I got a third of the way up the mountain, when I had to turn back for my bicycle pump. No big deal, I’ll just be a few hours late getting home. I’m lucky I made it at all.
In my semi-retirement, I’ve been escaping the heat of Phoenix every Friday for a two-hour “gravel” bike ride. It’s a two-hour drive north, up to 7500 feet. Best to pump the tires at altitude. It’s already 98 degrees. I’m looking forward to peddling on the dirt in 70-degrees under the shade of pine trees.
Wunderground.com said 20-percent chance of rain after 1 p.m. on Aug. 12. I will be off the bike and back in the car by 2. I’ll take those odds. Monsoon predictions are notoriously terrible. I don’t believe it’s going to rain until I feel the wind and see the dust coming…
I get to the Rim Rd, north of Strawberry, Az, at noon — it’s partly cloudy. Little wind. I made sure to slather on the sun screen. I shouldn’t have bothered.
The gravel roads are dry. A few puddles from the week’s previous thunderstorms. 4 miles in, I get a flat tire. Couldn’t find a puncture. Pinch flat — must have hit a rock a little too hard.
Just as I slip the new inner tube into the old tire, I feel a chill dripping on my head. Ahh, a gentle breeze to go with the softest of rains. A great way to beat the heat.
There are dark clouds in the distance. On the road bike, I’ve learned to ride toward the storm. Better to judge the distance. You can always turn and use the storm’s leading wind to push you home.
I continue on toward Potato Lake. The Lake is a little mud flat I could clear with a pitching wedge. I guess it’s the shape of a potato?
Of course I could not get a signal in the forest, but before the trip, I checked. Google maps says forest road 613 cuts west from Potato Lake back toward the car. I had this picture in my head.
Google maps is a liar. To the west, there’s not a clearing, not a hiking path, not a fucking trail of breadcrumbs through the trees…
I spend a few more minutes walking around looking for the shortcut. I step in what could be bear shit (hoping it’s just a cow). I give up. I turn east – head back the way I came. The rain is getting thicker now. Here comes thunder… was that lightening to my right?
I feel pressure escaping my back tire. SHIT. Just a slow leak — maybe I can make it the 6 miles back without having to use my last spare inner tube and CO2 cartridge.
Thunder to my left. Damn, the storm was supposed to be behind me. Thunder ahead. Lightening to my right. Count the seconds to the thunder, 1…2.. Fuck me, that’s close.
Temperature is dropping. The hard packed tire tracks in the gravel are covered in water. Do I ride in the tracks or on the crown of the road? The crown is soft and slow. The track may be hiding tire-pinching rocks… I’ve been road biker for 10 years. These are my first attempts at gravel — first ever ride on dirt in the rain. I choose the tracks, pushing into the soft shit always makes me feel like I’m going to fall. Better to not know…
The rain is gentle no more. It’s coming in sheets. I can see maybe 100 feet. It’s dark — just enough light to see the opening that I hope is the road.
At the intersection of Rim Rd and Milk Run Ranch, I have a choice. Take the milk run which rolls along the bottom of a big hill, or take Rim Rd and climb 600 feet in the next mile and a half.
The thunder and lightening are in every direction now. I didn’t think it could, but the rain has gotten harder. It’s not hail, but that’s coming.
I choose the hill. All those little rolls on the Milk Run are washes that could flood. I’ve done this hill before. First time I had to stop twice to catch my breath. Last week only once. There are sections that are 10 to 15 percent. There’s nothing flat. 4-6 percent feels like a vacation.
I put the bike in the easiest gear — 34 front, 30 back. The chain is grinding against the mud forming all around the shifters. The disk brakes are clicking as mud sticks to the rotor and is push off by the pads. The spokes are creaking and popping as mud splatters up from the rain and little pebbles become airborne in the storm.
There are no pictures for this blog post. This is no time to stop a take a fucking picture.
The lightening is “cracking” now. No gaps in the light and the sound. With each flash, I duck like I’m superman avoiding “the gun.” It’s futile and stupid, but I can’t stop doing it.
Rim Rd has turned into a muddy stream. I’m fighting gravity, the wheels pushing into the soft mud. There are rivers of water running down the hill and pushing back my progress.
Two of those “open air,” off-road vehicles pass me. Their lights reflect nothing but running water ahead coming straight down what used to be a dirt road. We don’t make eye contact. We are the idiots who are too stupid to come in out of the rain.
They may have splashed, but in the heavy rain it was impossible to tell.
My glasses fog. I’m looking over a little gap as they slip to the end of my nose. But I can’t take them off. The glasses are keeping the rain and road water from lashing my eyes.
Water is pouring off my helmet like an overflowing gutter. I’m just grateful it’s not directly in my eye. My phone is in my cycling pocket on the back of my shirt. This will be a test of iPhone claims of “waterproof.” I’m seeing bags of rice in my future.
My lungs are done. My legs are burning, but this stretch is too steep to stop. If I stop, I won’t be able to start again – gravity will push me over before I can get my second foot on the next peddle.
I could walk faster, but around this turn the pitches eases a bit. I breathe. I put both feet on the ground, just to watch the water come over my shoes and soak my socks.
I use an old pair of tennis shoes and flat peddles. Cycling shoes have holes at the bottom to let in the air and let out the water. These tennis shoes are just giant rubber sponges with a New Balance label. My gloves are soaking.
When I restart, with each new peddle stroke, my shoes release a little water, and the gloves add a squirt as I grip the handlebar to get a little extra power. But the releases can’t keep up with the new water falling from above, as my hands, and feet and shirt and shorts get heavier and heavier.
Fat bikers suck at climbing hills. Soaked fat bikers suck harder.
The rain becomes “sharp.” Shit, this would be the hail.
I think about stopping again. On a clearer day, I can look ahead at the tree line and guess how close I am to the top. In this dark tunnel between trees, I can only see mud and shadow.
The little rivers in the dirt road are smaller. I must be getting near the top. More gravel than water. Someone is camping to my right. A fifth-wheel parked between puddles. Is that camp ground at the top of the hill. No, fucking no, it is not. A few more minutes of spinning and squirting water from my hands and feet. Now my cycling shorts are shedding water too.
Suddenly, I’m not peddling anymore. Gravity is pulling me back to the car. Halle-fucking-lujah.
But this side of the goddamn hill is just as steep. I’m pulling the brakes as hard as I can. Slipping and sliding through the mud, I’m looking for signs of solid ground.
Around a bend, a truck is coming up the hill. Its lights showing a solid path near the center of the road. A whining sound behind me. A dirt bike shoots to the left, between the truck and me. He cuts in front of me about one second before the truck and I pass.
Lucky fucking punk with his little enduro. Nearly killed us both.
My disc brakes are screaming. It sounds like a city bus as the mud and water are squeezed out between the rotor and pads. My hands are cramping. It doesn’t feel like I’m slowing. I don’t think I could stop if I tried.
Big sweeping right turn, and the rain relents. 30 seconds later and I’m back to the turn off. It’s a gentle summer shower now.
The little sweat towel I stole from the LJBTC community, isn’t going to do much, but I’m grateful for every spec of mud and every drop of water it can remove from my head, shoulders, arms and legs. I had a dry shirt and underwear and get changed in the car.
When I drop my shoes and wet socks in the back of the civic, I swear the weight pushed the car down a little.
I look at my Strava stats. Only 13 miles. But I set a “personal record” climbing that fucking hill.
30 years of living in the Arizona desert have taught me what isolated as in “isolated showers” means… I’ll be driving out of these clouds soon. For the first time in a long time, I’m looking forward to watching the sun come out and the temperature go up.
The 2-hour descent from the Rim to the Valley is usually a color shift from green trees and puffy white clouds to brown hills and brilliant blue skies. Not today. Gray and grayer all the way.
The rain followed me at every turn. Every 20 minutes it would turn to blinding buckets of water. Cars would pull off to the side to wait it out. Not me.
Safer to follow the yellow line and keep your distance.
Usually I drop off this mountain at 80-85 mph. Today was 55, sometimes 35 so the wipers could keep up with the thick blanket of water on the windshield.
Usually I watch the temperature climb as I descend, 70 to 105 + degrees. Today it never got above 74.
Back to the desert, I wait for the heat island of Phoenix to push the clouds aside. But the gray is unrelenting. A gray that reaches from 35,000 feet down to nearly touching the ground, leaving just enough gap for the rain to fall and for me to see a few hundred yards.
At Saguaro Lake, I decide to turn left. Better to take the road with less traffic.
But the Bush Highway runs next to the Salt River. It dips at every wash and draw. The rain is falling and the washes are running. We slow and drive through. Nothing too heavy. Water a few inches deep, a little sand.
At Usery Pass, I decide to turn left and get out of the river’s floodplain. Going uphill has got to be better? Didn’t I just make this same decision a few hours ago?
At the first turn traffic stops. The straight pass follows a curvy wash that crosses the road left and right about every half mile. It only drains a few small hills, but those hills had just been hit with 1.5 inches of rain in the past two hours.
I know every turn, every dip in the climb. I’ve cycled it many times. It’s the only climb in the East Valley. At the last big dip, the traffic going uphill stops.
Arizona has the stupid motorists law. If you are too stupid to stop at a running wash, you have to pay for your own rescue.
One dude in a black truck is stopped at the “last” wash. We wait. When traffic clears, a line of us go around him and through the water. There’s about a foot of mud on the right side of the road, but the left is just a few inches of water. I saw a little civic like mine make it. I follow. Stupid is as stupid drives.
Over the rise and back to the city, at the next light the road is closed. The city side of Ellsworth Road was flooded out and the police had stopped anybody from entering. I can see the stalled cars sitting in the waist deep water in the road.
Turn for home. The sky brightens. It’s only 79 degrees, no rain.
I didn’t need to leave home. I just needed to wait. I could have been dry and cool, saved myself $20 in gas and not have to repeatedly prove that I put the stupid in the stupid motorist (cyclist) laws…
Did I learn anything from this muddy adventure? Probably not. Next Friday, I’ll pack the pump first, leave on time, and be done before the monsoon can get started.