Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Arizona Day 1: Jackpot

Squeeze the Lemmon
108.9mi, 13,500ft, 7:38hrs
Mostly sunny, ~60 to mid-80's

For about six years now, I've always wanted to bike to the very summit of Mt Lemmon. Not just the village, or even the ski area base, but the all the way to the high point. For years, the Mt Lemmon Highway has been under reconstruction. It was off-limits to bikes. Then last year, Dave Penney and I tried and got snowed out. After a long dry, warm spell, the summit was now nearly clear of snow.

I couldn't settle for just a roadie kind of climb, you know. I wanted to go big. This means to ride up the back side of Mt Lemmon, which is a rough jeep road, and descend the front side where most folks ride up. To do this required a very large loop, 108.9 miles to be exact. And a mountain bike was required. I have never ridden more than 70 miles on a mountain bike in a day before. But today's ride was mostly pavement, so not all of those 108.9 miles were going to be hard.

After a huge breakfast, I rolled out shortly after 7:30am. Bit chilly, but just warm enough to not need any warm layers. I took a long jersey and rain shell in Camelbak just in case. There was 10% chance of rain in forecast.

The route skirts the northern reaches of Tucson on the way to Rt 77. Then in many mind numbing miles, gains about 2000ft gradually to Oracle. The 38 miles to Oracle took just over 2hrs, and I thought this ride was going to be too easy. The 1.6" tires at 70psi rolled quite fast.

But fantasies of wrapping the ride up in five hours soon evaporated. When I stopped in Oracle to get some more water, I only picked up a liter, as I hadn't drank that much out of my Camelbak. It didn't top off my pack. The gravel started innocuous enough, smoother and faster than most New England roads this spring. Then the rolling hills started. These weren't your typical New England rollers. I climbed for maybe 20 minutes at a time, then in 5 minutes I give it all back dropping into a ravine. The climbs and descents got progressively bigger, many hundreds of feet each. Each time I recovered lost vertical, I'd see my destination looming far away and high above. But then I drop again. It was maddening, a climber's purgatory of sorts.

Then there was that big sign at the bottom that said road closed 19 miles ahead due to winter conditions. Oh. I just pretended I didn't see it. By the time the climbing began in earnest with the rollers behind, I was out of water and it was hot out. I was freaking out, knowing that I probably still had a vertical mile to climb to the nearest water, and the temp was breaking 80F. The road became a narrow one-lane affair, non-stop washboard and embedded rocks. On a hardtail with 70psi tires, this was a non-stop butt pounder.

Eventually I reach the 19 mile gate that was supposedly closed. It wasn't, but the road got decisively rougher after this gate. I was becoming progressively dehydrated, and my average speed began to plummet. My throat was cracking with dryness, and I hadn't peed in 6 hrs. I had trouble holding 4mph in places, but refused to drop into the granny. After a while, I start to hear machinery. Town of Summerhaven I thought. But sound has a way of carrying in the mountains. I must have climbed another hour before I hit pavement. I was so relieved.

I went straight to the General Store in Summerhaven. It was closed! I turned more than a few tourist's heads with my vocal frustration. I went to gift shop to see where I could get water. They said next door at pizza shop. I asked if I could buy some Gatorade or water, and the nice gal that worked there offered to fill my Camelbak. Sweet. I also bought a Coke and $4.00 Oatmeal cookie. Steep price, but when I got it I knew why. It completely covered a paper plate, it was warm right out of the oven, and it was very yummy.

I had planned to summit first, before stopping in Summerhaven to refuel. But now I was good to go to finish the last 1500ft or so of climbing to 9150ft. Even though I was back on pavement, the going was slow. It was so steep, and air gets thin that high up. The ski area still had remnants of snow around, but it was closed. The service road going to top of ski area had been plowed at one time. I still had to watch for icy places. Eventually the observatories come into view, and my climb was about over. Net gain was about 6800ft, most of it on rugged jeep road. My average speed about 75 miles into the ride was only 12.0mph! I doubt most roadies climb the final service road to the summit. It is not in very nice shape.

I did a loop to the highest point of the mountain (might have technically been a restricted area) before dropping down a bit to catch a view of Tucson below. I think you really have to hike out to the rocks for a good view, as I could not readily find one on my bike. It was chilly up here, but I managed to hold off putting any layers on. This is far cry from when Dave and I tried to summit last year this time. It thunder snowed, and we donned full winter gear for the descent.

On the descent back to Tucson, there are a couple climbs. One gains hundreds of feet still near the top. I was starting to cramp up, my 100oz Camelbak was going empty again, and I had thirty miles to go! But once you crest that blip, it's pretty much all downhill for the next 25 miles.

I was passed by a roadie on the descent met others coming up. Why is it roadies don't even acknowledge dudes on MTB's? I had my NorEast team kit on, on a Dean Ti bike, but fat tires and no drop bar. I didn't even exist. Had I been on my Dean road bike, at least they would have glanced to see what I was riding. I bet the kid that passed me probably even thought I was dropped off at the top and just coasting down and had no idea I had been out 7 hours by that point and climbed 2.5 times as much as he did.

The wind was brutal coming back into town. So strong it pushed up the canyons, that I almost couldn't coast down a 5% grade in spots. I was becoming dehydrated again, and I had to work the last several miles into the wind as the grade tapered off into the city.

So this ride finally happened. I was psychologically unprepared for how hard it became, easily on par with 6-gaps of Vermont or the D2R2 ride. Getting dehydrated twice in the same ride was just plain stupid. And dangerous. On the dirt climb, I was out in bone dry nothingness for over 3hrs. Only two trucks came by during that whole time. But epics like this are priceless. Being out there without another soul around wondering if you made a huge mistake embarking on such a remote ride solo adds a rich dimension to riding.

Not many photos to post now. May show more in report I'll post on after I get back. Next up is some trail riding at Fantasy Island in Tucson, and maybe another big dirt climb in the afternoon if my legs are up for it. This ride left me uber trashed.


Anonymous said...

I'm not a biker/cyclist at all but am doing research about the backside trail up Mt. Lemmon. We are going to take side by side atvs(street legal) up so wanted to get a little info. Found some other info but wanted to compliment & thank you for your description. I found it so entertaining I read about the entire trip. Also congrats on having the ability to cover that distance & elevation under your own power.
Not a member but it is LJP from Casa Grande, AZ

David said...

Kudos to you on doing that ride in 7:30, I just did it today and it took me 8 hours in the saddle to get to summerhaven. The rollers are hell, I checked my GPS just before the real climb up the lemmon and there was a net gain of 300 feet from oracle, even after 20 miles and what felt like 2000 ft of climbing very depressing. In the end after all the climbing, getting chased by dogs, loosing my light battery and backtracking 2 miles to retrieve and having the bonk lurking around the corner it was still a sweet epic ride.