucumber, hard kombucha, 30 pounds of cookie dough — it’s all calories if you’re @spieo on TikTok (he returns lost phones too). Villafano’s “ride finds,”, as they’re called, have unexpectedly earned him an audience online, and, underneath the shock humor, even raised a few legitimate questions about the environment and nutrition.
“When I learned more and more about microbiology, I realized we definitely have an overblown fear of out-of-date produce, or food that’s gonna hurt us” says Villfano, a budding PhD at UConn.
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In conversation, as online, he gives off a friendly if sardonic energy, brimming with self-awareness and a sharp wit — the type I’d like to chat with in the setback corner of a party. Behind the TikTok fame, there’s serious cycling chops, too. He grew up riding BMX, but has more recently become a Category 1 racer for a domestic elite team, Jameson Cannondale. He and his partner are sponsored for their bikepacking adventures in foreign countries. He also commutes daily in northeastern Connecticut, and documents 300+ mile days on his account, along with bike maintenance tips. “I'm at a happy place with my cycling where I'm professional enough that I don't have to worry about the expense of cycling too much, but it's not taking over my life,” he says.
[transcript edited and condensed for clarity]
So I wanted to start here. I'm just wondering if there's part of these ride finds that make you feel more attached to your community.
My connection to my environment definitely grew out of noticing what's around me. And that started with just finding random crap that I wanted to stop for when I was cycling a lot. Ride finds makes me connected to the environment in a weird way that I didn't have prior. I started wanting to learn the random mushrooms that I was seeing. That's just as legit of a ride find to me as a Snickers bar.
"I've never been poisoned or sick or had a stomach ache or anything from anything I've ever eaten off the side of the road. Everything that I post I've taken the calculated risk to decide that, yeah this is okay. I can eat this."
So you got into foraging mushrooms or IDing plants from the ride finds?
Yeah. It's not that big of a leap when you start thinking about it. When you're riding by something, you glance at it, you get this quick moment to ID it – “oh, is that a candy bar? Was that an unopened can?” And then that transition got me into foraging, because I was like, “that's a weird looking mushroom.” I started IDing them, buying books, talking to mycologists, and upping my game for plants to the point where I can ride by something, swing back around, and bring home a couple pounds of Maitake mushrooms from a commute, which is, you know, a decent chunk of change. Mushrooms are expensive, dude. So, I got into foraging plants from learning to quickly ID trash on the side of the road.
I think one of the great pleasures of biking is being self-reliant. Is that part of the spirit of why you got into ride finds?
Oh, for sure. Some of the bikepacking things that I do, that's like the ultimate version of self-reliance because I travel with as little as I can. I do bikepacking in foreign countries, so I’ll be freezing riding down a hill in Cyprus and just know that I can find a chip bag on the side of the road, put it over my foot, and increase my foot temperature by like 10 degrees. Practicing ride finds is a great way to learn how to utilize your environment and connect with it.
Is that a true story about the chip bag in Cyprus? I saw you were just riding there.
Yea, totally. We got hit with really weird conditions, according to the locals — very cold, very rainy. And there was this castle on the Turkish side, the occupied side of Cyprus, that we wanted to go up. But it was at like 3,000 or 4,000 feet. We were already freezing and soaked from the morning, but we decided to climb up anyway, knowing that it was gonna be like a 20 minute descent down. So we get to the top, we're putting on our layers, and we're still shivering and freezing. We're like, “What do we do?” So, we just raided this trash can for chip bags, put them over our feet, and it saved us. We descended in relative warmth. And I was just like, totally awed at how well it worked.
When you're riding by at 25 miles an hour, what's that split second calculation that decides either this is litter or a certified ride find? What's the anatomy of a good proper ride find?
It's been changing, because I used to just stop when it's like, “yeah, that's a closed package.” I would eat that or drink that, whatever it is. But now, I pick up probably more than I film. And I've noticed that people are interested in other weird shit that people throw out their cars or that fall off trucks, so I've been more apt to be filming stuff like that lately. The decision making process is tough because it is just my ADD brain scanning the road and cars and the environment. When you're a cyclist, you have to be taking in information from all these sources to stay safe. It's basically like number one, will I use the thing that I'm picking up? Number two, would it make an interesting video? And number three, is it something that I can just pick up and throw away, or find an owner for, like a broken phone or a wallet? That’s usually my criteria.
"I hate that there's this air of pretentiousness in road cycling inherent to the sport right now, or always. And I feel like just breaking down that pretentiousness."
Do you feel like the ride finds videos are made for TikTok in some ways? It works so perfectly for the platform.
It’s a perfect little bite size content, a snippet into my cycling life. It's a daily occurrence. I find these things all the time. It's short, funny, and it helps you connect with me as, like, a weird human. So it's exactly what TikTok is made for. It's real, it's pretty raw, but it's an entertaining slice of a cyclist’s life. And I put hours of effort into these big, longer bikepacking videos and they get a couple thousand views and then I put like zero effort into a ride finds video and it gets half a million in a day. But I don't mind it, you know, they're two sides of a coin that I carry in my pocket.
These videos are made with a cheeky sense of humor, and your personality shows through, but you’re also talking about self-reliance and environment. What are some of the other ideas about biking that you'd like to express with this?
One of the ways that ride finds ties into my ethos, or my ideology as a cyclist, is that I don't take cycling too seriously. I come from BMX. I rode BMX all my life and got into road cycling fairly late. No one ever taught me how to ride a road bike, no one ever taught me the protocols and procedures. Road cycling has a bit of a pretentiousness to it, and I never got into road cycling with someone handing me down that pretentiousness. And I see it in the culture. There's both a patriarchal aspect to it and a bit of a pretentiousness that makes people not think of road cycling as something they can very easily get into, unless you're fairly well off, or got a lot of money to spend on expensive bikes.
And then you do all these trendy nutrition and recovery things. I hate that. I hate that there's this air of pretentiousness in road cycling inherent to the sport right now, or always. And I feel like just breaking down that pretentiousness. Eating some shit that I find on the side of the road and calling that nutrition helps further my ideology of just like, “go out and ride your bike and have fun.” Don't take yourself or what you're doing too seriously.
Didn’t you saute up an onion you found on the road the other day?
Yeah. So that was one I definitely would not have touched if it wasn't because of one of my first TikTok videos to go viral. [On the first viral video], I rode 180 miles to Vermont and back, and pretty early in the ride, I just found a bunch of onions and potatoes on the side of the road. And, in my video, I just picked one up, peeled it and took a bite out of it. And it was literally a second worth of content in that long video of me riding to Vermont and back, but it was kind of what set me off on TikTok. So, I saw that onion the other day. It was a pretty nasty onion, but I picked it up, brought it into my lab, cut a bunch of layers off of it and used it in a wrap to pay tribute to my origins.
@spieo Don't judge me. I had a good time. #ridefinds #biketok #groundscore #roadfind #bikelife #commuterlife #foodie ♬ original sound - Geno Villafano
Was that original onion video one of the first times you noticed ride finds striking a chord online?
Yeah. I was like, “why the hell is this video blowing up?” And then [my partner] Becca was like, “I think it's because you bite into an onion that you found on the road in the first 10 seconds.” I was like, “Oh yeah, that's probably true.” I didn't even think anything of it.
So you're getting your PhD in molecular cell biology, right?
Yea, it’s molecular cell biology and I study genetics specifically.
What is that part of the brain saying to you when you eat food that you found on the side of the road?
It's very analytical. I didn't grow up with much of a, “throw it away if it hits the expiration date” sort of mentality. My family was like, “cut the mold off and eat it,” you know? And when I learned more and more about microbiology, I realized we definitely have an overblown fear of out of date produce or, food that’s not good, or food that’s gonna hurt us. Specifically, the most likely thing that you're gonna give yourself food poisoning with is eating a raw salad from a restaurant. So I know the likelihood of me getting sick from a lot of these rides finds is statistically really low.
I've never been poisoned or sick or had a stomach ache or anything from anything I've ever eaten off the side of the road. Everything that I post I've taken the calculated risk to decide that, “yeah, this is okay. I can eat this.”
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What do you think is your most memorable ride find?
So I have two. One is a weird food item and one is just awesome. I found this set of Bose wireless, Bluetooth headphones on the road. I posted about them, tried to find the owner for them, tried to get them back to someone, then after a couple weeks I was like, “ok these are mine.” So I got like $400 headphones. Then definitely the weirdest was a box of 30 pounds of frozen cookie dough in a cardboard box on the side of the road, near UCONN. It showed up between my morning commute and my afternoon commute, so I was like, “damn, that's new.” And it was a cardboard box, all beat up. I couldn't see if there's anything in it. Then I go over to it, and it's like a bag full of raw cookie dough, but it was still frozen and cold. I was like, “this is all still good.” So I lugged it home, and I weighed it and was like, “oh, this is 30 pounds of preformed raw cookie dough.” It was the summer of some big races, so I was like, “I'm bringing cookies to all the cyclists.” I showed up with like 20, 30 cookies baked fresh that morning and just gave them out to everyone. That’s one of my favorites.
Did you ride home with a 30 pound bag of cookie dough in your backpack?
It was kinda overflowing, but yeah, I rode home 12 miles with that.
@spieo My top 3 #ridefinds 😁#biketok #groundscore #top3 #finderskeepers #roadfind #cycling #commuterlife #freestuff #cookies ♬ original sound - Geno Villafano
So the @ride_finds account on Instagram, is that you?
That is not me. It’s just some random account that a group of people living in the Midwest started to post weird stuff that they find while cycling. People started messaging me, sending me that account, like “Yo, tag them, tag them.” And now, I know the [@ride_finds] people pretty well. Just a random connection made over dopey bike shit, you know?
I love the idea of ride finds connecting you with other people online.
The other thing that’s funny is since I started it, people started tagging me in their own ride finds. And that's kind of cool because I get to see other cyclists, and the other weird, creepy items that I wouldn't pick up. But it's interesting to see it because it's not a side of human society we see very often, right? Like, roadside trash. And by having a bunch of cyclists going around, taking photos of it or videos of it, it exposes us both to weirdness, the grossness, and the interesting nature of what we've done to the environment around us, as car drivers, and as humans in society.
It's something you wouldn't see at 70 miles an hour, but you might see it at 20 miles an hour
Yeah. Ride finds has exposed me to a community of other cyclists that are like me, and then by posting about it, it exposes other people that aren't cyclists to this aspect of human society that we don't normally stop and take interest in. Sometimes it's just weird and gross and sometimes it's a pair of $400 Bose headphones.
Have you ever eaten something off the side of the road (or trail) or taken home a "ride find?" Let us know in the comments!