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Riding to the stars: Arizona Big Ride

In-depth
23 Mar 2021
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Kitt Peak in Arizona is better known by cosmologists than cyclists, but it’s a breathtaking climb just waiting to be discovered

Words: James Spender Photography: Patrik Lundin

The experience of riding in Tucson, Arizona, might best be described by a dish I ate last night. It was at the Downtown Kitchen and the menu read Pork belly-foie gras donuts, caramel sauce, apple-fennel slaw, sea salt.

Goose-cruelty aside, this is a dish that had no right to work, but it did. In fact, it was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever eaten. The Guardian restaurant critic Jay Rayner would probably describe it as ‘a thrillingly joyous whack of gutsy pork pillows launched from a toffee apple stand run by swine and gander.’ I’d just call it phenomenal.

Like that dish, cycling in Tucson shouldn’t work either. Many of the roads are long and desolate, populated by either nothing at all or trucks driven with the intensity of Steven Spielberg’s Duel. The weather in summer averages 38°C and can easily trip into the fifties.

That’s not to say Tucson isn’t a marvellous place to visit. Its politically liberal leanings and southern geography make for a welcoming mix of cosmopolitan-hip, and the fresh-faced outdoorsy types are as open and hospitable as American movies would have you believe.

I could easily while away the next few days here just pedalling around the city, drinking cold-brew coffee and planning which taco stand to visit next, but that would be a disservice to the surrounding area.

 

For as much as the roads out of Tucson may be cruelly flat and possessed of a heat shimmer that’s never off the boil, the places they lead to through the cactus-strewn desert are simply stunning. Or so my ride companion Miguel is telling me from the back seat of the car.

That’s one thing about this place that any cyclist needs to bear in mind: you don’t get this kind of great outdoors without the great distances. Thus, while we could have cycled out from Tucson’s centre, we’ve opted to drive the first draggy 35km to our start/finish point at Nico’s Taco Shop on West Ajo Highway in the Sonoran Desert, a great swathe of arid land that runs from Arizona and California to Mexico.

It might seem a bit of a cheat, but if you come here it’s very likely you’ll be hiring a car, so you may as well use it. Tucson City is 236 square miles – about the size of Leeds – and pavements are not particularly popular.

Blissfully alone

Pavements or no, road cycling is popular here, and getting up early to beat the heat is the norm. Even so there are no cyclists to be seen – none on our 6am drive out, none to be seen on the darkly black tarmac of West Ajo and none whatsoever as we take our left turn onto route 386, which marks the start of the reason we’re out here: the Kitt Peak climb.

Mind you, it is Monday morning and Miguel explains that those who get up to ride pre-work will be tackling the lower slopes of Mount Lemmon, Tucson’s Queen climb that starts just on the city limits to the northeast, and so is easily accessible given the time constraints of a typical weekday morning.

But this all plays out in our favour. We are truly alone, not just in the no-one-around-we-can-see sense, but the no-one-around-for-miles-and-miles sense. Another word might be ‘isolated’, and for a London dweller like myself this is a rare, intoxicating feeling.

 

As an ascent, Kitt Peak is a far cry from the steepest, averaging 7% and only hitting double digits on a few occasions, but it’s 20km long, potentially extremely hot and on another day, says Miguel, mercilessly windy.

Today is not that day, but it’s easy to see why that could be the case. Kitt Peak is the highest summit in the Quinlan Mountains, a tight wave of granite that runs perpendicular from the Mexican border. A look around tells you immediately how exposed it is.

From the early slopes the eyeline north is uninterrupted for miles, the only discernible peaks coming from the mesquite trees and cactus that rise steadfastly green from a sea of yellow scrub.

The sun has done for the road surface as well, which rolls away beneath our wheels in a wobbly lattice of black tar lines spread over cracks in the original tarmac. Still, the road is smooth, the repairs having done their job, albeit a job that’s a neverending endeavour.

The fact there isn’t a building in sight, nor so much as the promise of one since we left Tucson, is both telling of the inhospitality of the land and the fact this part of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert is governed by the Tohono O’odham Nation, a collective of the Tohono O’odham, or ‘desert people’.

In other words, the land we’re on is an Indian Reservation given back to its people in dribs and drabs by US governments over the last century. To build here you’ll need the Tohono O’odham’s permission, which makes it all the more interesting when it comes to what’s at Kitt Peak’s summit.

 

Time bending

Gazing up at the rock face, Kitt Peak feels like a notionally Mediterranean planet from a Star Trek episode, sharing a similarly sun-scorched colour palette of flora clinging to life through the granite and scree. One such plant is the jumping cholla, which Miguel points out when we pause to snap some pictures of the plains below. From afar this cactus looks like furry, glowing coral, but up close I realise it’s the sun illuminating and refracting off the cholla’s spines that creates this softly lit aura.

While it doesn’t actually jump, the cholla gets its name because its stems are so weakly attached that just brushing one will embed the spines in clothing or skin. Of course this theory needs to be tested, and our brief repose becomes a tad longer as I deal with the spiky fallout.

Hazards out here in the desert seem myriad. Along the road, forest fire warning signs have their moveable needles pointed to ‘high’; dotted along the verges are cautions for rattlesnakes, and there are periodic warnings for mountain lions and bears, with handy instructions on how to avoid altercations.

Both creatures are less likely to cause you problems, the signs say, if you make yourself big and make a loud noise, although where the mountain lions are concerned the simple instruction is ‘do not run’. This omission on the caution sign for bears presumably means it’s fine to amble away whistling.

The difficulty of Kitt Peak has little to do with its gradient and everything to do with the climate. It’s baking, and despite being only a few kilometres into the ride I’m nearly a bidon down. My Garmin is displaying temperatures not seen in the UK for nine months, and as I wrench my bike’s bars through a corner my forearm veins are as pronounced as a tube map.

 

But it’s not the veins that concern me most, nor the lions and bears. I’m more worried about the imperial measurement road markers, which are appearing with dissatisfying irregularity. And being in miles, not kilometres, things seem to be taking 1.6 times as long as I’m used to.

The road seems endless in a way a treadmill is. Like looking at the ground from an aeroplane, objects on the horizon are so distant as to make progress seem static, the road an unchanging set of colours, textures and dimensions, lined with slabs of rock one side and hazy skies the other. The vista is flat and boundless, us like sailors in an ocean.

Not that this climb isn’t beautiful – quite the contrary. There remains no other traffic to disturb the peace, and views across the desert are of the kind that probably made God pleased with all He had made. But it is repetitious, and I’m in need of something to take my mind off the distance remaining.

Legends and landmarks

Before I succumb to this Sisyphean purgatory, Miguel calls for us to stop. Despite our southerly direction we’ve so far not been able to see over Kitt Peak, only out from it in a northerly sweep.

Beyond the first breath-taken gasps at the beauty and magnitude of it all, the only thing of note as we’ve ascended has been how peculiarly green the desert looks from above, the taller vegetation merging to conceal the yellowy earth beneath. But now the road arcs through a cleft in the mountain, the rocky wall to our right falls away like a stage curtain and one of the Sonoran Desert’s most revered landmarks is revealed.

A distant nubbin of reddish granite first draws the eye, with an outline like a thumb sawn off at the knuckle or the nose of a prostrate giant. This is Baboquivari Peak, a sacred site for the Tohono O’odham, whose legends tell of it being the bottom of a giant hourglass, sheared in half during a period of worldly upheaval.

 

From here it’s said the Tohono O’odham’s ‘Elder Brother’ I’itoi emerged after a great flood and created the Tohono O’odham’s ancestors. I’itoi now resides in a cave in Baboquivari, having lived many lives and won many wars by singing his enemies into blindness, an interesting cause and effect even by mythological standards.

Like any good site of religious and historical significance, one can explore this hallowed turf and cave via appointment with guides driving SUVs.

To the right of Baboquivari is something more enthralling still – the promise of a whole other country. It’s only a promise, however, because, while it’s only 40km away as the crow flies, right now Mexico exists as a series of distant silhouetted peaks in a haze of ochre dust, whipped up from the mountains by winds and suspended in the sky.

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Star gazing

The last 3km of the Kitt Peak have an altogether different quality to what has come before. The barrenness of the desert below remains, so too the rumpled assortment of far-away mountains and the craggy granite of Kitt Peak’s sides. But the feeling of tranquil anonymity in the face of nature has been replaced by the very obvious mark of human progress.

Slitted domes dot the now visible summit like a series of minimalist cathedrals, their white tops a silvery blue in the reflected sky. These are the telescopes that make up the Kitt Peak National Observatory, which itself is the reason we can get here at all. Like climbs in the Alps leading to ski stations and radio masts, the 20km of tarmac winding up Kitt Peak exists solely to service these structures and the scientists within them.

Because we’re on Tohono O’odham land, construction for the observatory had to be cleared with the tribal council first. At first the council resisted – Kitt Peak is a revered mountain – but whether by US government pressure or genuine acceptance, the history books relate that the elders of these Native Americans, who have a spiritual relationship with the cosmos, went to see the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, and upon being able to view the stars through its telescopes were convinced the Kitt Peak Observatory should be granted the go-ahead.

Today the observatory is regarded as the largest of its kind in the northern hemisphere, and also one of the most important, perfectly situated for celestial viewing thanks in part to the lack of light pollution. To that end, Kitt Peak’s main road is closed at night, and the scientists’ vehicles are fitted with hooded blinkers above the headlights to prevent ambient light distorting the telescopes’ images. Even the public toilets are lit with dim amber bulbs that glow like the set of a French horror movie.

So sensitive are these instruments, Miguel explains, that the telescopes exist in gable-like rooms-within-rooms to isolate their lenses from vibrations, which can come from as far away as the oceans off the San Diego coast, more than 500km to the west.

All in all, there’s a real Area 51 feeling to the summit, a feeling exacerbated by us being the only civilians here – something that seems to be irking an official-looking chap, who stares us down when we ride up a ramp to one of the telescopes for a better view.

Tyres and tacos

We dwell at the summit for some time, perusing the view, the circling birds of prey and the old heavy machinery presumably left up here after the observatories’ construction, and generally revelling in the eerie calm. But this is a dead-end road, of course, so having spent enough time snapping, bidon-filling and generally loitering with little intent but to marvel, Miguel and I loop around the main car park and start pedalling back in the direction we came from.

Within just a half a kilometre the road is already doing more for my speed than the turning of my biggest gear at a sensible cadence can, and where once the silence was broken only by the buzzing of flies and the caw of birds, now it comes from the pawls inside our freehubs and the intense rush of an artificially induced wind.

Aspects of the horizon that had earlier taken an age to appear now disappear in mere moments as the road that gently carved its way up Kitt Peak on the ascent now bulldozes its way back down. Although there are plenty of ‘no passing’ and ‘narrow road’ signs, for two bikes there is plenty of tarmac to afford the most minimal braking and the most generous use of racing lines.

 

I wouldn’t attempt to descend like this on an Alpine climb, but by the time we’re a third of the way down, the road lies all but straight and bare before us, and sight lines are far reaching and without blind spots.

By the time we reach the junction for the Ajo Highway we’ve turned the two-hour journey up into a 30-minute blast down with barely any effort at all. But it’s no easy street home. Ahead, 20km of glistening black tarmac vanishes to a fine dot like a Road Runner cartoon; above, a late-morning sun is building in intensity.

We set off at speed, keen to get this last drag done and back to Nico’s Taco Shop in time for lunch. My tyres start to rumble. Evidently some gravel melted itself onto the tread when we stopped at the junction. It really is that hot. But Kitt Peak really is worth every drop of sweat.

Kitting up

There’s one road, and the only way is up

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/90arizona. Starting at Nico’s Taco Shop at Three Points on West Ajo Highway/Highway 86, head 20km west to the left turning for the Kitt Peak road, signed South 386. Then it’s simple: stick with the 386 until you run out of road some 19.5km later. For good lookout spots, keep an eye out for Baboquivari Peak on the horizon around 15km into the climb, and for views of Mexico a kilometre or so later. For sustenance, there is a visitor centre at the summit, but best to check opening times before heading out if you expect to need extra supplies.

The rider’s ride

FiftyOne, £5,800 (frameset), approx £11,000 as tested, fiftyonebikes.com

If the colour scheme looks retro and familiar, that’s because it is. A custom bike designed in collaboration with the Dublin framebuilder, the paint is based on Greg LeMond’s 1990 carbon-tubed, alloy lugged TVT. But with Sram eTap and colour-matched Enve finishing kit and wheels, the tube-to-tube carbon FiftyOne is modern in every regard, except perhaps for handling and position.

Where today many manufacturers look to more upright positions with rather neutral handling, the FiftyOne embraces a racier philosophy from days gone by, with a short head tube, low stack height and short fork trail. This creates a naturally aggressive position with sharp handling, yet any tendency towards the twitchy is tempered by a long-ish wheelbase, and any would-be lack of comfort is compensated for by carefully selected tube stiffnesses based on my weight.

This all adds up to a bike that is more than fit for the climbs but is equally an exceptionally gifted descender and aggressive sprinter.

Buy yours now from FiftyOne

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How we did it

Travel

Cyclist flew with American Airlines from Heathrow to Tucson via LA, which cost around £1,100. American Airlines charges $150 each way for a bicycle, although if your flights are fulfilled by BA (as our outward journey was) a bike bag is included in your luggage allowance.

Check flights to Tuscon, AZ on Skyscanner

Accommodation

We stayed at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort and Spa on the edge of the stunning Saguaro National Park, home to a protected cactus that you’ll recognise from cartoons and dodgy Westerns.

Double rooms are around £190pn and are incredibly opulent, as is the rest of the hotel, whose huge terrace and gardens provide spectacular views over Tucson city. See marriott.com.

Book your stay at JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort and Spa now for when we're allowed to travel again

Thanks

From the moment we took off to the moment we dropped our 5.2l Nissan Armada back at Hertz rentals (‘It’s the smallest car we have today, sir’), this trip was meticulously planned by Mary Rittmann of the Tucson tourist board (visittucson.org).

Thanks also to Ben Leitner from Sky Island Cycles (skyislandcycles.com), who took time off from his cycle-tour business to drive our photographer around, and to Miguel Folch for being a top bloke on the bike and top dude off it.