The Mountain Bike That Changed Everything

santa cruza superlight, pima & dynamite, mountain biking, arizona, adventure bicycle company, wandering justin
I couldn’t find a photo of my most-important bike ever. So you just get a photo of the best bike I’ve ever owned. Both are black, though my Balance had all sorts of 90s-required blue anodized bits.

There’s one mountain bike that made my life better.

It didn’t have any carbon fiber or hydraulic disc brakes. Its only suspension was my arms and legs. No clipless pedals. Just 21 speeds.

So what’s so great about it? It was my first real mountain bike. I learned to love mountain biking a year earlier … I’d ride my psuedo-mountain bike to classes at ASU during my freshman year. My roommate was a mountain biker, as were a girl on the fifth floor of my dorm and one of my classmates in a low-level engineering class. Between them all, I got my intro to real mountain biking.

I returned for my sophomore year on a shiny black Balance. Chromoly steel frame, a full Shimano DX group, real off-road geometry for efficient pedaling and agile handling. It was made to be a police bike, but somehow wound up at Bicycle Ranch near my house. Bit by bit, I upgraded it.

More importantly, it upgraded me. It was sturdier than my first bike. It let me ride better. Sure, it still got me to class (I protected it with two U-locks when I had to put it in the bike rack). But it also responded to my commands off-road. It could do anything I asked of it.

It made me a mountain biker.

That was a time in my life when I didn’t have to worry about being fast. I didn’t wear colorful jerseys. I wasn’t part of a team. The people I rode with didn’t “ride for” anyone but themselves. We just had fun.

Later bikes would make me a racer (half-assed and inconsistent, of course) or bike nerd or whatever you want to call me. This one … I learned to fix it. I crashed it. I made it my own. Everything I learned from it got me a job at a bike shop. It put me on the trail of friends, relationships, adventures. I’d be shocked if any other bike impacts my life as that old Balance did.

What’s the most important bike in your history?

Civilian “Young Turk” Mountain Bike – My Thoughts

A look at the Young Turk. (photo courtesy of Civilian)

Big bicycle brands love flash. Bright colors. Huge graphics. The hollow rattle of a carbon frame. And many riders share the love.

But not all of them. Some prefer understatement.

For them, there’s Idaho-based Civilian. It makes the bicycle equivalent of Cold War-era Soviet MiG fighters – hardy, utilitarian, affordable.

Civilian encompasses the entire bike spectrum, from road bike to mountain bike … all built from steel – not the lightest material, but hard to beat for ride quality, longevity and value. Civilian is creating a dealer network, says designer Tyson Hart. So far, Civilian is only available online at Competitive Cyclist. Hart hopes to find shops "with some soul" that fit the Civilian ethos.

The Civilian frames are made in China, then painted and assembled in Taiwan, Hart says.

"The factory is Taiwanese owned and I spent much time researching manufacturers that I wanted to partner with and I chose the factory based on working conditions, quality of output and overall professionalism," he says. "The factory I use to build Civilian excelled at all three criteria and is used by other US- and Europe-based bike companies."

The Civilian mountain bike line includes the Luddite ($1,049) a singlespeed 29er and The Young Turk ($1,499) 29er, which has a 10-speed drivetrain and a Rock Shox Reba suspension fork.

The Young Turk’s sole nods to advanced mountain bike technology are a Rock Shox suspension and Avid hydraulic disc brakes. The 10-speed drivetrain is a bit newfangled since 10-speed rear derailleurs and cassettes are relative newcomers. It’s still stripped down compared to 27- and 30-speed drivetrains.

Eliminating a front derailleur isn’t a very popular setup for a mountain bike. But it could be a perfect setup for many Phoenix-area rides: Many riders could find some use for a 10-speed setup at McDowell Mountain Regional Park, Papago Park, the Desert Classic at South Mountain and the Fantasy Island North Singlestrack network in the West Valley. The flatter, rolling terrain on these trails makes the extreme gear range less important. And fewer chainrings makes it easier to dial a drivetrain in and makes cleaning it a few steps easier.

Mountain Bike Repair – It’s OK to Ask for Help

"He's weird, but the creep can fix bikes."

Running isn’t really my thing. But if I want to snag a decent time at the Midnight Sun Runin Norway, I have to train. That’s what led to me, coated in a layer of sweat, encountering a couple on mountain bikes at the end of the run.

The guy had his mountain bike upside down. I popped an earbud out and asked if everything was under control. The guy replied with the perfunctory “yes, all’s well” sort of message.

“Except he has a problem with his brake,” said his special lady friend, “and he can’t get the wheel back on.”

Less than a minute later, I had the wheel back on and the brake problem diagnosed – Hydraulic Disc Brake Rule #1 … don’t squeeze the lever when the wheel is off. It’s an easy fix for a mountain bike nerd with a pair of needle-nose pliers and a flathead screwdriver, a confounding game-killer for most others. And when you want to put your rear wheel back on, make it easier by shifting into the highest gear and lining the chain up with the smallest gear.

But that’s not even the point: If you have a bike problem and someone offers help … take it, whether you have a flat tire, a broken chain or a bent rim. You’ll be back on your way sooner, and you might learn something.

Gold Canyon Trails in Arizona: First Ride

gold canyon trails
Awesome scenery, great flow, lots of turns – it’s the Gold Canyon singeltrack.

There’s nothing like a new mountain bike trail. Except riding it on the second day of 100-degree-plus heat. Oh, well, one out of two isn’t bad.

But enough about the heat: Let’s talk about a nice gem of a singletrack network in Gold Canyon, which is just east of the Phoenix area. It’s just across the border into Pinal County and butted right up against the awesomeness known as the Superstition Mountains. You can get a lot of the nuts and bolts about the trails – including how to get there – from my article on You can also find a great map at – a rider named Phil did the homework for all us mountain bike sinners whose GPS receivers conk out at inopportune times.

I have plans to chat with Phil about the origins of the Gold Canyon trails. He seems to be a go-to guy when it comes to knowledge about the Gold Canyon trails. And if Phil had a hand in the design and building, I am prepared to give him major props. These mountain bike trails have that flow and groove so elusive to trail builders. Someone has made maximum use of the space, and even brought little chunks of Moab and the North Shore to the fun (see the video at bottom).

The Gold Canyon trails are hard work. You’ll need skill. You’ll need to pay attention. In short, you need to be a REAL mountain biker.

So go check out the dirt from the article, hit for a map, go ride the Gold Canyon trails … then recharge yourself at Mountain Brew Coffee afterward.

6 Horrible Things People do to Mountain Bikes

Pink streamers on a fast bike equals funny.

Last season, I got a good laugh out of a fit, fast racer with pink streamers on the handlebars of her tricked-out mountain bike. I loved the "don’t take me too seriously" humor. The streamers were hysterical … but I’ve seen many other people perform perverse acts on perfectly nice bikes – all by fitting them with ill-advised accessories. Here’s a roundup of the six most horrible things you can put on your mountain bike. (And when you’re done laughing, check out 3 Awesome Things People do to Their Mountain Bikes.)

A Kickstand

Kickstands have their place: on beach cruisers, commuting bikes and kids’ bikes. They don’t belong on a seriously sweet trail bike. First, it’s dangerous – with all the jarring of off-road riding, the kickstand will never stay in place. Second, you should be riding way too much to need a kickstand. If you want a way to get to the local coffeehouse, get the right bike so you don’t have to desecrate a real off-road machine.

Slick Tires

Smooth tires are great. They let you pedal over pavement with a lot less resistance, letting you go faster. Notice how I said "over pavement"? That means smooth tires belong on bikes meant for riding in their milieu. Why buy a mountain bike and put slick tires on it? The most egregious example I’ve seen recently was a Santa Cruz Blur with a full XT group all dressed up for road riding. I actually felt sorry for that poor bike.

Flat Pedals

There’s something sad about a off-road racing machine with platform pedals. I can understand a bit of newbie fear factor when getting into mountain biking. But if you can afford a $4,000 bike and are willing to spend that much cash, you’d better already know what’s best for your bike. And platform pedals are not it. I suppose I’ll cut downhillers some slack – but nobody else!

A Gas-Powered Motor

Nothing says "I’ve had one DUI too many" like retro-fitting a gas engine to your bicycle. This is already bad when the bike in question is an ugly POS. But it becomes an epic travesty when said putting engine clings to the side of a decent bike.

A Pump – On the Wrong Side

Frame-mounted pumps are great – they’re always around when you need them. I really like the kind with a bracket under the water bottle cage on the downtube. But obey this one rule: Make sure you mount the bracket so it holds the pump on the non-drive side. In other words, the side that doesn’t include the cranks. You wouldn’t want some off-road shaking and shuddering to knock the pump loose and into the chainrings.

BMX-Style Handlebars

Some grizzled, mulleted old ex-1970s BMX racers love to combine the current reality of mountain bikes with the BMX looks of their youth. The result? An abominable collision of styles – a horribly upswept handlebar desecrating a mountain bike. Combine this with the gas motor, and you’ll be the ultimate two-wheeled hillbilly.

Mountain Biker’s Death Sad and Sobering

Fountain Hills, McDowell Meltdown, 2011, MBAA
This is what mountain biking should look like ...

There’s been a second fatality at McDowell Mountain Regional Park. Read more in this Wandering Justin post. March 26, 2012


Sometimes, I really hate mountain biking. Like when I learned earlier this week that a fellow mountain biker died on one of my favorite trails.

The local media has not seen fit to cover the death of Ron Cadiente, 61: I heard about it on Facebook and Details are sketchy. All I know is that he was a properly equipped veteran rider. It’s unclear if his death was caused by a crash, or if his crash was caused by cardiac arrest while on the Long Loop of the Competitive Track at McDowell Mountain Regional Park.

These are the moments that suck the energy out of mountain biking. I can’t count the number of times I’ve ridden this trail. And now someone lost a life on it.

This is a shadow that follows me every time I ride. I hate admitting this, but it’s as honest as I can be. My number-one task on every ride is -- come home in one piece. I often roll into a stretch of trail, give my brakes a quick tap – knowing full well I could go faster and do it better. But I know that quick feathering of my brake levers makes it more likely that I’ll walk back in my door.

The same unease hits me when my wife rides. I just want her to come back happy and safe.

How and why do we ride like this? Hell, how do we live like this, while the potential of changing our lives for the worse chases us every mile of the way?

I can’t explain it fully. It’s part of mountain biking, and it’s part of living. Risk is everywhere. Eliminate that risk, and I guess you eliminate everything that’s interesting in life.

Of course, that doesn’t mean much to Ron’s family. To them, I can only say this: I wish it hadn’t happened, and it’s not supposed to be like this.

To those of us who still ride: Come home safe. For yourself, and for all those who care for you.

UPDATE (Feb. 14)

A member of the MTBR forum posted information about services for Ron, which he found on the Bunker Mortuary website. And condolences to his daughter Brooke and son Brett, who posted very kind messages thanking the mountain bike community for its support. It’s impossible to not think really well of Ron and those who survive him when you see the goodness and dignity in their words.

Name: Ronald Roy Cadiente

Date: April 15th, 1950 – February 11th, 2012

Cadiente, Ronald, 61, died in a mountain bike accident February 11, 2012. He is survived by his wife Pamela, children Garron (Sharon) Cadiente, Brett Cadiente, Maren (Jimmy) Bloomer, Brooke Cadiente, Paige (Sterling) Stahle, 13 grandchildren and brothers Herb Davis, Carlos Cadiente and Rick Cadiente. A kind and loving husband, father and grandfather he was devoted to his family whom he loved unconditionally and enjoyed being involved their lives. He was passionate about the work he did as a software salesman and valued the relationships he made. He was honest, hardworking, sincere, and compassionate. Ron was a baseball coach, avid hiker, mountain biker, University of Arizona graduate and family man who was as generous in his relationships as he was genuine. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he served a mission in southern California and served in a variety of church leadership positions, including Bishop, all of which he loved. He was an influence for good in every aspect of his life. He is missed and loved by many, especially his family. Viewing is February 16th from 6-8 PM at Bunker’s Garden Chapel, 33 North Centennial Way, Mesa AZ 85201. Funeral is February 17th, 11 AM with viewing one hour prior at the LDS Church, 1430 N Grand Street, Mesa AZ 85201.

6:00PM to 8:00PM on Thursday, February 16th, 2012 at Bunker’s Garden Chapel
10:00AM to 10:45AM on Friday, February 17th, 2012 at LDS Lehi Stake Center

11:00AM at LDS Lehi Stake Center on Friday, February 17th, 2012

Best of Arizona – Outdoor Adventures in Ahwatukee

While there’s plenty of outdoor adventures in Ahwatukee, Ariz., I still have some mixed feelings about the area.

On one hand, it’s a dense cluster of red-tile-roofed McMansions. It’s the sort of place where people drive to yoga classes in gas-guzzling SUV. It marinates in suburban blandness (though this has changed somewhat since I originally wrote this in 2011).

On the other hand, it is the main access point to the 16,000-acre South Mountain Park. And it’s by far one of the Phoenix area’s best outdoor amenities. It’s riddled with trails for hikers and mountain bikers.

My favorite is the Desert Classic and its various spurs and offshoots. It’s easy to put in a 20-mile ride that never stops being fun. Fast and flowing, with the occasional rock garden. Sometimes, you’ll even glimpse a rattlesnake trailside. Be careful out there, especially in spring and fall! They love the shade from creosote bushes. (Find out more about dealing with a rattlesnake encounter.)

There are some swooping turns where you can countersteer, dig in and lean your bike way over at high speed. There are some sandy sections, so you’ll want to be

Really, the only downside is that everyone knows it’s awesome. So the trails are often crowded, and not everyone has good trail manners. On my last ride, though, I was tickled to see a mom and dad teaching their under-10 son and daughter the mountain biking ropes. Both kids were doing a fine job on the trails as they enjoyed some outdoor adventures in Ahwatukee.

outdoor adventures in Ahwatukee
View from the cockpit. That’s a wide bar!

As always, water is mandatory (I could say this about helmets, too, but that really ought to go without saying). And snacks are a smart idea, too.

What about after the ride? Get out of Awhatukee and get something tasty in your belly. Nearby Tempe has plenty of restaurants. Post-ride, though, I’d lean toward the Cornish Pasty Company. Maybe some locals will chime in with cool new  Ahwatukee spots. has a great Desert Classic map.

Best of British Columbia: Whistler and Squamish Mountain Biking

This is the sort of action you'll see at Crankworx. (Wikimedia Commons)

This is the first of three posts about the awesome times a mountain biker can have visiting British Columbia. Hang on and read on!

Sometimes, two bloggers are better than one. That’s definitely the case when I get a message from a Spanish mountain biker planning to visit British Columbia for some fun this summer. I’ve been to BC and have some decent info, but my friend and BC resident Teresa of can turn a decent reply into a slam-dunk. 

So here’s our situation: David and his friends are bringing their own bikes and plan to be in BC July 30 – Aug. 16. He assures me they’re skilled enough to handle all of what BC can hurl at them. They plan to hit Vancouver Island, Squamish and Whistler. He’s also hoping Teresa and I can hook him up with some non-mountain biking activities.

Alright, let’s take a look at what we’ve got here:

Squamish Valley - scenic and silly with great trails. (McKay Savage)


Justin’s Quick Hits

Squamish is packed with outdoor activities. Mountain biking is high on its specialities, especially cross-country racing. Word is there’s something like 600 trails in the area. The Test of Metal race sounds pretty awesome. I would definitely like to spend more time in Squamish in the future. I was just there long enough for pit stops between Vancouver and Whistler.

Just getting there is a treat for the eyeballs, with spectacular views in virtually any direction.

Teresa Tells It All

One of the "must ride" trails is Half Nelson. Only one word describes this trail: FUN! It has a bit of everything that should suit everyone and is one of the BC Bike Race staples every year. Squamish has an extensive trail network and it’s hard to just pick a few trails to ride. Tourism Squamish has done a great job of posting videos and descriptions of some of their trails. They are the "go-to" place to find out more information to find out more information about the best trails to ride.

Airing it out on the Whistler jumps.

Squamish is also our rockclimbing mecca so when you drive past the Stawamus Chief (massive granite rock monolith, you can’t miss it) look up! You’ll almost always see people climbing the face. You can also hike to the top of the Stawamus Chief. If you have the time and energy after your ride, you’ll be treated to some pretty incredible views. And if you’re really lucky, you might meet a base jumper or two, as well.


Justin’s Quick Hits

What can you do in Whistler: fishing, hiking, skiing (well, not in summer) -- and mountain biking of every flavor. You’ll see cross-country hammerheads, dirt jumpers, downhillers, trials mutants and combinations thereof. It’s stocked with shops to dispense gear and advice. It’s a real mountain bike culture, the likes of which I haven’t seen before.

Something to keep in mind: Everything in Whistler seems absurdly expensive (my wife and I ate at a Mongolian-style BBQ place that set us back about $40 US – that’s about $16 in Arizona). I’d suggest renting someplace with a kitchen so you can save some bucks on food.

David’s schedule coincides with the  Crankworx festival, so he and his buddies can snag test rides on some sweet bikes and mingle with all sorts of bike nuts.

Teresa Tells It All

There is lots of great riding around Whistler and not all of it is in the bike park! Around Lost Lake there is a great series of trails if you’re looking for a shorter ride. Then there are the classics like Cut Yer Bars and Kill Me Thrill Me which are for the more advanced rider. Looking for something a bit more epic? Then you will want to check out the trail Comfortably Numb.

Whistler’s Bike Park is well known and for good reason. If dirt jumping is more your style, you’ll have an excellent time on Crank It Up and Heart of Darkness. Far too many trails to list here, but you’ll need a downhill or all-mountain bike and a full-face helmet for most of these trails.

In the next post, Teresa and I will spill the beans on the awesome Vancouver Island. We’ll follow that up with the dirt on the city itself. Subscribe so you don’t miss out!

An Average Racer’s View of the Fat Tire 40

McDowell Sonoran Challenge,, phoenix mountain bike examiner
I’m just your Average Joe rider … among GloboGym racers!

It’s better to challenge yourself and come in last than it is to sandbag your way to victory. That said, I didn’t come in last in the Fat Tire 40 at McDowell Mountain.

But I was definitely bringing up the rear.

This event, put on by Swiss American Racing, brought a fast crowd of folks. Lots of people with lots of leg and lung power, for sure. Some had sketchy handling skills, especially at the Tech Loop drop-off and the T-Bone Hill climb. But most made up for it by motoring in the flatter sections. Me? Decent in the tricky climbs, good in the downhills, a lazy sod in the false flats.

As I mentioned in my earlier recap of the race, though, I had a tremendous time. And I hit a bit of a turning point.

Here’s the deal: So far in 2011, I’ve done four mountain races. Among them was a solo 12-hour effort and 24-hour race as part of a duo. My results have been unspectacular.

But I’m getting out there, and it’s paying off.

I finally achieved something that sent me home from a race feeling good: At about 25 miles into the race, I caught up with a guy. He was riding a shiny Santa Cruz Tallboy that made my 6-year-old Gary Fisher look like Fred Sanford’s jalopy. Which it pretty much is with its chainsuck-battered chainstays and leaky rear shock.

I passed him and thought I’d seen the last of him.

But he caught me about five miles later at a feed zone. I stopped to refill my bottles. He jettisoned his empty and grabbed a new one. I didn’t have time to drop an electrolyte tablet into my bottles without letting him get too far away. Instead, I wolfed down a banana one of the volunteers offered me.

So I chased his fancy-bike-riding butt. I caught him at The Ledge as he was pushing his bike over the obstacle. I went around him and got slightly tangled in a palo verde tree, but I kept going. I was feeling good, good enough to laugh and yell "no, don’t crash into the palo verde!" He panted a reply I couldn’t understand.

I thought for sure I’d left him behind. I was soon up on the South Ridge and putting on some distance. This was about three miles past the feed zone.

That’s when I hit The Wall – that horrible place where the easy becomes epic and your body no longer obeys your commands.

I had trouble steering in a straight line, much less breezing over obstacles like I had for the past 35 miles. I could feel heat building in my quadriceps. Oh, salt and potassium, how I needed thee! But there was just no time to fish a Nuun tablet out of my pack, unscrew a water bottle lid, screw it back on, wait for the tablet to dissolve and start guzzling.

It was just five miles to the finish.

I just had to hold this persistent, rising-from-the-grave jerk at bay for five miles (why won’t he give up and let me enjoy the rest of the race, already?!). I had the advantage. I’d already passed him twice. He was panting like a dog both times. He was in worse shape, right?

So I kept pedaling, kept descending.

Then my bike made a horrible noise. It reverberated through the frame. It sounded like the stable platform valve in the rear shock finally giving way. I still haven’t figured it out. But it made me more tentative in every descent.

But I kept riding. Sometimes, I heard my nemesis scratching along the ground behind me.

Finally, I got to the start/finish area. That meant I just had three miles left to go. Riding the Sport Loop backward was all that stood in my way.

Just a few hundred feet from the start of the Sport Loop, I looked behind me. He couldn’t have been 10 feet back.

I kept pedaling. Straight into the twisty singletrack. Climb a little, descend a little. Just focus on every little stretch of trail. The heat was building in my legs again. Keep in the low gears, just keep spinning the pedals. High RPMs. Ride smart.

But damn, my legs hurt. I just wanted to take a few seconds to stretch. But I kept hearing him. No. Just keep going as long as I can. If I blow up, I blow up.

Finally. Finally. Finally. I reached the bit where I could count on some easy descending. Keep spinning the pedals.

But wait. There were two hills on-tap. On every Sport Loop, they come moments from the start as two steep drops. Riding backward, that means my hammered legs had to go UP them! I reached the first and scaled my way up.

I got to the second. I got halfway up, hop off the bike and push us both up. I crest the hill as the other rider gets to the bottom.

I’m back on my bike in a flash. I spun the pedals like a madman. I tried to be smooth, controlled, confident. It’s all downhill from here.

I crossed the line. It takes more than a minute for my former antagonist to cross the line. That’s a gap I opened in less than a mile. I can live with that.

That guy made me suffer. He worked me like a dog.

And I’m glad he was there. He made me ride better than I could without him. He gave me some motivation. I’d like to think I did the same for him. I believe we made each other better, that we wrung the absolute best out of each other.

We weren’t the fast guys in this race. Both of us probably eat way too much cheese and chocolate to be as fast as the others.

But we rolled up to the line with the fast people anyway. And we both gave it everything we had to give on that Sunday.

Views from North Scottsdale – Third Annual McDowell Sonoran Challenge

McDowell Sonoran Challenge,, phoenix mountain bike examiner
This is a look I call “Blue Steele”

I was hanging around having a hot dog at the Weenie Wagon; then I heard the phrase of the day from a guy who works at Sunday Cycles in Phoenix:

"I felt like I was getting seasick!"

It might sound like a complaint, but it wasn’t. Having just finished the 20-mile bike course of the Third-Annual McDowell Sonoran Challenge, I knew what he meant. The course is filled with big rollers made by years of use from off-road motorcycles. They’re part of what makes the trail network running through the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and bits of State Trust Land one of the best outdoor recreational sites in Scottsdale.

Big Bumps, Lots of Challenge

McDowell Sonoran Challenge, unicycle
Yes, this madman’s ready to rock a unicycle!

But boy, there was an awful lot of these rollers. How many? So many that I often had a hard time finding a long-enough stretch of trail to drink from a water bottle or slurp down an energy gel. Each time I took a gel, I’d wind up riding for a few minutes with a half-empty package of Chocolate Outrage-flavored Gu clenched in my teeth, waiting for a chance to finish it off.

And that is better than riding flat, straight, way-too-wide trails. This was real desert mountain biking, with the occasional steep pitch and super-hard turn. There was also so much sand that I suspected David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson were course volunteers – not so much fun, but that’s mountain biking for ya.

McDowell Sonoran Challenge
Numero Uno Cinco Cinco

I also loved the really complete, thorough, clear trail markings. I was never in danger of veering off-course. Gotta love that! After the race, the expo area was not the usual explosion of commercial hoopla – just a few vendor tents and people hanging out. I also liked the swag bags. My favorite bits were the t-shirt with the event logo and the reusable shopping bag with the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy (the event was a fundraiser for the conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving open spaces as part of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve).

McDowell Sonoran Challenge
Nice scenery

Smart Set-up at the Starting Line

The starting area was pretty cool. There were chutes for each event. Course marshals asked everybody to do a reality check and line up accordingly – that prevent fast people from getting stuck behind the newbies. Good thing, since it’s a narrow course without a lot of room to pass! Another great idea: Riders "launched" in a fashion similar to a time trial. Two riders would leave every 10 seconds. It really prevented the angst, drama and frustration of a mass start.

Here’s what I can’t figure out: There’s a place in the plaza where organizers had the expo called Rare Earth Wine and Coffee Bar. I had an hour to kill before the race started, and I locked onto the words "Coffee Bar," anticipating a nice americano to warm me up. But no – Rare Earth is apparently far too leisurely to be up at 8 a.m. Not until 11 a.m. most days, and 4 p.m. on Sunday. Huh?

McDowell Sonoran Challenge, Sunday Cycles, hot dogs, Weenie Wagon
Questionable for all the right reasons.

Other Stuff

I guess it was a show of solidarity for people doing cool things for outdoor recreation and preserving open space: Rand Hubbell, supervisor of McDowell Mountain Regional Park, was out spreading the word.

Without meaning to, I’ve put together an unprecedented-for-me streak: I’ve done three races in the past few months: The McDowell Dust Devil series race, the Four Peaks12 Hours in the Papago and the McDowell Sonoran Challenge. And I’ll be in the Kona 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo later this month. That’s a lot of racing in a short time -- for me, anyway!

See results for the Third Annual McDowell Sonoran Challenge.

Scenes from Fountain Hills, Ariz. – The McDowell Meltdown

EDIT: If you’ve come here looking for photos of yourself, I probably have about 100 other shots. Let me know your race number and I’ll see what I can find!

On Jan. 22-23, the MBAA Arizona state championship mountain bike race series got started at McDowell Mountain Regional Park just north of Fountain Hills, Ariz. The park is one of the best outdoor recreation assets in the state, and the weather cooperated to make it a great time for racers and spectators. You can read my recap at or just check out these photos. Find out what you missed – even if you were there!

Fountain Hills, McDowell Meltdown, 2011, MBAA
Too fast not to blur a bit
Fountain Hills, McDowell Meltdown, 2011, MBAA
Racing with a smile.

Miguel from Adventure Bicycle Company hangs out at the team tent.
Continue reading

4 Reasons I Turned to the Dark Side – Night Mountain Biking

A 10-second exposure of the moonlit desert at night. Check out the flash of lightning!

I used to have a lot of problems with night mountain biking. But over the past year, I’ve definitely turned to the Dark Side. It was around this time last year that a guy named Harry who found me on Facebook and some of his friends dragged me into signing up for the Kona 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo. I gave in because I have a hard time saying “no.” Here’s why I changed:

1. I found good, cheap lights. Most of Harry’s crew was hooked on the MagicShine GMG-900 light system. The guys all promised that I could get a good night riding system with a helmet light and a handlebar light for about $200. It’s easy to spend double that on similar lights. They were right. I love riding with these things. They’re simple to use, and the company has  updates on the way (I’ll post more about that in the future). So there goes the cost obstacle. I was also seeing a lot more of the distinctive green glow of the MagicShine power buttons. At least 10 other riders were sporting them. The secret is out! Check ’em out at

Snakes on a trail!

2. Since I had lights, I started riding at night more. And I sought out group rides like the McDowell Mountain Regional Park “Mountain Bike in the Moonlight” series. It’s very social, with more than 100 riders hitting the trails before enjoying some free cylindrical meat objects compliments of Slippery Pig Bikes. I’ve run into some old buddies like Bill from Adventure Bicycle Company and some of his long-time customers. Since I used to work there, it’s always very cool to see them – and I will tell anyone looking for a bike that you want to buy a bike from a guy that you’ll run into on the trails.

The park has done these night rides for years now, and it was the first government entity to sanction and host night riding. They have people sign on and off the trails to keep them safe, and it’s a good time for everyone. There is no better way to get into night riding than a Mountain Bike in the Moonlight session. Fact.

3. I love creatures. I’ve been seeing roadrunners in the twilight out at Papago Park – always one of my favorites! At McDowell, I’ve seen all sorts of kangaroo rats. And they are very cool little creatures with their big ol’ tails and hopping gait. It’s definitely a treat to see them – which you won’t in the day time. I may have seen some other rodent – it had an even longer tail with a big bottlebrush of fur on the end. I don’t know what it was. And after the Aug. 27 night ride, park supervisor Rand Hubbell spotted a young California king snake cruising through the dirt parking lot at the Competitive Track. He scooped him up to give us all a close-up view of this beneficial little creature – it eats rattlesnakes and is immune to their venom. Rand then dropped him off in a good spot in the desert so he could resume his king snake activities.

This is why a lot of bike people shave their legs - this would be a lot easier to clean without all that fur!

4. It makes old trails new. Seriously, you have less visibility. Everything happens in a relatively narrow cone of light. You can’t really goof off on the harder trails. I got a reminder of that last night – I know the Long Loop at the Comp Track pretty well … and I was about to descend into a chute I knew ended with a short, steep climb. And I couldn’t remember whether I was still in my big ring. I knew I’d need the middle, so I risked a glance at my gear indicators, which said “middle all the way.” When I looked up, I was about to start the descent – but the right side of the trail where I was had a nasty little erosion gully – just enough to catch front wheels and throw you to the floor. So I tried to ride through it – brakes off, letting the bike buck and kick through it. But that front wheels got caught, and I got pitched into a creosote bush. I was scraped up a bit, but I was back on the bike moments later. No harm – just a reminder to always mind your situation and don’t sweat the small stuff like what gear you’re in!

If you’re thinking about trying your hand at night riding -especially if you live in a place with broiling-hot summers- take my advice: Give yourself to the Dark Side.

Check Out McDowell Mountain Night Ride

mcdowell mountain night ride
Night mountain biking – bring the fun!

The McDowell Mountain night ride is one of the great things about summer for the local Phoenix mountain biker. It’s tough to be a mountain biker during the hot months here – especially if you’re also a stay-up-late sort of character. Just try scraping yourself out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to avoid the brutal sun. From the second it makes its way fully over the mountains, its intensity seems to suck your soul dry.

Really, there’s only one refuge for the desert mountain biker: the night-time.

Yes, you have to become a velo vampire. Myself? Night riding isn’t my favorite, and I always made excuses like “Aww, I don’t have a light.” But since I ponied up for some lights to get me through the Kona 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, I’ve lost that excuse. And I want to keep my fitness, so I’m extra-motivated to stay on the bike this summer.

I’m a bit of a chicken, I’ll admit. I am kind of a lone wolf when I ride, but the nighttime will force me to be more of a pack animal. That’s what makes this weekend’s moonlight ride at McDowell Mountain Regional Park such an attractive idea: riding at night in the safety of a full moon and a large group of people – on a trail with barely any technical nastiness.

On May 22, you can head out there, pay $6 per car and hook up with other riders for a 16-mile loop around the uber-fun Trail B/Pemberton Loop (I’m pretty sure everyone knows how much I love the Pemberton Loop). It starts at 7:30. Bring enough light power for three hours, and don’t even think of showing up without a helmet. Volunteers sweepers will scoop up all of you stragglers.

Keep an eye on the park’s Web site. These rides usually happen whenever we get a nice, bright moon.


5 Facts About Bike Shorts

bike shorts
Now that’s a pair of bike shorts!

Bike shorts are a bone of contention with just about every new bicyclist. “Do I have to wear Spandex?” they’ll whine. “Why are they so expensive?” usually comes next. The answer to the first question is “yes, you do.” The answer to the second is “‘Cause they’re doing a hard job – supporting your miserable, stinky undercarriage!” Here are a few things that might add some detail to these short answers for the new bicyclist.

1. Yes, you really need to wear bike shorts.

They have a pad in the butt to make sitting on a bike seat more comfortable. They’re also made from materials that wick sweat away so it can evaporate. That means less heat and less chafing. You’ll be far happier than a bicyclist wearing jeans!

2. Dude, please don’t wear underwear with your bike shorts.

My brother tried taking up biking. I think he stopped after the relentless mocking I gave him when I caught him wearing tighty-whiteys under his bike shorts. If you wear undies (boxers, TWs, thongs, whatever), you defeat the wicking capability of your shorts. You will stay wet, making you feel like you’re wearing a diaper. If you’re into that sort of thing, fine!

3. I consider $80 for a pair of Castelli shorts money well spent.

But to me, throwing $35 down for some Bellwethers is like spraying my money with WD-40 and lighting it on fire. The difference in quality and fit is huge. A new bicyclist riding short distances might not notice the difference. But some experience and increased time on the saddle will reveal all.

That said, budget shorts are getting slightly better as you may notice in this review of The Black Shorts, which seem a cut above other cheap bike shorts.

4. When you’re looking for shorts, look for a few things:

The butt pad (aka chamois) should not be a big blob of foam. It should be designed to conform to your mysterious man/lady parts. Also, the shell of the shorts should be constructed from more than one big piece of material. The more panels, the better the fit. Just try on a pair of Bellwether or Canari shorts, and follow with something from Castelli, Assos or even a higher-end Pearl Izumi. You’ll know where your money is going.

5. After you’re done riding, don’t go to the coffee shop and lounge around in your bike shorts.

There’s still some moisture in there, as well as some heat. That’s a breeding ground for bacteria. Change into some regular ol’ shorts for your post-ride coffee. Sure, you won’t look like the cool bicyclist that you are, but you’ll smell and feel better. | Shop Apparel


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Five Scenes from a Friday in Sedona

An alien on his way for a probing housecall.
Let me get this straight - you can fly through interstellar space, but you can't scrounge up a shirt when you're on your way to probe someone?
bikes agave
Bikes outside a chalet at the bike-centric Red Agave in the village of Oak Creek.
A mountain biker crests a hill.
A mountain biker crests a hill.
A fine view from the Red Agave in the village of Oak Creek.
A fine view from the Red Agave in the village of Oak Creek.
A rider among the red rocks.
A rider among the red rocks.

5 of the Best Places to Mountain Bike in Phoenix, Ariz.

EDITOR’S NOTE (May 1, 2012): This post is really old. I will publish an update soon. Subscribe (it’s free) in the box to the right so you don’t miss it!

EDITOR’S NOTE PART II (May 11, 2012): UPDATED and cooler than ever.

I just recently ran into an old classmate at an ad hoc high school reunion. He’d moved from the area, and mentioned that he was getting more into mountain biking, but isn’t sure where to ride here. Naturally, I promised him some tips … and then I thought, “hey, maybe some other people besides Mitch would dig some advice!”

So here are 5 places in the metro Phoenix area where you can ride. Each will offer something different. These are in no particular order. I’ve linked each to my buddy at, who has produced some fine maps and profiles!
McDowell Mountain Regional Park: There is something for everyone here. The Competitive Loops host all sorts of races. You can choose from the Long Loop (about 9 miles), the Sport Loop and the Technical Loop (both about 3 miles). You can string them together for some uberloops. All require some skill to handle steep drops, breaking bumps, rocks and lots of loose nastiness. Speeds can run high. Leave your iPod at home … rattlesnakes love hanging out trailside, and your earbuds will mask their warning signal. And watch the trail closely – that big rock you’re zooming around just might be a desert tortoise! Also, the park offers a 15-mile loop called The Pemberton, aka Trail B. This is technically easier, a varitable mountain bike super highway. By the way, the MTBikeAZ site’s map of this is outdated. Pick up a fresh one when you come into the park. Some snobby riders will label it boring: Not true. It has all sorts of offshoots to explore – and if you’re not up for a 15-mile loop, it has lots of connections back to the trailhead to cut it short, some of which are so fast that you’ll arrive at the bottom before the sound of your tires on the ground does. The park entry fee is $6, and it’s a screaming deal: The race loops feature a beaut of a new bathroom. Trail B’s launching pad has a groovy restroom AND a vending machine!

Pima and Dynamite: This is great for winter epic rides. You can just go forever and really get away from the red tile roofs. As you head away from the intersection, you’re on a false flat as you roll your way up. The terrain undulates and wiggles beautifully. Lots of hardpacked stuff, but it gets more wild and wooly the further north you go. Bring lots of food, water, sunscreen and tubes! Epic high desert scenery makes it even better. The terrain can be tricky and the speeds can be high. I rode here once with a friend, and we went home bloody, thirsty and late: His wife banned me from their house for one year, saying I brought him home sun-baked, penniless and smelling of cheap perfume. I only participated in two of the three! No bathrooms or facilities of any sort here. A bummer … this is State Trust Land, which means you need a permit. Yes, you really do. It’s pretty cheap, though it requires prior planning.
Phoenix Mountain Preserve: Trail 100 is the mainstay of this ludicrously awesome urban park. The visionaries who set land aside for this gem deserve medals. There’s a trail at Tatum just south of Doubletree Ranch Road. You can ride this monster clear to 7th Avenue … and don’t forget all the side trails! Bring a GPS for sure so you can log everything you ride. Some terrain can be tricky: Crossing the Dreamy Draw freeway and heading west takes you up a few nasty climbs, and into a hideous, rocky wasteland. That eventually turns into some wild, good-time singletrack. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a snake, a bunny or three or even a ringtail. There are actually water and toilet facilities scattered around, which is nice.
Papago Park: You experienced riders out there better stop snickering. You were once a newbie, a squid, a beginner. And I’ll bet this is where you cut your teeth. Mountain biking isn’t just about YOUR ride – it’s about what you pass on to create a new generation of riders. And Papago is the place to train your apprentices. And let’s face it: this place is fun. That four-mile loop around the old golf course is fast as hell, with beautiful sweeping turns that’ll help even the stoniest veteran keep them skills up. Parking, bathrooms, vending machines and water fountains are scattered all around. As your skills (or those of your apprentice) improve, head south to some short but steep climbs and a few super-secret drop-offs way south toward the freeway.
Fantasy Island North Singletrack (FINS): This is a new trail, and I pumped out 900 words or so about it for the awesome Mountain Flyer magazine. It’s a bit controversial, though, as you’ll see from the article. But we won’t worry about that, for now. Let’s focus on this: People who know and love mountain biking built this beast, and did a right bang-up job. They smashed a lot of miles (15 and counting at last check) into a really small footprint. It’s all hardpacked and groomed. These trails are fast, like bowling balls on a greased bobsled track. There are some switchbacked climbs that’ll burn your legs and scald your lungs. Lots of turning, barely any straightaway flying; that’s to keep the speeds reasonable and hone your turning and braking skills. No facilities here, either, so stock up on the water and be willing to pee outside.
Okay, I know some people’s rides got the shaft. I know there will be weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. I’ll give some explanations below about why some got left off the list, but here’s the bottom line: If you don’t like my choices, go write in your own blog about your favorite rides!

Onto those that didn’t make it:

South Mountain: The Mormon Loop, the National and the Desert Classic are legendary around here. But you know, they’re just too crowded and eroded to be my favorites.

Hawes Loop: Too much road pedaling to fully access everything.

Estrella Mountain Regional Park: Because it’s the most suck-a-licious, pointless, loose-rocked POS trail I’ve ever turned tires over.

A few quick mountain bike notes about Wandering Justin: Riding since 1992. Ex shop mechanic. Raced in several 12-hour races (including one win in co-ed sport category), several epic singletrack races, one state series. Rides a 2006 Gary Fisher Cake 2 DLX, but likes Santa Cruz and Specialized way better. Has been (falsely) accused many times for gross malfeasance, negligence and nincompoopery leading to riding parties getting lost.