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Ride Like You Mean It

Explore Tucson By Bike

Most Tucsonans with a bike will head straight to The Loop, a network of shared-use paths running along the edges of the city in a near-continuous circle. Consisting of the Rillito River Park, Santa Cruz River Park, Pantano River Park, and Julian Wash/Harrison Greenway, The Loop is open to anything without a motor. Olympic cyclist Chloe Woodruff remembers The Loop as one of her favorite ways to explore: “Riding a bike lets you see and experience so many more things than you would by zipping through by car.” She particularly recommends stopping for fresh tortillas and empanadas at the Anita Street Market, between the Santa Cruz River and Dunbar Spring neighborhood.

Daniela Diamonte, co-founder of the youth cycling nonprofit El Grupo and a Tucson cyclist for 14 years, credits bike touring as the catalyst for her cycling passion. She recalls her first ride was down to Madera Canyon, a beautiful riparian canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains, about 35 miles southeast of Tucson. Also high on her list of local rides are the routes to Brown Mountain, Colossal Cave, and Catalina State Park—the last of which can be achieved entirely via The Loop system. Pack a few light camping supplies, and turn your bike tour into a hiking and camping adventure, too.

If you enjoy the bike-and-hike idea but want to stay a bit closer to town, consider making your way up Sabino Canyon. During the day, this Coronado National Forest land is packed with visitors enjoying the foothills of the Santa Catalinas—but every morning and evening (before 8 a.m. and after 5 p.m.) the paved roadway leading up into the heart of Sabino is also open to cyclists. Test your legs with some uphill work, and take in the quiet beauty of one of the most vibrant canyons in the Santa Catalinas. And remember: what goes up gets to coast all the way back down.

Take that connection to nature a step farther on mountain bike trails that curl and crisscross their way through the Santa Catalina, Tucson, and Rincon mountain ranges. Just don’t get too close to any of the cholla cacti that line the routes. If you do, don’t panic: a fine-toothed comb should remove any larger pieces of cacti that might be hanging on, and tweezers can take care of the rest. It’s not just your shins that are in danger, either. Avid mountain cyclist Nina Simon recommends going tubeless.

Riding a bike lets you see and experience so many more things than you would zipping through by car.

Simon frequently joins the all-female Bell Joy Ride for social rides and recommends Sweetwater Wetlands for its wide variety of opportunities for all skill levels. Sonoran Desert Mountain Bicyclists and Great Arizona Bicycling Association also host many social rides. Every Tuesday night, grab your bike for a casual ride with fellow cyclists starting at Old Main on the University of Arizona campus. Tucson’s cycle-friendly lifestyle is never more apparent than during Cyclovia. Twice a year, Tucson streets shut down to motorized traffic, and people-powered fun prevails on the route from downtown to South Tucson. For more cycling events, race through the desert south of the city during the Tucson Bicycle Classic in March or go on a 106-mile (or less, if you prefer) racing adventure through the streets of Tucson during El Tour de Tucson in November.

Ah, but you can’t talk of adventure in Tucson without looking to Mt. Lemmon. Consistently voted onto cyclists’ lists of top road bike climbs in the country, the Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway boasts a perfectly cambered 4 percent to 5 percent grade with breathtaking views at every switchback. Amy Orchard, training and clinic coordinator for the Tucson Tri Girls, leads a series of locally famous rides called Easy Peasy Lemmon Squeezy. She is still amazed at the biodiversity of the climb—after all, she notes, you’re making the very same elevation and vegetation changes as if you were riding from Mexico to Canada. Just try not to start when the sun is already high in the sky. The mountain may rise to 9,000 feet, but it still has its roots in the valley desert.

Tucson feels more alive from atop a bike, and this desert has a way of showing you just how strong you can be. So go as far and as high and as long as you can, and then reach beyond that. You might surprise yourself.

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