By Rob Quinn, Dirt Journal
Dateline 1736. Twenty miles south of the Mexican border. Rancher Bernardo de Urrea, a Mexican of Basque heritage knew all too well what a full moon meant. It meant a higher-than-average chance of raiding Apaches who routinely swept through the Rancheros in search of plunder but so far, de Urrera’s little slice of paradise had been left alone. Named after a Basque term that roughly translates into sturdy oak, he named his Ranchero Arizona. And the rest as they say is history.
One threat that’s accompanying the full moon for me, is the 38th annual El Tour de Tucson 102 mile bike race. I say race because the entire course is closed to traffic and your time is recorded and a winner named. Although it has the laid-back vibe of a Ride-the-Rockies type event, the clock is ticking and you see a higher degree of effort. I’ve done the event a dozen times starting when we lived in San Diego over 30 years ago. It’s a great way to end the season and keep the training up. It’s also a fun getaway for my non cyclist (a little Mountain biking) wife who is flying into PHX Sky Harbor airport (always liked that name, reminds me of a Dead or Panic song) then driving down to Tucson aka “The Old Pueblo” the next day with me.
This is a multi-part series on Rob’s journey to the Southwest to ride his mountain bike and road bike, Part one: HERE, Part two HERE
That leaves time for one more ride. I may be stupid but I’m not crazy. If you noticed I never mentioned my road bike in the previous two articles, it’s because you’d have to be absolutely bat-shit nuts to ride a road bike in Phoenix. This comes from a guy that rode nearly every day for a decade in Southern California.
I had my eye on an open space park called Papago Park close to our place and ASU for some off-road miles. www.tempetourism.com Described as 1,500 acres filled with hiking and biking trails, picnic areas and lagoons. What it does not mention that until recently, it was home to one of the largest homeless camps in the state. That sort of defined the area enough that when we were looking for a place for Paris Hilton (my daughter) and a nice condo in our price range was open, right across from the great trails? We passed. The camp has since been disbanded, but not unlike the desert of Apacheria, that area can be filled with outlaws and boogiemen when the sun sets.
I take off from our condo in full trail kit. 34 pound trail rig, loaded Osprey and a baggie kit. You’d have thought I was dressed like an astronaut by the looks of my neighbors as a I muscled the rig down the recently repainted steps. It’s about a 3 mile ride through Tempe and across the Tempe town lake to the park. Riding on the sidewalk with headphones off, all senses needed, I am almost hit three times. The Tempe town lake is interesting. About 20 years ago they dammed the end of the Salt River and the next week that area hosted the annual IRONMAN race. It’s the only time you can swim in that lake.
You can SUP, crew, or Kayak but no touchy! Which I find one step down from torture if it’s a balmy 115 out and you can’t jump in the lake? We all have our definition of hell. No wonder the ASU Mascot is the Sun Devil.
Out of harms way I cruise into the park. It’s 12 noon and around 90 degrees. The forecast calls for a 20 degree drop for El Tour. When I enter, I see a picnic table of middle aged males drinking and smoking weed. At the top of the hill, I see a Tempe PD SUV. Just like the Law shadowed the outlaws in the old days, some things never change.
I hit the trails and rack up a quick 10 miles of Sonoran splendor. Papago is kind of a mini South Mountain park. During my ride I encounter one other rider and two scary as shit dudes obviously up to no good.
Would I ride this ride at night alone? NO.Would I ride this ride during the day if I were an unescorted female? NO.
Bottom line if I lived around there full time, Papago would be a weekly stop to keep the skills sharp. The outlying trails (McDowell, Hawes, Cave Creek, South Mountain) are all great but a near impossibility if you work full time. The drive time traffic in Phoenix is brutal. Papago would be a much-needed short track outlet if you wanted any kind of mid- week training.
With the ride complete and a quick trip to the airport to pick up Mrs. Quinn, I take one gander around our condo and tell my daughter, ”clean this joint up, the boss touches down in one hour”
In hindsight these could have almost been considered famous last words.
The “plan” is to head down to Tucson tomorrow for packet pick up and to check into our favorite hotel in the world (seriously) The Westward Look Resort (www.westwardlook.com). This old school gem located at the base of the Santa Catalina mountains has recently been acquired by Wyndam.
Dateline 1983. Tucson, AZ. A professor at U of A named Richard DeBernardis decides it would be fun to ride road bikes around the perimeter of Tucson. 185 riders show up. El Tour de Tucson was born.
Under Richard’s vision “EL Tour” has transformed Tucson into one of America’s most rider friendly cities (in stark contrast to big sister Phoenix) and donated millions, that’s right millions to charities.
Change is good. Change is in the air at El Tour. Richard, a huge personality finally stepped down. This year would mark a new course that is not a “perimeter” or circle ride. Tucson has changed over the years and the old course encountered too much traffic on the way in, had a few live train track crossings that more than once dictated the final finish and ended seemingly always uphill, into the wind in the least desirable section of town. Also, the 60 mile and 100 mile groups merged which put less advanced riders trying to draft racers. In the day when it was 110 miles, finishing El Tour in under 5 hours was the same level of largesse as finishing Leadville in under 9. That also meant you can start for the next 5 years in the front elite section, an ego stroke, but more importantly it keeps you out of harms way in the notoriously messy El Tour starts. More on that later.
The new course hugs the south section of town, avoids high traffic areas, and gives you more scenic Saguaro National Park exposure. It makes sense on the map!
I pick up “The Queen” at the Harbor. My partner in crime for the last 40 years quizzes me like a skeptical manager. She also handles my books, so she’s been tracking me IPA my way through Apacheria with a thirst that would make Mickey Free wink with his good eye. Upon reaching and inspecting the condo, daughter Paris Hilton and I were vigorously chastised for being sub-human pigs and a vigorous deep clean commenced. “WTF have you been doing for the last 4 days?”
I lamely point out the resurrected hallway I cleaned and painted. My numerous “business meetings” and El Tour training. In minutes I find myself cleaning base board, toilets and tile floors. 100 miles of road never looked so good in the horizon!
Dateline November 1855. Prescott, AZ. The help wanted sign must have read something like this: Wanted fast and fearless riders for the U.S. Mail service / Pony Express. Earn $100,000 (2022 adjustment). No background check. Start tomorrow.
It was estimated that only 25% of Pony Express riders saw their second paycheck. The route from Prescott (pronounced Press-kit) to Tucson, then to Yuma then to LA pitted America’s manifest destiny and a need to correspond with the burgeoning West Coast against a largely unclaimed and untamed area called Apacheria. In post Indian war interviews Apaches said the predictable flow of solo riders heading through their lands gave them unending sport. The tales of famous Pony express riders like a young Buffalo Bill Cody or Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam kept the East Coast enthralled, as the taming of the West was now front-page news in the East. In 1850 Tucson was basically surrounded by hostiles. To travel into “The Pueblo” as it was called you needed a sizable military escort or lady luck.
The drive from Phoenix to Tucson is a fast 90 mile / one hour affair. You notice a lot of police activity headed north toward Phoenix. It’s estimated that that stretch of I-10 carries over 50% of the illegal drugs from Mexico on route to Phoenix and points beyond.
The only thing that stands between Phoenix and Tucson is the town of Casa Grande. A great place for a break, but I’d be remiss if I did not mention the original Casa Grande. A three-story structure made out of Caliche has survived over a thousand years. Built by the ancient Hohokam people. This was like the Vikings great halls that was a center of organized government. The peaceful and resourceful Hohokam, who developed wide scale irrigation never crossed paths with the warlike Apaches and their arch enemies the even more war like Comanches.
These tribes were still in Montana / Northern Rockies and did not immigrate to the Southwest until after the Hohokam had mysteriously disappeared. Bottom line, next time you pass through skip the omni-present Circle K’s and check out the original “Big House”. Exiting the Casa Grande we stop at Filbertos taco stand. I’m not sure who Filberto is but he’s doing a helluva job in Arizona with more locations than the Golden arches. I’m always hungry. And the last three weeks I have jammed a ton of riding in in a last-ditch effort to salvage a very abyssal post pandemic Mountain Biking race season with perhaps a little late season glory in just finishing strong. Against all odds (I don’t diet) I have dropped 20 lbs and am down to a weight I normally see in July. For the first time this year my 34 inch Carhart shorts are no longer tight. Phoenix legend Jerry Riopelle sings about life on the road. I smile at my wife. We’d forgotten about an artist we’d called “ours” in the early 80’s when we lived in Tempe. Only through the wonders of Spotify has his library become available. Without saying a word his songs bring back a thousand memories.
Well I’m driving to New Orleans,
On a half a tank of gas
Got a Jesus on my dashboard
Got a third wife on my ass
They don’t think I’m gonna make it
But, I swear I think I can
In my Red Ball Texas Flier
I’m a red ball Texas man.
Red Ball Texas Flyer / Jerry Riopelle
We pull into Tucson and head to the Convention Center for packet pickup just like every year. Nobody is there?
I see many Colorado, New Mexico, and California tags. El Tour is a multi-million dollar (12 to 18 estimated) shot in the arm for Tucson, who unlike it’s ambitions cousin Phoenix, has not exploded! Which is part of its charm.
We check into the Westward Look, and I tell the clerk this is my girlfriend and I’m trying to impress her—any chance we can get a pool side upgrade. Our wedding rings and my wife rolling her eyes exposes my scam, but if you don’t ask you don’t get. Within minutes we are moving into the nicest casita in the place—poolside.
The alarm sounds at 4 AM. Gotta be outta here by 5 AM. El Tour starts at 7 AM and you need to get there early with 7,000 friends expected. The weather has indeed changed with a high of 75 forecasted. It’s a bone chilling 30 degrees before sunrise. Here is where experience pays off. Take notes kids.
-Have your gear together with a few layering options to decide last minute.
-Bring an old Ski Jacket. Yeah, you heard me
-Bring Breakfast. You got 2 hours to kill.
-Bring an extra bottle of water and gatorade
-Bring a towel or blanket to sit on unless you want to stand up for two hours in cleats.
I kit up and make my way to the start wearing an ancient CB ski parka and holding a blanket that looks like it’s still on an ASU beer bender. I get quizzical looks.
I pull up my little slab of concrete and my plan unravels. While my neighbor’s teeth chatter and they hug themselves to keep warm…I lay my blanket down, sit on it and in the warmth of my parka enjoy a nice little bag of goodies I packed for myself. The music and ambient noise of 7,000 people gives the sunrise great energy.
“5 minutes till start” with the Star-Spangled banner.
The guy next to me in a Lincoln Nebraska bike shop kit pulls out two Fireball mini’s and shoots them. I immediately say, “Go big Red”.
I say a bike race is a lot like life. There is a start, a middle part with a few twists, and an ending. This will have all three components.
I pull off my Big Red jacket and put it on the rail where one of Tucson’s less fortunate ceases it with a “Hell Yess dude” I say, “Not responsible for any contraband left in left front pocket”. I throw the ASU blanket on the rail. No takers.
The start is the tricky with so many people. Two ways to go down on a road race. Somebody not “holding their line” or somebody overlapping their front and your rear wheel trying to draft. These rules are out the window at the start of El Tour.
I notice the adrenalin train is rolling around 30 MPH. An impossible pace to sustain. I notice my legs feel like they have battery acid in them after two weeks of pushing a big trail bike around then sitting for a day.
I hear the unmistakable sound of wheels rubbing just to my left then the thud of human mass and Carbon fiber hit the deck. Holy shit batman, I just rode out of a big ass crash. Maybe it’s the lower altitude, maybe the good pre-race game plan, or maybe the last-minute prep did actually work but within an hour I’ve settled in and am working with a great group of guys from all over the country putting a lot of miles behind us in a paceline where at least 5 of the 8 are doing some serious work. I tell myself “don’t lose this train” the miles drift by as the temp inches up every 15 minutes. I’m throwing down some strong pulls and the lads respond with a pat and kind word. “don’t be a hero” Super ego warns. 50 miles to go. We lose a few and gain a few but the nucleus of the train is holding. One problem, I gotta pee!
I pull off at one of the many rest stops. There a Boy Scout grabs my bike and I make a dash for the porta potties. Take off vest, leggings and arm warmers, grab a banana and I’m back on my bike in less than a minute and bridge back to my train. A dude from Hawaii who was funny as shit and a great rider chirps in “is that a banana in your pocket or are you just glad to see me” The train erupts with laughter, it was there I decided there was no other place in earth I’d rather be at this moment.
This course is way faster than the original. Somebody says we can still make it in 5 hours. My Wahoo says 30 miles to go. This is gonna hurt. We are at 4 hours.
I pay the price for the hero pulls has I watch the group slowly pull away from me and a dude from Las Vegas who also did a yeoman job.
We pull in 5 hours and 20 minutes. It’s a mob scene with families, proud riders and the towns folk who come down to be part of one of the biggest events in Tucson. Hard to replicate the feeling you get one you prepare for, then execute something a little larger and more daunting than you’d like.
Things have changed at El Tour. No free T-shirt or unlimited Bud lights.
It’s time to head back to Westward Look and hit the pool and dive into a cooler of Four Peaks IPA’s I iced last night.
Right on que Mrs. Quinn is enjoying the sun poolside, rocking a Hawaiian print bikini she adjusts the hat and shades and says “How’s the hero?”. “Fan Fucking Tastic” I respond. “Tires never touched the ground”.
Feeling like a million pesos.
Save that seat.
Now for the real highlight. Dinner at El Charro. www.elcharrocafe.com
Established in 1922 El Charro is closing in on 100 years of business. I think they will make it. The original location is still open in downtown Tucson. It’s the second location next to the Hotel that we favor. They kept the magic and history of this iconic Mexican joint but brought it to a new modern location. Get there early. Lady luck was on our side, and we got two seats at the packed bar and the feast was on. After two Patron tequilas and the house specialty, The Carne Asceca I proclaim my wife the most beautiful women in Arizona. She proclaims me the states biggest fool. I suggest a return to The Westward Look for a stroll around the grounds with this full moon in Apacheria. The grounds are spacious, and the moon has made the night alive. As we cross under some scrub an owl surprises us and we see its form silhouetted against the Apache moon as it powerfully flies away. I tell my wife, now used to my bizarre history-based rants that to the Apache the Owl was the most scared and mystical of all creatures. In Apacheria spirts and ghosts were everywhere. Owls carry the deceased spirts of loved ones and they are staying on this earth to keep an eye on you and remind you of their presence when they were alive.
On that note just like a good race…this story is about to come to an end. The next day I enter The Whiskey 50 Mountain Bike race in Prescott scheduled the last weekend of April 2022. If El Tour was meant to buoy my sinking bike racing mojo it did the trick but more importantly it reconnected me with the splendor of the territory once known as Apacheria and that good looking lady once known as my girlfriend.
To be continued.