AZTR – Part 1: Mexican Border – Tuscon (E. Redington Road) ~ mile 150
Photo: Nico Barraza
We crest the final climb at sunset, leaving the city of Sierra Vista in our wake. Nico, who has kindly offered to drive me to the start of the Arizona Trail Race at the Mexican border, slowly maneuvers the van down the rocky, dirt road. Nico’s a good friend and very generous with his time, but it is still a lot to ask to ferry me all the way down to the border.
We picked up Neil Beltchenko 20 minutes earlier in Sierra Vista. He is sitting in the back, staring at his GPS, trying to guide us to the exact location of the start. Neil runs Bikepackers Magazine, an incredible resource for anyone wanting to adventure by bicycle. He is also a very accomplished bikepacker, having posted very fast times on the Colorado Trail Race, the Tour Divide, and the AZT 300, among others.
Our cell phones all ping us with “welcome to Mexico” texts so we know we are pretty close.
The lights of the city of Santa Cruz light up the horizon, or maybe it is Nogales. It is hard to tell and it always feels more intimidating arriving in a place at night with little to no bearings.
We soon come across a large group of cyclists, all camped out in a circle. The atmosphere is festive, and we are relieved to have finally arrived after a long day of driving from Flagstaff. We drop Neil off, and continue down an extra quarter mile to the border fence, where there is a decent pull out to post up for the night.
With all the stigma and current politics surrounding the border, it is hard not to feel a little unsettled camping right by the barbed wire fence. We joke about Trump’s wall, but there really is nothing funny about it. It is a disgraceful proposition and it saddens me to think this kind of idea is even entertained, much less that it has supporters.
The past three days of final preparations and the long drive from Boulder have been so intense that I have a hard time thinking about much else and pass out pretty much instantly as soon as I hit the van floor.
The grand depart is given at 7am. I wake up about an hour before, sip some cold brewed coffee, eat a bagel and pack the last bits of food into my bike bags. Riders begin to arrive. There are about 40 of us lining up to ride the 750 miles to the Utah border and a similar number starting the 300 mile version.
Photo: Nico Barraza
The 300 starts an hour later, roughly 20 miles up ahead at the actual beginning of the AZT and finishes at the Picketpost trailhead just outside of Superior, AZ. We’re an eclectic crew, riding all kinds of bikes, from full carbon, full suspension, to fat tired rigid bikes, singlespeeds and even a unicycle. I feel a mix of nervous anticipation, having no clue what to expect and excitement to just get riding.
I am mainly distracted by my GPS, fiddling with the settings. I seem to have accidentally added some waypoint that draws a straight, very intrusive line from the start to the my current location. I cannot really see anything on the screen from the glare of the sun, so as we set off, I decide to turn it off for now and deal with it later.
Photo: Nico Barraza
We start unceremoniously right around 7 pedaling the bikes north on a dirt road. Sam Aspacher cranks up ahead with Neil, Calvin Decker, and myself in toe. Since the riding is straight forward, I spend these early miles observing what other riders have packed. Sam has platform pedals, is wearing Hokas, has lots of water on his bike, and no pack- a setup that seems quite appropriate for what we are up against. Neil’s gear is fairly similar to my own, although he is riding a full-suspension, full carbon bike and probably has a lot less food. Since it is my first time on the route, I have decided to carry a lot of food and water to avoid running out like I did on the Colorado Trail last year. Calvin seems to be the most “desert appropriate” with white arm and leg sleeves and a bandana floating on top of his helmet for the sun.
In Colorado, I am familiar with the trails. On the Colorado Trail there is water everywhere and overall it is just a much more comfortable environment for me. The AZT is a more complex route, and I am generally not that great in the heat, so I planned my food and water more cautiously. The environment is very harsh- rocky, sandy, dry, very hot during the day and very exposed.
After about an hour or so of riding, we leave the road for the first bit of singletrack and shortly thereafter pass the start of the AZT 300.
Photo: Nico Barraza
I had heard horror stories of the difficulty of the Canelo foothills, how hard the riding is, and to not hold on to this section as being representative of the whole route. Maybe due to the fact that I was expecting the worst, the trail actually does not feel that bad. It is definitely slow going, choppy, with short, loose ups and downs, but I am fresh and the excitement of finally being on the trail trumps the difficulty.
We soon run into some of the AZT 300 starters. It is a bit congested for a while on the tight track, but it is nice to see friendly faces and share a few miles with different people as the pack thins out. With more bikes to look at and people to engage with, time is flying by and I’m really enjoying myself. I pass a guy wearing a tutu and a few quality beards. It’s early, so everyone is chipper and eager, even when pushing up the sandy washes.
Before long, I am alone again with my main focus being to not take the corners too hot as anything off trail is sharp, thorny, poisonous, and generally just ready to rip you apart with any small mistake.
Photo: Nico Barraza
I arrive in the first town, Patagonia, unscathed and just in time for a quick lunch at the local market. I refill my water, grab a few candy bars, and resume riding the 12 miles of paved highway to Sonoita. I am in great spirits. In Sonoita, I catch up to Sam who had skipped Patagonia and is just leaving the corner gas station. The decision as to when and where to stop for food and water will prove somewhat difficult, especially in the first 300 miles. It’s hard to gauge time over unfamiliar terrain. The first 50 miles took me 6 hours despite a fairly mellow looking profile.
Sam and I ride out of town together, a few extra road miles, before turning onto a long, open dirt road, straight into a headwind. The miles go by slowly and I remind myself not to force the pace and simply stay comfortable even if I am not moving quickly. I am focused on just pedaling and not really distracted by anything else. I like this feeling, neither bored, nor overly engaged, just at ease mentally. Much of the early miles of the race roll by like this, just pedaling the bike gradually finding a good rhythm and syncing to the pulse of the desert.
The next highlight on the trail comes a little before Tucson on the trails preceding and in the Colossal Cave Mountain Park. I share some miles with Pete Basinger through here who is on a singlespeed and an absolute master of the craft. It is fun to watch him ride as he demonstrates supreme command of the bicycle. The Mountain Park trails are clearly designed with biking in mind. Despite the fact that it is now approaching midnight, it is hard to stop pedaling as the trails are so engaging. It is a blast pumping the track and flowing around corners. Again, there is no room for error as the path is lined with thick cacti on all sides. But, exhaustion brings a strange level of focus and I somehow never miss a beat. Occasionally, I am surprised that my body is able to follow my mind. My internal dialogue is calm and positive, which reflects externally as I am able to keep riding with relative ease.
My plan was to sleep around 1 or 2am, but I am having so much fun on the Colossal Cave trails that I don’t want to stop. This is a bit of a mistake as I make it to the road skirting the city of Tucson and am now out in residential areas with no good spots to bivy.
I still have not quite figured out my GPS, which I find terribly hard to read. I have the AZT bike track upload on the device, but the route is dark green superimposed on a yellowish/green desert palette and with the stupid waypoint line from the start getting in the way, I wonder how the heck people navigate with this thing. I have to laugh at myself for not spending more time with the GPS before the race. Now I am stuck with the “camo track” as I call it and play a time consuming guessing game on turns through the city.
The night track changes to dark blue on a black background so it is no better. The city streets are also bluish, so I have to keep stopping to scrutinize the route. I take a wrong turn and parallel the proper route for a while before the street leads me towards downtown. By the time I have figured out that I am off route, I have ridden a good three miles downhill to town. I decide to take advantage of my mistake and make a late night stop at a 24hr gas station. The clerk watches me, amused as I prowl around, stocking up on snickers, frozen burritos, and hot chocolate. We do not say much, but he does call me “sir” at the checkout, which makes me laugh. El duderino would probably be more appropriate at this point. I am less than 150 miles in and already slipping into complete ferality.
I weave through the lit up streets making my way back to Redington Road for the climb out of town. It is a relief to be back on dirt and my focus turns to finding a good spot to get a couple hours of sleep. It is nearly 4am now and I am surprised to see so many people still awake camping off the side of the road. I approach a large bonfire and can hear people partying. Just as I pass by, they unload a bunch of rounds, hollering “fuck yeah!!” Gunfire coming from a group of drunk rednecks is not the most reassuring sound for a spandex clad cyclist, rolling by at such a late hour. Thankfully, the track soon leaves the road and connects into a series of rocky jeep washes away from the ruckus. I make it another couple miles, before pulling out the bivy sack to catch a couple hours sleep just before dawn.
I’ve been on the move for 22 hours, so when I hit the ground I do not notice how cold it is or the rocks poking into my back. I have just enough energy to set my alarm for a two hour nap, take one conscious, deep, restful breath and fade off to sleep.