Bicycle Culture

Cycle: Phoenix Mountains Circumference Route

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's skyline's dotted with a few tall buildings with semi-interesting architecture, but the real skyscrapers are the mountains in the middle -- from Papago Buttes to Camelback and Mummy Mountains to Piestewa Peak cutting northwest to North Mountain and Lookout Mountain.

Because of the development that runs up into these spaces, there are roads that follow great topography to get away from the flatness that fills the rest of the Valley floor.

This week, Cycle lays out a route that follows a basic contour around the mountains with several quick, sharp climbs through some cool pocket neighborhoods that provides a challenge for any level of cyclist.

The Ride:
Start your ride at the Starbucks on the northeast corner of Priest Drive and Washington Street and head north through Papago Park. It's uphill out of the gate so the legs will get a good quick chance to warm up as you work your way through Scottsdale. Cut along the east end of Camelback Mountain to 68th Street, which turns into Mockingbird Lane north of Lincoln Drive.

Riding in Scottsdale is great because the roads are super smooth and traffic on side streets is mostly non-existent. Be careful crossing major streets or intersections, but enjoy the glassy surfaces through here, because they will go away once across the Phoenix city line.

REAL DEAL BIKE TIP #2: Don't let the winds fool you. Phoenix has a natural East/West air flow based on the solar thermals created by sunrise and sunset. None of the winds are overly strong, but they can give an extra zap to the legs if you're caught out on a tough drag. Most routes, like this one, can be started in multiple directions. Before you head out, check which way the breeze in blowing and try to save the tailwind for the trip home. But beware - winds swirl around hills and mountains.

Turn left onto Hummingbird Lane and begin the route's first climb, up the backside (north side) of Mummy Mountain. This is a one mile climb that pitches to about eleven percent half way up and then coasts down and around, keeping left at Foothill Drive South and again at Foothill Drive North. Continue to follow the mountain around to 52nd Street, and then turn left on Mountain View Road.

Because of its agricultural origins, Phoenix roadways are set up on a basic grid system. Try as they might to throw a wrench in that grid system, the Phoenix Mountains can't keep some roads from meandering their way around their base. Mountain View is one of these roads. For the next three miles, the route essentially chases Mountain View Road along the north side of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. This is an extended gradual uphill until you get to 32nd Street and pass over the 51 Freeway.

Continue west up Cheryl Drive - this is a great drag to push hard in the big ring for a little burn before working over to 24th Street for a downhill coast and refueling. It is through this section that the road surface changes from sublimely smooth to almost cobble-like bumpy. You have officially crossed onto Phoenix roads, 17 miles into this ride.

Once you turn left on Sweetwater Avenue, you will look straight at a small ridge. This ridge presents three short but steep stinger climbs that are straight out of a Belgian spring classic race. Ignore the bike route sign and blast up the first climb on Sweetwater. It is the shortest but steepest, hitting 15+ percent grades. Hang a right on 18th Place (not quite the top of the ridge) and then left on Camino Del Santo. This is the second climb, a little longer but not as steep. At the top of this one, follow the road to the right and coast down, turning left onto 18th Street. Turn left at Sharon Drive for the final climb - shorter than the second and not quite as steep as the first - turning right onto Pointe Golf Club Drive.

REAL DEAL BIKE TIP #3: As tempting as it might be to simply rest, continue spinning the pedals after you finish a climb. Powering up hills or mountains causes a buildup of lactic acid in the legs (that's the burn). If you just rest after a big effort, that acid pools and breaks down muscle tissue. Once you're over the top or if you reach an easier section, continue pedaling at some level (even backpedal) to work that lactic acid out. Your legs will be much happier when the next incline comes.

The route now drops down into Moon Valley along Coral Gables Drive. This road wraps south to Thunderbird Road, where you jag left then right onto 8th Avenue. Work east through the private drives along the base of the North Mountain Preserve before you get spit back out onto Thunderbird.

Be careful here -- there's not a bike lane on Thunderbird, the cars use all lanes, and there are storm drains along the road.

Turn right onto 7th Street, fall into the bike lane and make a nice, steady climb past the North Mountain trailhead on the right and the Pointe Tapatio Cliffs Resort on the left. Drop down and turn left on Cinnabar Avenue to cut over to 12th Street.

Twelfth Street makes up the central section of Phoenix's Great Sonoran Bikeway and is home to some cool pocket neighborhoods such as Northwood and Sunnyslope, and a sweet retro bowling alley. Fly south along 12th Street for three miles to Maryland Avenue, turning left, to cut back under the 51 Freeway and get to the base of Cactus Hill. Cactus Hill (mile 35) is home to a truly odd collection of homes that look like they were settings for a cheesy '70's sci-fi flick.

The ride now enters the final section. After rolling through the Biltmore Estates to 32nd Street, head north and turn right onto Stanford Drive. Here you will be staring down the nose of the camel and begin visualizing your last climb on the south side of Camelback Mountain.

Approach the mountain behind the AJ's Market at 44th Street and Camelback Road and work over to Rockridge Road. Once you turn left onto Arcadia Drive, the final quarter-mile ascent begins as you swing to the right and precede up two switch backs that ramp up to over sixteen percent gradient. But once you hit the top, the Papago Buttes are in sight and a sweet run down 56th Street is in order.

Follow 56th Street for two and a half miles until it ends at Oak Street, ride the rise up and down to 64th Street. Bomb down Galvin Parkway back down to Washington Street, leaving nothing in the legs, and return to your car at the awaiting Starbucks. In a few weeks, Cycle will mountain bike along some trails through the Phoenix Mountains that you just rode around.

Route type: Hilly road ride with multiple short, steep climbs
Trip Distance: 48 miles
Trip Duration: 2 hours 45 minutes at an aggressive pace (17-19 mph average)
Difficulty: Challenging - it will be as hard as you make it based on your pace
Route Map: