For Biking, Running and Swimming in Winter, Tucson Takes the Gold
By Tim Vanderpool
If Tucson owes its free-spirited culture to bountiful sunshine and stunning natural scenery, we can also thank those sublime accouterments for making us a Winter Training Capital for athletes worldwide.
And so up the slopes, they charge, determined and Lycra-bound. Or through the tree-lined streets, they race, pacing one another past a rich urban palette. In keen competition or simple training, these warriors of body and spirit descend upon the desert in droves, dotting our hillsides and our boulevards, tapping the Southwest to inspire their souls and send their hearts racing.
This global buzz has helped garner Tucson a Gold Level ranking by the League of American Bicyclists and a nod by Outside magazine as America’s top biking town. Then there’s Triathlete magazine, which dubbed us the nation’s number one wintertime endurance destination. “The variety of training options on predominantly sunny, warm, rainless days is astounding,” Triathlete gushed.
It seems the rest of the world has discovered what locals knew all along: Tucson offers the sheer freedom to roam among surroundings that surround you, whether it’s riding into the mountains, sprinting along our city streets or paddling across our plentiful pools. It’s a town with an exuberant heartbeat and the soul of an elite athlete.
Cyclists will find nearly 500 miles of dedicated bike lanes coursing through the city and an equally challenging number of rides into the surrounding mountains. Triathlete duly noted this remarkable variety: “Want flatland work on the bike?” the magazine wrote. “Head south along Old Nogales Highway. High tempo? Madera Canyon. How about a beautiful rolling cruise in the Sonoran Desert? Try Gates Pass and ride smooth and serpentine Kinney Road. Serious hill work? Make the 19-mile ascent up Mt. Lemmon. There are simply no shortages of options for any level of cyclist.”
Endurance athletes come to Tucson to increase their cycling prowess by riding up Mt. Lemmon, through Gates Pass and around The Loop. Pro cyclists tackle the full 26-mile ride up the Catalina Highway to the top of Mt. Lemmon, gaining nearly 6,000 feet in elevation in the process. This long, steady ride is a popular challenge year-round as there is rarely snow under 7,000 feet. Gates Pass is a mountain pass along the crest of the Tucson Mountains on West Speedway Boulevard with rewarding valley views for the most experienced cyclists comfortable with sharing the narrow road with vehicles. The Loop is a 131-mile, car-free network of paved, shared-use, primarily flat paths ideal for perfecting speedy, long-distance rides from dawn to dusk.
Nearly all Tucson’s bicycling routes and mountain biking trails are also well-suited for running. Get going on The Loop car-free, multi-use path with 131 miles of meandering vistas alongside a broad riverbed. Or aim for Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, where your eight-mile roundtrip run on a paved roadway closed to vehicles passes through scenic desert and riparian landscapes. Then there’s the cactus-laced, eight-mile paved Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive in Saguaro National Park’s Rincon (East) District. With pine-topped mountains as the soaring backdrop, this ultra-scenic drive is narrow with many tight turns and steep hills.
Tucson’s winter sunshine makes swimming here a liberating, out-of-doors pleasure as you glide through the aqua lanes with blue skies at your back. Accordingly, full-sized outdoor pools shimmer across town. They range from the City of Tucson's four year-round and five extended-season lap pools to private facilities, such as the Oro Valley Aquatic Center, a handful of YMCAs, the Tucson Jewish Community Center and the University of Arizona’s Student Recreation Center as well as several private, membership-based fitness centers.
Perhaps you want more than just a solo outing and hope to boost your performance to new levels. If so, try one of the top-shelf personal trainers or group coaching programs that gild Tucson’s reputation as an international fitness hub. Or add one of the city's full slate of up-tempo running and cycling events to your training regimen. When you're ready to unwind, soothe your mind and body with a restorative treatment at one of Tucson's renowned destination or day spas.
For athletes from colder climes, those opportunities only add to the sense that free-spirited Tucson is truly a different place. Not only does the Sonoran Desert winter refresh your athletic soul, but our warm, sunny days and chilled, pristine nights are sure to nourish your warrior spirit as well.