© 2023 State Bicycle Co..
Right off the bat, I'd like to clear the air and say that Single Speed Arizona is not a bike race, it is a shit show.
But that sets a terrible tone for this tale. You probably have no idea what I'm talking about. Rewind. Single Speed Arizona is the annual celebration and death march of Single Speed mountain bikes along an undisclosed course in the Sonoran desert. Ninety-Nine percent of the time, this occurs right outside Tucson, on or around the famous Mt. Lemmon (just google it) which means you're gonna have to earn your descents. And like any decent single speed event, beer (or whatever your vice may be) overfloweth throughout so the ride is what you make of it; strategize and work to your strengths. After my third SSAZ I've concluded that I'm most efficient as a sandbagger, taking in all the sights and liquids handed to me along the route. As long as I finish before sunset, it's all good. Matter of fact, Ben and I even took a well deserved nap along the course last year.
When arriving at and picking up a professional Scooter rider from his house, it's important to bust out the deck just to remind the haters that you never lost it.
We set out from Phoenix right after work on a Friday afternoon and arrived at the campsite in Tucson a few hours later. Immediately I knew I had some catching up to do in comparison to the rest of the party. Too keep 4 hours of killings kegs short, the night ended as so:
This was a great point to call it a night. It's also important to note that "camp" was the front yard of a house if a canyon and said canyon gets a HUGE amount of wind. It got so bad that I had to fully enclose myself in my bivy like a sarcophagus. At one point in the night I unzipped to get some fresh air and I see my buddy "Gnarly Marley's" tent folding over on itself and hearing some loud cursing and yelling. Sorry Gnarly, I just zipped by bivy back up and told myself I saw nothing.
Morning rolls around and all of a sudden camp doubles as all of the locals start to roll in. Coffee. Whiskey. Breakfast. Poop. Is it really time to put on a chamois? Change. Roll out. The start consisted of a huge mob of single speed mountain bikes taking the lane for 5 or so miles until we hit the start of the trail.
DeeJay, the organizer of this circus, has a tradition of making everyone dismount their bikes and taking off their front wheel at the start of the trail. Kind of a dick move but in the spirit of the event, it's a great gesture of setting the tone of the day. Fuck it, we're heading nowhere very, very slowly.
Right out the gate we're on a fireroad climb that solely consists of switchback after switchback for a long enough time that I eventually began to walk my bike because fuggit.
This is Krazy Karl. That is a snow capped mountain behind him. Unfortunately the two never met.
Eventually the climbing not only comes to an end but DeeJay greets us with a truck bed full of refreshments. Regroup.
Two things to note: 1) Ben hates me for taking/posting this picture. I tell him don't wear a long-sleeved speedsuit if you're not looking for attention. 2) Keller wore a cotton onesie for at least the first 2 hours of the day and that deserves a well deserved beer.
At the aid station DeeJay warns that this next bit of doubletrack/4x4 trail is well worth the climb. After the way this ride has begun, I have no faith in DeeJay. Turns out, DeeJay is not one to disappoint. Too much fun was had whooping and hollering but I do recall being amongst a group of riders sliding through/past two vehicles stuck in the trail. I tell ya guys, it's the little things in life...
"Hey Rhino, are you mad yet?"
"Nah man, it's too early in this shit to be mad"
But like all good things in life, the shred had to come to an end. After a few creek crossings and some beautiful desert fields toward the base of this mountain, the climbing returned. I shouldn't say so much climbing as much as it was walk straight up the face of this mountain for a few minutes, try to ride for 20 seconds, and repeat for more times than I care to remember. I kept thinking "At least we'll get to play in some snow and relax in the cooler weather" but the higher and higher we climbed, the more I realized that going up sucks and no amount of snow could be worth this hike-a-bike.
Alas, we reach the peak of our ascent up this mountain and just a short descent later we're allowed a reprieve at a creek where a handful of our other peers have stopped to replenish.
I won't lie to you, I came upon the creek part at the death rattle of the party. People were literally wrapping up what appeared to be a great little mide ride party as I came skidding in. This was not a good sign. As I was taking off at the tail end of my group I realized that I didn't have my hip pack (that's a cool way of saying fanny pack) properly situation. I stopped to adjust but my shirt was stuck in the buck and my gloves where on and idk, it was like McLovin' trying to stick it in for the first time: super awkward and took way longer than it should have. So I get it figured out and I take off 2 minutes behind my group. NBP. Not just 30 seconds 2 of the 3 straps connecting my bottle bag to my cockpit come loose. Full stop. Fix. That’s another 2 minutes lost there. I SHIT YOU NOT, literally 15 seconds later I head metal bouncing around my back end and realize my saddle bag opened up and that my tools were scattered all over the trail behind me.
By the time this whole clusterfuck got fixed, I was now a solid 10 minutes behind my pals. Kind of a bummer. I set off on my solo venture to the halfway point and stumble across a foreboding symbol.
Sweet, cattle remnants are just what you want to run into when you're not quite sure where you are in the middle of the desert.
But alas, DeeJay plans ahead. Just a few hundred feet ahead of me, the trail lead into a shady reprise from the sun and toward the infamous Bourbon tree with some still-cold beers awaiting.
Protip: When you've already drank through one of your bottles and there's cold beer available, fill that empty with a beer. I have no scientific research to support this suggestion but at the time, it seemed like a life-saving idea.
Bama, Laura and Reverend Dick joined me and after resting our weary souls, we departed along the INfamous Arizona Trail Towards the mid-point aid station. Between the Reverend and Bama, I'd say they accounted for at least half of the mechanicals encountered by all participants that day. But when Bama is carrying around his seatpost the night before and proudly proclaiming he still needs to put his bike together, we all knew what kind of day he may be in for.
The AZT can be a bitch, but the views never disappoint.
After some climbing out of the valley and arriving at the aid station is time for my annual physical check-up. I meet up and see all of my friends having a time of their lives but something about the lack of food I've had and the amount of alcohol consumed just hasn't been sitting right. Bryan, you're not doing too hot. Dude, I know, but I can't NOT finish. You should probably call it a day. We'll see.
Okay, I'm gonna head off now.
Nate- "Hey man, you wanna sip down some of this coke before you head out?"
Me- "Actually that sounds amazing" (takes swig...stomach churns)
Me-"Was there fireball in that?"
Nate-"Yeah man, didn't you hear me?"
Me- "Fuck me, right?"
And back at it. I remembered this last section of trail from the ride 2 years ago but I didn't know it well enough to recount every peak and valley. Like, I know that after this ONE peak, I'm gonna ride in a valley until I hit Milagrosa and descend like a bat out of hell down to camp. The problem is that EVERY peak seems like that one peak and EVERY valley seems the same. If you can empathize with what was my current state ofexhaustion and my terrible memory, you know that this whole process was torture.
Oh, and then my phone case broke, allowing moisture to accumulate around my cameralens. Thanks "LifeProof"...
There's an unwritten rule to SSAZ. If you can get a picture of yourself mounted on a cattle, that's it. Race over. You win. Now if's and's or but's. Apparently someone tried to "dead man" flop onto this stallion, obtained photographic evidence, and got bucked off. Unfortunately, it was not a cow. Sorry dude, you still won over our hearts.
The final descent into camp is the ever-revered "La Milagrosa" trail. Pay your respects to Milly, that bitch bites bike. Somewhere along the descent I punctured (yes, I'm too lazy/cheap to invest in a tubeless setup) and eventually ended up at camp with less than 5 psi left in my rear tire.
In a sense this kind of fully encompasses the weekend for me, "just barely getting by". Thank you DeeJay, thank you Tucson and a huge thanks to State Bicycle Co. For the great time. During every hike and every cramp my mind tells me "this is the last one" but my heart cannot resist the camaraderie of the annual family reunion. Until next year, ya bunch of degenerates.
Every time someone would ask us what we were up to Dejay would respond that it was a “ride with friends”. This is only accurate if your friends like to ride (and walk) inadequate bikes in the backcountry all day. So while some people were very much faster than others, and there was a prize for first - and last - place, all the beers on the ride to the “start” helped me index what I was about to get myself into. That and the night before. Let’s get back to that, the night before.
From what I had gathered before the race I needed to be more prepared for partying than for riding, and this wasn’t completely off. I went up with Bryan, who has told me stories of SSAZs past that included incoherently walking through neighboring campgrounds, mass amounts of mind altering substances, and multiple trips to drinking and eating establishments that he still doesn’t remember. I think I was as prepared as I could be.
After I bought a beer and a turkey roll from Trader Joe’s, and Bryan did his week’s grocery shopping, we pulled up to base camp. I didn’t know whose house it was, and I still don’t, but he wasn’t home. By definition we weren’t squatting because we had his permission, I think, but we were pretty much squatting. The fire pit was already going, kegs had long since been tapped, and we found a parking spot between a cactus and another cactus and a couple other spiky plants. We set up our tent and bivy amongst many other prickly desert plants and rocks that we would brush up against and run into for the next day or so. We did this with a swiftness so that we could get to drinking by the fire, the top priority of the weekend. I set my one person tent up right next to, practically touching, another fellow’s huge, ten person tent. This will come up later.
We joined in on the drinking and shenanigans as quickly as possible, and shortly after we realized that one keg was already empty. Dammit! Fortunately there were countless Oskar Blues cans everywhere and bottles of liquor being passed around every couple of minutes. This is when I saw someone whose name will stay anonymous do what he called The Puker. It’s one part shotgun and one part gravity bong, except because of the wind it became three parts shotgun and one part gravity bong because the lighter didn’t work for the first two beer cans. I’d say sorry, but I don’t think he was upset about “having” to drink more.
So first you need the three main parts of The Puker. You pack the one thing and put it into the other thing (the other thing being situated upside down), which should create an air-tight hold. Then put the new, combined thing onto the other thing. You’re all set up!
Caught up in a drunken whirlwind I found myself walking with the late night, not too serious about racing crew to set up a jump on the course for the next day, which was probably that morning by now. The jump was built by the kind of craftsman who builds jumps for kids to crash on, film, and put on Instagram. The goal was to use the ramp to clear a creek at the very end of the course, which was right by the house. The best spot for the ramp, it was determined, was a quarter of the way into the creek. “Clearing the creek” was a pretty loose term.
Someone had to test the ramp, so the one person who brought a bike rode it up the hill to get some speed. Fifteen minutes later, he still wasn’t back. We couldn’t see his blinking red taillight or his god-knows-how-many-lumens headlight. We were getting tired of waiting when a faint light peaked through the shrubs atop the mountain. Everybody cleared out of the way for the magnificent jump we were about to witness, but what appeared was much more impressive. A grown man in boxers with his jeans slung around his neck.
Naturally we gave him some drinks then decided to get dry grass to put in the fire. Some sort of wrestling match began and the group was separated.
Eventually we wound up at camp again and made an amazing bonfire for the five seconds that our few handfuls of grass burned. The second keg was now gone, meaning that we had consumed ten gallons of beer so far, not including all the cans and bottles and bottles of other stuff. The decision to save the third keg for the next night started the wind down of the evening, and everyone snuck into his respective sleeping bag.
Nature wasn’t having it though. Sometime in the early hours it became extraordinarily windy, with gusts of wind periodically roaring through camp. I had hope that my neighbor’s much larger tent would protect mine from the wind, but I also had fears that it would splinter and crush my tent. I turned onto my side so at least the tent poles wouldn’t hit me directly in the face. While getting up to relieve myself I saw that his tent had half caved in and half gotten tangled up in a tree, but it was being blown away from mine which meant I was safe. I got back into my tent after tightening the rain fly down as much as possible and tried to get a few more hours of rest. Every few minutes I would hear the wind blow through the tree next to me, still wrapped in unplugged Christmas lights, and brace myself for the next gust that would try and uproot my abode.
A saguaro only starts growing arms after its 70th birthday. Other sources say not until the cactus is 100 years old. An adult saguaro can also be one of the heaviest plants at up to eight tons due to its water holding nature. Either way this thing got knocked over by some wind that it had never seen in a pretty long lifetime of desert existence.
That morning I was happy to find that the wind was as bad I had thought.
Typically in my sleeping bag I compound everything until I’ve scared myself awake, but everyone else was talking about it, tents had been torn apart, and a cactus had been knocked over nearly onto a motorcycle. My happiness about being correct turned quickly to distress that we were about to ride in this tempest. The first road portion was okay based on a big group, casual speeds, handups, and a fortunate direction relative to the wind, but the dirt road was a new low in high winds.
Dejay made us take our wheels off while we regrouped, then we put them back on and started up the climb that was made of rutted out dirt, side by sides, and headwinds. Guess what, you can’t shift into an easier gear with a single speed. Climbing out of the saddle too much needlessly wears out your upper body but you don’t have enough power to turn the pedals sitting down because the road is steep and the wind is trying to stop you from going anywhere. The point when I knew the wind was truly outrageous was after a switchback that put the wind behind us while climbing. That jaunt was the easiest climb I’ve ever done. Then we turned left into the wind again.
The house/campsite is down there somewhere. Look way off there, probably to the right a little bit. Maybe behind that cactus.
The first “aid station” loomed up ahead, marking the end of the fire road climb. I drank a beer (for sustenance) and sighed with relief only to learn that this had been the easy climb. I didn’t want to believe it but I do now, and fortunately I discredited them so I could keep deluding myself. After plenty of four wheelers drove by and said that we were crazy we set off down the next section.
Up next was a “choose your own adventure” of rocky, jeep road descents and climbs. The rocky portions had infinite lines and were long, making it terrifically difficult to decide on a line. Overall they weren’t especially gnarly, but imagine how many lines a rocky section of singletrack has and multiplying that by fifty. It was overwhelming.
This doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun though. Other than some of the later singletrack this was the fastest and most wild section. Sometimes you picked a good line through the rocks and sometimes you didn’t, but afterward there was always some fast double track with loose berms and jumps that Tucson apparently makes. I think the mounds are there to divert water or something along those lines, but for us they’re perfect launch ramps. You’re already ripping down hill when you come up to a smooth, dirt, ski jump with a smooth, dirt, ski jump landing. Preload your suspension (if you’ve got it) and pop off that thing before you rail the next berm then splash through one of one-hundred water crossings. All these little downhill rippers made the fire road climb and other little uphill kicks worthwhile.
Nate was better at picking lines than I was. Then again, he is from Tucson so maybe he’d ridden this before.
For this section I was riding with Nate, which was fortunate because I definitely would have taken a wrong turn without him, or at least would have had to wait for the next person farther back to point me in the right direction.
I would watch him ride the downhills and try to keep up, then skid through turns and hit jumps side by side like a choreographed scene from a movie where two guys become friends and start hanging out. Most important to this scene was his spare beer (one of, rather), a Modelo attached upside down to the back of his seatpost with clear packing tape. The Enduro Beer. On a fast section I heard him yell and looked up ahead to see the can spewing out its contents through a small puncture while he attempted to grab it. He managed to rip it from its hold, then started drinking it, all while blasting downhill, doing a rock drop, and splashing through a small creek. While drinking a beer. Riding one handed. We both stopped and finished it, but that was one of the top moves of the weekend. We got back on and kept on jamming.
There were a couple of uphills that we had to hike, though, and they kept making me think about the “big” hike-a-bike we were going to do. Supposedly we’d know when we hit it, and after a few ups and downs with some walking I thought that maybe it had just been a scare tactic, or maybe it just wasn’t all that bad.
The “big” hike-a-bike was all that bad, wasn’t a scare tactic, and I knew when I hit it. Occasionally I’d hit a part where it smoothed out and mount my bike for fifteen feet. It was getting pretty toasty at this point, at least while pushing a bicycle up a rocky, god forsaken hill. Fortunately Nate found some unknown elixir that gave him the power to go on.
Root beer doesn’t typically turn this shade of yellow, no matter how long it’s been in the elements, so either someone replaced the contents with pineapple Fanta or was as dehydrated as us.
After the hike-a-bike there was some nice downhill with a few uphills in between, but I could feel the elevation dropping somewhat. The water crossings were getting bigger, from little streams to creeks running over some smooth boulders to enormous washes that, while there wasn’t too much water, were much too sandy to ride across without a fat bike.
Some sections of the trail would follow a wash for a quarter mile, which ended up being a quarter mile of trying to determine if riding or walking was a better option, trying to ride, and realizing nine times out of ten that walking was the better option. Somehow one of these washes granted us access to a forest. I climbed up what at some point in the springtime is the bank of a river, gave a couple pedal strokes, and was all of a sudden ducking my head through low hanging trees. Okay, I’m sure I’ll get some guff from people who come from places where it rains about calling it a forest, but for the desert, it was a damn forest. The high point of this forest was the fabled Bourbon Tree. I came across a few people sitting down and figured it out when I saw a sixer and a bottle under the tree. This desert oasis was the only respite we had from the sun and trail between the actual rest stops (trucks with food and drink). A couple swigs and I was ready to go again.
Out of the little forest and across another couple of washes we turned onto the Arizona Trail, a trail that crosses the state from Mexico to Utah. I’ve done portions of the trail farther north but was excited to try this section out, especially since it was the first singletrack portion of the day. Actually, as it turns out, the rest of the ride was all singletrack. This bit still had plenty of climbing through rolling hills where you could barely see the trail itself through the waving grass. At this point I realized I was getting hungry but knew that the comfort zone was coming up. Still, I stopped to eat some Clif food type substances that were stuffed in my saddle bag. Apache helicopters flew low over the trail and down between the hills against a snow capped mountain background.
We grinded over rolling hill after rolling hill until the last one showed us a fire road, the same road that we had ridden up earlier that day, just much farther up. The cue sheet said that the comfort zone was at a crossing of this road and boy was it. An EZ Up over the back of a pickup was as good as I could ever ask for. I’m no expert on mid ride nutrition so I just had some of everything there, as did most everyone else: pickles, cheese puffs, M&M’s, Red Vines (Twizzlers?), beer, shots, chocolate, Doritos, oranges, GU gels, potato chips, more beer, more shots. Looking back that’s some pretty terrible nutrition but it was fuel and it got me to the finish. Just because a car is supposed to take 91 octane doesn’t mean it can’t run on 87. A little time out of the sun and some stretching and it was across the road to catch the AZT again.
First aid is essential on off road rides because a cut can easily get infected. Rinsing with water will clean the cut while crumbled up Doritos from the end of a bag will make sure it seals up quickly. Life hack!
The trail started off with more uphill that I pushed my bicycle up to try and save energy and because I had just been sitting around eating junk food. Fortunately this was pretty much the last big up of the ride and there was a good amount of downhill with some great views. The trail was still just about covered by brush so the odd rock or rut was exciting to happen upon. I did most of the last half on my own, but at this point riding at whatever pace works for you is the best bet. Holding on to someone else could blow you up so I took it pretty easy.
There were only a couple turns before the finish at this point so I was careful not to mess up the directions. Apparently a few guys who were in the front did just that, and kept going on AZT instead of turning onto Milagrosa. I found the few turns and ended up running into some other guys and rode with them for a bit. Around one corner I was surprised by a few wild horses standing off the trail, and even more surprised by one of the other riders petting one of them. He’s a god damned horse whisperer! The horse seemed calm so apparently this guy knew what he was doing. As I pulled out my camera I wondered why he was hugging the horse’s neck, and as I brought the viewfinder to my eye he leapt onto its back, only to be instantly bucked off and slammed pretty hard onto his side. Now let me preface this. At the start of the race we were informed that anyone who rode a bull/cow and got proof would win the race no matter where he or she placed. This guy rode a horse and we got pictures so we were prepared to crown him the victor. He dusted himself off and tried to make amends but the horse wasn’t having it.
The final turn was a left onto Milagrosa, and I was happy to be in the home stretch well before sunset. There was talk of bringing a light in case you weren’t especially fast, which I’m not, so I brought a light, but it didn’t seem like it would get any use. There was also talk of how treacherous Milagrosa is. Guys at the turnoff were pulling out tools to lower seats and dropping tire pressure and telling scary stories of people getting wrecked on The Waterfall and other tough features. I already overthink trail features that I’ve never ridden before and with this warning I ended up hiking a decent chunk of the trail. I also saw the aforementioned cowboy take a spill so I decided to play it safe. The trail eventually got more tame and I got tired of walking so I hopped back on the bike and skidded my way down the mountain. I finally recognized the valley we had walked into the night before and even spotted our basecamp and was overcome with relief that the day was just about done. The final descent to the pavement and launch ramp was loose and fast, and since I was so close to finishing I opened up and let fly. I definitely didn’t clear the creek jump.
I rolled back into camp and was received with a couple less than enthusiastic “yeahs”, not surprising considering I finished three hours after first place and everyone else was eating and drinking and being tired. Bryan rolled in a little later with a just about flat front tire and a beer in hand, and unlocked his car so I could put on clothes that were slightly more fresh. We discussed whether riding a horse was grounds for victory, but apparently these single speeders go by the book when it comes to animal classifications. Cows would be a bit more risky to ride than horses. On the trail I was ready to come back and smash some beers, and I thought everyone else would too, but I realized that we were all just really sleepy. We had spaghetti and garlic bread and pulled pork from the buffet which was terrific, got some prizes in the raffle, and spaced out by the fire for a bit longer. I went to bed no later than 10pm. Half the people had already left and everyone went to sleep pretty soon afterward so it was a calm night. We had survived the day and had a hell of a good time with some near perfect weather (other than the wind). Not a single cactus was toppled that night.