AZTR - Part 2: Tucson - to somewhere between Oracle and Kearny ~ mile 230The previous night’s detour to Tucson yields two major benefits. First, by only getting to sleep at 5am, I wake up 2 hours later with the warm, morning sun. It is a lot easier to pack up my gear and ready myself for a day of riding in daylight rather than the middle of the night. Nights in the desert can be very cold. I tend to struggle during the hours between midnight and 4am which make riding quite a bit slower. The ideal scenario is to get to sleep around 2am and be back on the bike at 5am. This way, the challenges of the night are front loaded, so once I wake up early morning, I can ease into the next day with the sunrise providing a strong mental boost. Such is the case this morning, albeit on a slightly delayed scheduled. The second benefit to my detour was the stop at the gas station. I loaded up on frozen bean and cheese burritos that I let thaw out in my bag. I also purchased an 8oz can of Starbucks double espresso. A breakfast burrito and coffee while basking in the morning makes everything alright.
It is interesting how daylight changes my perspective on the environment. What seemed like an interminable bumble up and down loose, rocky washes a few hours earlier, is now quite pleasant riding. Before long, I rejoin the singletrack on the actual AZT ending the bike detour around Saguaro National Park. The trail is well marked, but intersects with many small off-shoots, washes, and dirt roads. I make a number of navigational errors, including a lengthy (stupid) detour on a ranch road. I keep wishing I had a magnifying glass to scrutinize the GPS better and the accumulated fatigue is not really helping with good decision making. Slowly, but surely I ride and hike the bike through Willow Canyon. The air is hot and stagnant, and the effects of the harsh desert environment are starting to wear on me. A large red lizard with black speckled spots crosses the path in front of me. It has short, stumpy legs and waddles its way over into the tall grass before I have time to take a picture. I will later find out that it is a Gila Monster, a rare sighting in the wild.
Neil Beltchenko on one of the many hike-a-bike sections / Photo: Nico Barraza
After some choppy, tenuous hike-a-bike, followed by an engaging descent, I reach the highway that leads to the summit of Mt. Lemmon. The road sign reads 21 miles to the ski area. I have a couple more miles on the trail before rejoining the highway, for the long, steady climb to the top. This is a popular tourist area. It feels a bit weird interacting with people out for a day hike emerging from my insular bubble of pedal and thought.
“Where you headed?” a guy asks, hiking with his kids. “Utah” I reply. “Hun?” he responds quizzically. “Well, eh…Mt. Lemmon.” I shoot back, trying to make my answer relatable before continuing forward.
The 18 miles or so of road climbing up to Mt. Lemmon are as challenging as I thought they would be. Pedaling up a sustained climb in the heat, on pavement, on a loaded mountain bike is a drudging affair. I decide to simply take my time and occupy myself people watching. I am passed by a few Tour de France style riders, who zip by effortlessly on their speed machines. I begin this ongoing joke in my head that Neil is up there attacking the climb, dropping all the roadies, while I am just turtle grinding in my lowest gear, waddling up the hill like that Gila Monster. A huge truck swerves in front of me, nearly cutting me off as the woman in the passenger seat rolls down her window and yells, “You wanna a ride?” “No, thanks,” I reply. The driver hits the gas and speeds off leaving me in a cloud of exhaust. I must be looking pretty terrible for them to stop and offer assistance when I am still on the bike and pedalling! I notice a trickle of water coming down off the cliff side, so I stop for a partial refill of my bottle and to wet my cap- a nice refreshment half-way up the climb.
Road climb to Mt. Lemmon / Photo: Nico Barraza
My objective to restock my food and water is the small town of Summerhaven, which sits at about 8,000ft and is less than a half-mile off the route. As I enter town, I bump into Calvin who is just leaving a restaurant. “Better to stop here and get a real meal than make the detour to Oracle” he says before getting on his bike. I agree, although I continue down the road a little further to the gift shop as I want a broader variety of bars and snacks to take with me. The gift shop is crowded with tourists buying homemade fudge. I wonder around the aisles, grabbing everything that strikes my fancy and feeling self-conscious about how rancid I smell. I check out with 3 cans of cheese ravioli, a freeze dried meal, an unreasonable amount of candy, and a wide selection of beverages. I sit on the park bench out front, eat the ravioli and pack the rest of the food in my bike. It is approaching evening and it is kind of chilly now especially at this altitude. I have rarely found myself in such a drastic, rapidly changing environment, where temperatures shift from unbearably hot to freezing cold, literally within minutes. A short, steep climb out of town leads me to the Oracle Ridge trailhead. This is an infamous part of the course, a thorny, rocky bushwhack and I had heard that even the downhills were unrideable.
Just as I reach the trail, I am joined by Kaitlyn Boyle. She is also riding the 750 and looks to be in great spirits. We are both happy to have some company on the ridge. She looks very dialed and strong. She tells me she has carried all of her food from the start, so she has not made any stops or detours. I am impressed with how well she is executing her race. Seeing that she has the same GPS as mine, I tell her about my woes with the damned camo track and wonder how she navigates with it. “You can change the track color, you know?” Wait, what? And, sure enough in the settings there is an option to change the color to bright pink no less! I feel pretty stupid, not having known about this, but a whole new world of digital clarity just opened up and I could not be more excited. Chatting away, we barely notice the difficulty of the ridge. I get stabbed a few times by yuccas, and am reminded every time I lift the bike how messed up my wrist is. I strained a tendon on my right wrist at some point earlier in the race and I now have a golf ball sized swollen lump right above the crease of my hand. The trail must have been cleared up significantly because the downhill is sensational. After all the slow miles, it is so much fun to open it up and enjoy the full capabilities of the bike floating to the bottom which we reach right at sundown.
Kaitlyn cruising down Oracle Ridge.
Kaitlyn is struggling with a strange breathing issue, that has been bothering her from the start. I am amazed at how well she is doing given this problem, but unfortunately it does not seem to be improving. There is still a lot of remote, difficult riding ahead and the uncertainty of whether or not this will resolve itself is concerning. She tells me she wants to relax the pace a little, hang back and see how things improve during the night. Her boyfriend, bikepacker extraordinaire Kurt Refsnider (who holds the current AZT 300 and 750 records), is riding in the opposite direction and it should not be too long before he crosses our path. That reassures me, knowing that Kaitlyn will be able to touch base with him, assess her condition and decide whether or not to keep riding. Less than an hour later, I run into Kurt. He is in a great mood despite having a knee injury that will force him to pull from the race. We chat for a few minutes and he kindly reminds me not to miss the water resupply in Kelvin tomorrow morning which is a bit off route, but necessary for the final push to the 300 finish.
I tell him that I hope to ride until 2am before stopping for sleep. The riding is not particularly difficult through here, up and down some classic loose AZ washes, but by midnight I am fading. I pull over on a clear patch of dirt among the cactus, which I scrutinize as best I can for thorns. I put all of my clothes on, wrap up in my bag and just like the previous night pass out instantly. I am happy with my progress and look forward to reaching the first big milestone of the race tomorrow, the finish of the 300.