Extreme Riding on Mt. Lemmon

Posted: May 8, 2009 in Bicycling

(For various reasons I have had several unfinished posts sitting in my queue on Blogger. This is the first of three old posts that I am finally finishing.)

Epic is becoming one of the great overused words of our time. With so many extreme approaches to sports, people frequently talk or write about their ‘epic’ adventures. While I am not impervious to hyperbole, I feel that I had a truly epic cycling adventure while we were on vacation in Tucson, AZ. This ride is one that will remained etched in my memory for the rest of my life and it will be difficult for the tale to become embellished because the truth is pretty extreme.

We went to Tucson during Spring Break in mid-April to celebrate my Mother-in-Law’s birthday. Since we drove there I was able to bring my bike and I managed to ride every day that we were there.

While looking on the web and inquiring on cycling web forums, I discovered that THE ride in the area is Mt. Lemmon. After balancing family activities against riding time, I reserved Wednesday for my ride up the mountain. However, I was not going to attempt this roughly 60 mile ride with about 6,000 feet of climbing without at least previewing part of the climb.

On Sunday, our first full day in Tucson, I met up with a club and rode the first 12 miles of the climb which got me to an altitude of 4,800 feet and about 2,300 feet of climbing. As an aside, the members of this club were friendly, generally my age, and some were very fast (faster than me at least). What I learned was the climb was pretty comparable to what I’ve ridden in Southern California. So far, so good.

Monday and Tuesday I got in some good rides in beautiful weather. Little did I know that my luck was not going to last. A weather front was literally blowing through Tucson on Wednesday. The forecast was not promising with high gusty winds. I thought that perhaps I could get up the mountain before the weather got too bad.

As usual (unfortunately), I got a slightly late start. I started rolling about a half hour after I had originally planned. I was glad to have some familiarity with the road from my Sunday ride but as I climbed up past my Sunday turnaround the wind started picking up.

When I left the parking lot at the start the weather was pretty pleasant and I was wearing a short sleeve jersey. As the wind got stronger and the altitude increased, the temperature got colder. Somewhere above 5,000 ft, there was a vista turnout and I took the opportunity to put on arm warmers and take a couple of photos.

As I continued up the wind got worse. The road was twisting around the mountain so that I had the full variety of headwind, tailwind, and cross-wind.

As I climbed I thought that maybe the prudent thing to do would be to turn around. Of course, when it comes to cycling, I’m not good at being prudent. Somewhere around 7,000 ft of altitude I was rounding a sharp corner on a fairly steep grade when the mother of all headwind gusts hit me. It was all I could do to unclip, get my foot down, and brace myself against the wind without falling over. I stood there for what felt like several minutes trying to figure out if I could go forward or if I should just turn around.

Of course, I decided to move forward. The weather really didn’t get any better but it wasn’t getting worse either. I got to a point where the road started to go downhill and in this case it unfortunately had a strong tailwind. I was desperately trying to control my speed going downhill when I saw this sign and stopped for another photo.

I figured that if I died on the mountain someone would find the camera and see that I’d made it that far. It turned out to be several more miles of uphill, downhill, and high winds to reach the small town of Summerhaven. The main street through town was like a wind tunnel as I rode past several closed stores and restaurants. I found a general store that was open and I went in for a bit of respite from the wind and to get some hot tea or cocoa.

The woman behind the counter didn’t even flinch when I entered. I looked around a bit and got some tea. She asked me where I had started and I told her where while expecting some kind of remark like, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Instead she said something like, “Well, it sure is windy,” and went back about her business of re-stocking some shelves.

I also tried calling my wife who was out sightseeing and shopping with my kids and her parents. I got her voice-mail and I made the mistake of leaving a somewhat incoherent message to the effect that the weather was really bad and that I hoped to make back down the mountain safely. Of course riding back down safely was the primary objective, but that wasn’t a good thing to say on the phone.

The ride back was slow but not as excruciating as the ride up. I encountered the situation hated by many cyclists where the wind is strong enough that you have to pedal downhill, but that was far better than the couple of downhill sections where the wind was at my back. Fortunately, my brakes were up to the task. What surprised me most was seeing a couple of other riders heading up the mountain as I was going down. I don’t think that the wind was dying down.

The last couple of miles down to the shopping center where I parked were fine. The sun was out and the wind at the base of the mountain was tolerable. I went to a coffee place in the shopping center and got a fruit smoothie and a pastry. Spent a few minutes refreshing myself, posing, and contemplating why I do things like this.



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