John’s Tucson Trek

Our own John Murphy Recently made the trip Arizona for a unique ride. John writes…

Tucson is a magnet for cyclists during the winter months.  The average daytime temperatures in southern Arizona range from 60 to 70 degrees and are ideal for cycling.  I travelled to Tucson in early February to ride with The Cycling House which offers programs for cyclists and triathletes in Arizona and Mallorca, Spain.   The eight participants in my group include several competitive cyclists and at least one Iron Man Triathlete.  Our staff includes one of the top ranked female triathletes in North America, nationally ranked mountain bikers  and other highly regarded endurance athletes.

Eastern Side of Gates Pass

After an initial “warm-up ride” of approximately 25 miles on our first afternoon,  we tackle Gates Pass the following day on the western outskirts of Tucson.  Gates Pass is famous for its beautiful sunsets and is a prime attraction for cyclists.

Atop Gates Pass

The eastern approach to Gates is approximately seven or eight miles long and features a steady ascent with grades ranging from three to seven percent.  The peak of Gates Pass is 3100 feet above sea level and offers spectacular views in all directions.

The descent down the western side of the pass is steep and twisting and heads towards Tucson’s Desert Museum and Old Tucson Studios which has served as the setting for dozens of  western movies and television series including The Outlaw Josie Wales and Little House on the Prairie.

The McCain Loop

At the base of the pass is the McCain Loop which twists and turns through the desert and features sharp, rolling hills that are a cyclist’s dream.  Once the Loop is completed, however,  the most direct route back to downtown Tucson requires you to climb back up the western side of the Pass which features an excruciating but mercifully short climb back up to the summit of the pass.  The ride back to downtown Tucson is almost entirely downhill and leads directly into the neighborhood surrounding the scenic campus of the University of Arizona.

However, no cycling trip to Tucson is complete without a ride on the legendary Mt. Lemmon on the eastern outskirts of Tucson.  Mt. Lemmon appears on virtually every list of the top ten cycling climbs in the United States.  Lance Armstrong and Team Radio Shack trained here last winter for the 2010 racing season.  The ride to the summit of Mt. Lemmon on the Catalina Highway stretches over 20 miles and climbs up to over 9.000 feet.  We start our ride from a shopping center south of the mountain and pedal approximately five miles to the base of Mt. Lemmon.  The climb begins at mileage marker zero and the first four miles of the climb feature grades of four to ten percent.  The first four miles of the climb are among the most difficult.  Our early climb was all the more difficult due to a strong and icy cold headwind.  As you are climbing slowly ahead in your lowest gear with your heart pounding and your legs aching, you begin to wonder whether you will even make it past the first stage of the climb.

The ride up Mt Lemmon can get lonely very quickly.  After several miles,  our 20 something year old staff members have sped ahead and disappeared from sight.  My sole riding companion at this point is Dave,  a retired banker from Wilmington, Delaware who recently completed an Iron Man Triathalon in Austria.  We continue our slow, steady climb past the toll gate at mile 4.   The headwind disappears at times but then reemerges with a vengeance.  Each new mileage marker is a cause for a brief celebration.

Mile 8 on Mount Lemmon

At mile 8, we stop to take pictures next to the mileage marker.  We are 5,000 feet above sea level.  Each new mile, however, becomes progressively more difficult.   Somewhere around mile 10, I notice snow in a culvert just beside the road.  Dave has disappeared behind me an I am now by myself with no one to commiserate with.  It is becoming progressively colder and the air feels thinner.  I am breathing more heavily and my heart is pounding as I climb higher.  My pace is slowing and I am beginning to run low on water.  Our support van is somewhere up ahead near the summit with the water and additional layers of clothing I long for.

I finally reach mile 12 which is 6000 feet above sea level.

Mile 12 on Mount Lemmon

There is supposed to be additional water along the road but it is nowhere to be found.  I would like to get a picture of myself along side the mileage marker but I haven’t seen Dave for over 30 minutes.  I have to content myself taking a picture of my bike next to the mile 12 marker.  At this point, I decide it is time to turn around and head back down the mountain.  I have been climbing for nearly two hours.  I am nearly out of water and my energy reserves are virtually depleted.

However, the plunge back down Mt. Lemmon requires maximum focus and care.  If you are willing to forego your brakes (and any concern for self-preservation),  it is rather easy to reach speeds of 45 or 50 miles per hour on the descent.  At high speeds,  the near freezing temperatures on the descent are nearly unbearable.  The fact that my winter gloves and additional layers of warm clothing are in the van some miles up the mountain provides little comfort.  My hands, which are locked like vises around the brakes,  are becoming numb.  Periodically, I need to stop in the sunlight to let my hands thaw out for a minute or two.  As I am speeding down the hill, I feel only sympathy for the cyclists who are slowly laboring up the hill in the other direction.

View from Mount Lemmon

Notwithstanding the challenges, I hope to return to Tucson next winter to improve my climbing skills and to continue my ascent to the summit of Mt.  Lemmon.   I would also like to spend more time riding the McCain Loop and the surrounding desert on the western outskirts of Tucson.  This trip presents scenery and climbs that are not available to us in southern New Jersey.   Hopefully, my riding in Tucson will serve me well as we hit the roads of Burlington County in the coming weeks.