Last December, I contemplated racing the Arizona Trail Race, the full 750-mile version. I went so far as to doing a couple of runs, as the route ends with a bike-pack, as in carrying your bike, on your back, across the Grand Canyon, and I'm not much for walking anywhere.Then I decided that 2014 wasn't going to be a year for racing and the idea of doing the route went to the backburner until mid-March when Scott Morris, AZTR organizer, boyfriend, and all-around partner in crime announced, “I may tour the route instead of racing it this year.” My lets-tour-on-bikes-all-over-instead-of-doing-intervals attitude must have worn off on him.
“I'll come with you!”
A week later, we were getting a ride down to the Mexican border, ready to embark on a tour of a race route, something that initially proved to be difficult for two people coming from a racing background. The stated plan for the trip was to enjoy the riding, eat lots of tacos, and skip sections that we didn't want to ride. The AZT has some pretty burly sections, and having both ridden and raced all over the first 300 miles of the trail, there were some sections that we (we being me) didn't particularly want to ride again.
Scott also wanted to collect a new GPS track for the northern part of the route and check out new sections of trail.
To quell any ideas of “racing”, we immediately took an alternate route from the border, paralleling the border fence for several miles before turning north and heading into the Canelo Hills, known for breaking the souls of racers.
We were amazed by two things traversing the rubbly, steep, and often unridable hills; that touring was significantly slower than racing, especially when we stopped to soak our feet in a creek, and that when you're not afraid to burn energy matches, the riding is significantly more fun. Also, that being able to carry a whole mango to eat in the heat of the day while not worrying about calories per gram is pretty awesome.
We stopped for the night in the small town of Patagonia, 50 miles into the 750-mile route. We ate at the Velvet Elvis, the pizza joint passed over by 95% of racers, stayed the night in the local motel for Scott to get over the last of his cold, staying up late watching X-Men, and then gorging ourselves on breakfast at Gathering Grounds. If we were going touring, we were doing it right.
On fresh legs and full bellies, the miles passed easily.
When it came time the next day to decide what to do about Oracle Ridge, the famed 4,000 foot downhill hike-a-bike, and the nearly 10,000 feet of climbing up to the top of Mt. Lemmon that we'd have to do to get there, we used our touring privileges. Not only did we decide to skip Oracle Ridge, we detoured completely around the giant Sky Island hitting up San Manuel for ice cream sandwiches instead.
We contemplated the example we were setting. Should Scott route racers over a section of trail that he chooses not to ride while touring? Yes! And more people should get out touring, using recommended routes as a base idea, and then expanding from there, adding trail as they see fit, and skipping sections which may be considered sub-fun.
We rode the Black Hills outside of Oracle the next day. We rode Ripsey and detoured around the Gila when I discovered that my rear derailleur cable was about to snap. We followed a recommendation from a friend to skip some highway riding and discovered the small and quirky golf community of Queen Valley.
We rode off route into Apache Junction to replace my cable and get a spare. We didn't worry about lost time.
The next day we ate breakfast while people watching in front of a supermarket with the most minimal produce section I'd ever seen. Four hours later, we stopped at Tortilla Flats for lunch before pedaling a few more hours along the beautiful Apache Trail road before stopping to soak our feet in Apache Lake. We stopped to read informational signs about the Roosevelt Dam. All these activities were things we wouldn't have done while racing. We stopped to kill millions of pixels taking pictures.
The transition was complete, racers to tourers. We no longer compared how long sections took us touring versus racing. Well ahead of our 18-day deadline pace, we settled in to enjoy the ride.
We found excellent Mexican food in Payson, and a new microbrewery with a special cabin for AZT travelers in Pine. The Highline Trail, often considered the crux of the 750 route, was fun after two half-days on the trail. Technical sections that aren't worth the effort when racing, or are undoable on tired legs, qualified as interesting challenges.
I thought a lot about what it would be like to ride the trail sleep-deprived and tired. I decided that while there's something to be said for having that experience, being able to ride instead of push my bike along the trail was pretty special.
We skipped a section of trail to make it into Mormon Lake before the newly opened pizza joint closed for the night. We rocked and rolled along smooth, railroad grade trail the next day into Flagstaff.
The trails out of Flagstaff should be on everyone's bucket-list to ride; fast, flowing, and on a weekday afternoon, completely empty.
A jaunt along the Babbit Ranch section of the route brought us to the Grandview fire lookout. Taking the time to climb the steps afforded us views of the Grand Ditch (Grand Canyon) ahead of us and the San Francisco peaks north of Flagstaff behind us. How far we'd come.
Tusayan, the gateway to the Grand Canyon, housed us for the night before our descent into the depths. We secured a permit to camp at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon, picked up our drop box from the post office, acquiring running shoes, bigger packs, and hiking poles while sending home anything that wasn't necessary. We resupplied with food at the outdoor store, ate a big lunch, and bought a pair of matching yellow ponchos to guard against the predicted storm.
By the time we had our bikes attached to our packs, we were in full-on blizzard conditions. Having already bought the permit and a breakfast at Phantom Ranch for the next morning, we were committed…at least financially. We chose to take the Bright Angel Trail instead of the route's North Kaibab as it was less steep, but longer to try to preserve our non-hiking legs.
Visibility increased as we descended, the snow stopped, and we had the canyon to ourselves. Arriving at dark, we headed straight to the cantina at the ranch as the rain was just starting. We stayed until just shy of closing, and until the rain finally stopped. A shelter of any sort we did not have.
The next morning, bikes on our backs, we hiked out to the still-closed North Rim. We saw three rim-to-rim-to-rim runner nutcases all day. The weather held as we marched into snow on the 8,000-plus foot north rim. With the sun dropping rapidly, we sought shelter in the form of a bathroom at the ranger station, fully equipped with a space heater, two chairs, and a small table. It was the most luxurious “privy bivy” I've ever had.
It was 19 degrees in the morning. The backs of the ponchos were sacrificed to become mittens and vapor barrier socks. High clouds kept the sun at bay and us shivering for the 40 miles to the Jacob Lake store on pavement, having to bypass the trail due to snow.
They had a fire roaring, serving up breakfast and endless cups of steaming coffee. The cookies were buttery, soft, and perfect. We had to stay for lunch before starting in on the last 26 miles to the end of our journey, the Utah border. We took our time, savoring the trail. Even the cemented-in cow prints couldn't dampen the mood of finishing such as amazing trail. Before we knew, we were on the final descent down to the Vermillion Cliffs where Scott's parents were waiting to pick us up and take us to St. George.
It was a 14-day trip and a perfect combination of long days, restful nights, and off-trail excursions to see neat things. We rode the best 90% of the route, putting together a route that maximized the fun factor.
So many people think of racing when they think bikepacking, but there's so much more to it; like stopping to eat tacos, ice cream, and to soak feet in bodies of water whenever they present themselves. And anyhow, singletrack on non-tired legs is way better. I heartily recommend you take a bikepacking tour. It just might be the best of both worlds.
Photos courtesy of Scott Morris
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When Eszter Horani was in second grade, living in Tucson, Ariz., her dad bought the entire family Schwinn mountain bikes; she’s been riding ever since, dabbling in racing disciplines from road, to cross, to track and mountain biking. Most recently she’s loving adventurous long rides, bikepacking and exploring the world from two wheels. zenondirt.wordpress.com