Written by David Keppler Tuesday, 28 April 2015 17:30
I woke up one morning in the middle of February to find the outside temperature hovering around 30 degrees below zero. Awesome way to start the day. Seemed like that was happening a lot over this past winter in New England. I gathered up as much determination as I could and made my way in to work. Somewhat auspiciously, after lunch, I received an email from a friend that I hadn’t heard from in quite some time. This friend happens to live in Phoenix and he was sending me some pictures of his bike perched against a rock, surrounded by cactuses under a clear, blue, and he assured me, very warm sky. Needless to say, I wrote him back straight away and subtly asked if I might be able to come visit; something like “Dude, when can I come visit?” Nice to have friends you can be direct with. After some delays and complications I was able to make a long weekend trip out to Phoenix to do some mountain biking at the beginning of April.
I packed light and setup a bike rental through a local shop in Phoenix (Cactus Bike in Ahwatukee, love that name). One of the best parts of the trip turned out to be the bike that I was able to demo: a 2015 Kona Process 134. It just so happens that I’m hoping to possibly purchase a new bike this year and the Process 134 was on my short list. I hadn’t, however, had the chance to ride one until now. Turns out a couple of days in Phoenix in the spring is a pretty awesome time to demo such a great bike. Regardless of the terrain that we hit, the bike responded superbly and even though it was a demo and I had never ridden one before, I did not get sore or rubbed raw at all. I don’t remember the last time I rode a bike that I hadn’t had time to get used to that didn’t cause me some sort of pain or ache. The Process 134 just felt comfortable from the start. Anyway, more about the bike later.
Since I was traveling from the Northeast, I arrived late on a Thursday so my buddy Doug and I pretty much headed straight home from the airport and I did my best to get some rest. On Friday, we woke to almost cool weather by Phoenix standards but it felt perfect to me coming from the refrigerator that was New England this winter. We took it easy in the morning and made our way to Cactus Bike in the early afternoon. I only had the bike reserved for 24 hours so we had planned an evening/night ride on Friday and a longer, more involved morning ride for Saturday.
We grilled up an early dinner and relaxed a bit as the afternoon wandered on. The temperature during my visit turned out to be just about perfect. The temps got up into the mid 80’s but there was a light breeze that kept it a bit cooler. You really couldn’t ask for better weather to ride around in the desert. Pretty much all of the cactuses were blooming at this time as well which added incredible color and variety to the landscape as we rode, or walked, or drove around in the desert. Did I mention we were in the desert? It was just such a wonderful feeling to be warm again and think that maybe, someday, winter would end in New England and I could ride my bike back home again.
For our Friday evening ride we hit a sort of ‘suburban’ trail called the Desert Classic. It sits just outside of the suburbs of Phoenix, about a 20 minute drive from Doug’s house. It’s a popular spot for walkers, runners, and bikers so there were a handful of cars in the parking lot as we pulled up. We geared up and made sure our lights were in good working order as we knew we’d be out after sunset. As we started out for the ride, a group of coyotes began howling at the moon that was just emerging over the horizon. We made our way off of the paved entrance to the trail and started out on what turned out to be about a 10 mile ride over just a couple of hours. The trail was very well established and it was mostly smooth and sandy. There were some stretches that had some good, and surprisingly challenging, rock formations to climb and maneuver around. There were also some serpentine sections that allowed for some real ‘shredding’ as well.
As I mentioned before, the Kona Process felt awesome from the start. It’s a very responsive bike and I found it very comfortable. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I normally ride a 26” XC bike that is quite light and almost ‘twitchy’ (in a good way). The Kona Process is a 27.5” bike with quite a bit more travel, and a bit more weight, than my current race bike. But overall, the extra weight was in no way a problem and I really appreciated the extra suspension. The bike climbs very well and I felt that I had quite a bit more confidence in descending due mostly to the ‘slacker’ (as in ‘more slack’) geometry. Once I got used to how close the front tire felt to my face (the shorter stem and more relaxed geometry had a lot to do with that) the bike really felt great. We were able to go at full speed for most of the ride, even as the sun went down and we started riding with our lights. We saw a bunch of lizards, heard coyotes periodically, and I even saw what I think was a Kangaroo Rat. After all that, we only came across 3 or 4 other people on the trail so it really felt like we were out in the desert (even though there were houses about a 5 minute walk from any point on the trail).
After a couple of good, hard hours of riding we ended up back in the parking lot, winded but definitely psyched and smiling. Dust can be an issue when riding in the desert of course so our eyes were a bit raw but for the most part we couldn’t have been happier. Already the vacation was worth the effort. And Saturday was still ahead.
We got a good night’s sleep as we both were tired from the ride and we knew we didn’t want to wake up too late the next morning. If the weather had been anything like it can be in Phoenix, we would have had to get up before the sun to get any kind of a substantial morning ride in due to how hot it gets during the day. But the weather remained just about perfect so we headed out Saturday morning before 10 for the hour drive to McDowell Mountain Regional Park. Turns out McDowell has quite a few mountain bike specific trails and is a popular destination for local riders. We arrived a bit before lunch time and parked near the Competitive Track at the park. The Competitive Track consists of 3 different loop trails: the Long Loop, the Sport Loop, and the Technical Loop. The track was the site of the 1998 and 1999 Cactus Cup race which hosted over 2,500 racers in the ’98 race alone. The loops are all very well maintained and definitely built for biking.
We started out riding the 8+ mile Long Loop. One thing that I found very cool was that the loops are direction specific so everyone rides them the same way. This way you can barrel along when you feel like it and know that you’re not going to come around a corner and have a head on collision with a rider coming the other direction. And even though the parking lot had numerous cars in it, we really didn’t come across many riders on the trails at all. Things spread out enough that you definitely have your own space. As I mentioned before, the cactuses were blooming and the Ocotillo were especially beautiful. They are a spiny, bush like cactus that has beautiful red flowers on the tips. The Saguaro were also very impressive. We kept the pace on the ride pretty high but made sure to stop periodically to hydrate and take some pictures. I had also brought along some Honey Stinger Orange Blossom energy chews which became essential about half way through the loop. I have to tell you that those things are like eating candy; 95% organic-energy-filled-candy but candy nonetheless. You really should try them if you haven’t.
Anyway, the trail was very well maintained and laid out really well. There were copious burmed turns that made for some exhilarating riding for sure. Both Doug and I were smiling the whole time. Again, the Kona Process seemed to be the perfect bike for the ride offering just enough squish to suck up the bumps and enough agility to rail through the turns. Super fun.
After the long loop we hung out at the car and had a bit of lunch to prep for the next part of the ride. We sat for a bit and then set out on the Sport loop. This loop is just about 4 miles long and was even more fun than the long loop. There were some spots where we could get some air and the burmed turns were ratcheted up a notch. Doug wanted to take the Kona Process for a spin so we traded bikes for the first lap on the Sport loop. After we got through the first time, I went out again on the Kona for a quick 20 minute circuit. Overall we ended up covering about 15 miles over the course of the early afternoon. Even after all that it felt like the day ended too soon. We did, however, have to return the demo bike and get out of the afternoon heat.
While at McDowell we came across one snake of unknown genus (we thought we’d see more as the spring is when they are most active), numerous birds, and a huge variety of flowering cactuses. The trails were smooth, fast, and tremendously fun and in the end it turned out to be just about a perfect day.
We returned the Kona and went out for a nice Italian dinner. The next day was a relaxing day visiting the Musical Instrument Museum (far more awesome than we expected) and having a couple of nice meals. I had to head home Monday morning as it turns out it takes all day to get from Phoenix back to New England.
In the end, even though it was only for a weekend, I must say the trip was a very much needed respite from the never ending winter of New England. The weather in Phoenix was perfect, I got to spend some quality time with a good friend, I got to demo the awesome Kona Process 134 (definitely thinking I may buy one of those this year), and I got to forget about lousy weather and work for a few days. Really couldn’t ask for anything more. I am hoping to get out to McDowell Mountain again sometime soon as it turns out there are another 30 miles of trails that we didn’t get to check out. It is a beautiful place and from what I saw of the trails it is an excellent place to ride. Thanks for reading and I hope you’ve been able to have some spring riding adventures of your own. Keep the rubber side down.
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