There are rides where everything which could possibly go wrong does, and there are rides where everything comes together perfectly to provide a most spectacularly epic and fun experience. My Arizona weekend with Michele turned out to be both epic and one of the best weekends of riding I’ve had in a long while.
I first met Michele on the Gold Rush 1200k. I had just decided to throw in the towel, and she was about 40 miles ahead of me returning to the same control. We were both exhausted, somewhat delirious, filthy, and starving…pretty much standard for 600+ kilometers into a long brevet. She remembers me as the woman who asked her how she managed to do 1200k brevets and finish with her nether regions intact, and that may well have been the first thing out of my mouth since she was the first woman I’d encountered in many miles. We bonded that day over what was a literal pain in the butt, and have been reading each other’s blogs and chatting by email for almost two years without running into each other on another ride. Finally, we decided to make it happen and planned a weekend in Arizona. She would fly in from Minnesota, I would drive from San Diego, and we’d meet in Phoenix for the Gila Monster 300k Brevet. While we were at it, we’d ride another 200k permanent so she could cover her January and February R-12 rides without having to risk Minnesota winter weather on a bike.
I watched the weather all week leading into my trip, trying to change the forecast through the force of my will. How is it possible that it would rain ALL DAY in Arizona??? If anything, the predictions became direr as the week went on so I used my Amazon Prime account to buy rain pants figuring they would be my insurance policy against a deluge.
The drive to Phoenix on Friday was uneventful, and I picked up Michele in Buckeye on the way to our hotel in Coolidge. Saturday morning was cool and cloudy in the hour before dawn. The forecast was still calling for showers with the possibility of thunder storms and flash flooding, but it wasn’t raining when we left the hotel at 6:30am. The highway patrol had issued warnings about staying out of washes and avoiding crossing flooded roadways and the ride leader reminded us about an Arizona law which makes people requiring rescue pay their saviors if their situation proved to be due to their own stupidity. Like trying to ride a bike across a flooded wash and being swept away by a big current. Yikes!
26 intrepid riders were at the start, down from the 35 who had registered. After a quick rider meeting we left as a pack, but the faster riders took off like they were out to win a race and Michele and I were quickly off the back. Daylight comes to Arizona shortly after 7am at this time of year, and we needed our lights in the gray morning.
About half an hour after we started riding the heavens opened with a light drizzle which rapidly became a steady rain. Arizona is known for its “false flats”, roads which creep uphill at an imperceptible increment leading a cyclist to feel as if she is literally pedaling going nowhere. For about 50 miles to Oracle Junction the rain from the south pelted our faces as we ground our way up nearly 3000 feet at a grade of just less than 1%. For a while, the wet weather and the incessantly subtle climbing were annoying and wearying. But gradually my attention turned to the spectacle of the Arizona dessert in the rain. Plants which are typically greyish brown and desiccated were downright tumescent after nearly three days of rain. Saguaro appeared and disappeared in the mist, and occasionally we would have glimpses of the Superstition Mountains and Mt. Lemon in the distance. While plants in the tropics sport brilliant nearly iridescent greens after a rain, the vegetation of the Arizona dessert wore shades of the deep forest. Despite the earthy palate, the dessert was bursting with the intensity of opportunistic plants opening their leaves and spines to the atypical water falling from the sky while displaying themselves in their most glorious forms. Gawking at the splendor of the desert coming to life relieved the tedium of grinding uphill into the rain on a road which was just busy enough to mandate riding single file.
I arrived in Oracle Junction tired, wet, cold, out of water, and a little shaky. Something was not quite right in my nutrition, and I hadn’t figured out what it was. I ate a few pieces of chicken, a banana, and a blueberry muffin, swallowed some electrolytes, chewed down a bit of salt, and had more water. I was wishing for a hot drink, but the abandoned hotel and seemingly defunct Mexican restaurant whose parking lot we used as a control point would not be the place. I put on my shower cap to keep my now wet cap warmer and (hopefully) drier, added another layer of gloves to my chilled fingers, borrowed an extra windbreaker from one of the support crew, and we took off after a short break.
The departure from AZ Route 79 allowed us to ride side by side. Michele and I started chattering away to pass the time as we pedaled, distracting each other from our full bladders. Something magical was happening…I had been certain she would kick my butt all the way through Arizona, and it turns out she had had the same concern about me. Instead, we paced each other perfectly. By the time we reached the Circle K in Mammoth we were desperate for porcelain and a warm beverage. Both of us were captivated by the magnetic draw of convenience-store donuts, and succumbed to the temptation. I was feeling much better, and realized the cold wet day was sucking calories out of me faster than usual. I snarfed the fat and carb bomb and washed it down with a cup of coffee before heading on. We had a quick lunch stop in Winkleman, and then headed up towards Kearny and the Ray open pit mine, joined by William of Brooklyn who was looking for company and willing to put up with two chatty girls. Part way up the hill to Kearny, Michele had a flat. She got it fixed and we were quickly back on the road.
The Ray mine is enormous, and we rode for miles as the road climbed steadily up alongside its yawning caverns. The sides of the mine were striped with bands of red, green, brown, and gold and while impressive, it would have been spectacular on a sunny day. Past the half-way point, we were starting the biggest climb of the ride. We ascended steadily, until we reached the final steep stretch to the “end of the world”, about a mile at a pitch which ranged from 11-15%. The organizers had made a big deal about this climb, joking that walking was simply another gear. I unclipped one foot “just in case”, and kept at it. I was determined that I was going to make it up without having to leave the bike, and reaching the top brought me new energy. Michele came up a few minutes after, excited to have also pedaled the whole way. William arrived a few minutes after her. We turned on our lights at the top, zipped up our jackets, and headed down.
The descent into Superior brought stunning views of the Superstition Mountains, with a hint of sunset poking between the clouds to the west. We practically flew down the 10% grade, enjoying well banked curves on a nicely paved road – a rare find in this part of Arizona. Another cup of coffee laced with cocoa, a homemade bar, more chicken, and we were off on Rt. 60 heading towards Gold Canyon, the closest point to Phoenix on this ride. Rt. 60 is a divided highway with too much traffic and not much scenery. Michele and I chatted away the time until we were greeted with a loud “pop…HISSSSSSSSSSSSS” and had to stop to fix her flat. We never did figure out what she ran over, but it was clear the tire would be a total loss. The rain which had been with us all day finally stopped as we swapped the tube, booted the tear, said a prayer to the gods of tire patency, and continued, reaching Gold Canyon without further incident. The rest of the ride went smoothly, and we pulled in to the finish at 11:58pm, 16 hours and 58 minutes after we began.
While the new rain pants did not protect me from the advent of rain, they did keep me mostly dry and plenty warm. 50 degree drizzly days are prime territory for hypothermia, and once I added the extra layers in Oracle Junction I was warm and dry enough that this was never a real concern. Of the 26 riders who started, 22 finished this wet and wild adventure where the Gila Monster met the Kraken in the wilderness of Arizona. Michele and I stayed together all day, our paces matching effortlessly for over 180 miles.
Sunday was a rest day, spent napping, feeding, and enjoying a leisurely walk to stretch out our tired legs. We rustled up scrambled eggs and coffee for breakfast, chowed down on sushi for lunch, and eschewed the insanity of Superbowl weekend in favor of a quiet dinner of steak, guacamole, and salad at home. The adrenaline infused sleeplessness of the night before caught up with us, and we were in bed and passed out by 9:30pm.
Monday dawned crystal clear and sunny. We had some of Michele’s Dad’s homemade granola with Greek yogurt, berries, and bananas, and then got on our bikes once again. We had dressed for 50 degree temperatures, but it quickly warmed into the 70s and we stripped layers after about 30 miles. Arizona showed us her best weather, redeeming herself for Saturday’s sogginess without hitting the sultry extremes of desert summer. We meandered through the valley between the White Tank and Estrella Mountains, passing fields of cotton and vegetables until the road started climbing again, another false flat. We ascended gradually to the Vulture Mine and beyond, with glimpses of Vulture Peak against a backdrop of saguaro dotted hills. A fast, fun descent to Wickenberg, more time on AZ 60, and a sunset meander through Surprise and Buckeye brought us back to our starting place with another 200 kilometers under our wheels. We got home to Michele’s Dad’s home cooked dinner, a most excellent way to end a day on the bike.
As a rider who is always too slow to keep up with the main pack and too fast to hang out with the slowest riders, I often find myself riding solo in a group. It turns out Michele shares this dilemma, and that we are almost exactly the same pace. For two full days of riding we matched each other effortlessly, and even had similar styles for taking care of food and other needs at rest stops. We were pretty much always ready to depart controls at the same time, wanted to eat at the same time, and even wanted similar foods. It was truly extraordinary to share a weekend of riding with someone who so closely matched my speed and style as a cyclist.
Many thanks to Michele for inviting me to join her on this amazing adventure, to William from Brooklyn for putting up with 80+ miles of girl-talk with patience and grace, to Keith and Marilyn who opened up their home to a complete stranger and even provided dinner, and to Carlton Van Leuven for organizing a stellar ride with outstanding support. I’m definitely looking forward to coming back to Arizona for more!