Cycle: Phoenix's Trails for Every Rider

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Jackalopes can ride bikes, right? (Given the temperature, they should be able to ... ) Welcome to Cycle, a weekly feature where our own fanatic, Jason Franz, tells tales of rides and routes, and cycling dos and don'ts, as he spins pedals across what Bicycling Magazine calls the 15th best bike city in America.

Phoenix is a city in the desert. Yet it also has desert in the city.

Previously, Cycle featured a ride around the Phoenix Mountains, a string of preserved desert areas that cut through the heart of the city. This week, we are going to ride through this area, bounding on fat tires along trails for riders of all levels.

Make no mistake, mountain biking is an entirely different beast from riding on the hard surfaces. Whether it's loose granite, large exposed rock, or an uncovered root of a mesquite tree, the ground that the bikes roll over can be highly unpredictable, but can also be highly sweet in terms of pure fun.

Phoenix is known for some top level mountain biking, including National and Desert Classic Trails on South Mountain, McDowell Competitive Track, and Hawes Trail near Usery Pass. But two trail systems lie in the center of town and are perfect for learning how to ride the dirt or blasting out a quick mid-day ride. And neither have a single "Are you insane!?!" section of trail to scare you away from the dirt.

Papago Park

If you're truly new to mountain biking, make your first run in Papago Park. This is an ideal trail system that has a few short hills and nicely maintained single track trails on both the north and south sides of the Phoenix Zoo. Papago is known as an easy ride with a few loose, technical sections - especially around Big Butte. But do not miss out on the trails in the south end of the park around the Loma Del Rio Ruins.

Start your ride at the West Trail head off of Lake View Drive (park under the freeway overpass next to Tempe Town Lake). Get the feel for the loose surface and glide down to follow the right contour of the hill along Lizard Trail. This follows along the old Indian Bend Canal until you hook left up a small ridge and then drop back down to the tunnel that cuts under Curry Road. Follow through the tunnel and take the trail straight up the hill behind the Arizona Historical Society Museum.

REAL DEAL BIKE TIP #4: Get to know your Granny. Most mountain bike gearing is set up with three chain rings on the crankset and seven to nine gear cogs on the back cassette. The easiest gear combination to pedal is known as the granny gear - when the chain is in the smallest chain ring and the largest gear cog. There is no reason to not use this gear, no matter how macho you may think you are. The granny gear is all about need, not ego. When you hit a climb, keep shifting into an easier gear until you can comfortably spin up the hill, even if it means being in the granny. Oh, and don't stand up - that loose dirt and gravel will cause you tire to spin out if you take your weight off of it.

Follow the trail down across the SRP service road, over to the paved canal path that runs behind the mountain goat area of the Phoenix Zoo, past Hunt's tomb (that white pyramid), and follow the road out to Galvin Parkway. Shoot straight across Galvin, through the West Park parking lot and onto the Double Butte Loop trail. This trail, marked by metal columns with a "5", rolls through the desert creosote over some fun little bumps until you lead up to the Big Butte. The trail around the Big Butte is a fun 15-minute roller coaster of a ride so feel free to get in a few laps. Word of warning - be sure to keep to the right once past the amphitheater or else you'll end up out along McDowell Road.

When you're done, you can either test your legs and skills further by trying the Small Butte Loop (it's a bit steeper with more technical obstacles), or just follow a trail back down to retrace your route back to the south end of Papago and your car.

Trail 100

Once you have the feel for desert trails and the mountain bike, graduate up to Trail 100, historically known as the Christiansen Trail. While still not overly challenging, this is a much more outstanding trail with slightly longer climbs and challenging bends and turns - and totally worth it.

Trail 100 is the primary intersecting trail for the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, cutting on the north side of Piestewa Peak. There are several entry points for Trail 100, but the 40th Street trail head typically has the best parking and is an easy start to the trail. You will actually ride along an old jeep trail extension of 40th Street for the first section of the ride until you come to the Trail 100 intersection. When you hit the intersection, hang a right and start blasting along, keeping aware of some rock and boulder strewn wash beds with sharp turns. It's slightly challenging, but fun.

The Phoenix Mountain Park trails are typically well marked by pylons with trail stickers, however there are what seem like an infinite number of trails cross cutting through the park. Don't worry if you get off track because each of these lead back to a main trail or kick out to the nearby neighborhood streets. Just remember that Trail 100 runs east-west.

The first couple of miles heading west on 100 is easy with a little gradual uphill pitches followed by some nice downhill sections. But, you will hit a decent climb before you drop down to the Dreamy Draw recreation area, so again, get friendly with that easy gears. But once you crest that little ridge, you'll see the sweet trip down a slot canyon that awaits.

REAL DEAL BIKE TIP #5: Let your legs and arms be your suspension. Sure, you've seen those bikes with trick forks and frame shocks that rock and absorb all sorts of crazy trail action. But did you know that the best bike suspension is actually you? Mountain bikes are nearly 50 years in the making, but true mechanical suspension didn't come until about twenty years ago. When you're going downhill, stand on the pedals and let your arms and legs move with the bike. And if you come to a big, sharp drop, move your butt back and behind the saddle keeping your weight to the rear of the bike. All will be good.

Even though Trail 100 continues west past Dreamy Draw, it gets fairly steep and technical very fast. Just head back along 100 and enjoy the trail from the other direction. Or try some of the other side routes - Trail 1A and 8 can be tough goes. Or follow 100 east out to the Tatum trail head for a nice decent over some loose rocks. It's a good route to practice climbing and shifting through gears.

Papago Park
Route Type: Basic single track with loose gravel/dirt and mild rolling hills
Trip Distance: 8 miles
Trip Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes
Difficulty: Easy. This is where Phoenicians go to learn how to mountain bike.
Route Map: http://beta.mapmyride.com/routes/view/26141976

Trail 100
Route Type: Rolling single track
Trip Distance: 6 miles round trip
Trip Duration: 1 hour per lap
Difficulty: Easy to moderate. Absolutely nothing scary.
Route Map: http://www.mapmyhike.com/routes/view/26141758

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