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5 A.M. the day after Thanksgiving is pretty cold most places in the Northern Hemisphere. The Earth has been tilting away from the sun after getting roasted all summer long, and Helios hasn’t even woken up to steer his chariot across the sky. I, on the other hand, was shivering my way down the freeway to meet 156 other riders for a full day of trails.
The first I’d heard of Flight of the Pigs was last year at a cyclocross race. A friend said he wasn’t going to do the upcoming race on Thanksgiving weekend because of this event. He told me about the ride and it sounded tough, a little too tough for a cyclocross bike and with last year’s skill sets. It starts by Desert Classic at South Mountain, then connects to Mormon/National to run the length of South Mountain park, catches the road and canals to the Phoenix Mountain Preserve in order to ride Trail 100 coast to coast, gets back on the road and heads to Papago for the third and final trail system, then hits the road for the last time to pedal back to the start. Overall this rounds out to 70 miles of riding, half of which is on dirt. A good amount of which is on difficult trails. National is hard. I’ll get into that later.
The towers sure look different from here than from the road.
Before the ride I’d done most of the trails on my monstercross bike and I was planning to do the ride on that. Lucky for me, a week prior State lent me a prototype 29er to get used to for a photoshoot the weekend after Flight of the Pigs. After a week of riding it and trying to get it dialed in, I had ridden about two miles out of the 30 or more miles of trails we were about take on. Oh yeah, it’s single speed, too. The longest ride I’d done on the 29er before Flight of the Pigs was probably 20 miles. Actually, I doubt that I’d ridden a cumulative 70 miles on it. Well, here’s a good time to double its mileage.
Back to the morning of. It was 40 degrees fahrenheit and I was doing 80mph on my motorcycle. According to the internet that wind chill got me down to around 20 degrees for a half hour before standing around in cycling clothing for another hour and a half before the sun started to peak. I know, I know, everyone else is dealing with highs of 40 degrees, I get it. But it’s still chilly. It’s chilly when you’re dressed for huffing and puffing up mountains in mid 60s on a clear day. Always the minimalist (unprepared), I had shorts, a t-shirt, a flannel, gloves, and a fanny pack. I didn’t want to bring more warm clothes because the fanny pack was full of food so I couldn’t fit anything more into it. So I held myself tight all the way through the registration line then warmed up by a fire set up by the gracious host of this event.
This was less than half the group.
One of the reasons that I decided to do this was because this was the 20th anniversary and the final Flight. Seeing as I’d been a mountain biker for a week I needed to take part in this little bit of Arizona mountain bike history. Jim Wilcox, the organizer, gave us a rundown of the events even though the majority of people there had ridden it before. He’s been organizing this ride for the past two decades, and only last year moved away from Arizona. He came back for the final year with the help of a local mountain biker with an exceptional and well placed house. With the sun peaking over the rooftops we started pedaling toward Desert Classic trail.
I haven’t done much trail riding when it’s chilly. If it’s cold in the morning, I’ll ride in the afternoon. Or I ride in summer wearing as little clothing as possible in hopes of being cold. Riding road or gravel in the cold still wears you out, but on the trails you need your whole body to be warm, not just your legs. So the first fifteen minutes of riding I was pulling the brakes way too hard, taking terrible lines, and basically looking like a complete newbie on the bike. We got to a trail that’s more of a fire road and for the first and only time in the day I was happy to climb. I got warmed up except for my toes, which I wouldn’t feel for another hour.
Going down in between a lot of going up.
Then it was onto Mormon trail to connect to National. This meant slow, technical, grinding climbs. This also meant hike a bike. There are a lot of climbs I probably could have made it up but didn’t because there were other people already walking it or spinning up it with a small gear, and because I didn’t want to use all the day’s energy on the first section of trail. There were also downhill sections that I hiked on account of the same reasoning. And because I was scared of going over the bars and falling off a mountain. My caution was worthless though because near the end I did go OTB but managed to unclip and land on my feet on the trail. Getting to the end of National was almost as good a feeling as finishing the whole ride, knowing that the rest of the trails would pale in comparison, both in climbs and descents.
Since this was a group ride, not a race, we would reconvene at the end of each trail and wait for the whole group to roll in. This was a good time for recovery, but even being middle of the pack it would end up being a pretty long wait. By the time we’d get going again I’d have to warm up, which meant for a long day of stopping and starting. Fortunately the road bits weren’t too terrible since my single speed gearing is relatively tall. I think it was a worthy trade off based on the other, smaller ratios I saw people riding on the flats and downhills. We stopped for lunch at Sacks in Phoenix which was terrific, then kept on going to the west end of Trail 100. I believe that was the longest road section, but maybe it just felt that way.
And ants didn’t get the food!
Trail 100 was much faster than the South Mountain trails. There were still some painful climbs, but it was much easier to maintain speed and rip across to the east side. And, with the big road section beforehand, the group had split up and there weren’t as many bottlenecks on the more technical sections. This trail spit us out onto the grassy knoll, as they call it. We were welcomed with a keg in the back of a white panel van, whisky shots, cookies, and a ham. This is the stuff dreams are made of; a makeshift picnic with a bunch of worn out mountain bikers.
The dream only lasted a little while before we got back on the road to Papago. We managed to stay mostly together on this section since it was either flat or downhill. We pretty much took over the streets and were definitely a sight to see (and hear). Staying together as a group was fun, but also led to a bottleneck for the entirety of Papago. We all tried to squeeze into the trailhead while at least twenty guys peeled off into the bushes to get rid of all the beer we’d just drunk. Papago was the shortest trail section of the day, but an aerial view of 157 mountain bikes all in a line strung out through the desert park would have been terrific. We gathered at Hunt’s Tomb with a lap around the pyramid shaped tomb, riding up and down stairs, apparently something that the ride isn’t complete without. It was just about sunset at this point and we managed to blast downhill the rest of the way to Mill with a little bit of light leftover.
Hell of a damn tomb. Wish it were mine.
From there it was the home stretch. We took over Mill Avenue, rode through Hipster Compton, and kept going through the dark into Ahwatukee. I rode past my parked motorcycle and saw that my helmet and jacket were still there, then finally past the finish line and to the food and drink. Everyone was gravitating toward the fires that were placed around the yard like insects to fluorescent bug zappers. I stuffed myself with pulled pork and got to test some local beers while Jim was giving out the finishers’ pins. At the beginning of the day we had to weigh in with both our bikes and ourselves, and he started giving pins to the lightest people first. Fortunately I’m a little guy who didn’t bring many supplies! I got my rad, sterling silver pin and swung my leg over the saddle one last time to pedal back to my motorcycle. Another half hour of chilly weather behind a different pair of bars and I was at home, thankful that I had made it through the day, my only ailment being aches and overall exhaustion. I’m sad that this was the final Flight of the Pigs, but I’m glad I was able to at least make one.
No, they aren’t XstraightedgeX socks, there are only two X’s denoting twenty years.
Oh yeah, that cyclocross race the day after? Slept right through it.
Words and Photography by Alex Steadman
Catch him on Instagram @steezeman