You Ride A Big Southwest Mountain in Summer

Anatomy of a mountain ride in summer

First light in the east. A balmy 72 degrees, singlet weather, at 5am. You pump up the tires, retrieve the frozen water bottles from the freezer, pocket some almonds and dates. Click in the pedals and roll off into the warming light. Left on Pantano, no need to wait for the light this time of day. Where’s my cannon? Empty streets. You drop gently into Tanque Verde wash, the temperature drops 10 degrees, and the delicious cold air gives the last chill of what will be a triple digit day.

Bicycle sunrise over Redington Pass on the way to Mount Lemmon

A red sun peeks over the Redington Pass, between saguaros and mesquites. You pick up the pace just a bit on Catalina Highway. The temperature warms again, bringing familiar desert scents with sunrise. Still cool, with a hint of the buildup of humidity before the monsoon. Twenty percent today maybe. Enough to make your heart rate monitor work.

Beginning the Climb of the Catalina Mountains, Mount Lemmon

At milepost one the climbing begins. Shift down. Sit up. Spin. Deep breaths now. Heart rate up just a bit. Look up at the rocky ridges studded with saguaros, washed in amber morning. Ignore the growing warmth in quads and glutes. Keep your shoulders relaxed. This is for fun, not just fitness, not just health.

Life Zones Change to the Music of your Breath

Life zones change as you climb higher

Somewhere below 5,000 feet, you notice the saguaros are gone, replaced by oak grasslands and twenty foot agaves in bloom. Another thousand feet and you enter Bear Canyon and feel the cool from Arizona sycamores and alligator junipers. Further up the canyon, you notice the piney vanilla scent of huge ponderosas, their green crowns spiking the now intense blue sky. Breathe deep. Stand on the pedals. Stretch your back and shoulders. Push a little. Feel the burn, the joy of your body, working as it should. A canyon wren’s liquid descending song cheers you on.

City of Rocks at Windy Point

One big hairpin and you enter a city of rocks, white and pink granite spires rising from a recently burned mountainside. The black spikes have sprouted bright new green at their bases, reminders of the cycle of fire and life. The hoodoos present you with more forms than your imagination can count. They distract you from the tightness creeping into your left hamstring. At Windy Point, an expansive view of the Tucson valley tempts you to rest. A few early climbers gear up and head down to favored climbing spires. Someday. A few miles of steep sweeping curves and even more spectacular hoodoos later, and you pierce the pine woods again. More bird calls. Lots of them. Jays and creepers, a redtail hawk overhead. Now bronze barked manzanita, spindly lodgepole pines and larger oaks. There are new smells as the air warms. You are racing the sun up the mountain, and the sun is winning.

To the World of Aspens and Spruce

You climb another couple of thousand feet in the mixed forest, a mile of downhill and then up again. Turn right before the village of Summerhaven, destroyed by fire a decade ago, now sprouting big new houses and a few business. Your goal is higher, Ski Valley, the most southerly ski slope in the U.S. The last mile is steep. Breathe deep. You stand in your lowest gear, and it’s still hard. Finally you see the grassy ski slopes, devoid of snow for months, ringed by aspens quaking shiny silver-green leaves in the breeze, a breeze that brings you the scent of dark spruce deeper in the forest. At just under 9,000 feet, you have arrived, botanically speaking, in southern Canada.

Descent into Hell’s Furnace

A few minutes rest and it’s time to let gravity work for you for awhile. You fill your water bottles, have a snack. Then it’s a bit of down and a bit of up and you begin the 20 mile downhill you have earned. All the smells your nose remembers from the way up assault your senses again, but at high speed this time, fleeting, reminding you of the work behind you. At 30 miles per hour, you lose elevation quickly and the heat begins to rise to you from the valley. The valley furnace awaits. A light tailwind pushes you through a tight curve at 46 miles per hour, demanding full attention and causing you to forget the rising heat. Or was it the extra sweat from the moment of near panic?

With five miles to go to the base you begin soaking your jersey with water. It’s already well in to the 90’s and you know the eight more miles home from the base will take you over the 100 mark. The sense of becoming one with the heat is intoxicating, a strange thrill. You might as well enjoy it. It’s due to be 1o8 in the afternoon. You are glad to be back before noon.

Your Accomplishment

You’ve ridden your bike 70 miles, from the landscape of Northern Mexico to that of Southern Canada, and back, climbed between 6,000 and 7,000 feet, in six hours or so. Not easy but doable, and oh so rewarding. Those of you who have done it know. The rest of you now have a new goal.


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