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Climbing Mt Lemmon

Tucson, Arizona , United States
October 25, 2016
61 mi




ft elev +


What happens when a flatlander tackles a famous mountain after a few weeks off the bike? To inverse Greg Lemond's famous quote, it never gets harder, you just go slower. 
My first trip up Mt Lemmon was during my sophomore year in college. My track team went to Tucson for spring break, and we spent one afternoon driving up and down from the summit. It was a beautiful drive, and when I became serious about cycling I always had it in my mind to go back to Tucson and ride to the top. When my wife Morleigh and I started planning a trip this fall to visit family in Arizona, it seemed like it might be a good time to cross this ride off my bucket list. 

Despite my planning it almost didn’t happen. Two weeks before our trip to Arizona, I had been off the bike sick with a cold. It was the kind of cold that would not have slowed me down as a younger man. But as I have gotten older I have learned not to dig holes whilst standing in them. So I nursed myself back to health with rest, fluids, vitamin C, and time off the bike. I did not race at either JingleCross in Iowa City, nor the local CX race in Dekalb, IL. The week before the trip, I felt like my recovery was progressing well enough that I boxed up my road bike and shipped it to Arizona using 

We arrived in Phoenix on Tuesday evening, I assembled and went for a short test ride  on Wednesday, and then went on longer rides Thursday and Friday to try and put myself back into some sort of shape and acclimate to the heat and dryness of the desert. Wednesday and Thursday went well, but Friday....
I was going down a hill at 40mph when I hit some kind of metal debris in the bike lane and pinch-flatted a tubeless wheel and tacoed an aluminum rim. By some strange twist of fate I didn’t lose control of my bike or crash. I just applied my brakes as gently as possible and came to a stop as soon as possible. Once I had safely come to a stop and got over the “that could have been really really bad" panic, I thought about my ride up Mt Lemmon. If I couldn't find a replacement wheel my planned ride was going to be turn into another scenic drive. (Special thanks to Mor for driving 10 miles out into the desert to sag me that day).
Its times like these that I am grateful that there are so many kind and generous people in the bike community. The next day we drove to Tucson and found a local bike shop. I walked into Broadway Bicycles. ( with the tacoed wheel in hand and explained my situation. They offered up a wheel from one of their rental road bikes without hesitation. I offered to pay, and they said not to worry about it. They wished me luck on my trip. The bike shop closed at 4pm on Sunday, so Mor and I worked backwards from there to plan out our Sunday and set our alarm for the morning. 
Phase 1: Beignets
We were staying at my Uncle and Aunt's house in Vail, AZ which is 40 minutes south of Mt Lemmon. The plan was to get up, do the ride, return the wheel, and head to Phoenix for the night. We got up on time, but spent more time getting ready and out of the house than anticipated. We drove to the foot of the mountain, then headed downhill a few miles so we could find Mor some breakfast and I could get ready to ride. Don's Bayou's Cafe had a big parking lot and a "Fresh beignets" sign outside which allowed us to meet both objectives from the same spot. I finished my pre-ride preparations, had a bite of beignet, and then rolled across the street for some "between two cacti" photos with Mt Lemmon in the background to commemorate the start of the ride. 
Phase 2: Pedal up hill
I had hoped to be rolling at 10:30AM, but with the beignets and photos, it was more like 10:50AM. I began my ride a few miles away from the start of the climb to give my legs a little time to warm up. I could still feel the heaviness in my them from the first week back on the bike, and did not want to jump right into the climb. Thankfully, the road was mostly flat for a few miles giving me a chance wake up my legs. I saw my first and only roadrunner of the trip darting across a driveway on this stretch of road. 
The temperature on my Garmin read 105F when I started, but I still had a wind vest and arm warmers with me. The weather report for the top was in the low 60s which meant a chilly descent, and I wanted to be prepared. I could have had Mor meet me at the top with clothing, but I wanted it to be a self-supported effort. Likewise I had a 50oz Camelbak of water, two bottles full of Gatorade, and five or six stroopwafels which I figured was enough calories and liquid for the climb. 
I've done a few rides like this where Mor leap frogs me in a car to take photos, and it's always hard to keep track of her. I knew she was behind me in the parking lot when I started, but I wasn't able to keep track of all the cars that passed me and keep an eye out for her. So was a lovely surprise when I rounded a corner and saw her across the road with a camera up, cheering me on. When she snapped this image I was looking back to see if there was space in the traffic to dart to the other side of the road for a quick kiss. Sadly there was a steady stream of cars so I kept grinding up into first significant switchback of the climb.
One of the really cool things about climbing a mountain on a bicycle is the way in which each 1000 ft or so of altitude completely changes the landscape and vegetation. Low on the desert floor and on the south facing slopes were Saguaro cactuses as far as the eye could see. 
However, It didn't take long for the cacti to thin and disappear and give way to heartier brushes and shrubs. 
I had a feeling that I had gotten started a little later than the natives do when, in the first hour or so, I only encounterd riders coming down hill. It took more than an hour of climbing before I came across anyone who was still heading up. He was an old-timer with silver hair, and chocolate skin. As I pulled up alongside I gave him a smile and a friendly, 

"How are you doing today?" 

"Not as good as you." 

"Ohhh....I'm just doing what I can do, just the same as you." 

<chuckles> "I suppose your right. Have a great ride." 

"You too, be safe, and enjoy the views." 
I knew it was cooler at the top of Mt Lemmon. The forecast said a high of 63F, and I was hoping for some sort of temperature inversion and cooler weather as I got into the middle of the climb. Not so much. Hot desert winds were blowing up the slopes and Even at 5000 ft it was still over 90 degrees. Thankfully I tossed my Camelpak and two bidons with Gatorade in the freezer the night before, so my beverages stayed cool long into the ride in spite of the heat. 
The road itself continued on the steady grade for which Mt Lemmon is famous, but the terrain changed dramatically above 5500 ft. Large stone columns started to appear on the horizon. As I approach them these chimneys towered over the road. 

This selfie was one of my favorites as the road threaded its way between the solid cliff and three stone needles rising up from the valley below.
Unbeknownst to me, my personal photographer was high above me taking a shot of me going around the same bend. As is often the case, the photo she took of me taking a picture turned out better than the photo I was taking.
Above the switchback I found a friendly face looking over the valley. She had been there for thousands of years watching the land below fill with people, buildings, and civilization, long before the asphalt snake slithered up behind her.
I passed a few more riders as I climbed upwards. One was standing along the side of the road working on a flat tire. I asked if he was okay and had everything he had needed. When he said he did, I continued up the road. The next rider was on the opposite shoulder on foot. I asked him if everything was okay, and he said he was fighting off a cramp in his calf. I offered him some salt pills, but he was just waiting for some to kick in. I wished him a speedy recovery and continued to spin. I had been in my lowest gear for most of the afternoon. It was the kind of day where the only gear that mattered was the smallest one I had. 
7000 ft
After 25 miles and 5300 ft climbing, two things happened. For the first time the summit of Mt Lemmon appeared on the horizon, and the road took a turn downward. After close to three hours of climbing I found two glorious miles of descending. 
Mt Lemmon in the distance
It didn't last long. It's clear from the last photo that the top of Mt Lemmon was still a long ways up. I was starting to suffer the fatigue that comes from a prolonged effort in diminishing oxygen. Every pedal stroke up meant a little less oxygen per breath, making the next pedal stroke infinitesimally more difficult. I took few photos as the road was now boxed in on both sides by tall pine trees. At mile 28 I pulled off the road into a scenic vista to snap a photo and respond to a text message.

Mor: I'm in the restaurant at the very top of the mountain. It's Octoberfest so it's PACKED up here. I just want to eat.
Me: Eat!

It was another 20 minutes before I found the Iron Door Restaurant, and a sign that almost broke my heart. "Summit 1.5 miles" 
Instead of stopping to have lunch with my wife, I continued the difficult grind up the road. This was one of the hardest and slowest 1.5 miles I have ridden, as the road pitched upward to 10-12% and held that grade for most of the way. I snapped one pic of the aspen trees in full fall foliage, but was working too hard to do much else. I had ran out of water and Gatorade just after passing the restaurant, so both mentally and physically I was approaching empty.  
There was a locked gate at the parking area keeping cars from getting to the summit, but it was easy to ride around the gate and continue up. The second gate was the end of the road. The research facilities and telescope was a restricted access area protected by tall fences and razor wire. I asked a hiker to snap a photo of me, and then worked my way back down to the parking area where I waited for Mor to make her way up for the restaurant. 
There weren't really any scenic vistas for photography right at the top, so we headed back down the road a bit and found this overlook for my official "summit portrait".
Phase 3: The descent

When I started the climb I was very aware that I was riding on a borrowed wheel that needed to be returned by 4PM. Somewhere around 5000 ft that thought completely slipped my mind. After we finished enjoying the views and taking photos, Mor finally said "it's 3:30pm, we've got to get that wheel back. Should we drive down together?" I thought about it for a moment, but I didn't think it would matter. I knew from Haleakala that I could make just as good of time down the mountain on a bike as in a car, and I knew it would be nearly impossible to cover 27 miles by either mode of transportation. In 25 minutes I had only covered half the distance so I pulled off the road call the shop and see if anyone would be staying late. Unfortunately I was in a dead zone. I didn’t get any signal until after 4pm and no one was answering the phones. Mor caught up with me just after I hit the bottom, so I threw my bike in the back and we set course for Broadway bikes. Our ETA was 4:30pm which didn’t leave me much hope that anyone would be at the shop. So I used my phone to make hotel reservations for that night in Tucson and abandoning our plans to drive back to Phoenix. Just as we were pulling into the parking lot, there happened to be a car pulling out. We waved at him and he stopped in the drive. His name was Ryan and he worked at the shop. I explained that I needed to return a wheel, and he said sure, he’d bring it in tomorrow with him. I handed him the wheel and we were once again free and clear. 
We could have cancelled our reservation and driven to Phoenix as we had originally planned, but we opted to spend another night in Tucson. The next morning we swung by the Broadway Bicycles and dropped off some tasty beverages as a token of our gratitude for the loaner wheel and the after-hours service. Sometimes taking care of your mechanic is what it means to #pullthrough. #Rideaxletree #SpidermonkeyCycling
Epilogue: After leaving the bike shop on Sunday Mor said, "Did Ryan look familiar to you?" I didn't recognize him, but a quick google search found out where she had seen them. Ryan, and his bicycle chain saguaros, were featured in Bicycling Magazine. 




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