The AZTR-300: 300 miles mostly on the Arizona Trail from Parker Lake to Picketpost Mountain. 38k ft. of climbing. A lot of singletrack, some of which is pretty technical, some dirt roads, a couple paved detours. 3 days, 21 hours, 53 minutes total time. 10 hours of sleep.
It was fun until it wasn’t.
And the last 6 hours were not fun. I was done, but had no way to quit so close to the end. The best part were the people that helped me accomplish this, those that I met, and the trail itself. The worst part was the lack of sleep.
That’s the short summary.
Here’s the long version:
After a rental bike in Phoenix fell through, I bought a bike 2 weeks before my flight. The test ride in the parking lot behind the bike shop went well and so it came home with me. Next weekend, bikepacking gear and water were attached. New saddle and grips arrived in time. Then, the bike went in a box for the flight to Phoenix. So shiny and new.
Drive to work, change into crappy clothes, drive to the airport, fly to Phoenix, rent an SUV, drive to Schillingsworth who stowed the box for me, drive to Tucson, assemble bike at Lee’s, throw away crappy clothes, get a ride from Pascal to Parker Lake at 5 am. How much space is there in a Honda Fit? Here are 2 bikes and it’s still not full:
So much preparation. Now it was finally coming together. Air-up the shocks, tires. Say ‘hi’ to Scott. Eszter snaps a picture. Ready!
The tires crunch for the first time on dirt. I was supposed to start my ITT at 7:00a, but now it’s 7:45a. I do not care. There’s the first AZT sign – let’s stop for a picture 5 seconds into the race! This is my ride.
Singletrack. Yum. Full suspension, all-mountain bike. Yum. Scott mentioned that this is gear-check hill, and indeed my tires are still too low. But all my gear stays attached.
A great day to be out in the Canelos under light cloud cover.
The hike-a-bike sections aren’t brutal, but a bit long and hot even under thin cloud cover.
All the spring flowers are gone, but some cacti are blooming.
We make our way along 2-tracks, some more hike-a-bike, and a rowdy singletrack descent. I am giving the dropper post on my Giant Trance a _huge_ thumbs-up for bikepacking. Initially, I had wanted to dump it, but seeing that the internal cable routing makes it almost impossible to do so, I had left it begrudgingly.
Then, we’re at the half-way point to Patagonia where Pascal leaves the AZT to return to his car at Parker Lake.
Photo by Pascal Fortin.
Let’s count passages along the AZT.
The wide-open trail awaits me. Alone.
The AZT mostly goes high above the San Rafael Valley, but a short section passes through and is a real treat to ride.
I catch up to Jerry, age 71, who is setting out for his second attempt at the AZT300. He is in good spirits. We chat for a while, then I roll on.
There are numerous gates along the AZT. Some were recently installed and working well, others are in need of repair.
The gates separate the cows.
I wish I would have gotten a full-suspension bike sooner. Traveling like this is too easy. Even when it gets rocky. Really rocky.
Red Bank well comes soon. I have enough water to not have to stop at the watering trough – and I didn’t bring a filter in any case. The water seems pretty good, though, as the pump is wind and solar powered. Unlike a few years when I was there and the water was coming rusty out of the pipe.
From here on until Patagonia is singletrack, some of it pretty serious. Always scenic, though.
I briefly stop for water and ice cream in Patagonia, chat with Paul and Chris who are out for their first attempt at the AZT300. I don’t want to stop long, because there’s a huge tailwind blowing north to Sonoita. Easy miles!
Delicious food and air-conditioning in Sonoita, then on to Kentucky Camp for the night! I think of Lee who should be out now doing some road miles. Road miles can be easy or hard, but I don’t find them that much fun.
I am spooked by various sounds riding at night near the border.
I am glad to arrive at Kentucky Camp at 8:30 pm and plant myself down in the lounge chairs for an hour before thinking about sleeping. It’s beautiful here. The stars are out. My mattress is leaking, so I sleep on the flat wooden floor. Not too bad, but I wake up frequently. Someone rides through in the night, but I don’t bother to look up who it is.
A little after 5 am, I fill up with water and roll out. Long lazy night, but much needed rest after the last few days have been so hectic.
I think about the riders who are getting ready at Parker Lake for their big group start, and am glad that I am out here on my own. Pushing my bike and watching the beautiful, quiet sunrise unfold.
As it gets warmer, I need to stop to strip layers, and pull up my sunblocking tights. They drop frequently, until I finally pull them high enough and tuck them under my shorts. I hate sunscreen, and these do the trick when they stay up.
The trail is very rocky and I think back to when I flattened during the Kentucky Camp 50 a few years ago. Or, when I rode through here with Lee, and later Pascal. The Empire Ranch is straight ahead, but the AZT curves north in a second.
Gates come and come – but none seem as bad I remembered them.
Especially, when it is missing!
The Las Colinas section is long, rubbly, and steep. I can’t believe how much climbing traction the rear suspension adds. Even with tires inflated to ~25 psi (?), the rear rarely slips on climbs. The slack front end makes fast and steep downhills feel stable. I am loving the bike when I ride – though this section is hard and slow.
The ocotillo are blooming. What an odd plant, like so many desert shrubs it protects its flowers with lots of thorns.
The trail meanders into every little canyon, usually to steep to ride out of. I stop for pictures when it’s easy.
The Rincons come into view and remind me that there’s still a lot of riding left today. Good thing that it’s not noon, yet.
Heading into Tucson the trail becomes very easy; some ups & downs for sure, but mostly down towards I-10. Too easy. The trail gives – sometimes.
And into the Rincon Valley.
I want to check for the leak in my mattress, but I need a big pool of water. I roll down to Cienega creek, but I don’t see any water there. That’s unexpected! But, after going over the car bridge, I can see that there is a small stream. I decide to be on the lookout for the next creek – unsure if that will be before bed time. After crossing a micro canyon, I see a familiar jersey. Pascal? !
He snaps a picture of me before I even stop.
Photo by Pascal Fortin.
We ride some way-too-steep techy stuff that I am sure I will pay for later. But, its fun! I am looking forward to ice cream at the La Posta Ranch, but after wasting 30 minutes looking for the vending machine, I give up and we head back up to the trail. Fun, swoopy trail. And Saguaros.
We stop a long time at the campground for some most delicious water and chatting. Then, back to techy singletrack. I forgot all of the features since riding there with Lee 4 years ago.
The 27.5 wheels make techy stuff fun, if not rideable.
Video by Pascal Fortin.
After some super fun and fast swoopy trails, Pascal heads home again.
I finally find a creek to investigate the leak in my mattress: it’s the valve on the Klymit Inertia, and probably needs epoxy to seal permanently. Hmm. Maybe there’s glue at the next convenience store (nope). Saguaro National Park comes to an end, and it’s a fast road ride (mostly) to the Circle K.
Scott sure picked an odd route in the end going through some sandy washes. Always up for a surprise. I encounter another bikepacker who must just be returning from the Circle K, but get not even a wave back. We will meet several more times later on.
During the long stop at the Circle K (which btw has nothing but crappy processed foods), I chat quite a bit with Rhino, who is out for the AZTR-750: riding fully rigid and singlespeed. Crazy!
The climb up Reddington goes fairly easy in the evening, in spite of 6 liters of water.
Postcard from Tucson:
And I encounter my one and only snake.
At the jeep road turn-off, I stop and eat. And drink. I see Rhino’s light dancing down in the distance. It’s a tough jeep-crawling road and I am not good at picking out the bike line in the dark.
Quite a bit of hiking leads to the AZT turn-off. Nice to know how far it is to the end.
I chat with Rhino as he’s settling down for a nap. He is still not sure if he’s going to take the Molino trail up, or go with the dirt-road bypass because of the fire. I hope that the Molino trail is open, and ride on. I even ride pretty well in the dark for once.
Around mid-night, I am getting tired and with deflated mattress, settle down in the grass.
I wake up at 2:30 and decide to get Molino basin out of the way before daylight. I hate the climb, it’s so hot and without any redeeming features. Might as well do it at night.
After some super fun stair descent, I take a snack break and hear something up ahead. Oooh, looks like I woke another biker! Wanting to be quiet, I sneak past but not without getting asked what my name is. That’s all.
A little farther on, I run into another biker on the trail. Sol, is his name and he’s chatty! We talk for a long time before I find a break and continue upwards. Daylight is coming all too soon.
The hike-a-bike is manageable in the early dawn.
I stop at Molino Pass for a long time to eat and investigate a scraping noise coming from my lowest 2 gears. Mysteriously, they have disappeared now, and wouldn’t come back for the rest of the ride. Sol arrives just as I finish my big bean burrito. Yum, lunch for breakfast.
We roll on and would ride together for the next 2 days before he took off near Ripsey. It’s beautiful and cool up here at sunrise.
After the campground, Rhino joins in and the three of us are semi-racing each other up Prison camp trail.
Then, a biker appears behind me without gear, but quickly falls behind again. Funny stuff. A trail runner gives us a high-five.
The road ride is uneventful and cool. I have plenty of water left, even though the Palisades spigot has been repair just in time. It gets really windy at the top, from where we spy the alternate dirt road to the summit. Glad I didn’t take it, it looks windy and long.
Sol convinces me to try the Cookie Cabin in Summerheaven. The BBQ chicken sandwhich is indeed delicous, as is the large macademia nut cookie: not too sweet, but a bit salty and buttery. Delish.
Afterwards, we fiddle around Summerheaven for a while, and Sol even washes his pants.
I am curious as to the state of the Oracle Ridge trail. I seem to remember it taking about 4 hours for the first 4 miles last time. But, this time it’s faster right from the get-go. Trail maintenance is obvious, and much of the burned timber has fallen and been removed.
Photo by Sol Manion.
Still, the hike-a-bike sections are relentless and it’s not downhill too often. Suddenly I hear a voice from behind: what? Someone catching up with us on Oracle Ridge?
Noone but Max Morris himself! The dude had started a day behind me, and had a 6 hour lead over the others at the group start. He seems utterly un-rushed as we chat for a while. We would play tag for the next 24 hours with Max.
The final hills coming off Oracle Ridge are extremely windy, and make riding the narrow singletrack sketchy. The suspension on my bike saves me several times as I miss the line. The grasses just get blown down by the wind.
Afterwards, the trail only sort-of gets better, as tons of switchbacks have deep waterbars installed. Insane. I only ride one.
The new trail near Oracle is forever winding and just seems silly towards the end when we are so near the highway. Just let us go already!
And when we’re done with that section, we meet Mr. Max again. How fun!
While we need to stop in Oracle for food, Max continues. We ride late into the night and see him sleeping next to the trail. Finally in some wash Sol calls it a night. I show up an hour later as night riding with 6 liters of water on me is not making me feel frisky. Oracle is far behind us, now.
Just as I lay down, a hear a bike coming through, and I see fatbike tracks the rest of the way to Picketpost. Turns out that this was Peter Bassinger who would go on to win the AZTR-300.
After sleeping for 4 hours, I head out and tell Sol that I’ll meet him for breakfast somewhere up the trail.
My knees are so stiff that I cannot pedal normally. I move my hips to avoid having to bend my knees. I hope that after some warming up, things will improve. But it doesn’t. Not until Sol offers me a couple Ibuprofen after breakfast.
Looking behind me, I see a couple lights dancing along the mountain side: Those would be Max and Adam as I later found out. It sure is pretty being out here this early.
The big descent to Bloodsucker Wash that I hated during the Antelope Peak Challenge many years ago, now seems fun with 6″ of suspension.
It’s still cool, too early to stop for breakfast though my stomach says otherwise. I want a shady spot, but a nice warm one. The old abandoned ranch comes into view.
And layers of dust hide layers of mountains.
Just as Sol catches me, I find a perfect spot for breakfast. Soon, Max joins the party, then Adam stops for a short while. Then Rhino! Full house.
I would ride (suffer through) the last few miles with Adam the next morning. After a good breakfast, we’re off again. I take way too many pictures to make efficient progress sometimes.
Photo by Sol Manion.
Photo by Sol Manion.
Antelope Peak is just around the corner! So cool – last time I was very dehydrated by this point in the APC, but now I am feeling fine. The jumping chollas are not out in full force, and we each only pick up one thorn. That’s a success. And, I see the prettiest purple blooming cacti.
Antelope Peak behind us, we get quickly to Freeman cache.
Photo by Sol Manion.
Of course, we catch up to Adam and Rhino and geek out over bikes for a long time.
There’s also a note about a detour past Picketpost that the 750 riders need to figure out. Glad it’s not me, I’d probably just take the highway rather than getting lost in the boonies.
We head off on what appears to be a straight shot to Kelvin, but that only last for a minute. Just as I mention to Sol that I am sure one day they’ll build some twisty singletrack here in the middle of nowhere – what happens? We do indeed start riding twisty singeltrack in the middle of nowhere.
With tail wind and fresh legs, we have a fun time out here. The counter-weighted gate was just silly and dangerous.
a) It got stuck wide open
b) When I pulled it close, the wire hit me in the glasses as the gate swung around
c) The gate hits me from behind
d) The counter-weight almost hits Sol as it bounces up and down.
Afterwards, Sold took off and I only saw him from afar a couple more times. I was getting low on food and had every intention to finish the ride as quickly as possible. But, it didn’t quite work out that way.
The dirt roads had deep wash-outs filled with rocks at the bottom. Flying threw at full speed I did bottom out the rear suspension once. Didn’t seem to harm it, though. Wheew!
In the distance, I could see where I’d ride later during the day. On the other side of the Gila river. Seems like a million miles away.
The Ripsey wash was a hoot of a trail. We crossed that dry river bed so many times, but it almost always worked out well without hiking.
The climb up Big Hill, however, was a lot of hiking.
Finally, after reaching the ridge-line top I took a break under the only bit of shade.
And oogling at my bike 🙂
Time for the descent. Which turned out to be a lot longer and more difficult that I had expected.
The road to Kelvin also turned out to be _not_ road, but more singletrack. Relentless, and pretty hot by now. The Gila river keeps things green down here.
I stopped briefly for water and headed on. More single track awaited, but it was planned and well-contoured benchcut. Nicely laid out and mostly rideable in the heat of the day. It was my first time here and it sure was pretty. The train bridge below has probably been showcased in many a picture.
I poked my hand with a cactus thorn and got stung by a bee on this section. I also met a mountain biker who was following the AZTR trackers and wanted to know my name. After that, he informed me that Sol was probably 15 minutes ahead.
My goal was to reach the final climb before sunset. It was a pretty fast ride at times, but with lots of techy climbs in the heat of the day. It was sure nice once it finally cooled down and I was getting near the final climb.
And just around 6 pm, I am starting the push up.
I am feeling semi-fresh and think that I’ve got this ride in the books. I know there’s a lot of climbing, but pushing should go pretty fast even at night. But, things don’t go so nicely.
Feeling good and riding late into the night.
Rode more than I thought I could.
Until, I begin to feel dizzy and it’s just too dangerous riding along the steep cliff-side at night. I push a bit further, then stop suddenly and feel tired. I just get my sleeping bag out before sleepiness overwhelms me and I wake up drawling and hear bikers passing me. I am too tired to move. The hard ground is more comfortable than I thought it would be.
I finally determine that I am not dizzy anymore, and in any case almost out of food. I consumed my piece of cake, and now have 1 bag of crackers left. I hustle to pack up and get going. It’s midnight. It was hard pushing the bike past mountains that during daytime I would take lots of pictures off. But, now, I only had one goal in mind: finish before sunrise. And hopefully, in a couple hours. After a couple failed attempts at riding in the dark, I gave up and pushed even the flat sections. I soon ran across one biker on the trail: Adam, who was hunkering down for a tiny nap. We exchanged few words, knowing that we are both beyond tired. Still, seeing another soul in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, cheered me up.
I eat my roll of crackers at 2 am near the next-to-final gate, and put on warm clothes thinking that it would be a fast dirt-road descent to Picketpost.
It was not. It was technical singletrack that kept on going forever. For 11.5 miles, to be exact. I wait at a gate for Adam, and he trips as he is closing it – into a Prickley Pear cactus. I wait to see if he need help with pulling needles – luckily he tells me to go ahead. Poor guy! I later hung out in his camper van and was served snacks – as he tells me that he’s an ER surgeon.
At 3 am, my light starts to fade and find my 3rd spare battery dead. I guess I am walking in moonlight, then. But no, the Moon is low on the horizon and casting deep shadows. Luckily, my light keeps shining in ‘dead battery’ mode for a lot longer than I thought it would (until the end). It gets very cold in some spots, then almost hot in others. I painstakingly change into and out of long clothes a couple of times.
A couple fast guys come up, pass me, and are gone. I swear one of them is on a rigid singlespeed, but it’s not Rhino. I am tired, my knees are stiff, and I barely make progress on my full-suspension bike with gears. I am getting depressed. It’s 4 am and I am still not done. This is ridiculous. I am in a beautiful area and instead of riding through here during the day, I am pushing myself to finish this ride now. I start to feel very sorry for myself. I want to quit. But, I don’t know how to quit. The trail is the only option.
Adam comes up from behind me as I am fiddling with my light, and passes me. I tell him that I might walk the rest. But, somehow, just then the trail stops being so steep and I can coast down for a bit without techy chunk.
But then the chunk comes, and I find Adam under his bike. He’s beyond tired – slightly worse off than me. We get going and I ride a bit, then hike the boulder sections.
I am beginning to loose it. A little crying at first, then I start singing Monty Python.
Always look on the bright side of life…
And singing that song as loud as I can, I pull myself together until the last idiotic step-up close to the finish.
Done. 05:38 am
Adam comes in shortly afterwards.
My original plan was to ride back to Phoenix, but after spending some time in Adam’s van and warming up, I walked outside to find other bikers crawling out of their sleeping holes. I am passing three guys coming out of their vans and after some ‘hello’, and ‘yup, just finished the AZT300’, I am offered a ride to the Phoenix airport car rental. Unbelievable. They are a super nice bunch: Peter B., Adam L, and ??.
Later on, I meet Mr. Schillingsworth and pick up the bike-box, pack and fly back home a day later.
Thanks to everyone who made this possible, and those who came before to pave the way (Scott, Lee, I am looking at you). Hopefully, we’ll meet again soon.