Conquering the Lemmon 
Sunday, March 22, 2009, 12:03 AM
Posted by Administrator
Halfway up a monstrous hill during our recent San Francisco bicycling trip, Paul said, "If we can do this, then we can definitely climb Mt. Lemmon." We debated a while and then decided we had nothing to lose. Unlike on an out-of-town cycling trip, there would be no pressure to make it to the next lodging destination before dark. Our worst case scenario would be turning around before reaching the top. I could live with that.

My only stipulation was that we drive to the corner of Tanque Verde and Catalina Highway to begin the ride. When Paul rides Lemmon on his own. He typically starts and finishes at our home, making for a 100-mile trip. My version cut it down to a much more reasonable 60 miles. I would have had a second condition, but Paul beat me to it by promising to keep the speed at a maximum of 35 mph on the way back down the mountain. He knows that the danger of the fast, winding descent amongst crazy drivers scares me much more than any pain that could be brought on by the slow grind of the ascent.

We got a later start than intended, but had our feet on the pedals at 9:30am and, after a 5-mile warm-up on the Catalina Highway, we started to climb

It was a gorgeous day and there were lots of cyclists on the mountain. In fact, there may have been more bikes than cars on the road - a beautiful thing.

We took it easy and paced ourselves as the only goal of the day was to make it to the top. After about 10 miles of climbing, I could feel my IT Band start to tighten up. My lower back was complaining a bit as well, but I got some relief during a stop at Windy Point to stretch and take in the views. Here, a guy told us that he promised to buy his wife a cabin on Mt. Lemmon if she could ride all the way up with him on their tandem, without stopping. Now, why didn't I think to make a deal like that? (In case you're wondering, she did not take him up on that challenge.) As we were headed back up the road, a motorcyclist told us to "keep the rubber side down." Good tip.

The magic of Mt. Lemmon is watching the scenery change from gorgeous city views to towering saguaros to desert scrub to crazy rock formations to pine forest...and even a little snow! My legs began to fatigue, but I tried to zone out on the amazing views and then would celebrate with each mile marker.

With just a few miles to go, we topped out at about 8,000 feet and then enjoyed some downhill into Summerhaven. My jaw dropped as we turned a corner and the town came into view. I realized that the last time I had been there was a number of years ago, shortly after a devastating forest fire had destroyed much of the town.

There is a beautiful new Community Center, new cabins all over the place and a much improved parking situation. It's heartening to see that Summerhaven survived the fire and is going strong. However, the new cabins surrounded by blackened, stick-like remains of a pine forest is rather sad. It will take more than a few years for that to change.

We enjoyed a hearty lunch at the Mt. Lemmon Cafe where lots of fellow patrons asked, "Did you really ride all the way up here on a bike?" There were usually a number of follow-up questions, some alluding to the quality of our brakes for the ride back if I needed to be reminded of the possibility of careening off a cliff due to worn brake pads.

As the only cyclists up there, we were something of a novelty, especially with the tandem. While the attention was surprising, I have to say that it felt pretty good to have total strangers tell you how impressed they are with you.

After eating, we bundled up for the ride down. It had taken 3 hours and 50 minutes to ascend, but we knew it would be a much quicker, and colder, ride from this point on.

My previously mentioned concerns about the descent turned out to be unnecessary. As always, Paul was a skillful, safe rider and I just held on for dear life. I also concentrated on keeping as still as possible, as the balance of the tandem was already being upset by some strong wind gusts and I did not want to add to the problem. While our max speed did reach 44 mph, I never felt unsafe. I had expected cars to be whizzing by us, but we were only passed a handful of times. Actually reaching the posted speed limit on a bike does have its advantages.

We reached our car about one and a half hours after leaving the Mt. Lemmon Cafe, and this included a stop to strip off our extra layers once we got to a lower elevation. I was tired, but felt great that we had succeeded. The whole adventure took the better part of the day, but what better way is there to spend a beautiful Saturday in Tucson?

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