Making plans on endorphins can certainly be fun.
Jesse and I had just finished the always fast Tour de Sue route with the Phoenix Metro Bicycle Club. We started off leisurely, but after the 2nd rest stop on Riggs Road we pounded it to about 90% of our capacity. That guy is one strong rider and it was all I could do to stay up with him.
We pulled into Arizona Bread and sat down for breakfast with Ed, Jules, and a few other riders. With the endorphins energized and the conversations cycling-centric, one rider named Gary mentioned that the ride up Mt Lemmon in Tucson was a really nice ride. Jesse immediately took interest and started asking questions. I was immediately interested as well. Back in 2008, I remembered telephoning the Fair Wheel Bikes Shop to see if I could join a group ride up there – never followed through, though.
Jesse nodded, “Sure, I think we should do it.” I chimed in, “How about one day this week?” Jules piped up, “Count me in!” The four of us agreed on Tuesday at 8AM. Gary would later call or email us with the address of a Safeway parking lot in which to meet.
Sunday and Monday I vacillated at length on which bike to bring, the Trek or the Surly? The basic trade-offs are in the bike specs. The Trek is about 22 lbs, has 23 mm tires, triple crank (34 front x 25 back = 37 gear-inch low gear), no spare tubes, questionable frame pump, and worn rear brakes. The Surly is about 38 lbs (includes racks), has 37 mm tires, triple crank (26 front x 34 back = 21 gear-inch low gear), 2 spare tubes, great frame pump, and new brakes.
The Surly won the toss, despite its extra weight, although, come to think about it, the difference is almost a whole extra bike for some people. Its low gear is dramatically lower than the Trek, but I didn’t figure it would be all that important. Its better brakes and the repair provisions cinched the deal.
Awoke at 4:45AM Tuesday morning and checked my email. Jules had too much going on and couldn’t make it. About 5:28AM, Jesse pulled in to my driveway. I was just about ready, although we had some difficulty getting my long Surly folded into the rear of the van, finally resorting to removing the front wheel. We hit the 202 heading east by 5:40AM., discussed the route options, and settled on a cruise down pretty AZ79.
The lights of the Florence penitentiary came into view, and, more importantly to us, so did the lights of a McDonalds. We pulled in and picked up breakfast goodies, me a “Big Breakfast” of eggs, sausage patty, biscuit, 3 pancakes, and a greasy brick of hash browns. Filling fare, and I figured I needed the calories, but IHOP has nothing to worry about. The big cup of coffee was the tastiest thing. Jesse picked up a frosted cinnamon Danish-thing that smelled really good.
The morning drive down AZ79 was beautiful, much better than down I-10, and my memories swirled through past years’ J&P rides to Tucson along this route. When we hit the outskirts of Tucson around 7:30AM, Jesse was astounded at the rows and rows of houses now blanketing the once-empty desert floors around Catalina and Oro Valley.
Commuter traffic picked up considerably, backed up at nearly every one of many lights heading south on Oracle Road. Jesse’s GPS told him we were running a few minutes late, so he called Gary to coordinate. Gary was already at the Safeway so unfortunately he’d have to wait on us for a few minutes.
It was slow going even heading east away from Tucson, and some of the streets were torn up as well. We found the Safeway at the intersection of Tanque Verde and Catalina Highway about 8:10AM and began our preparations. We took note of Gary’s silver Porche, a real beaut.
Temperatures were already climbing, so our notions of bringing arm warmers or jackets evaporated. Gary had done this ride once before and estimated that two water bottles would be fine because a refill was available at the top. I filled all three of mine, mostly just because I had the cages.
A nice smooth 5 mile roll to the entrance of Coronado National Forest. There was a slight incline to this section, but it gave us a good warm-up spin prior to doing any climbing. The beginning of the climb itself is approximately marked by the “Mile 0” sign. Using his Garmin GPS, Jesse called out our starting elevation somewhere around 2,975 feet.
After another mile, we passed a sign that gave us our marching orders, 20 more miles to Palisades and 25 miles to Summerhaven. Twenty straight miles of climbing. Wow. I’d done something like 12 miles of climbing before (on the 3rd day of the Luna Lakes Tour near Aspen Mountain) but nothing like this. Gary informed us that the climbing here was constant – we shouldn’t expect any dips or hardly any flat spots.
The lower elevations had us rolling upward through very pretty stands of saguaro cacti and nice vistas over the sprawling neighborhoods of Tucson. In many places the route had been cut through ridges of rock that provided scenic roadside contours.
Temperatures, especially in the sun, were already much higher than we’d anticipated. In only the first five miles of the climb, all of us were sweating plenty and had downed a full water bottle. Better in the rider than in the bottle is what I always think. To be smart about it, we took a breather for a few minutes at a trailhead parking lot around Mile 8.
To our relief, the slopes didn’t seem overly bad. I kept trying to estimate the slope based on my effort and my eyesight, and it got to be a joke how bad I was at it. I’d call out, “This feels like about 2%.” And Gary would check his GPS and say, “Nope, about 5% right now.” A little later I’d say, “Wow, this must be something like 9 or 10%.” And he’d say, “Nope, about 6%.” I decided that my internal slope-o-meter needed a good calibration.
We passed the sign for 5000’ elevation. Shortly after that, we passed a rock that looked so much like a fish that I had to stop, descend again, and take a photo. Sort of a grouper, like The Incredible Mr. Limpet. Any excuse to stop and stretch a few seconds. I believe in arriving at my destination feeling good.
We made another brief stop at an overlook. Despite the incessant sun, cool breezes came rising up out of the canyon and it felt really good just leaning over the wall. At the bottom of it was a rusty van. It was difficult to tell whether it had been pushed off or driven off. Gary suggested that the severe rust may indicate that a fire had burned off the paint job.
The three of us continued upward in the never ending climb. Gary was certainly right. Many of the climbs appeared to perhaps have a flattening at the turning point, but once we reached it the road just continued on its 4-6% grade without relief. On one stretch, we passed a giant rock ‘finger’ that seemed to point us skyward. In this area we made our first note of scrub pine trees, a departure from the cacti of below.
Hitting the 6000’ elevation sign, I was starting to gain confidence in snapping photos while riding. I also was reasoning that I might as well take plenty of pictures on the ascent, because I certainly wouldn’t be stopping much coming down.
We took yet another brief stop and compared our water stores. All of us had about ½ bottle remaining and all of us were rationing. Lesson learned. Bring more water next time. Or ride later in the year.
We started passing some really beautiful and fantastic rock formations, and I joked wondering who had balanced them up there. Jesse figured the native Indians must have done it. The views from up here were simply fantastic and no camera can really capture them. Actually, I had assumed we’d get some killer views of Tucson from here, but the view angles and the haze mostly prevents it.
Passing the 7000’ elevation sign, another sign warned us of bears for the next 9 miles. Oh my! The climbing was getting a little bit labored, due mostly to our remarkable lack of water. At an overlook restroom, Gary asked a tourist whether there was water and she quickly said, “Palisades!” and pointed up the mountain. We soon passed a sign indicating another 3 miles to Palisades. No problem to make that, but we decided to play it smart and take one more breather at a trailhead parking lot.
The next three miles were, well, a slog. Nothing notable in terms of additional climbing – that stayed constant – up up up. But the dryness in our water bottles was taking hold in our throats, and hydration was becoming the central theme.
Palisades finally came into view, then a campsite, then another trailhead parking lot. Next to a restroom, a simple faucet painted in blue served to mark the oasis for us. At this stop, we spent quite a while, 15 minutes perhaps, resting in the shade and drawing in the cool faucet water. We hoped it was potable.
Climbing again, we found ourselves suddenly in the shade, and looked skyward to see but one small cloud filtering the sun for a few seconds. A temporary solar eclipse! Felt great – clearly the solar loading was a big factor while riding. We finally reached the 8000’ elevation sign, and started seeing views of the mountain top, views of radio towers, and evidence of past forest fires.
Finally, finally, mercifully, the climbing ended, and we got a free mile or so of descent. My speed pushed up over 30 mph, and it felt fabulous in the cool breezes, accentuated by evaporating sweat. Unfortunately, the climbing wasn’t quite over. As we approached Summerhaven, the road presented us again with some brief climbs, a little icing on the cake.
I was surprised at the collection of cute alpine cabins at Summerhaven. Beautiful vistas were all over the place, and the road eventually descended a few hundred feet onto the main street. Gary led us past a general store and straight away to a little restaurant called “The Cookie Cabin” which proclaimed “also Pizza.” The interior was cozy log cabin with a friendly staff.
My first impression was to see the $7.50 price on a 7” pizza and think, “OK, things are definitely higher in the mountains.” But we all ended up ordering one, as well as multiple canned drinks. When the pizza came out, any traces of doubt disappeared, because they were excellent, piled nicely with toppings and cheese, and worth every penny here in this alpine paradise. We took a table outside and fully enjoyed the fresh cool air and fine company. Jesse commented on the comfortable spring in the chairs – I know it certainly beat the feel of the bike saddle after our climb.
Suddenly, my quads were singing, then moaning at me in cramp. What was curious about it was an accompanying pull all the way up my femur into the groin. This was a cramp I had not experienced before, a “climbing cramp” I figured. What was even more curious was that Jesse felt the identical cramp only about 10 seconds after I did. I stood up from the table and tried to put weight on it, which partially worked and partially didn’t. Sat down again, stood again, trying to stretch it out, all the while munching on lunch.
A blissful 45 minutes later, we stepped back into the pedals. My cramping wasn’t quite finished, and I winced and pushed my way through about 100 pedal-cycles until the sting finally started to recede. We stopped at the general store while Gary grabbed some Gatorade, then started retracing our steps out of Summerhaven.
We encountered a short climb, and it really felt like nothing because we knew it was only a couple miles or so. About a mile up from Palisades, just before the start of the descent, Jesse pulled us over for a swig on his water bottle. I figured he was really pulling us over simply to savor the moment. From there, we enjoyed a beautiful mile of descent but then braked and stopped at the Palisades faucet for a quick refill.
Our next half hour was almost indescribable. Call it a fabulous downhill. Call it a kick in the pants. Call it the “granddaddy of all cycling rewards.” The incessant slope was in our favor and gravity was now on our side.
We easily moved up to the large chainring and 30 mph. Jesse kept it right there. His bike had issues above this speed – he said it started feeling unstable above 28mph or so and so kept the brakes applied as necessary. The three of us rolled together for at least 5 miles but I found myself fighting the brakes and the natural tendency for my heavy Surly to want to roll faster.
On a straightaway, I finally turned loose of the brake levers and accelerated to about 35 mph. For me, this was more relaxing and the Surly seemed to be very comfortable.
The real joy of this descent is the large radius turns. Nothing very technical about this descent. With appropriate caution, you can take just about every turn without touching the brakes. It felt like flying. Effortless beautiful miles. After some initial nervousness about handling, I found a wonderful comfort zone of leaning into the turns, feeling the bike respond beneath me, and watching the beautiful scenery go by in wonder.
After 15 fabulous minutes of descent, I glanced up to see the Mile 10 sign. Good grief! Ten more miles of this ecstasy to go! It just made me grin and laugh and wonder how I got so lucky to be right here at this moment. Yes, it was that good.
Down through amazing rock formations, down through the pines, down and down and down. I finally stopped at a wide spot and snapped a few pictures of Jesse and Gary screaming around a curve. The coolish air turned warm as we continued to descend. The rounded balanced rocks turned into chiseled roadside. The stately pines turned into stately saguaros.
Nearing the NF entrance, I stopped again for photos, and then Jesse and Gary stopped to take a few of me, and then even for a video shoot coming around a bend. We finally mounted up again for good and rolled down out onto Catalina Highway, now having to pedal our way slightly downhill but into a head breeze.
Pfft! Gary’s rear tire started going flat, and we both called out extra loudly so that Jesse could hear us up ahead through his BMX helmet. Nothing remarkable about the flat, some kind of slow leak, and as we stood around during the repair, Jesse reminded me with a grin that I needed to take a few photos to document the incident.
Jesse was already proclaiming the ride an outstanding success. Complete with moderate pain, thirst, effort, cramps, pizza, Diet Coke, good company, great weather, great scenery, the best downhill ever, a sense of personal achievement, and even a flat. Exactly what more could one ask for?
We collected ourselves at the Safeway, said our goodbyes to Gary, and drove off. We hit a Circle K. Jesse scored some BBQ-vinegar chips and Diet Cokes. After much deliberation, I grabbed a cherry-Coke slushee plus a can of Mike’s Harder Lemonade, which I’d never tried before. (Not bad – it tastes like lemonade, Wink, and dash of bitters, along with some booze).
I watched with new appreciation as we passed south of Mount Lemmon on the way out of Tucson. We called our wives for dinner plans, then settled in for a peaceful ride back to Mesa. Jesse commented that his van ran better than usual in the cool darkness of early evening.