There is a beacon along the south edge of Phoenix that calls to the world's cyclists. It is constantly blinking -- an infinite reminder to visit its miles of trails and roads that deliver pleasure and punishment in equal doses, sometimes simultaneously. It is there. Seriously. Look.
South Mountain Park and its network of bikeways is Phoenix's true cycling haven. Its backbone trail is regarded as one of the very best mountain bike trails in the country. Its road to the summit is eerily reminiscent of one of the world's most renowned road racing ascents. It avails itself exclusively to cyclists once a month (on Silent Sundays) when riders of all types go to prove themselves.
South Mountain is not simply a place to ride bikes here in Phoenix. It is the place to ride. On a mountain bike ride in the park two weeks ago, I came across former World Champion John Tomac, one of the truly great mountain bikers of all time, as he was leading a group of European journalists on a demo ride of his newest bike line. I stopped to allow his group to ride by and we chatted briefly.
"This is the place to come, right?" Tomac said simply. This is a man who lives in the mountain bike mecca of Cortez, Colo.
South Mountain's most famous run is National Trail, a brutal stretch of singletrack carved along the spine of the mountain. Riders endlessly push their limits, having to decide if they take the drop off an assortment of massive boulders or hop up through rock gardens and rut-strewn passes. In 2004, Bike Magazine called National one of the ten best trails in America.
Other trails along the top and north side offer similarly technical and difficult routes, but for pure enjoyment, go to the south side and hit Desert Classic Trail. This is no beginners course, but it does not present the never ending technical challenges that its sister trails throw at you. Desert Classic has ribbons of roller coaster swoops and sweet bends that'll leave you giddy and going back for more.
The paved routes are just as notable and enjoyable. Summit Road is not the most difficult ride, but it does go up at a consistent 5 to 8 percent grade for essentially 7 miles. The arid landscape capped by the towers looks hauntingly like the vaunted climb up France's Mont Ventoux.
The views along the ascent are amazing, offering grand overlooks of the Valley from the White Tanks to Four Peaks. On top at the TV towers, Mt. Lemmon (Arizona's pinnacle road ride for cyclists) in Tucson can be seen peering above the haze. And the ride down is pure bliss - just beware of idiot drivers.
If the legs aren't there to get to the summit, do yourself a favor and at least ride San Juan Road. The City of Phoenix closes the glassy tarmac to auto traffic on Silent Sundays, when cyclists have ownership of 7 miles of rolling blacktop that takes riders screaming down to the eastern mouth of mountain's central valley.
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Ultimately, Silent Sundays are to cyclists what First Fridays are to artists, and the next silent ride happens to be this week, January 23.
When I recently was without a road bike, I grabbed my fattie and headed straight for the Pima Canyon Trailhead at the east end of South Mountain Park and attacked the trails.
As soon as I got the roadie back, I ascended to the ever-gleaming TV towers, zipped back down and out along San Juan, then headed back up to the towers once more. When I'm on my bike, South Mountain is home.
Hungry for more cycling inspiration? Check out more rides and bike tips in the Cycle archives.