This Coloradan Shares Why Phoenix Rocks in Mountain Biking

By Rob Quinn

In Ancient Greek folklore, a phoenix is a long-lived bird that cyclically regenerates or is otherwise born again. Associated with the sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. 

Sort of ironic that 5 years ago when the Phoenix market had one of the greatest freefalls in value loss in modern times, it is back with a vengeance. Tracking to displace Houston as the fifth largest metro area, about 350 people a day are currently moving there. Real Estate values and construction are at an all-time high. The Phoenix has risen indeed.

Like most people I have a love / hate relationship with “The Valley of The Sun”. I hate the summer but love the winter there. But, I love skiing more in the winter so aside from travel, Phoenix has been off my radar for a while.

Hot tub time machine flashback. It’s 1982 and I moved to Phoenix the day I graduated from college in Wisconsin. I was there to reunite with my high school girlfriend Jeanne! Only problem was she had a college boyfriend named Brad. Things apparently worked out. Jeanne and I have been married for 32 years. Things worked out for Brad; he’s a surgeon in Los Angeles! I remarked how unhappy she would have been since all surgeons seem to just work. Right on que my wife remarks…”as opposed to somebody that rarely works… just kidding”. What perfect timing for a road trip. 

I had visited Phoenix / Tempe / ASU each Spring during College and it was both exotic and intoxicating to a midwestern boy, with the smell of orange groves and honeysuckle in the air back then. But I was dropping down into “The Valley” in June and it was a different place. Hot, testy and brown. I landed a great job and worked in the market for two years until finally busting a move to San Diego, where we lived for the next 15 years. I bought my first mountain bike at Bike Harbor in Mesa, AZ—a 40 pound beast called a Mount Fuji. That made the move to San Diego and the rest as they say…is history. 

Adios Phoenix. Not so fast…. Fast forward 40 years with a daughter attending ASU, we bought a condo and home to my biggest client who mandated an appearance at least once a quarter—hello Phoenix. 

Since all work and no play makes Rob a very boring boy, I have basically taken this quarterly schlep to the next level of fun by always driving with a bike and stopping along the way to ride and explore. Which brings us to the question. Is Phoenix a Mountain Biking mecca?

Let’s examine.

When it comes to ranking a City we have a few things on the check list.

Trails. Check. Phoenix has got them…but like everything in Phoenix, you’ll need to drive. In my busy week I got two worthy rides in.

–The first is in The Mc Dowell Mountain Park, www.maricopacountyparks.net the crown jewel of Phoenix Mountain Biking with an area called The McDowell Competitve Track. Don’t be fooled by its name. Although there are races there…the area is a three loop master design with a “Sport” “Technical” and “Long” loop. If you string them all together it’s 16 miles of perfect Sonoran Singletrack. After 12 hours of driving, I felt like my soul had been set free ripping up that trail system in the warm 75 degrees of strong sun. Further down the road is the actual McDowell Mountain trail system. This beast is basically a full travel up and back that’s rideable but like a sustained White Ranch or Deer Creek Canyon effort. Only the rocks are sharper. Bring your “A” game for this.

–Next up was The Hawes Trail system in Apache Junction. This system is a little more primitive but had a great variety of terrain and even and old mine shaft. Park at the Walgreen’s drug store on Power Road and cross the canal into the Sendas Mountain development and take the trail immediate left by the welcome sign. You’ll see the tracks. The trail is managed by USFS- Tonto National Forest. This is beautiful singletrack and among the best in the area. Two hours of ripping these after a half a day of meetings was just what the Doctor ordered. www.mtbproject.com is the best site for these great trails.

-On the docket but not ridden this trip were South Mountain trail system and Black Canyon Trail system. South Mountain is a big drop rocker, sort of like Morrison Hogbacks. Black Canyon is a out-n-back that is a little higher in elevation with water crossings (in season) and plenty of sustained elevation. This is in the North side of town just off Interstate 17 and is best hit coming into or leaving town. 

It’s hard not to include the nearby towns of Sedona and Prescott. Both cities are now major MTB destinations. 

Party atmosphere. Check. With 80,000 students and an area called Mill Avenue next to ASU that is now a must hit stop on anybody’s agenda. It’s CU Boulder times two, but in flip flops and pool parties. 

My party highlight was attending The Waste Management Phoenix International Golf Tournament. It’s more of a Rock and Roll party than a golfing event. Bringing your Mountain Bike to town during this event is kind of like bringing your running shoes to Mardi Gras. The road (trail) to hell is paved with good intensions. To quote Bob Seeger “Warner Brothers (CBS actually) were such good hosts, I raise my whiskey glass and give them a toast”.

No matter if you golf or not, this event is incredible and captures Phoenix’s rowdy party sprit and it’s love for golf. It reminded me of a Kenny Chesney concert with and odd combination of ink, altered body parts and trendy golf clothing. If that is what the future of golf looks like, sign me up. 

Craft beer. Check. I’m happy to report the Gran daddy of em all…Four Peaks Brewery is a 5 minute bike ride from our place. Anheuser Busch recently purchased the whole shooting match so it’s hip to dis them. Here’s my official statement. Long before the microbrew revolution, Anheuser Busch was very good to me and my family by supporting me…buying what I was selling…so the fact that they have taken the space to the next level, dropped the prices and have become a huge supporter of AZ Mountain Bike racing is good enough for me. Like Denver, Phoenix is awash with the hoppy stuff. 

Weed. Your Colorado license works in AZ! Otherwise watch out! AZ Law enforcement is tough and although Recreational is on the ballot this year, they will arrest your hippie ass if you think you are in Colorado bro when the clock hits 4:20. 

World Class Cycling Company. Double check. 

Pivot bikes. Originally was called Turner bikes. These guys are one of the original full suspension pioneers and you see a lot of Pivots on the trail in AZ! I visited their warehouse in Tempe right across the highway from The South Mountain Trails that prove to be a formidable test and R&D track. 

Although they do not release sales figures, business appears to be damn good! With around 100 full time employees, a new warehouse under construction in Arizona and a new facility in Germany. Pivot is Phoenix.

Pivot is a proud sponsor of NICA and The Arizona High School Cycling League. Any student that races in that league gets a substantial deal. They seemed unamused when I said I was a Junior at McClintock high in Tempe.

What not to like or like?

After May the heat is intense. Phoenix actually has a reverse riding season….most races and training is done in the winter and during the summer the racers recover. Some folks like it and adjust to it. I never could. Good, bad or indifferent. Heat defines Phoenix.

Traffic. It’s bad, it’s aggressive and it’s ugly. A new best friend whose name escapes me that I met at Four Peaks Brewery said it so succinctly, “Phoenix traffic is an amalgamation of the worst driving traits from across the United States”.

Well said what’s your name. 

Food. Phoenix kicks Denver’s ass. For some reason we can’t get enough chain QSR here. In Phoenix, the neighborhood dive has been lovingly maintained as a house of worship. Swing by Tee Pee Phoenix on Indian School and try to get a table or a bar stool. Also, I think with a lower cost of living (my friends say 25% cheaper than Denver) with after work outdoor recreation being a tough putt (get it?)

People like to eat out in Phoenix. Their Mexican Food is usually of a Sonoran style and it’s different than Denver’s Chihuahua, Mexico inspired cuisine. More indie and less chain is a winning combination. Unless you go fancy…food and drink are about 20% less expensive.

In Summary I look forward to my quarterly Phoenix trip, so close, yet so different. I cheer when I see the first Saguaro on the way down and kiss the ground when I re-enter Colorado and see those Spanish Peaks while heading over The Raton pass. Is Phoenix a world class Mountain Biking destination?

I vote yes.

Is it worthy of a special riding trip? I vote yes.

Has this bird risen from the ashes and reinvented itself in a timely fashion?

I vote hell yes. 

Phoenix Mountain Biking Checklist.

-Plenty of Stans. Don’t even think of riding tubes.

-Keep in mind that everything in the desert is designed to hurt you. Brushing against even the most inconspicuous looking vegetation results in blood. A fall can mean a de-quelling with pliers. 

-Full suspension please. 

-Rocks are sharper! They did not have water running over them to make them round and smooth.

-You are in the dry desert. You need to consume water at about the same clip as high altitude. Running out of water on a hot day can kill you. 

-Although not a mile high, the sun is hot and strong. Protect yourself.

-If you are not really comfortable descending expert drops…no shame in padding up in the desert. 50% of the riders I see at South Mountain are wearing pads. 

-Temperature drops and rises are extreme.

-Trailhead crime (crime in general) is a concern. Leave nothing to chance when leaving the vehicle in unfamiliar areas. 

-There is no such thing as a soft spill in the Sonoran Desert. When you go down it hurts and its messy. 

-Arizona does not observe Daylight savings time. 

One thought on “This Coloradan Shares Why Phoenix Rocks in Mountain Biking

  1. Thanks for this article! We’re heading to Phoenix in April to do some road riding, but might rent mountain bikes one day. We are NOT technical riders, so looking for a nice wide trail without super steep climbs. Cool scenery is a plus. Any suggestions?

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