Cycle: A Survivor's Guide to Biking in Arizona's Extreme Weather
No matter how much experience or confidence any of us has, the second we step outside we are at the mercy of Mother Nature.
We here at Cycle got a good reminder of this lesson last weekend while mountain biking up north in Munds Park when a three-headed perfect storm erupted without warning while out on what was supposed to be a short ride. Thankfully, some good preparation and level-headedness helped to keep things under control throughout the downpour and lightning barrage so that a safe return home was eventually achieved. Needless to say it made for quite a harrowing afternoon spin.
Because Arizona summers can bring such extreme weather -- from excessive heat to sudden monsoons to the aforementioned thunder and lightning storms -- it is important to make sure that any ride is properly equipped and the cyclist has good, basic knowledge of how to deal with unanticipated changes, just in case.
Desert storms move in over the Superstition Mountains near Four Peak Trail.
John Groseclose via Flickr
Know the route
Before heading out on any ride, a cyclist should always have a general sense of where he or she is headed and share it with someone. This is especially true during the summer with this harsh, unpredictable weather. But don't just have a single route in mind. Have alternatives just in case something makes it so the planned route can't be completed. And always know where you can bail out at any given moment because that may be the safest choice of all.
Last week was a wet one up north, so when the sun finally peered between the clouds and shined down on Munds Park for more than an hour, the opportunity to break away from the endless Olympics viewing and squeeze in a short ride was irresistible.
The plan was to just drop down into the Frog Tank Loop and run a couple quick circuits before dinner.
Before fully committing to the ride (because there's nothing worse than ride interruptus), an online check of the latest weather reports and Doppler radar showed that the skies were all clear and that the visible storm clouds were moving to the northwest of the area. The sunny skies and clear weather outlook equaled time to gear up and head out before the temperamental skies could change their minds.
Despite some muddy trails, all remained calm and clear as the ride got to the top end of the first loop. However, just as the turn was made the dark clouds quickly consumed the northern and western skies with thunder starting to roll behind the hills. The original return route looked to be cut off by oncoming storms so Plan B was set to follow a forest road back home, but the rest of the blue sky quickly disappeared and any remnant of good weather collapsed under the weight of thunder, rain and darkness. Plan C, the shortest route back to Munds Park over a rocky rancher/ATV trail, quickly kicked into effect.
Prepare for the worst
The second that the weather starts to break down, heat, wind, dust and water can instantly transform dry surfaces and parts into mucky, debris-ridden messes with the odds of a mechanical breakdown jumping to highly undesirable levels. So instead of trying to stay light and arrogantly think "that won't happen to me," pack for any potential mid-ride disaster and know how to deal with it.
One of the nice things about mountain biking is that it's appropriate to wear a backpack while riding, which means a near infinite amount of stuff, including a large reservoir of water, can be packed for any ride. Basics must include at least one spare tube, a bike-specific multi-tool, and an inflation device (as easy and fast as CO2 may be, hand pumps are far more reliable and never run out of air). A rain cape or light jacket is always a safe bet as well.
For roadies who don't want to their aero disrupted by the added back mass, be sure to keep similar essentials in a back jersey pocket or in a saddle bag.
But simply carrying these items doesn't mean you're covered. Know how to make simple repairs such as fixing a flat (without creating another one by pinching the new tube) or replacing a broken chain link so that minor crises can be averted. And practice these skills by doing minor maintenance at home between rides.
A heavy deluge of rain and hail began to drop upon the trail with no sign of letting up in any direction. Lightning flashes were not yet visible but the crackling of thunder grew louder and closer. About midway up the shortcut trail, flashes with near instantaneous concussive blasts started just to the south. This became the first of three times that the bike was dropped instantly and a safe spot to squat was sought out in a nearby wash or ravine, the preferred safety spot when caught out like this.
Just before the third round of lightning while trying to ride on towards home, the rear wheel totally deflated, requiring a quick repair. Unfortunately the tubeless tire seal wouldn't reset as gallons of water collected in the mud-coated jersey and shorts and lightning continued to crash all around.
No matter what the weather or mechanical situation is, if a cyclist can't keep a calm mind and think through the options, a solution cannot be created. If the weather collapses - the heat is overwhelming, a dust storm overtakes you, or a thunderstorm imprisons you in a forest - know how to respond given the environment and look for a temporary bail out.
If you can contact someone to pick you up, that should be the first option. But if that is not a possibility, know how to react around lightning or high winds. Just do not ever think that you can outmuscle a storm because Mother Nature will always win that wrestling match.
Adrenaline will kick in during these situations, so make that adrenaline work for you. Use the energy to find safe spots, think through the situation and make smart decisions. As fast as Arizona weather changes to the worse, it also tends to pass equally as fast. Just be ready to move quickly once a clearing comes because another wave could be right behind.
After two unsuccessful attempts at getting the tubeless tire to grab the wheel rim and reset, once using CO2 and once using a hand pump, a tube was inserted and inflated enough to get back home. The weather cleared enough to feel safe as soon as the wheel was set back on the bike and a muddy slosh along with a fair share hike-a-biking closed out the trip.
Hugs and scolding awaited in the doorway, but this clearly was an instance of confounding weather ruling the day. Perhaps the smartest choice was to not tempt fate during a week of dramatic weather turns. Thankfully, all ended well with a greater sense of respect for the unpredictable wrath of Mother Nature.
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