Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
If you enjoy long, tough climbs and spectacular scenery, Mt. Lemmon in Tucson, Arizona should be on your bucket list. It’s been on mine for a long time, but I can’t remember when I first learned about it. It might have been while I was helping to compile a greatest climbs in the USA story for Bicycling Magazine. Because I know my buddy and fellow editor there (and former RoadBikeRider humorist) Scott Martin told me he loved Mt. Lemmon when he rode it.
Another possibility is that when I did the El Tour de Tucson century in 1999 as a coach for the Team in Training Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (TNT) that someone told me I should do Mt. Lemmon next. But, it might have been Lon Haldeman who told me about it at one of his Pactour Desert Camps which started in Tucson. No one knows how to pick great rides better than he does.
Crazy About Climbing
I’ve made it a point to seek out and try to make it up major climbs every chance I get (at least part of them if I don’t have time or the lungs to complete them). Some of my favorites include Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, Haleakala in Maui, Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park, the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, Mt. Constitution on Orcas Island, Washington, the Climb to Kaiser in California and Trail Ridge in Colorado (where I collapsed at 9K feet).
So on our current RV trip into Arizona we got a site in an RV park in Tucson specifically so that I could try my luck on Mt. Lemmon. The website ArizonaBikeRides has a helpful page all about this epic Mt. Lemmon is named for Sara Plummer Lemmon, a botanist from Maine.
From their site I learned that most cyclists start in Tucson at the Safeway parking lot on the corner of Tanque Verde Rd. and E. Catalina Highway. The elevation there is about 2,560 feet. From there to the top is about 30 miles, which is the 7,000 foot elevation mark and the turnaround for riding back down.
They said that the 60-mile round trip takes 4.5 – 5.5 hours on average. For more climbing you can ascend to the Ski Resort (a right turn near the welcome to Summerhaven sign). That gets you to 9,000 feet elevation but while the average grade up the main climb is in the 4.5 – 6% range, that 2.8 miles to the ski area is 8%.
When I texted my friend and RoadBikeRider reader Seth who lives in Tucson that I was in town and ready to ride up Mt. Lemmon he told me that I’d picked the perfect day for it. He said it was the nicest weather in three weeks and I’d have a great day, though it might be windy. I did it on Saturday February 4, 2023.
I started at the Safeway parking lot as recommended. There’s a McDonalds there that opens early. It was about 40 degrees at 7:30 when I started. I wore leg warmers, a baselayer top, jersey and wind jacket plus riding gloves with winter gloves over them.
From the parking lot, you turn right onto E. Catalina Highway. This is a wide long straight road that gradually climbs. It seemed to me like I was riding away from the mountains which were in front of me at the parking lot and were now on the left.
Luckily, another rider came past and she told me that if I keep going straight I’d be fine. I did that but grew more concerned as I was expecting E. Catalina Road to become Mt. Lemmon Highway. But that doesn’t happen for a long time. Also, as you roll along there are signs on the road reading Sky Island Scenic Byway, which I hadn’t heard of and later I saw signs for General Hitchcock Highway.
But, if you just keep your wheel headed straight ahead, you’ll stay on course up the mountain. I rode my new Trek Checkpoint gravel bike (which I reviewed last week in this space) because I have a 32 chainring and a 34 tooth cog for the steepest stuff and 40mm-wide tubeless tires for protection from possible goatheads on the road and for traction on the snow and ice at the top.
All told, heading up and down the mountain I saw about 50 riders. Every one was on a standard road bike. I didn’t see any gravel bikes or other types of bikes – no electric bikes either.
Because of the position of the sun over my right shoulder I didn’t notice much scenery of note on the first 5 miles. I wasn’t focused on the roadside at that point anyway. I was concentrating on holding a pace I could maintain. Besides the rider who told me to keep straight, I was passed by 3 others setting a much faster tempo than I dared attempt. I’ve learned the hard way that the worst mistake you can make on a climb as high as Mt. Lemmon is to elevate your heart rate too much anywhere on the climb but especially at the beginning because you can’t recover.
I also know the importance of hydration and I carried two large bottles and sipped regularly on the way up. I was counting on finding water along the way because there are campgrounds every 5 miles or so. I hoped there’d be drinking water and bathrooms.
The Elevation Takes Its Toll
4.5 to 6% isn’t that steep for a long climb and I felt fine up until about the 6,000 foot elevation sign. At that point my breathing felt a little restricted and I found I was most comfortable only when spinning my easiest gear. Around there a double paceline with 6 riders came whizzing by chatting away. I also started seeing snow on the side of the road. It felt cold but Siri told me it was 54 degrees so not that bad. And the sun was out, which felt good.
Speaking of Siri, I thought I’d have a cell connection on most of the climb to check in with my wife back at the RV in Tucson. But it turned out that on the majority of the climb there was no reception.
Where’s the Top?
I knew that I only had a thousand feet to get to the top but it took miles and miles to get there as the switchbacks just kept coming. I could see the radio towers at the top and that kept me motivated to keep pushing. I did get to the 7,000 foot sign but then the road descended for a good way before climbing again to another 7,000 foot sign, which I found out later is the official top.
Since I wasn’t sure if I’d reached the top, I kept going which was a mistake because again the road went down. But, I took the free ride and then climbed some more and ended up at 8,000 feet. Along that entire stretch the snow was deeper and there were icy patches on the road which was worrisome.
At 8,000 feet the road dropped again and I followed it until I saw the Welcome to Summerhaven sign and the turn to the Ski Resort. I figured I might as well attempt to ride up to the Ski Resort and 9K feet, but my legs were toast and I thought better of it after about 10 pedal strokes.
The Ride Down
As soon as I turned around I started feeling a little light-headed and stupid for not stopping way back at the 7K mark. Because to get back there, I had as much up as down. I was crawling along sitting and standing trying to recover a bit. I drank the last of my water and ate some more of the food I’d packed. I stopped to use one of the campground bathrooms and was disappointed to discover that there was no water to be had. The campgrounds were all closed for the winter.
Luckily, when I finally got back to the 7,000 foot marker (about 26 miles from Tucson), I saw that a Cycling House van (a bike adventure company https://thecyclinghouse.com/) was parked there with water and food. They have a ride that climbs Mt. Lemmon and they were at the top to sag their riders. They were happy to help me, too, and it saved me from a tough descent and long pedal back to town without water.
My photos here won’t do justice to the incredible beauty on the way down the mountain. While I was blinded by the sun on the way up, it lit the terrain magnificently on the descent. At the top, it was a lovely winter scene especially up by the ski resort. Once I got below the snow, I came into a magical zone of hoodoos, quirky rock-upon-rock formations all around and for miles down. Then, a couple of switchbacks later I was in a spectacular saguaro cactus forest with breathtaking expansive views of the sprawling city of Tucson below.
Once back on E. Catalina Road heading toward the Safeway parking lot, it was 82 degrees. Quite a temperature swing from 40 to 54 to 82. A steady stream of solo riders were heading toward me at that point apparently having waited for the best part of the day to hit the mountain.
Road Conditions and Traffic
I read several web pages about the Mt. Lemmon climb and they all said the roads had wide shoulders and the pavement was in excellent condition. There are wide shoulders on E. Catalina road at the bottom of the climb. Once you get on the main road that ascends the mountain though the shoulders are still there most of the time, but they’re not that wide and in some places hardly there at all. Up in the snow zone, as you’d expect the snow was on the shoulder, ice, too.
I took the lane as needed. But, I have to say that whether in the lane or on the shoulder – maybe due to it being winter – the pavement was hardly excellent. On the shoulders and in the lane, it was rough enough that I was happy to be on gravel tires, especially on the descent at speed. Had I been on my road bike with skinny tires, I would have taken the middle of the lane for fear of hitting a hole and flatting or even crashing.
There was an awful lot of traffic going up and down the mountain. Arizona has a 3-foot law but the drivers apparently haven’t gotten the memo because time and again they passed within inches. Fortunately, they did slow and the bigger vehicles did wait to cross the centerline to give me space. So overall it wasn’t a lot different than some of the climbs I do in California.
My Mt. Lemmon Stats (according to Strava)
It took this 69.5 year old roadie 5 hours and 33 minutes to ride 59.42 miles for an elevation gain of 6,750 feet and a max elevation of 8,155 feet. My average speed was 10.7 mph, average power was 97 watts and I burned 2,166 calories. Just for kicks I looked it up and it looks like the record to the top of Mt. Lemmon is held by Lionel Sanders who did it in 1:14:35.
If you’ve conquered Mt. Lemmon and have a story to tell or wish to correct any facts I may have gotten wrong please do. It would also be great to hear about your favorite classic climbs so we can all add them to our bucket lists. Thanks and keep on climbing!
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. A pro mechanic & cycling writer for more than 40 years, he’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Tune in to Jim’s popular YouTube channel for wheel building & bike repair how-to’s. Jim’s also known for his cycling streak that ended in February 2022 with a total of 10,269 consecutive daily rides (28 years, 1 month and 11 days of never missing a ride). Click to read Jim’s full bio.