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Text: Marshall Opel | Photography: Tim Bardsley-Smith

The flight into Tucson took us low over the outskirts of town, close enough that I could clearly see the massive cacti and bushy scrub that dot the desert landscape. I could see the roads and gravel that wind through them, too, up and down over the land’s contours, and all I wanted to do was ride. 

Situated roughly 60 miles north of the Mexican border, Tucson’s temperate weather and quality riding draw cyclists looking to escape. Sonoran desert and mountain ranges in all directions feel quintessentially southwest. 

Desert Transition

Outside the airport, I reveled in the contrast. Warm, dry air — particularly compared to my origin, a chilly November day in Northern Montana.

A T-shirt was all I needed for the November evening air. I met up with long-time CyclingTips photographer, Tim Bardsley-Smith, and the two of us loaded up a rental car and b-lined it to an outdoor cocina near downtown. Cold beers and Strava maps helped us lay plans for a few days of desert riding in one of the most varied, beautiful landscapes you’ll find anywhere.

The next day, we headed to the Mercado San Austin, a hip zone west of downtown. Cheap pastries, great coffee, and note-worthy tacos all in one place, it’s no wonder the Mercado is such a hub for the cycling community. Group rides regularly start and finish from the courtyard where riders like to hang out, drink coffee and enjoy something to eat. We sipped cortados and ate Mexican donuts in the late morning sunshine. Very nice.

Joining us was long-time local and former pro road racer, Gord Fraser. Gord’s knowledge of the area’s best routes and hidden spots comes from three decades of training throughout Southern Arizona. Well known as one of North American’s best sprinters, Gord is also central to the local riding community, regularly turning the screws on local pros at the weekly Shootout Ride. He’s seen the world from his bike and loves calling Tucson home.

Gord steered us toward a mellow first ride that took us west around Wasson Peak via Gates Pass which opens up to a vast, peak lined valley, a favorite for roadies looking to put in big, rolling miles.

Starting out with a steady climb of a few miles up and over Gates Pass, the city dropped out of view behind us. On the other side of the pass, Kitt Peak, with its iconic observatory, loomed in the distance. A popular alternative to the local favourite Mount Lemmon – which we’ll be dedicating an entire piece to in a couple of weeks – Kitt Peak is known as a classic big-day ride. I’ll have to check it out next time I visit.

The descent off the backside of Gates Pass drops you into a different world, away from bustling Tucson and into the desert. The roads back here roll up and down like an amusement park ride, following the contours of the desert.

Gord and I continued around to the north to check out Saguaro National Park, and steered off the tarmac. A sandy dirt climb through all kinds of cactus and hearty desert shrubbery led us to an old look out for views and snacks.

Legs sufficiently spun out for our first day, we retraced our steps back over Gates Pass to Tucson and enjoyed post ride refreshments at Westbound, an outdoor bar near a bike shop with a few different food options in beautiful modified shipping containers.

Visiting the Southwest in the winter months is popular for road cyclists for obvious reasons. While winter training clothing has come a long way, it’s pretty sweet to ride with bare arms and legs as temperatures dip back home.

The next day, we got a taste for the area’s dirt riding on Reddington Road, a favorite area for local gravel riders. Starting with a twisting climb east of town the road turns to dirt and winds its way up over the mountains to the backside of Mount Lemmon.

Until recently, the backside of Mount Lemmon was rarely ridden by cyclists. “It’s just sort of a gnarly, chucky dirt road,” says Lauren Hall who climbed it for the first time this fall at the Mount Lemmon Gravel Grinder. “You could ride it on a rigid bike but I was on my mountain bike,” Hall told me. Apparently people have climbed it on a road bike with 23mm tires. But just because you can…

In general, the tarmac around Tucson isn’t the smoothest. Of course, we’re experiencing a golden age of bicycle technology. Endurance style road bikes with room for larger tires or a gravel bike will reduce chip seal road vibrations and potential for thorny punctures. I was on a Niner RDO RLT with Donnelly Strada 32mm tires, which worked great for the mostly on-road riding we did. I’d certainly look for wider tires if we did any more off-road exploring.

During our stay, I met several cyclists who make the pilgrimage from colder climates to the Tucson area and they do it for more than the sunshine. It doesn’t take much to get them talking about their draw to place. “Besides year-round predictable sunny weather, a huge variety of riding options, and beautiful desert landscapes, it’s a gritty artistic town with lots of cool people,” said Owen Gue, founder of The Cycling House, a retreat for cyclists. Sounds good to me.

Gord invited us over to his house for a tour of his amazing bike collection. Then, we headed out on the town for dinner and drinks, each on one of his bikes. Gord guided us around the city via an ultra sweet bike path system that connects most of the metro area with car-free cruising. More than 130 miles of multi-use paths and dedicated bike lanes around the metro area makes getting around town on bikes a viable option.

Local professional off-road racer, Josh Berry, said his community shares a balance of work and play that’s less focused on the never ending corporate race. “I have a medical doctor friend who moved here and cut his work to 20 hours a week so he would have more time for experiences,” Berry told us. It’s a place with space. “You can go out in the desert or up a really big mountain and feel inspiration — no one’s going to tell you what to do.” That freedom of expression, runs infectiously through the veins of the city.

Tucson does not mess around when it comes to good food. That means it’s got much more than amazing tacos – although, it really does have amazing tacos. An ethnically diverse population means you can get great food from all around the world without paying big city prices. UNESCO named it an official ‘City of Gastronomy’ – the only place with such distinction in the United States. Check out Penca for food and drink inspired by Mexico City and Time Market, a one stop shop for quality ingredients.

The Shoot Out Ride

Started by Fair Wheel Bikes– a legendary local bike shop, the Shootout ride is a Tucson institution. Pro-level racers count on the weekly Shootout as a predictable staple for their winter training. It’s one of the oldest on-going rides in America and during the winter months, it’s one of the biggest and fastest. Between the three groups, upwards of 200 people come together for a false-flat battle of wills.

“It’s the gnarliest bike ride I’ve done anywhere. It’s harder than some UCI races in my opinion,” says local racer Dillon Caldwell, who admits “winning” the Shoot Out feels as gratifying as any road race win. “It’s just a basic course, nothing special. It’s the people who turn out and make it fast, there’s nothing like it, anywhere.”

The ride sets off from a Starbucks near the University of Arizona campus. The first 40 minutes are mostly relaxed while getting out of town. Then, past the city limits, the pace picks up. People start to shoot out both ends of the group as the attacks and subsequent drops begin. A battle for local roadie glory ensues.

“The South Mission is where it really heats up. It’s like 1-2% for 15 miles and that’s where it starts to separate,” says Caldwell. A crack in the road on the crest of a slight hill serves as a sprint line where regrouping happens before they’re back at it toward Helmet peak. The final meet-up, usually about three hours later, is at the Mercado for well earned refreshments and eats.

The Racing / Rides Scene

Southern Arizona has long been a popular destination for road races. Look to the area for a perfect example of the current shifts happening in the ever changing cycling landscape. 33 years of road racing tradition at the Tucson Bicycle Classic comes to an end in 2020. While many like Gord are saddened by the seeming end of an era, new events like Routa Del Jefe, Spirit World 100 and the Mount Lemmon Gravel Grinder show up on the scene; a more free-form style of riding takes shape and the show goes on.

As our time came to an end, sun kissed skin, tired legs and a new appreciation for the subtle beauty of desert landscapes had me beaming with joy. Tucson is a unique destination with a vibe of its own. I can’t wait to get back.

 Check out part two of our Tucson series, which is a guide to Mount Lemmon and includes some local knowledge to help you plan your visit.

This piece was brought to you in partnership with Visit Tucson. Find out more about the riding in Tucson on Instagram and Facebook