the first time I had an extended stay in Tucson was back in January of 2016. I’d met a fellow named Nate via DM’s — the manager of a now bygone bike shop. He showed me nearly everything that made me fall in love with the city of Tucson and the surrounding area — a sky island Sonoran dessert kaleidoscope of massive, often times otherworldly terrain– chock full of big routes accessible from the city.
in 2016, Arya and I were new to touring together. we’d met in 2013 at Troy’s house in Old Saybrook CT — had our first date shortly thereafter — it was a bike ride. by this time I had been touring solo most of the year for the previous 3 years, and was ready for some company! a few years later I convinced her into flying out to San Diego with me to ride a mixed terrain route out to Tucson to visit some friends who’d moved there from Boston. we ended up staying a while.
during this stay we packed up our camp gear and went out on a 120 mile loop that Nate emphatically recommended leaving town over the dirt shotgun shell littered 2k ft Redington pass. a rolling summit and juttery washboard decent ushers you into a cactus forested valley, and then up a gargantuan 4,000 ft dirt climb— the Lemmon Control Rd. the ride starts at 2500 ft and tops out at 8k at the top of Mt. Lemmon — a true sky island. once up there its a 30 mile – don’t even touch your brakes – paved descent all the way back to the desert floor through 6 different biomes. there is no other ride like it.
that time, and several other times after, we split the ride into 2 days. it was not until I began training for unbound project Y a year later that I attempted it in a single day. it brutalized me, but at the same time awakened something — a mountain sized reminder of the depraved sadism I obviously still enjoy about the sport, and sport in general. I ended up completing the loop 5 more times that winter, each instance bettering my time while using the extreme conditions as testing grounds for many of the bike and tire designs I would later produce.
since then I have done it at least once a year with mixed results and emotions. I find it to be a good baseline for my overall fitness and wellbeing, and measuring stick for how much the bicycle’s love reciprocates each year — a pilgrimage, a holy experience. to be slung over the handlebars and saddle on the escalator to eternity. 4.5 hours — 6 hours even — just nibbling up an often rutted and snow lined track into the thin, ever chilling air to 8000 ft. the trick is to make it to the top before sunset so that you don’t turn into a popsicle on the way down the hour long decent.
ohhhkay enough contexxxt, lets get into this go-around ::::
Sarah Swallow, Randal Sklar, Jordan, Sean, and a few others met at the parking lot of a famous roady strip mall coffee shop at 6am. Jordan and I had slept in the parking lot the night before. a chilly start awaited.
the sun came up just as we were rounding the first few switchbacks of Redington indicating we’d left on time. that’s Alley on the left. as the climb kicked upwards, it was soon only us. I was feeling like riding alone on this one, so when she stopped to pee, I waved and kept riding. my previous 2 attempts both clocked in right at 10 hours ride time, but I was last up the mountain from my group. its embarrassing! both of those attempts had me descending stiff as a frozen pair of wet socks back to town in the dark. I even tried to get my friends to drive up and get me half way down the descent. true story. definitely wanted to avoid that this time around. and break 10 hours.
and I was on my new fast bike by Frank!
after some water and BBQ potato chips in San Manuel, Ally and then the rest of the group caught up to me. time to get back on and pedal. pepper sauce campground was next. filled up for the last time there and ate a pb&j in prep for the big climb I would be spending the afternoon on. i finished my sandwich, and just as I was lighting my first joint of the day, I see Ally 2 switchbacks below. i ripped that bone down to the butt and began pedaling with conviction before she could see me.
for the first half of the climb (2.5 hours) I was trying to take in calories and stretch my back as much as I could while not lingering too long. here is one of those instances. bike down. body down. stretch, snack, pedal. how far behind me was she?
well, turns out not far. 2 switchbacks went down to 1.5, then 1…. then you know the rest. I finally could not keep up the pace, and had to just sit down and let her pass me. we snacked together for a few minutes, and traded stories about our individual rides thus far. then she said she best be going, and I said “bye” as she pedaled away not to be seen again by me.
I kept my composure the rest of the way up, and only felt moderately out of body. I was leaning on my handlebars towards the top (lost my composure), but the bike preformed wonderfully. was happy to have that 26×32 low gear … but there is an argument for going faster because you have to if running steeper gearing.
it had been a very snowy winter, but thankfully there were not any issues at the top. I have had versions of this ride with plenty of cleat clogging snow bike hikes that really drain the morale 8 hours into a ride like this. not so this day! really perfecto weather with temps at the top in the 50s. I was grateful. I should mention that my company for this ride was provided by the 8 hour Bandsplain podcast on Metallica.
and just like that I was at the top. I gobbled down the last of my lofty snack pile in my front bag and put on my tights and puff jacket I’d been storing in my rear bag.
and that was that! the hour long descent was uneventful, and I did not even stop for any photos. I was focused on the chips and hummus awaiting me in my van. I also wanted to finally slip in under 10 hours of ride time, and I was on a bike that went downhill fasssst. the group behind me took photos though, so I screen shoted the one bellow from Sklar.
ended up down to the bottom a full hour before my previous 2 attempts. another one for the books! my 43 year old self bested my 41 and 42 year old attempts. Although Ally ended up putting 30 minutes into me on there 2nd half of the climb. amazing! there is no way I could have grabbed her wheel, but happy to have the motivation from her to stay away early on. Worth noting Ally is the same age as me, and we were the oldest of the group by a decade or more. powered by moth balls! everyone else rolled in an hour and a half later. by then I was on my second tub of hummus.
thanks for reading!
XO Ronnie R.
all photos taken with a Rico GR IIIx
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