This month, we're crashing our friends vacation house in Tucson. It's okay. We used to put them up when we lived in Tucson. They own a bike shop in Mankato, MN and when Jenna and Justin venture into the desert they go big when it comes to riding bikes. A couple years ago, they put in a 35 hour week right off a Minnesota December. These two think that riding around the base of Mt Lemmon is 'fun' and they're completely badass for that reason. This year, the big ride they planned to do was a trip up the Mt Lemmon Control Road.
When they invited TJ and I along for the ride, I said, "hell no." They tried luring me with an assurance that we'd stop at the Cookie Cabin at the top of Mt Lemmon. TJ said he'd push me. I could sit on their wheels and be towed up to Oracle. I just wasn't going to go on that long of a ride. But they conspired and laid on the pressure. TJ reminded me just how remote the country is beyond the town of Oracle and that we pedal up into the Catalina Mountains with views of the San Pedro River below (he knows I'm a sucker for a ride with a view). Jenna kept mentioning the cookies. Then TJ added a six hour ride to my training plan. Ugh. There was no way out.
We left Central Tucson around 9:00am and proceeded clock-wise around the loop pictured above. To break-up the ride into manageable segments (this is important for me to do), we split it into three distinct parts:
- 2 hrs to the Circle-K in Oracle, AZ
- 2 hrs to the Cookie Cabin on the summit of Mt Lemmon (mostly dirt)
- 2 hrs down the Mt Lemmon Hwy and back through town.
Always fearful of getting cold on Mt Lemmon, I stuffed my pockets with extra layers and crammed them full of Clif Bars, Clif Bloks and two Citrus Clif Shot gels for a little caffeine boost. Yes, my pockets were ridiculously full.
The first segment of the ride was the worst. Oracle Rd is pretty busy, under construction and makes me feel like hi-vis clothing has a place in road cycling. It's roads like Oracle that make me long for ribbons of singletrack and wide open desert. We pedaled through Oro Valley as a group and climbed the first 2K vertical feet into a slight headwind--which meant we'd have a tailwind for the monster climb up Lemmon. Oracle is a gritty high-desert town. It's where Edward Abbey may have resided at some point. It's where Tucson cyclists riding Cody's Loop or Mammoth stop to fill up bottles. It's the place where we last saw other cyclists until we summited Mt Lemmon 2.5 hours later. And it's the place where the pavement ended.
For close to 20 miles, the Control Road follows the contours of Mt Lemmon to the north with the occasional plunge into a ravine for a wash crossing. The road conditions were ideal and Jenna and I pushed our exuberance into the pedals and left our husbands behind. We were newbies to this ride and didn't quite realize what lay up ahead.
During the girls-only portion of the ride, I realized that it's Jenna who has suckered me into just about every 100+ mile epic I've ever done on a bike, and each adventure usually involves some healthy portion of dirt on road skinnies. I'm really lucky I've been able to train and race with her over the years. In fact, I highly recommend finding training partners that are tougher than you are--that's one way to push the envelope and find yourself climbing up the backside of Mt Lemmon on a road bike.
Once we had some daylight between us and the guys, things really started picking up. The road left the contours, narrowed, and started switchbacking its way to the top. This road is incredible. It's absolutely breathtaking and unbelievably hard. I couldn't risk stopping for photos...and I wouldn't want to entice anyone else up there anyways. Jenna and I rode together until we couldn't any longer, the road was just too steep and loose, and I inched away towards the top. Once by myself, I realized that we'd left Oracle over 2 hours ago which meant we were behind schedule. I had fully expected to have a cookie in my belly at this point (totally deserved after 8K+ feet of climbing!) and I started to crack. What's the remedy for an impending mental bonk? Hit a caffeinated Clif gel and sing a song in your head. My pick of the day was "Eye of the Tiger"
It did the trick. I snapped out of my funk and got back to pedaling. TJ caught me in the last mile and then immediately dropped me when he realized I was pretty grouchy. When I hit the pavement of the Mt Lemmon highway, I was throttled. We both were.
We regrouped and recharged at the Cookie Cabin on Mt Lemmon. The Cookie Cabin concept is simple: ride up a giant mountain, eat a giant cookie.
The last 30 miles were mostly downhill and I felt surprisingly decent considering what we'd just put ourselves through. I was pretty happy about how the day ended up. It was pretty much the best double-date ever.