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Islands in the sky

From issue 56 (Aug 2016) • Words by Alex Cernichiari with images from Marshall Kappel

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I shuffle onto the plane sitting at New York’s JFK airport hours before the sun will touch the wintry sky; despite this, New York has shot through a warm stretch of weather. No cyclist has complained about the unseasonable, almost-spring-like weather because it has stretched our riding season by nearly six weeks and hundreds of extra miles. On taking my seat, I have little idea of what awaits me—only the promises of a photographer and some hazy internal idea of what it means to ride in Tucson, Arizona.

For several years and several iterations of Jonathan Vaughters’ Slipstream team, his riders have wintered in Tucson. As far as I know, this means endless repetitions of Tucson’s signature climb, Mount Lemmon. Fearsome at some 40 kilometers long, with about 1,500 meters (some 5,000 feet) of elevation gain, this behemoth dominates the landscape and the conversation of cycling in Tucson.

On my way out of the Tucson airport, I reflexively grab a mediocre cup of coffee to bring some life to my mind —I know we’ll be riding today, but have little idea of what lies ahead. The glass doors slide apart and I’m startled by an icy rush of wind against my face. I fumble for my phone and it unmistakably reads: –1ºC. “How is this warm-weather desert escape for cyclists colder than the Northeast?” I think to myself.

My fingers feel the bite of the air by the time I climb into the car. I look to the photographer: “I only brought climbing jerseys and warm-weather kits…are we still going to ride?”

“Oh, don’t worry, it’ll warm up.” His voice does little to convince me.

The beauty of this American land, and in particular the American West, is the presence of extremes. Geographical, meteorological, cultural: vast, flat mesas punctuated by soaring mountains; desert heat curtailed by the deep nocturnal cold that holds everything in stasis; Spanish pronunciation of Native American names, Anglicized as Manifest Destiny fulfills itself.

We planned the first day to be a little bit of a warm-up—venture out to Kitt’s Peak, only a 20-kilometer climb from our base. The road out was dusty and windswept. Arrow straight, as pavement only in America can be. Passing the occasional gas station and general store we head farther out into the desert.

Soon enough we see Kitt’s Peak hulking above the desert floor: desolate and remote, standing alone in an otherwise flat expanse. The local Native American nation, the Tohono O’odham, describe such peaks perfectly: they are islands in the sky, points where man can ascend to the heavens. Fittingly, this peak is the second holiest sight to the Tohono peoples; their most powerful god, I’itoi, calls the peak his summer home, a high honor for the semi-annually migrating people.

Thankfully, Kitt’s Peak provides a wonderful warm-up day—at least for this rider with his winter weight. Modest slopes beg for a high cadence and conversation. The wide, flowing curves beckon you out of the saddle to charge forward and slingshot yourself around the bend. My favorite climbs are the ones that make you eager to ride them as you continually ascend.

The endless views across the barren expanse don’t hurt, either. Mountain ranges are drawn across the horizon like a seismograph needle records movement. Reaching higher into the sky and wrapping around the lone monolith continues the awe-inspiring view. Our breaths shorten from the scenery and the altitude.

We hit our first ice patch—it’s well below freezing and we’d seen some snow lying among the trees and under rocks for a couple of kilometers. It’s short enough that we just ride through, weighing down the rear wheel as much as possible. This is when I thank the heavens I’m a cyclist from the Northeast—only one 100-meter stretch of snow and ice on the road is a blessing, and I’ve had plenty of experience managing the bike in similar conditions. Within the next kilometer, however, we’re forced to dismount and shoulder the bikes. Even hoofing the bikes becomes a challenge, as the ice is so dry, so cold that even digging in cleats finds little grip.

We finally make it to the observatory on top. There is the eeriness at the summit that accompanies holy land. The whistling wind and lack of humanity weighs heavily on the summit—it feels as if we’ve conquered the elements and are graced with the gift of illumination. The golden rays of the late-afternoon hour pierce through the few trees and wrap around the slopes.

We gingerly start our way back down to the follow car. A fistful of Doritos later, and we’re descending. Thankfully dressed as if we’re riding in the dead of winter, the cold seeps into my gloves and wraps itself around my hands, rendering them nearly useless about halfway down. The same open turns make for easy, speedy descending and in no time we’re shedding layers before ending the ride early due to the impending sunset.

We congregate for one of the most incredible Tex-Mex meals I’ve had. Purists oft look down on this cuisine that’s authentic to the border region. El Charro makes no pretense of serving high-minded, traditional Mexican food; it serves—belatedly, due to its mostly high-school staff—delicious, home style and proudly local cuisine, including chimichangas, smothered burritos and chiles rellenos. The tall margaritas served in pint glasses do no disservice and are the perfect way to end a day of challenging riding.

Even more uncharacteristically than the cold, the next morning sees penetrating damp permeating the desert landscape. We start the day on the stomping ground of the local cyclists: Sentinel Peak—“A” Mountain to the locals—is the perfect training area, a 10- to 15-mile warm-up to the western edge of town, followed by endless 4- to 5-minute repeats on silky smooth tarmac with vistas of the city and the Catalina Mountains.

We travel across the basin only to find Mount Lemmon is closed at the very base of the climb. “Snowed-in,” the officers say. We try to convince them we only want to go halfway up but they, rightly so, don’t buy our story. We head east toward Redington Pass—its lower altitudes should be free from snow. A series of tight, undulating curves is as close to a roller coaster as I’ve ever ridden on a bicycle. I make sure to turn around and make another pass. Weightlessness ensues between the cambers—that’s about as close as you can get to flying on two wheels!

Redington is muddy and slow; the recent rain didn’t have enough time to clear. The heavy earth is better than the alternative sand, and often this pass is unrideable due to the dryness. We make it the better part of the way up before it becomes too difficult; we are on road bikes, not ’cross bikes, after all. As we turn around, we see the sun setting in a perfectly neat ball of fire across the expansive plains, bathing the valley in an orange glow. I’ve never seen this color of light before and I don’t know if it lives in any place except Tucson.

After a full day of cold, wet riding, we retire to Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink—a new addition to downtown Tucson. Emblematic of the urban regeneration happening across America, millennials are revamping menus and methods to create a new generation of restaurants. I was skeptical at first; Williamsburg in New York is home to the first such instance of this, and New York pizza is unparalleled in the world (I will almost never order it outside of city limits). But within 15 minutes my plate is cleared. The piecrust is perfectly crisp and salty, the sauce not too sweet and the cheese flavorful with a hint of sourness that comes from fresh mozzarella. What most wins my heart over is the speakeasy downstairs—the bartender’s twists on classic drinks, such as the paloma, are delicious while still not losing their identity.

We head south, in search of sun and warmth, finding the former at the San Xavier del Bac Mission—the first established Western presence in the region. Despite the heavy emphasis on Catholicism, the whole area feels weighted with spirituality. Group rides pass by here weekly, all too oblivious to the history just beyond the line of cacti.

Farther south, looking for more warmth, we head to Madera Canyon. We churn slowly—at first, we think it’s a light headwind because we’re still on a sprawling plain with a short range of peaks in front of us. But we quickly realize we’re headed uphill—the open fields skewed the view. Toward the top, we again hit ice. The sun is beating down and we hope for one final attempt at the resting giant: Mount Lemmon.

Once hauled out to Mount Lemmon through sprawling, low-slung American cityscape punctuated only by the tips of skinny saguaro cacti, the road ramps up to its steepest pitches. Mile 1, mile 2 tick by and the wind pushes back more earnestly; the road is more exposed and gives wondrous views of the Tucson plain.

Snaking back and forth around swooping 180-degree turns only further increases confidence as we slingshot through the apexes and ascend higher and higher. Finally the road eases as we begin to head north, back further into the Catalina Mountains. The saguaro forests begin to thin out, as if some invisible hand had plucked off trees. Pine trees begin to filter in, their unmistakable smell penetrating otherwise pristine desert air. Eventually the saguaros vanish, sacrificed to the altitude and biting air.

Snow rests in pockets in the shade—swinging around the first wide hairpin is blinding. The sun shines like a headlight straight into your eyes. The snow creeps out of its individual patches further and further with every pedal stroke; looking up at the next ridge we see a blanket of white.

Past Windy Point—too aptly named—there’s no stopping for the panoramic views. The temperature has dipped to minus-5 Celsius and even a moment of stillness sends the body into a fit of shivering. The same point marks the second leg of the journey—at over 1,900 meters (almost 6,250 feet) elevation, the atmosphere becomes exceedingly thin, the cold, dry air rasping through our throat and lungs with each gasp.

To the Tohono, Lemmon is one of many “islands in the sky.” The mountains surrounding Tucson are oases of divinity—the struggle of surmounting them is the path to finding enlightenment. All of life, including the half-gods Elder Brother and the Coyote, started when their Creator crashed the sky down to the earth. To climb, to ascend, is to find creation, find meaning in a way that perhaps only cyclists can relate to.

Only those who live year-round in Summerhaven, Arizona, supersede the determination of cyclists who conquer Mount Lemmon. Even in classically Western, machismo locales most towns at this altitude are abandoned mining towns—empty since the mines were emptied of silver. Yet Summerhaven deserves more of a celebration because it marks the final kick up to the Mount Lemmon Observatory and the end of the climb—past the ski area; and what were once white dots on top of the landscape emerge as the domes housing enormous lenses. Tourists wander past to and from their cars staring in bewilderment at us—why would someone come up here on a bicycle of all things?

A smile is the best countenance to such looks because they don’t know the half of it—ahead lies 26 miles of smooth, unencumbered descending! While climbing a snaking road—lungs burning, mind depleted of oxygen—may bring enlightenment, the elevator-drop of descending brings nothing but childish joy and unencumbered bliss!

From issue 56. Buy it here.