Single Speed Arizona: Black Canyon Trail Edition
Words by Bryan Harding, photos by Josh Weinberg and Corbin Brady
“It’s the annual family reunion!” a friend exclaimed at Single Speed Arizona (SSAZ) a few years ago and, to me, it’s a sentiment that still holds true. This is in no way meant to indicate the annual ride/race is clique-ish. To the contrary, riders and volunteers descend on Arizona every February from all over the states, including Alaska and occasionally the UK. It doesn’t matter if you’re Lycra-clad, in baggies and pads, or prefer to remain in costume for the day, all riders are equal while pushing single speeds up a steep pitch in search of a cold one. The allure is simple: the weather sucks everywhere else in February, so venture down to Arizona where you can actually spend time outside and have a blast on your bike.
Since 2006, SSAZ has primarily been hosted by Dejay Birtch in his backyard trails of Mt. Lemmon and the neighboring Catalina Mountains outside of Tucson. Typically, the route isn’t announced until the day of and always features heavy helpings of suffer fests and Type II fun. So how did I, a resident Phoenician, end up organizing a shuttle run for this year’s shenanigans? It’s what happens when you run out of options.
It turns out building trails and organizing events in your hometown of Port Jervis, NY, inconveniently-located on the other side of the country from Arizona, puts real stress on anything else you’re trying to plan. Leading up to last year’s SSAZ, Dejay asked if I might be interested in competing for hosting rights the following year. Coming fresh off a 3-day bikepacking trip on the Black Canyon Trail, I had some ideas. Fast forward to the night following our ride, chilling next to the fire, he asks “Do you still wanna host?” I’m thinking he’s about to throw me into some god-awful “drink til you puke” physical challenge of sorts. Instead, he tells me “Well, everyone else who wanted to host already left soooo, you win!” And, just like that, the torch had been passed. Coincidentally, we both celebrate our birthdays around the first weekend of February so it just made sense to keep it in the Aquari-family.
This year the fine folks at Bumble Bee Ranch Adventures hosted 130+ riders, volunteers, and family. On “raceday” the crew shuttled up the mountain for big views, ribbons of singletrack, and a few (planned and unplanned) surprises along the Black Canyon Trail. This was by far the best birthday I have ever thrown myself.
The Black Canyon Trail descends along the Eastern foothills of the Bradshaw Mountains in Central Arizona. From saguaros and wild desert tortoises prevalent in the southern portions to pinon trees, rattlesnakes, and steep cliffs further north, the trail reaches nearly 80 miles from northern Phoenix to the very small town of Mayer. According to the BLM, the trail follows pre-historic trade and travel routes used by the Yavapai (People of the Sun); however, more recent developments have made the trail more scenic and accessible. You can even spot some petroglyphs along the trail if you know where to look. Copper and other materials had been mined by indigenous people in this area for centuries but the discovery of gold and silver in the Bradshaws by settlers in the mid-1800s created a classic Western mining boom that literally put this area on the map. The resulting landscape, pock-marked with open pits, features an infrastructure built by mining railways and now-abandoned “ghost” towns. The trail’s evolution has been a labor of love between federal authorities and volunteers for the past 40 years is now designated a National Recreation Trail.
Typically, in my experience, these types of events are known for long, grueling days in the saddle; “earn your descent” kind of days. SSAZ is particularly famous for a lot of hike-a-biking and occasional bushwhacking. Arguably, with this year’s location in mind, the best sections of trail are combined in the descent from the town of Mayer down to our basecamp of Bumble Bee. Pointless miles of fire road could have been thrown in to connect the good stuff, but given the speed and recklessness (as well as questionable sobriety) of the off-road vehicles that frequent the area, a shuttle to the top made the most sense in maximizing the fun to suffer ratio. Starting from the ranch, riders headed South along the BCT for four miles of single track to an onramp along Interstate 17 where, SURPRISE, two coach buses, and a Uhaul truck awaited to shuttle them 25 miles up the highway to the Big Bug trailhead outside of Mayer.
One problem though, I seemed to have misplaced the keys for the padlock on the back of the Uhaul. Little by little, the riders started to trickle into the parking lot. My fiancé Amanda drives back to the ranch to look for them. Shit, more riders. I call Uhual and AAA, neither company provides bolt cutters. Double shit. During the time I had hoped to be loading bikes and gear into the shuttle, all 130 riders had arrived in the parking lot. Waiting. Cracking beers, laughing, and waiting. I was getting to the point of making an hour detour to the nearest hardware store just to buy my own bolt cutters when our savior, Amanda, called me and said she’d found them on the ground outside our sleeping quarters. Oops. But it wouldn’t be a memorable day without a hitch or two, right?
So begins the mad dash to get front wheels off and bikes loaded in the vehicles. Astonishingly, everything fit and everyone and their bikes made it up the road to the drop-off point only 30 minutes behind schedule. Pretty good considering all the cat-herding. From the trailhead outside Mayer, riders descended the predominantly thin basalt and granite singletrack trail into the canyon to the primary aid station shepherded by Paul Price of Paul Components. Mr. Price, by the way, incredibly, drove all the way from Chico just to work the aid station. He wins the “People’s Choice” award. Beer, bacon, bourbon, and pickles filled the riders’ tanks as the group now had to take the old mining road up into the Bradshaws to the ghost town of Cleator. What was once the refining center for minerals coming down the mountain is now home to one of Arizona’s best and oldest saloons, The Cleator Bar & Yacht Club. With drinks, hot dogs, and a fire awaiting, riders quickly understood why it was absolutely necessary to detour off the singletrack to visit this gem.
From Cleator, it’s a no-brakes hill bomb down the ride road, back to the trail that gave way to an absolutely gorgeous Arizona sunset. At this point, I shirked my host duties and joined in on the fun. This was THE crescendo of the trail and I wasn’t going to miss it. Full blown sunset with scattered clouds made for one of those rides where you’re not sure which is best, the riding or the views. It’s for scenarios like these that you pack a “ride cork”. Maybe your ride cork is a dangling, titanium water vestibule. Maybe it’s a camera to try and capture the moment. Personally, I find a trail- beer or three with friends fits the bill so as not to rush through the experience. Whatever the case, I purposefully didn’t pack a light so we eventually had to get to stepping before dusk set in.
Back at the ranch, dinner was waiting for the crew, followed by sets from Flagstaff’s newest “single speed band,” Thee Deores, as well as Tucson’s favorite, The Pork Torta. Between sets awards were announced and prizes given away, which was a crowd-sourced affair as finish times and places were intentionally not kept track of. This was a ride to be enjoyed with friends after all, not a race. Turns out having some sort of structure to prize giveaways keeps things from getting… heated. But again, if it was a perfect day, no one would remember it.
All in all, I like to think folks got to enjoy rural Arizonan hospitality with some of the most scenic trails we’ve got to offer. Huge shout outs go to BumbleBee Ranch Adventures and Cleator for putting up with us (Dare I say they enjoyed us?). Thanks again to everyone who donated product, their time, or supplies because it truly did take a village. If this sounds like something up your alley, keep your eyes peeled for #SSAZ2020 in the Dragoons Mountains. I hear they’re working on a heli-drop with Gary Fisher…