Cycling Tucson in Winter

It’s wintertime in the desert, and the fashion here in Tucson is all about form-fitting lycra shorts and bike helmets. Everywhere you look there’s a serious gang of roadies kitted out and gliding across the desert on bikes that cost more than your first car.

A cyclist riding in Tucson Mountain Park. Photo © Tim Hull.
A cyclist riding in Tucson Mountain Park. Photo © Tim Hull.

While professional and elite cyclists flock to Tucson for the mild temps and mostly cloudless blue skies when it’s freezing elsewhere, they also come for the pain and the anguish. This rugged Sonoran Desert valley, hemmed in by towering mountains and jagged hills, is an ideal proving-ground for those looking to show off their roadworthiness.

Tucson is home to a renowned group-ride called the “The Shoot Out.” According to a profile in Bicycling, you might find yourself riding next to a well-known pro—at least for a few seconds. Organized by Fairwheel Bikes, the sixty-mile ride makes a loop of Tucson’s desert edges every Saturday morning (check the website for current start times), passing by the world-famous Mission San Xavier del Bac and through the copper mining districts south of the city. But this is no leisurely tour of the region’s popular sights. The succinct warning on Fairwheel’s website says it all: “Expect a very large group, 100+ riders and very fast pace.” For those not yet prepared for pro-level intensity, a slower group leaves 15 minutes before the main pack.

If you’re more comfortable riding in small groups than you are jostling in the peloton, the Greater Arizona Bicycling Association organizes rides for cyclists of all levels and even hosts overnight cycling trips around southern Arizona. And of course you can always ride on your own, a lone road warrior, fighting the urge to stop and kick back in the winter sunshine.

Regardless of your riding preferences, make sure you try at least one of these popular winter rides through Tucson’s beautiful and unique desert landscape.

West of the City

The paved roads of Tucson Mountain Park (8451 West McCain Loop, 520/724-5000) pass by rocky mountains studded with tall and many-armed saguaros. Rides here usually end with a punishing climb up over Gates Pass, but the sweeping view of the desert at the top makes up for the pain in your legs. With a bit of repetition, it’s easy to put together a 50+ mile ride here.

Tucson’s Eastern Edge

Saguaro National Park Rincon Mountain District (3693 S Old Spanish Rd., 520/733-5153, $5 weekly pass for cyclists) features the popular Cactus Forest Loop Drive, an eight-mile paved loop through an enchanting saguaro forest with plenty of inclines.

The Loop

With more than a 100 miles completed, Tucson’s ambitious bike route known as The Loop is the place to be for cyclists of all stripes. The path leads around the greater city, touching its furthest neighborhoods, and is generally smooth and easy. The route connects many of the city’s parks and follows the valley’s mostly dry rivers and washes.

Mount Lemmon

While the relatively warm weather brings serious cyclists to Tucson in the winter months, they come in the summer for Mount Lemmon. Mount Lemmon’s peak looks over Tucson from about 10,000 feet above it all, and a twisting paved road winds all the way from the desert to the tall pines and the ski run at the top. It’s about 56 miles round trip, with a fairly steady grade, and turns into a roller-coaster ride on the way down. The mountain’s upper regions are about 20 to 30 degrees cooler than the desert floor, making this training ride more popular during the summer. Though it can get a bit nippy at times, if it’s not covered in snow the road to Mount Lemmon makes a great winter ride as well. Visit the Greater Arizona Bicycling Association website for group ride information.

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