The sun rises into a clear blue sky over the oak savanna at the foot of the Huachuca Mountains. Live oak trees cast long shadows over fields of tall golden grass. Thirty-some men and women gather along a waist high steel fence adorned with barbed wire straddling everything from “full-squish” trail bikes to rigid single-speeds. The riders hail from as nearby as Tuscon to as far away as Hong Kong. Repair equipment, a bit of sleeping gear, and piles of trail snacks are loaded onto frames, seats, handlebars, and backpacks. Some riders already have trekking poles strapped to their packs in preparation for traversing the Grand Canyon, but that’s nearly 700 miles down the trail.
I wonder, as I have many times over the last week or so, if this is a huge mistake. I’ve heard it’s better to be under-trained than over-trained. At least in that case, I’m clearly the former. The winter of heavy snow skewed my interests away from bicycles and more toward sliding down, and occasionally up, snowy mountainsides. I haven’t ridden over fifty miles in a day since my first bikepacking race, the Caldera 250, last September. Now, my friend Adrian Van Der Riet and I have decided that we will attempt to cover the 750 miles of the Arizona Trail within 10 days. Some people suggest that it’s wise to ride the 300-mile southern course before attempting the 750, though I am anything but wise.
Adrian stands to my right. In contrast to my full suspension Yeti ASR, he straddles a fully rigid, singlespeed, titanium Carver. We plan on riding the Arizona Trail together, although I am uncertain of how compatible our riding paces will be. I also suspect Adrian is going to tear off into the desert leaving me in a cloud of his dust.
We place our rear tires against the diminutive border fence and face north. At 7 AM, we start up the road beneath the heavy thumping of a border patrol helicopter. Along the way I spot Liz Sampey, endurance racer and professional mountain biking badass. We met six years back at an enduro race in New Mexico, and she, along with a few concussions, inspired me to get more into endurance riding and racing. I ride up beside her to catch up. She has come down to the southern border with a shiny new Revel Rascal, which she intends to use to set a new record for the Arizona Trail. Apparently, a bad case of pneumonia has kept her from riding for the past month, but Liz is not easily deterred.
Everyone else within sight rides at a similar, casual pace, striking up conversations about bikes, bag setups, singlespeed gear ratios, or where other riders are from. The atmosphere is casual and friendly. After all, the AZTR isn’t an official race. There are no prizes, no awards ceremony, and definitely no support. It’s more like a group of riders gathering together to tackle the same bad idea at the same time.
The route follows easy dirt roads for fifteen miles until meeting up with the Arizona Trail where it exits the Miller Peak Wilderness. We turn off onto an easily-missed singletrack, and into the oak forests of the Canelo Hills. The trail is mellow for the first little while, then turns up, and crosses back and forth over a creek through multiple climbs and descents. The climbs are a bit loose, and sometimes steep, but my 26-tooth front ring makes everything manageable.
It’s near the top of one of these climbs that a distinctive ping! rings out from beneath me. “That’s odd,” I think. I swapped out my old chain a week before the race, but my cassette looked fine, and I didn’t have any issues on the short ride we did in Sedona two days before. Ping! I hear it growing louder, and feel a slip in my pedal stroke. “What is that,” I wonder as I drop back down toward the creek. As I coast, I hear a crunch of chain piling up on top of my rear triangle, followed by a click-click as my derailleur pulls tightly forward, and then snaps back into place. There’s a sinking feeling in my gut. I’m twenty miles into the ride, and my freehub is already on its way out.
The trail turns up a steep climb, which I elect to push. Adrian catches me at the top. I tell him the bad news, and that he probably shouldn’t bother waiting up for me at this point. He refuses. The plan was, and still is, for us to do the ride together. He says that worrying about my freehub isn’t going to fix anything, and we’ll just try to make it the 100 miles into Tucson.
One hundred miles seems like a long way away, but it’s the only acceptable option. The race is self-supported, so calling my fiancée to get a new wheel delivered would be cheating. I baby my freehub as best I can. Torque is the problem. I forbid myself from using the biggest ring on my cassette, or attempting to climb anything steep or technical. Across the rolling ridges and gorges of the Canelo Hills, this proves a tedious endeavor. Adrian is patient and we still manage to keep pace with some of the other riders.
At one point when I’m struggling up a hill, mounting and dismounting to protect my hub, I hear a rider coming up from behind. I look back occasionally, perhaps frequently, afraid I’m in his way.
“Are you even gonna ask my name!?!” the rider asks, apparently agitated.
I’m busy stressing about my hub. “Nope!” I call back snarkily.
A few miles later I come up to a pass, and run into him again. He explains that he didn’t mean any offense by the comment, he was just in a kind of off state himself. I tell him not to worry about it, and that we were just having witty banter. His name is Ben.
After thirty miles of steep, undulating singletrack, we drop into the small town of Patagonia early in the afternoon. A cluster of riders is gathered outside the small grocery store. I get a sandwich for dinner, a muffin for breakfast, and enough bars and candy to make Tucson. I call ahead to a bike shop there and ask if I can get a new wheel. My freehub might not be salvageable. The shop doesn’t have one in stock, but can get one by tomorrow afternoon. Perfect.
The route bypasses another section of wilderness as it climbs a highway, then a dirt road through cattle ranches. The next section of trail floats smoothly along rolling hills. This proves easier on my freehub than the Canelo Hills, and I only occasionally slip it, cursing my carelessness each time. If I keep doing that, I’ll eventually spin my pedals uselessly as my cassette fails to catch.
A full moon rises as the sun sets, casting its pink glow across the long wispy grass carpets that coat the ridgelines. We decide that there’s no reason to get to Tucson before my new wheel, and that the 85 miles we have covered is good enough for the first day. We make camp beneath a large oak, eat dinner, and try to sleep as the lights of a dozen other riders pass us by.
The birds wake us at dawn. The trail drops out of oak savanna and into a forest of ocotillo cactus, blooming with red flowers. The smoother trail gives way to loose rocks as it dips and climbs in and out of one canyon after the other. I zip down, then push back up. Adrian waits for me at the top of each rise, often holding open a cattle gate for me to pass by. Arizona is covered in cows, and there are hundreds of these gates across the length of the AZT. Eventually, we leave the canyons behind and enter a low angle, fast, and twisty descent out of the hills. I maneuver my bike in a quick snap around a Gila Monster sunbathing in the trail. He hisses in frustration at being disturbed from his spot, then saunters off into the brush.
We stop briefly so I can filter water out of a stock pond along the way. It’s muddy, and surrounded by signs of cattle. I accept that I’m putting a certain amount of cow piss into my hydration pack. It’s better than dehydration, and a scoop of electrolyte powder covers up the flavor nicely.
The trail remains easy as it takes us into Tucson, now carving between giant saguaro cacti. The temperature rises as we descend, climbing well into the 90s by the time we detour off route to the bike shop. My freshly-delivered wheel awaits, and the mechanic is nice enough to stop what he’s doing to swap it out, pronto.
We cruise across town, and begin our climb up a steep dirt road into the Catalina Mountains. The sun and heat are oppressive. Adrian stops for a snack, and I continue on, confident that he will soon catch me. I’m oblivious to the toll spinning the singlespeed through town has taken on his legs, and also fail to consider that my job working in the Mojave Desert has prepared me better for the intense heat than Adrian’s job working in a cube. Eventually I stop to take shade in the shelter of a saguaro. I begin to get worried around the time I see him pushing up the switchback below.
Adrian has hit a wall. His knees hurt from spinning across town, and he admits he hasn’t been drinking enough water. Still, he doesn’t think that sitting around in the sun will help much, so we push on slowly as he rehydrates.
Up the hill, the route splits off onto a gnarly four-wheel-drive road. It splits with options of drops, loose piles of chunder, or narrow gullies to descend. We come to a stock tank, but this one contains clear, cool water, and no recent sign of cattle. We strip down, climb through the barbed wire fence, and jump in. Despite the aquatic plants creeping around our legs, it’s glorious.
The sun sets beyond Tucson and we ride a narrow ridgeline singletrack into the night. We pass by a few other riders who warn us about the coming “hike-a-bike” somewhere ahead. We make camp around 10pm.
The other riders all pass by us during the night. This proves to be a theme throughout the trip. When Adrian and I decided to do the race together, I told him I planned on laying down for eight hours a night. Endurance riders take hydration and nutrition very seriously. I see no reason why sleep is not just as important, but apparently, this belief is not as widely held. The record holders ride long days and sleep little, but we’re just trying to finish and have fun.
Our third day begins with the foretold hike-a-bike. Granite steps and boulders make the climb difficult. We’re sometimes forced to lift our loaded bikes over ledges. Our efforts are soon rewarded when we cross through a pass to drop down a similarly rocky trail. It cuts through tight rock notches, over drops, around switchbacks, and down to a campground below. Despite a bit of restless sleep the night before, the technical descent leaves me awake, and happy.
Next we ascend Mount Lemmon Highway: 3,000 feet of elevation gain on pavement toward the town of Summerhaven. The grade is reasonable and doesn’t punish Adrian too much for having chosen to ride a singlespeed, although groups of road bikers fly past at three to four times our speed. We run into the riders who passed us the night before, some of whom look more tired and sleep-deprived than others.
Now the segment of our discussion is Oracle Ridge, the rumored “hike-a-bike” down from the top of Mount Lemmon, the highpoint of the Catalinas. I have heard a good bit about Oracle Ridge, like that there are many good trails on Mount Lemmon, and it’s not one of them. One online description I read is particularly entertaining: “This is not a mountain bike trail. This is a hiking trail… There is absolutely no reason to attempt this section of trail on a mountain bike.”
We top out on the road, and are treated to more singletrack descending before reaching Summerhaven. The trail into Upper Sabino Canyon (known as Sunset) is particularly remarkable, with exposed drops and rock ledges that cut into a steep-sided, granite gorge with clear, flowing waterfalls. A quick climb back up, and we’re at a general store, feasting on ice cream sandwiches.
Then down Oracle Ridge we go! I questioned the foreboding descriptions of the trail, but I’m am surprised by how wrong they were. The trail down is loose, chundery, fast, and all kinds of rad. Adrian is a remarkably skilled rider, and embarrasses me a little by keeping close on my tail, despite having no suspension, and no dropper post. Yes, Oracle Ridge does undulate, as ridges are known to do, and where the trail climbs it requires portage. In a short time, the next pinnacle is obtained and we return to more chundery descending. The rocks fade as we reach the desert again, and the trail turns to flowy hardpack, interrupted only by the awkward, wooden steps that have been inserted into the middle of every last switchback. My bike is set to descend, and I find them hilarious. Adrian is a little annoyed.
Our two-mile detour to a resupply stop in the town of Oracle is made difficult by a persistent headwind. We finally reach the Circle K gas station, and I stock back up on peanut M&Ms and candy bars. I will devour pounds of candy on this ride, and no one can stop me.
While I’m still riding a high from Sunset and Oracle Ridge trails, Adrian is feeling less confident about the trip. With only 200 miles down, and 550 to go, his entire body is feeling it, but most notably his knees. We’re about to head off into the desert where there’s little water, and 150 miles to the next resupply outside Phoenix. I suggest we stop at the Hilltop Tavern for good food and a quick rest on the way back to the trail. He happily agrees.
The next bit of trail is less ridden and somewhat faint. The track of loose gravel winds its way between saguaros and cholla, in and out of valleys, climbing up just to go down again, with tight sudden corners that consistently surprise me. Adrian chides me for skidding my back tire around the turns. Though I tell myself that the only reason he doesn’t do the same, is that he sees me hit them first, I know I’m too aggressive on unknown trails and tend to brake late.
The hills and valleys dissipate as the sky turns to pink and orange, and we descend toward flatter desert. The trail eases up on the hairpins and loose rocks. It appears as a white ribbon ahead through the desert. I keep my light turned off as I pick up speed, slaloming fast corners through a forest of tall cholla cactus that glow like white ghosts in the fading light. Silhouetted saguaros cover the skyline and the desert turns wild. Adrian follows behind, his light turned on, casting my shadow ahead for a moment. I speed up to outrun him and maintain my night vision. In my mind I am a mountain lion, tearing through the Sonoran desert, fleeing a pursuing rancher. I carve left then right, ducking the deadly cholla tendrils that reach out toward me, then sprint away into the open space beyond into more blissful turns. The trail bottoms out at a cattle gate. I get off my bike to open it. Adrian pulls up behind. The dream is over.
We stop a few miles later to filter water from a cattle tank. We have to climb the metal sides to collect the water, which is filled with a bright green algae that clogs our filters. It’s slow work, but we collect what we can and continue on into darkness. The trail becomes tedious again, and after missing a few corners, and sideswiping a couple chollas, I decide we should call it a night. We bed down in a sandy wash. Today we have only made it 70 miles, falling 15 miles short of our intended target. I feel confident that the riding will become easier and we’ll pick up the pace soon. Adrian is less sure.
More riders pass during the night, most of whom we see soon the next morning. The “Gila River Hike-a-bike” is the new section to dread. There’s always something.
We happily find ourselves on a short section of fast, easy trail that brings us to a trailhead, where someone was nice enough to stash water and cookies for AZT riders. The cookies are all gone, but we gladly fill up our packs with water that doesn’t need to pass through our clogged filters. We’re off again, and the trail drops through a canyon toward the Gila River.
I skid off the trail to dodge a desert tortoise who has closed herself up tightly into her shell. I wonder why the tortoise would position herself in such a steep, precarious spot, where a wrong step could send her rolling down the slope below. Perhaps she wonders the same of me.
We bathe, drink, and back flush our filters at a cool, clear stream by the Gila River, then carry on as the AZT traverses down the side of the canyon. Up and down, twisting through boulders and a near forest of magnificent saguaros. The trail is fun, but taxing, and the afternoon heat is harsh. By the time the trail drops back to the river we are nearly out of water. We filter from a small seep, soak our shirts in the river, and make our way north out of the canyon. This must be the section everyone has been talking about.
As we climb what looks to be 2,000 feet of elevation, Adrian is frequently forced off his bike. I can shift down and ride with some effort, but Adrian has recently spent a few weeks riding and pushing a heavily loaded fat-bike around Baja, and his walking speed matches my riding. He pulls ahead as I stop to take pictures.
We approach Picketpost Mountain, a thick tower that stands tall above a canyon of dark, jagged cliffs. The hot sun sinks lower, and lights up the green leaves and red flowers of the ocotillo in a glow. Yellow flowering rabbit brush lines the trail. Perhaps I’ve become delusional, but I forget about the heat and the grade of the climb, and melt into the desert. This place is surreal. I’ve never enjoyed a climb this much before. The trail approaches the cliffs and in spots has been blasted out of the rock to provide a largely bike-able corridor through a precipitous landscape that’s more appropriate for a bighorn sheep than my Yeti.
Adrian waits for me atop a pass. He agrees that the area is beautiful, but expresses some concerns about water. “Water is after the next pass, which is only 300 feet higher” I say, pointing ahead. The terrain we see becomes even more rugged, and the trail switchbacks down and back up again to navigate its way around cliffs before topping out. I shrug it off. “It’s just a little extra. We’ll be fine.” Adrian is not as annoyed by my constant optimism as I suspect, but he doesn’t necessarily share it.
The trail proves to climb and descend more than it appeared to from the pass. To add to our difficulties, a sharp rock punches a hole through the tread of my tire as we descend a switchback. Adrian holds a finger over the hole as I dig out plugs to fill the puncture. I reinflate it, and we’re on our way again, but during those few minutes we’ve sucked down even more of our diminishing water supply.
Over the next pass, we step off the trail to find a stock pond indicated on my printed cue sheet. It’s easy to find, but holds a good amount of algae. We sit down for dinner as we consider the prospect of clogging our filters again. Gnats and mosquitos discover our rest spot, and begin to swarm. I see on the cue sheet that another water source is mentioned a couple of miles ahead. We hastily decide to go for that.
Up and over a final pass, we drop down to the next water source. Except, there’s not even algae-filled water here. There’s nothing. We’re both down to our last half liter, and the next water is eight miles down the trail, then two miles off route on a road. We aren’t happy about it, but it sounds better than turning back.
The sun drops behind the horizon and we follow the trail as it drops down through a canyon. The sky is full of color again, and we fly among tall grass and oaks, along an increasingly smoother trail that banks back and forth with swooping dips through a wash. Again I leave my light off for as long as I can. The shade of trees eventually slows my progress, and Adrian catches me with his light, forcing me to turn mine on as well. The trail climbs briefly from the canyon, then drops to the Picketpost Trailhead.
“You did it!” a headlamp wearing stranger exclaims as we come out into the parking lot.
“What?” I’m confused, and a bit disoriented. It’s been a long day on the trail.
“Oh wait, are you 300 or 750?” he asks.
Apparently, we’ve arrived at the end of the AZT 300 course. So, to anyone who said that you should complete the AZT 300 before attempting the 750, I guess you were right after all. And here we are. We’ve done it. Now we’re qualified to continue on to Utah.
The man behind the headlamp tells us someone has left a bit of water for riders near the bathroom, and that there’s a creek a couple miles down along the route. We thank him, grab a bit from the jugs, and continue on to the creek.
That night we bed down in open space on the outskirts of Phoenix. Empty gun shells litter the ground, and ATVs rumble in the distance. We had hoped to make up lost time from yesterday, but the riding along the Gila River and past Picketpost proved time consuming. We aren’t any further behind, but we’re definitely not ahead of schedule. “It’s okay,” I say, “Tomorrow is a lot of road. It’ll be a rest day. And we’ll do a century.” Again I wonder if Adrian is getting sick of my optimism.
Just as we are about to fall to sleep, two ATVs and a truck pull up nearby. Gunshots fire off into the night. “Hey!” Adrian yells out, to let them know not to shoot in our direction. Engines roar and they drive off. I’m tired enough to pass out without giving the incident a second thought.
We awaken the next morning, fortunately, free of any bullet holes, and continue on the bike route around the Superstition Wilderness. Some roads and a bit of fun Phoenix singletrack (the Gold Canyon Trails) take us to an expensive looking suburb and a supermarket where a group of other AZT riders are gathered out front.
Liz Sampey is there, about to leave. “You guys must be flying!” she says, seeing that we’ve caught up.
“I guess?” I say. I didn’t think we would see Liz again on this ride. It still feels a bit like we’ve been creeping along, but I appreciate her encouragement.
We hop onto a short piece of singletrack called “Jacob’s Crosscut.” This is the sort of trail that you probably wouldn’t ride unless you were bored. Varying sizes of rocks litter the relatively flat trail, and it’s hard to pick up speed.
Along it is the spot where the “Four Peaks” route option splits to the left. This is a new variation to the Arizona Trail Bike Route that bypasses the long road section by climbing through the Mazatzal Mountains. It covers a similar distance but adds a full 8,000 feet of climbing to the route, which is almost an extra day of riding by my count. Adrian points out that we are approaching the split. I jokingly pretend not to hear him, and continue right. I’d be lying if I said I never had ambitions of wanting to try the Four Peaks route, but I’m tired, and my lower back hurts. I love gnarly singletrack, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m excited to strap my backpack to my handle bars, hit some gravel, and cruise. If you’ve mountain biked 350 miles in four days, you might understand how appealing a smooth dirt road sounds.
We are nearly done with this short rocky trail when my pedal strikes a rock at low speed. I try to hang on an instant too long, and when I finally go to unclip, my leg is twisted at a weird angle. I’m stuck. I see my fate rising quickly in front of me: A large prickly pear cactus. I plunge in. I’ve brushed cacti before. I’ve even kicked them. Falling onto one is a first. The hundreds of tiny spines are a nuisance. The dozen or so thick spines go in deep. Some of them break off at skin level to conceal themselves. Muscles in my leg, hip, and arm clench in response to the needles driven into them, and a sharp pain radiates through that entire side of my body. I scream. I am stuck on my bike and have trouble finding a spot within the cactus to push my hand and get back up. I eventually do, stumble away, and sit on a nearby rock.
Adrian hears my cry of agony and comes back for me. He is a good friend and prepared with tweezers. We spend the next half hour pulling out the majority of the spines, and he allows me to pocket the tweezers to use as I find more throughout the day.
We then come out to the road and follow it up the heavily-modified Salt River. Roads, reservoirs, and dams affect the landscape but fail to destroy the beauty of the dramatic gorge that separates the Mazatzals from the Superstitions. I could pretend to place myself above this modification of nature, but my bags are filled with food procured from those who rely on the water stored here, and I happily ride along the road carved through it. Despite dips and climbs, our progress up past Theodore Roosevelt Dam is quick.
We find ourselves beside the reservoir in time to cruise up to the Tonto Basin Market for ice cream and a beer and find other friends there. We see Liz who packs her beer and takes off up the road toward Payson. Pavel from the Czech Republic is there, having some troubles with his fork. He is quite pleased to find that I have a shock pump on me, which I gladly lend him. Another rider, Paul, has bought a six pack of Klondike Bars which he passes out to me, Adrian, and Pavel. That night Adrian and I complete our century and look for the first available campsite. Despite the distance covered, and my spill into the prickly pear, my back and legs feel almost entirely better. It seems I wasn’t entirely wrong about our century-recovery day.
Adrian also feels rested. His knees hurt less, but he has a new problem. His freehub started skipping, just along the flat pavement beside the reservoir. Again, without the equipment to service it, there’s little we can do except carry on, and hopefully find some help in Payson.
Puffy white clouds hang overhead when we wake. The route takes us up a steep, rocky, four-wheel-drive road out of the desert, into the pine forest, and to Payson. Adrian’s freehub holds for the time being, and the climb involves a lot of pushing anyway. When I have service, a Google search comes up with 87 Cyclery, a mobile bike repair service out of Payson. I call the mechanic, Jeremy, and leave a message about our situation, before carrying on into Payson.
The route heads down the main street in Payson, and we turn off at a grocery store. While Adrian watches bikes, and I shop, Ben, who I haven’t seen since the Canelo Hills, rides into the store and parks his bike in the empty dining area. He is promptly kicked out by an angry Starbucks employee.
Thunder cracks not far off in the distance, and I swap places with Adrian. I watch Ben’s bike as he goes in to buy food. By the time they both come out the rain has started, and transitions into a downpour. The three of us wait in the shelter of the storefront. Ben has just completed the Four Peaks option, and tells us about it. It sounds every bit as hard as I expected, and am happy that we took the easy route.
Ben is friendly and exuberant, standing in front of the grocery store bouncing around in his light riding jacket, a trash bag raincoat, and a pair of boxer briefs. Despite being tired, he can’t seem to sit still. We stand around and talk about our full-squish teal Yeti bikes. He briefly mentions the Mogollon Rim, the next section of trail to be feared. I’m familiar with the geological feature, and getting up the sandstone escarpment does sound like a small challenge.
Once the rain passes, I hear back from Jeremy of 87 Cyclery, who makes quick work of our problems. He cleans up Adrian’s freehub, gets it fully functional again, and straightens a bend in my derailleur. I also buy new brake pads since I stupidly forgot to bring spares and mine are getting down to the metal. Adrian asks Jeremy if he has spare clipless cleats, as his are wearing out, but there are none in stock.
Soon enough we’re mostly fixed up and back on the trail. Fifteen miles later my dropper post cable snaps. Adrian views my dropper post as a luxury, and I feel he doesn’t want to wait around for me to fix it. We used enough of our time in Payson.
Some four-wheel drive roads and a steep cow trail link us back to the AZT once more. The trail is steep and loose, definitely not designed for biking, but becomes fun as soon as it drops down to a trailhead. The town of Pine is less than a mile away, but we’ve just resupplied, and elect to continue.
We continue to find ourselves on some surprisingly groomed singletrack. A brilliant double rainbow spans the horizon across a dark cloud ahead. The storm that creates the rainbow moves in our direction, rain falls, and a thin layer of sticky mud clings to our tires.
Along the trail we catch up with Liz again. Her bike is leaned against a tree where she beats mud off her tires with a stick. She has had a rough day. When she arrived in Payson late the night before, she was struck with an overwhelming feeling of disorientation. She ended up getting a hotel room, but woke to her alarm the next morning, still feeling off. She got a late start out of town, but left early enough to endure the worst of the rainstorm, then stopped in Pine to warm up where some other riders, friends of hers, were quitting the trail. They tried to convince her that she should bail as well, but Liz is not easily deterred. She doesn’t think she is going to break the trail’s record anymore, but she will still finish the ride.
Liz says they warned her of the coming Highline Trail, calling it a “10 hour hike-a-bike.” I can’t help but think of some sort of Tolkien-esque adventure where travelers gather in taverns and spin tall tales of danger down the road ahead. I’ve heard this sort of thing before. I express a level of disbelief. Both Adrian and Liz attempt to rebuff my confidence. My optimism again goes unappreciated.
Adrian and I climb up and the character of the trail does indeed change. Instead of climbing in a steep, direct push up the Mogollan Rim, the Highline trail traverses beneath it, for some fifteen miles before finding a break to obtain the Coconino Plateau. We push our bikes up steep switchbacks and steps, then drop back down similar terrain. We stop for dinner and filter water from a creek. Knowing the challenging trail will continue, I insist upon replacing my dropper cable. Adrian doesn’t mind. In retrospect, I doubt he ever would have. Ben gives out a loud “Hoot!” as he rips past. Liz zips by a few minutes after.
It’s dark by the time we’re ready to go so I turn on my light. It fades after a couple of seconds, then goes out entirely. It got rained on a little while charging at the grocery store in Payson, and apparently, that was enough. Frustrated, I pull my headlamp out of my bag. The straps slip out of their plastic clips as I stretch the band around my helmet. I curse. Adrian laughs, and reminds me to breathe. I laugh back. I’m glad to have a friend out here.
Now we’re on the trail again. The rain returns, not heavy, but present. We put on jackets and pedal on, picking our way between boulders, up and down drops, through brushy overgrown corridors of chaparral, and across narrow side-hills between what may be cliffs for all my headlamp reveals. It’s hard to believe we were baking under the sun in the Sonoran desert the day before.
The riding on this trail suits me. Wet, slick, rocky, and steep, it reminds of riding where I grew up in North Carolina. Dropper cable replaced, my bike is complete again, and I am empowered. After more than five days, concerned about pushing too hard, I’m no longer worried. I feel strong. Again I am a mountain lion. Now is the trail is my prey, and I attack it, finding any weakness to pounce upon. I lunge up steps, smash through the brush, and lightly pick my way through the corridors of rock. I do on occasion stop and push my bike up hills, as some of this trail is indeed not rideable in any reasonable sense.
The trail turns down and begins a steep descent through the red rock forest. The brush opens up, and the way becomes clear for ripping. Wet, wooden water bars are stacked at 45-degree angles along its length. The only way to navigate them at speed is a precise bunny hop, clearing both tires completely to avoid being tossed off the trail. Embedded rocks are not obstacles so much as opportunities to fly, sailing over hazards to land before the next turn where the wet earth holds my tires in a firm grip and throws me ahead.
A light in front of me shines through the trees. I hear Liz cry out in elation. I echo her call. Our lights dance through the forest as we precipitate from the mountain. Finally, I catch her. She has paused where an erosion gully confuses the trail in the darkness.
“Are you having the best time!?!” Liz asks as I ride up.
“Yes!” I respond, grinning widely. This is one of the best times I’ve ever had.
Adrian rides up twenty seconds after I do.
“Are you having the best time!?!” Liz asks him.
Adrian pauses, possibly to examine the lunatics standing before him. “Yeah, sure,” he responds with a hint of sarcasm. With his high saddle and no suspension, steeper descents like this are the only place to drop Adrian. Also, his loose pedal cleats make crucial, high-speed bunny hops over slippery waterbars substantially less enjoyable.
The three of us find the continuation of the trail, and peel off into more of the same, fun descent. Too soon it bottoms out at a creek, which we cross to a small trailhead. From here the trail begins to climb up switchbacks to regain the elevation we lost. As we climb, I become grounded again. I suggest to Adrian that if we see a dry spot under some pines, we should set up camp. He agrees, and we soon find one. Liz still has energy and continues off into the night.
We wake up the next morning and get back into our damp biking clothes. It sounds unpleasant from the warmth of our sleeping bags, but doesn’t prove as cold as we feared.
Contrary to expectations we’ve been given, the Highline Trail becomes easier. There are still sections to be pushed up, and a spot or two of sliding down a 35% grade to thread between loose boulders, but in between are easily rideable sections and even some fun slickrock. We pass by Liz again, who is faring substantially better than she was the morning before. The Highline Trail ends where the East Verde River cascades through a small red rock gorge, and we finally begin to ascend the Mogollon rim.
The climb becomes steep and strewn with boulders. It’s difficult to push up, but then it’s over. Once on top, we are on the Coconino Plateau. Even the Arizona Trail, which loves nothing more than to go up for the purpose of going down again, struggles to find gradient to throw at us. We follow a gradual descent along a creek, and climb just a few switchbacks out.
On top we see Pavel, who has moved off the trail behind a tree.
“How’s your fork?” I call out to him.
“It’s good! I’m using the restroom! Have a good ride!” he yells back.
“You too!” We carry on across the plateau.
It soon becomes evident, that while elevation change is no obstacle on the Coconino Plateau, rocks are. Some past terrestrial explosion has littered the place with so many volcanic rocks that they are sometimes piled so deep they obscure the dirt beneath. More often they are planted in the ground, adjacent to each other, so close that our tires barely have a chance to touch the ground. My suspension takes a beating, but at least I have suspension. Adrian keeps up with me fine and doesn’t complain. However, on the occasional short descent, I can hear a string of curses come forth at a rate that matches at least every fourth rock his tires bounce across.
We see Paul along the way. He does not love the rocks either, but he’s happy to be done with a long night below the Mogollon rim. He tells us how at one point on the Highline, he rode a short distance in the wrong direction, until running into Ben who turned him around.
We soon find Ben as well. He also thoroughly enjoyed himself on the Highline, riding well into the night, but is now coming down off that high, and “taking it easy.” He recounts the same story that Paul told. I ride beside him for a bit, as we laugh about the confusion of their encounter.
We’re so absorbed in conversation, that we fail to hear Adrian shout from behind us. He chases after us, yells again, and finally gets our attention. Apparently, the two of us missed a turn from the road to singletrack a hundred yards back. The error seems well deserved.
We leave Ben and continue over the ceaseless rocks into the darkness. The trail brings us through a highway underpass along a creek where we see another rider, laying on the ground, spinning the wheel on his rigid singlespeed. It’s a strange place to take a break from the rocks. He is half awake. He says his name is Brett, and mumbles something about a battery brick. I need the power left in mine for charging my headlamp. Tired and a bit confused, we wish him luck and carry on.
My headlamp is losing power, and I dial down the brightness to conserve energy. The rocks are the same color as the dirt they lay in, and my front tire finds a loose one. In an instant, my bike is to the side, and I plunge to the ground. My left knee and hip bone find rocks to land directly on top of. Adrian comes back for me, but I’m able to walk it off. I just hope the impact on my hip isn’t too much of a problem for the Grand Canyon leg of our trip in a couple of days.
We stop around the usual time and burrow down for the night in the chilly high elevation forest. My optimism has caused a bit of a problem tonight. Unaware of even the existence of the Highline Trail, I expected us to arrive in Flagstaff by now, but it’s still fifteen miles out. So dinner tonight and breakfast in the morning are a less-than-satisfying combination of whatever bars and candy we have left.
The rocks are kind enough to let up the next morning for the ride into Flagstaff. We pass Pavel and Brett sitting at a cattle guard on the way there. Brett laughs about the night before explaining that he was spinning his wheel to charge his GPS. Front hubs with generators are apparently popular for powering lights and providing a charge in the bikepacking world. We get to Flagstaff in time to eat a quick breakfast, new cleats for Adrian, and food for the next 100-mile stretch to the Grand Canyon. It’s day eight of our trip, and we’ve gone nearly 600 miles! It seems hard to believe. At this point, I know we’ve got it. I text my fiancée to expect us at the Utah border on time.
The riding out of Flagstaff proves easy. We ride wide gravel paths to fun, winding singletrack at the foot of the snow-covered San Francisco Peaks. A gravel road detour saves us from post holing through snow and causing excess wear to the Arizona Trail where it passes beneath Arizona Snowbowl. A quick thunderstorm rolls through. We regain the trail and descend soft, tacky corners through the forest.
The trail turns onto doubletrack, which passes easily through a pinyon-juniper forest. We come to a cattle gate at the edge of a plateau, and drop down the side. It’s doubletrack still, but fast and fun, with bumps to jump from, and corners to slam against.
At one point an audible thud behind me catches my attention. I slam on the brakes and look back. Adrian has gone down. This is concerning, because we were riding at probably 25 miles per hour. I run back, wondering if our ride is over. Adrian picks himself up, dusts himself off, and gets out his tools to straighten out his handlebars. “I was just trying to make you feel better about crashing,” he explains.
We aren’t far down the road, when I’m told that the menace of mechanicals has struck again. This time it’s Adrian’s bottom bracket, which decided to wait until we were 20 miles out from the bike shop in Flagstaff to start clicking and popping. He borrows my phone for service and calls the shop. They can overnight a new bottom bracket to the South Rim, and it should be there midday tomorrow. Adrian tells them to do it.
The miles of dirt road ahead would strike me as boring on any normal day, but again I’m happy for easy riding, and enjoy coasting under the passing storms. Adrian’s lack of gears limits his speed on the flats, so I’m permitted to take it easy. The trail returns to singletrack around sunset, and ascends back into the forest. We camp beneath the pines 25 miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
The next morning brings more pleasant, forested riding into Grand Canyon National Park. We pass by Brett again, who is searching for walking sticks in the forest. Biking is not allowed in the park, and AZT riders are required to remove at least one wheel from their bikes, strap them to packs, and hike the 22 miles across with tires off the ground.
Adrian heads to the post office, while I take off to get a permit to camp in the canyon. I go to the permit office, explain that we are doing a thru-biking trip of the Arizona Trail, and ask if I can get a permit to camp at Cottonwood Campground, 15 miles from the South Rim. The park employee types into the computer for a moment, then kindly tells me there’s nothing available until tomorrow. A 24 hour delay doesn’t fit into our schedule. “Well,” I shrug. “I guess we’ll keep hiking to the North Rim tonight.”
Maybe she can tell how not excited I am about that proposition. Or maybe she thinks that it’s a bad idea. Either way, she has a quick talk with another employee, and returns with a permit. I thank her and head to meet Adrian at the Grand Canyon Village Market.
He’s had less luck. Apparently, there was a miscommunication, and the bottom bracket isn’t going to show up until the next day. Adrian also finds a 24 hour delay unacceptable. We’ll keep going, and hope it holds up for the 70 miles of riding after the canyon. I say it should be fine. Even if his bottom bracket seizes, his cranks will still spin, just with more resistance. Again, he doesn’t share my optimism.
We stock up on overpriced snacks at the market, each buy a pair of cheap trekking poles for the hike, and ride back through the crowds of the park to the South Kaibab Trailhead. Brett and Liz are there, busy gearing up for the big hike. Instead of camping below the rim, they plan to hike through the night. Liz is back ahead of her time splits to set a new AZTR women’s record, and she’s ready for the final push.
Strapping your bike to a backpack is a bit of an art. It’s a silly art though, because why would you? As far as I know, no one is particularly good at it. Even Brett, who is apparently on his third Arizona Trail Race, takes a bit to get everything situated and start off. I get my bike strapped onto my pack and lift it onto my shoulders. It falls off to the side, nearly toppling me in the process. Too top heavy. I shift the bike down on the straps and try again. Better, but the lightweight skiing pack I’ve been riding with the past 700 miles isn’t designed for a 50-pound load, especially one this awkward. Liz is more prepared, having shipped herself hiking shoes, a backpack, and trekking poles for the canyon. She is almost packed by the time Adrian and I start off, laughing down the trail and taking pictures of the absurd thing we are doing. Now, the bikes ride us.
Hiking in the Grand Canyon with bikes strapped to our packs makes us the center of attention. “Where are you coming from?” “The Mexico border.” “Where are you going?” “The Utah border.” “Are there trails you ride at the bottom?” “No, all the way up the other side.” “How heavy is it?” “Fifty pounds,” or Adrian’s response “I’d rather not know.”
People are also supportive and encouraging. Whether or not they understand what we are doing, they want us to succeed. “Good job!” “You’ve got this!” “You guys are crazy!” Almost everyone smiles at us as we pass by.
The way down is not so terrible, for descending 5,000 feet of elevation in six miles. I know I’ll feel it in my legs the next day, but the trekking poles are a tremendous help. We pass by Brett as he takes a break from the heat in the shade. A west wind howls through the canyon and nearly knocks me over as we descend a ridgeline to the river. My bike is blown off to one side a bit, and I spend the rest of the hike to the river trying to shift it back. Taking the bike off is kind of a whole thing, and I’d rather just get there.
We cross the Black Bridge and walk up to Phantom Ranch Canteen, which has transitioned to a restaurant for guests with reservations for the evening, denying us an opportunity for a cold beer. Ben sits there at a picnic table, in his riding shirt and boxer briefs. We sit down beside him to have dinner. He explains that he ran out of food south of Flagstaff, and rode a mile off the trail to Mormon Lake where he got a room. Unfortunately the restaurant there is closed for the season, and the store closed at 4 pm before he arrived, so he went to bed hungry. At least he got some sleep and resupplied in the morning. He passed us sometime last night, got to the river around noon, and decided it was too hot to keep hiking. He’s been hanging out, swimming, and drinking lemonade from the Canteen since.
As we sit there eating, one of Ben’s new friends comes out from the Canteen with two napkin packages. One holds a piece of steak, the other, several pieces of cake. This is a surprise to Ben as well, and he is gracious enough to share the bounty.
We’ve only just begun hiking again when I realize that my bike shorts, stiff from 9 days on the trail, are chafing the insides of my thighs. I stop to apply some chap-stick, which is my typical remedy for this affliction. I start to walk again, but it seems I noticed too late. The damage has been done and my thighs feel raw. I think about Ben for a second, walking around in his Walmart boxer briefs. Perhaps there’s more to his apparel than the “mesh taint” he praises. I stop again, take off my shorts, and hang them from my pack. The problem is completely solved. I like Ben a lot more than when I first met him.
We are now on the North Kaibab Trail which travels along Bright Angel Creek. The creek is swollen from spring snow-melt and recent storms. It runs high and muddy, a long unstopping rapid that roars down the schist corridor of the Black Box. The sun settles behind canyon walls as we walk, listening to cobbles turn in the water with the high flows. My pack is uncomfortable, but the Grand Canyon is spectacular, and it isn’t until darkness settles that hiking becomes a chore.
An hour later we are stopped, filtering water from a swollen side creek, and not long after that, we arrive at our camp. We look off to the South Rim and see a single headlamp midway down the South Kaibab Trail. It’s another AZT rider. It has to be. Who would start down at that time of night? It’s probably Paul.
It’s 10 am. The bird songs that typically wake us are hard to hear over the creek that rushes by. My calves, shoulders, and lower back are sore from hiking the day before. My back is the worst, the same part of me that hurts after long days of riding. I decide to tuck my sleeping pad up under the back of my shirt, to pad my back. It’s comfortable, if disgustingly sweaty.
A couple of miles up the trail we find Paul at the Manzanita Rest Area. The light we spotted the night before was indeed him. He is on the same timeline as us, so when he arrived at the South Rim the evening before, he had no time to stop. He stumbles over to the water spigot, unstable on his feet, even without the weight of his pack. I’m impressed by his dedication. I wonder if I would ever choose to make that kind of push.
Past Manzanita, the trail climbs steeply out of the canyon. We pass Roaring Springs on the right, where a gushing waterfall pours out of a cave in the limestone cliffs and tumbles down into the canyon. This is the spring that supplies water for the entire South Rim, which flows through a gravity-fed pipeline to Indian Garden where it is pumped to the rim.
The North Kaibab trail is carved impressively into tall limestone cliffs. At times you walk a four-foot-wide path with a wall to your left, and a drop off to your right hundreds of feet tall. Normally this poses no issue, but at least a dozen times on the hike so far, I have forgotten about my wide load, and bounced my tire, or front brake caliper off of a jutting rock, and stumbled. I slow my pace in these sections and try not to think too much about Paul stumbling to the water spigot. He’ll be careful. He has to be.
We see another bike strapped to a pack up ahead. It looks like Liz, but I don’t want it to be. She should be on the rim by now, or further, pedaling her way to victory and a well-deserved rest at the Stateline Campground.
Liz has had a rough night. In her words, she “epiced.” Despite her hiking shoes, the long steep drop into the canyon turned her feet into “one big blister.” She then ended up spending a couple hours in the dark rebalancing her pack with Brett at some picnic tables not far from our camp. She’s, fortunately, having an easier time with the uphill, and she does a great job of at least acting upbeat.
My own pack becomes more uncomfortable the longer it stays on my back. I curse Adrian for not stopping at the next rest point, but I understand the truth he operates on. Stopping will not get us to the rim any quicker. I occasionally stop to shift my pad, or adjust a strap, each time adjusting the balance of which part of my body I am causing pain to. My back, my shoulders, or the bruise on my hip. Everything hurts.
The trail is less busy now, but a steady stream of a different group of crazies is passing us by in both directions, rim to rim-to-rimmers, who hike and run from the South Rim to the North Rim and back in a day. Even they seem impressed by the level of suffering we decided to inflict upon ourselves. They offer encouragement as they pass by. I smile and offer them the same. Acting happy helps a bit, but once I’m alone again, it’s hard to focus away from the discomfort.
Another bicycle-wearing hiker comes into view. This time it’s Brett. I consider that he, Liz, and Paul, have all been doing this all night. What am I complaining about? Brett is doing this for the third time. He must be absolutely insane. As my thoughts wander, I make up the words to the beginning of a sort of ballad about him as I walk. By the time I’m walking behind him, I decide to go ahead and sing it. Why not? It could be my last chance.
Brett, when I first met you, you were lying in a ditch, you mumbled something about a battery,
Now we’re hiking through the Grand Canyon, with bikes strapped on our backs.
It’s really pretty dumb, but I guess it’s what we’re doing,
Oh Brett, why would you do this once, and then two times over?
Brett you are a psychopathic, masochistic biker.
Either I’m not the bard I hoped to be, or Brett is too tired to express amusement at my song. At least being ridiculous has taken my mind off of hurting for the moment. He lets me walk past and soon after, I arrive at the rim.
Adrian and the runners all cheer at my arrival. I smile, raise my arms in victory, then get the bike off my back as quickly as possible. Moments ago I was miserable. Now I’m happy. I did it, and I don’t ever have to do it again. I’m not Brett.
But Brett is soon up to the rim as well. The crowd cheers again. He sets his load to the ground, then lies down beside us on the grass. In a few minutes, he is napping peacefully.
Adrian and I are putting our bikes together, when Liz appears at the top of the trail. She gets the loudest cheers, and makes her way to our group. It isn’t until she gets her pack off, that it becomes clear how much she hurts. She walks with as much of her weight on her trekking poles as possible, to keep it off of her blistered feet. She looks unsteady, and for a moment, seizes up as one leg spasms with a cramp. Still, she’s not interested in wasting time. Within ten minutes of arriving at the top, she starts getting her bike together. She’s uncertain of her ability to still get the record. She’s one hour ahead of the split, but the current record holder got seven hours of sleep at Cottonwood Camp, like Adrian and I did. But she’s still going for it. Liz is not easily deterred.
Adrian and I tell Brett and Liz we’ll see them soon. We exit the park boundary on another snow reroute, which is as necessary as it is welcome. We ride on a paved, fairly flat highway, with a stiff wind that blows more often against our backs than in our faces. The plowed road cuts through a meadow covered in four feet of snow. Melting in the sun, it creates ponds and a river filled with floating ice chunks beside us. Progress is the fastest it’s been all trip, and we arrive at Jacob Lake, grab a few cookies, and carry on. It’s only 3pm, and 30 miles of singletrack is all that remains between us and the trail’s end, with 3,000 feet of descent over its course.
The trail is fun and makes gracious use of the elevation, descending gradually through the forest into a fun, shallow canyon filled with pines. It banks from one side to another. I air off a small bump, and hip into some duff on the side of the canyon. I land perfectly in a fresh bike track that has taken the same line, and I know that Ben is somewhere ahead.
The fun canyon opens up into a flat meadow spotted with junipers. The trail here is quick and enjoyable where cattle have not punched holes in the soft spring earth that has since hardened into numerous obnoxious bumps. “The real price of burgers!,” I yell back at Adrian. It’s only a mild nuisance though, and soon the trail falls off into a series of five or six dips and climbs in and out of gullies. This section people have also warned me about, but it doesn’t feel like much. It’s probably much worse if you haven’t slept in thirty hours.
Adrian drops me on these climbs, despite his bottom bracket sounding like a roller coaster ascending to its initial drop. I struggle to catch up with him, and rise to the top to see my fiancée Amanda standing beside him. She rode from the end of the trail to meet us and assures us that the trail ahead is going to make for a great finish.
The three of us ride together and the trail falls off into another canyon descent. It goes on for a good while, before a quick rise and then down a ridge. The juniper forest opens to a grassland blanketed in wildflowers. Utah lies before us. The Coxcomb stands above the valley below, a massive spine of orange sandstone across the valley. The trail twists back and forth down the ridgeline then turns out at the bottom. Switchbacks behind us, I pick up speed, flying off the trail into the sage at one point in my excitement. I jump back on and ride toward the finish at the Stateline Campground. I pull to the side to allow Adrian to ride through beside me.
Beers, tacos, chips, guacamole and a bottle of champagne wait for us at the finish. Amanda has brought supplies for celebration, and so have others gathered to pick up their friends. Ben finished a few hours before and lies on the ground laughing with his friend Justin Dubois. Justin is the only other rider who took the Four Peaks Route, and somehow also broke the singlespeed record. He finished first this year, over 24 hours before us.
Pavel is also there. He left Flagstaff just before us, then went hard for the finish, hiking the canyon overnight to finish early that afternoon. He proves to Adrian and I that sleeping less and riding more can, in fact, get you there faster. We’re still happy we opted for sleep.
We don’t have to wait long before Liz cruises in through the finish. She found the final stretch from the North Rim easy like we did, and came in at 9 days, 11 hours, and 44 minutes, the new fastest time for a woman to travel the Arizona Trail!
Paul persevered into the darkness to come in at ten o’clock that night.
Brett reported in as “taking a bivy” as the sun set that evening. He met with Adam, another single-speeder, and the two rode through the night to finish the next day at three in the morning. Other riders continue to file into the finish after them.
Writing this, two days later, there are still riders out on course, maybe struggling, maybe suffering, or maybe just laughing and having fun. Like me, I don’t think any of them are really out there to impress. They’re not out there because it’s a worthy or admirable thing to do. Ultimately no one cares, and it won’t make any difference. They’re out there riding through the night to have fun, to have an adventure, and just to see if they can. I guess it’s a selfish endeavor, but at least by the end, they’ll have a story or two to share with their friends.