In the O: Kissy Face Tucson

This week’s Everyday Cyclist column in the Oregonian is all about (you guessed it) sunny cycling camp. A quick history of how The Sicilian and I ended up here along with a quick and dirty run down of the basics associated with getting your very own cycling camp all set up.

Director’s Cut

It all started from the ultimate relationship manipulation backfire

At the end of 2008, I gave the budget a good scrubbing and came up with a modest vacation fund. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and according to my expert Mistress of Finances calculations, we could just barely do it.

The plan was to fly to Sicily and, once there, live off the enthusiastic force-feeding of Sal’s family. Zia Rose would fill me with homemade arancini and strawberry granite. Zio Tony would fill my wine glass. We would want for nothing – the warm Mediterranean sea lapping at our ankles. All we had to do was get there.

Sal would be easy to convince. I prepared my pitch and rehearsed family guilt related pleas. But just when I was ready to go in for the kill, he lobbed a wicked curve ball.

“There’s a cycling camp in Tucson.” he said, eyes wide, “And I realllllly want to go.”

Cycling camp? That sounded hard. And boring. He explained the details: riding for a week in the warm Arizona sun, staying in a big house with a bunch of his racing buddy dudes, and eating amazing food. The total cost was exactly the same price as two tickets to Sicily.

The moment called for strategy. And manipulation. The well-intentioned variety, of course. I calmly explained about the finite budget and then decided to let him choose.

What Sicilian would ever choose a week in a cycling frathouse over a month in his homeland? This was a matter of blood and honor. What’s right is right. He’d choose Sicily, I’d get my way, and he would think he was in charge.  Brilliant.

“Well, it’s up to you.” I said sincerely, “Sicily or Tucson?” The words sounded silly in my head like saying “Porsche or Dodge Neon?”

Imagine my shock when The Sicilian chose the Neon.

“Are you sure?” I was panicking, “We won’t have another chance to go to Sicily for at least a year.”

He was sure. I stood there, mouth slightly open, as the handmade tortellini and fresh-roasted chestnuts faded away. Gone were morning pizzette, fennel sausage coils with fresh-squeezed lemon, crunchy canoli, perfectly short espresso shots. All of it. Gone.

In their place? Cacti. Strip malls. Tucson. Dudes.

I resolved to live with the consequences of my foolish risk and trained dutifully through the winter in an effort the be ready to hang with the boys on long rides and big climbs. In February of 2009, we arrived at The Cycling House, and called dibs on the only room with a queen bed.

“Oh god,” I thought to myself, “It’s the ‘Real World’ for cycling nerds.”

But I was wrong. And on the first day that I rolled my brand new bike out into a seventy-degree day, I knew it. It wasn’t dumb – it was heaven. It was mind-blowing.

My bike rolled faster in the heat and my legs were suddenly filled with bravery and joy. I attacked my male counterparts. I climbed as I’d never climbed before. The roads were endless and sweeping and fast. The vistas heart-stopping. The dusky skies explosive and vibrant. I couldn’t even remember the freezing rain of a Portland training ride just two days before.

And as the sun glistened off the tanning oil on my flexing calves, I knew that the Sicilian – for all his familial betrayals – had been right.

Do-It-Yourself Cycling Camp

A sun-drenched cycling adventure in Tucson doesn’t have to break the bank. This year, we decided to forego the rockstar treatment of an organized program and headed down south renegade style, renting a house and cooking our own food. The money we saved allowed us to stay longer for maximum Vitamin D therapy. Here’s what you need to know.

Getting there: Driving is a two-day proposition (about 24 hours of drive time from Portland, Oregon) and will cost you $250-400, depending on gas-mileage, cost of fuel, and your choice of lodging. On the upside, you can take as many bikes as your car can hold and carpool to save cash. Driving probably only makes sense if you plan to stay 10 days or more.

You can fly from Portland to Tucson for as little as $250/person but beware the cost of transporting your bike, which varies greatly from airline to airline and can cost as much as $150 each way (I’m not kidding!). Before booking tickets, double-check the airline’s bicycle policy. It’s best to pack your bike in a hard-case bike-specific traveling box, but cardboard bike boxes will also work if packed well (check with your local bike shop for boxes and advice on packing). Consider shipping your bike ahead of time to save cash – if you can trim the box to fall within the maximum dimension restrictions of carriers like FedEx and UPS (so it’s not considered over-sized), you’ll save about $40. Be sure to think about how you’ll get your bike back together when you arrive (bring your basic tools or plan to hit up a bike shop when you arrive).

Location, location, location: Find a condo or small house in a great cycling area on the edge of town to avoid having to ride through the city. Check out the Tanque Verde area (near Mt. Lemmon and Saguaro Park East), the Catalina Foothills, or anything near Gates Pass Road in Tucson Mountain Park.

Nabbing a Sweet Pad

Accommodations can range from $600/week for a furnished studio or 1 bedroom on the low end, up into the thousands for larger, fancier locations. Shop around,

Tucson Craigslist – Many of these posts will take you to external rental listing sites but, as far as I could tell, most agents and rental home-owners make generous use of this low-cost listing option. Be sure to book early: December through March is Tucson’s high-season. However, if you gamble and wait until the last minute don’t be afraid to barter a little with landlords or agents who are under pressure to fill empty properties.

“Must Do” Rides:

Tucson staples to still your cycling heart.

Cactus Forest Loop Drive: This scenic eight-mile loop in Saguaro National Park East is a virtual bicycle roller coaster. One short climb about halfway through will challenge the legs a bit, but on the whole this ride is gentle, fun and incredibly picturesque. Entrance to the park is $5 for a weeklong pass. Suitable for every ability level.

Mt. Lemmon: Not for the faint of heart – this 25-mile climb takes you from 2,557 feet to 8,198 feet. Stunning vistas, dramatic rock faces, and beautiful wildlife await you. There are often patches of snow at the top in the winter – be sure to pack layers, food, and lots of water. If you go all the way to the top, indulge in a slice of lemon pie to celebrate!

Gate’s Pass: A stunning 7-mile climb out of downtown. Once over the top, a quick descent leads to miles and miles of quiet, rolling roads near Saguaro National Park West. Save a little juice for the climb back into town – the west ascent is a kicker!

Madera Canyon: You’ll likely have to drive to the start of this ride, but it’s worth the effort. Madera Canyon is nestled in the middle of the Santa Rita Mountains climbs 2767 feet over 13 miles with a crushing 15-22% grade for the last half mile or so. The area is renowned for it’s natural beauty and wildlife.

Pistol Hill: Need something with a little less altitude? Ironically, Pistol Hill is a fairly flat ride that heads out on Old Spanish Trail toward the Colossal Cave Mountain Park then loops back toward town. You will battle a punishing headwind on the way out but your efforts are rewarded when you finally turn around.

Wrangling the Routes: With so many great roads in one location, it’s generally not hard to find a good map or set of turn-by-turn directions to follow. Here are a few resources to get you started.

Online: and both have large collections of Tucson rides ranging from beginner to advanced.  Rides can be sorted according to difficulty, safety, and amount of climbing. and  You can see a few of my recent routes online by checking out my profile on MapMyRide (more to follow.

Tucson bike map: Much like Portland’s bike map, but this one’s free. Pick one up from a cycling store when you get town and you’ll be ready to navigate your way through town.

Got good steel? Hit the Shootout: “The Shootout” is a legendary Tucson ride that starts very early in the morning (usually 7:30 in the winter) from the University of Arizona. Known for being an “all-out” hammerfest stacked with everyone from big-time pros to local recreational riders, it’s a Tucson experience not to be missed. If you make it to the end, be prepared to sacrifice your legs to the cycling gods as you battle the devastating grade up Madera Canyon. Some consider this ride an unofficial race and some are just in it for the experience – however you come into it, be prepared to go hard or go home.

Bike Shop of Choice: Miles Ahead

There are a ton of bike shops in Tucson, but I have only been to one of them – Miles Ahead. Why? It’s on the way to/from most of my riding, it’s near my favorite ride-stop coffee shop (Le Buzz) and – helllooooooo – they carry Colnagos, Pinarellos and Pegorettis. Done. We’ve given them a bit of business not limited to 3 new tubes (our friend Dan managed to flat 3 times on last Saturday’s ride and the Miraculous Sicilian managed to produce exactly 3 tubes from his very, very small saddle bag), and a new tire (to go on Dan’s wheel, of course). In exchange, they’ve give us important information about cycling resources in the area, including maps and route advice.

Alternatives to DIY Cycling Camp

Recession Special: Ok, so your vacation budget is $150 this and you’re spending it on a luxurious staycation instead? No problem. Epic Planet makes a DVD featuring the legendary climb up Mt. Lemmon. Pop it in, crank it up, and hop on your indoor trainer for an almost-there experience.

High Roller Heaven: Feeling flush? The Cycling House, where I had my first Tucson cycling experience is the cream of the crop. Pro and ex-pro cyclists cater to your every need from picking you up at the airport when you arrive, to building and tuning your bike, to personally guiding you and providing follow support on every epic ride. All meals are provided and, I assure you, the cooking will make you weep for culinary joy. $1599 for six days, airfare not included.

Contribute – Tell me what you love in Tucson

Got a favorite shop? Favorite ride? Favorite place to spot pros?

Maybe even a favorite chimichanga? (I have been epxosed to the glory that is El Charro.)

Please add your Tucson take to the comments so we can all feel the sunny love.


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  1. Did you have the carne seca at El Charro? If not, you must go back immediately!

  2. El Charro rocks. But Poca Cosa is better!

  3. We’re hitting Poca Cosa this weekend for a special occasion (Dan’s 40th!) It’s not quite as “budget” as Charro so we needed an excuse!

  4. hi heidi – love the new and improved combination site! i saw this on one of my feeds and i thought of you. i’m not a professional cyclist or an amateur one, just a girl who likes trails near lakes in the summer, but i hope you enjoy it!

    periodic table of professional cycling:

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