AZT800 — I'll Be Back

AZT800 — I'll Be Back

As I sat there in Filberto’s Mexican grill chowing down on my second burrito I was filled with a mixture of emotions. I had made it 500 miles into the Arizona Trail 800 mtb route and I was on record pace and my legs were feeling strong. Yet it was to be the end of my ride. The route beyond Payson was by all accounts unrideable for large sections of it due to heavy snowpack and if and when that melts infamous death mud. 

This moment had been a long time coming and I even knew before I started that I was going to reach a hard stop here. In the week leading up to the attempt there were some pretty crazy snow storms out there which left over a foot of snowpack in multiple places in the route. In the words of race director John Shilling “
if it was only a short section or two, but it's half of the route. The AZTR is tough enough when conditions are perfect.”  With that in mind my perspective on the whole trip took a bit of a switch. From racing to get the record to “trying to ride at record pace and seeing how far I get with it”. Despite the inevitable early finish I was determined to get out there and both test by legs and equipment as well as recce the route for a future attempt. 

Now on my third burrito, reflecting on the ride I began to replay the highlights in my head. From the moment I touched down in Arizona I was dependent on the generosity of others just to make it to the start. My Warmshowers hosts in Phoenix, John Schilling driving me past Tuscon and Mike and Angie for putting me up in Sierra Vista as well as taking me to the border. As soon as I pushed that first pedal stroke, however, I knew that I was on my own for the foreseeable future. All the work had to be done by me and all problems and mechanicals I had to overcome myself. Its a feeling that I am well used to now and one that I cherish. 

The thing that stood out so clearly to me about the AZT was not only did it cross spectacular and varied landscapes, many great routes do this, but the quality of the riding was second to none. The way that the singletrack snaked its way in between rocks, cactuses and trees in a never ending fashion kept my mind occupied and my body moving. What I hadn’t appreciated was just how much of the route was singletrack, sure you can look at the stats but its such a contrast to much of the riding in the UK and Europe where if you are lucky you get many miles of filler gravel and roads just to “get to the good stuff”. 

And then there was Mt. Lemmon. When I arrived at the Molino Basin car park at the base of the 15 mile Lemmon Pusch hike a bike it was heavy rain and the creeks were flashing so I spent an early night in the public bathroom. This meant that I had the pleasure of watching the sun come up as I started the big push up the Bugs Spring trail. I gained elevations steadily through a mixture of riding, pushing and making use of the hike-a-bike harness. The first signs of snow were visible from around 5000 feet (I switched to “freedom units” whilst over there) and by the time I got to 6000 there was a steady covering by 8000 I had at least 6 inches with huge swaithes over a foot deep. Progress was especially slow. I was maybe travelling at 1kph on average so when I popped out at the road I took John’s advice and made use of the snow diversion which had me follow the road up for the final couple of miles to Summerhaven. The descent from there was not to be underestimated, not only were the first few miles in deep snow but the Oracle ridge descent was steep rocky and overgrown. I had the right bike for the job and I made full use of the dropper thanks to the small amount of space that the race saddlebag takes up. 

Riding in the spring was a blessing and a curse, it was the snow that eventually stopped me but it meant that I got to see the desert at its best. The plants were more vibrant and lush than I ever could have expected and the cactuses were in bloom with spots of magenta and gold interspersed in the dark green forest, I would say that for anyone wanting to do the AZT300 the spring is the time to do it.  When I return however I would go for an Autumn start, just to guarantee that the whole route is passable.

It really didn’t take me too long to come to the realisation that I spent a week riding world class trails and simply had the best time. Additionally, I was then able to head over to Sedona where I met some rad people who showed me the ropes and then rode the 80 mile singletrack Black Canyon Trail on the way back to Phoenix. However in the worlds of Arnold “I'll be back”. 

Written and photographed by Angus Young