Sarah Swallow and Her Specialized Diverge Gravel Bike in Elgin, Arizona

Southern Arizona has become a destination for many cyclists over the years but it’s long been a refuge for snowbirds with the nation’s largest rock and mineral show, the Gem Show, hitting Tucson in February and bringing in over 50,000 registered buyers annually. While Tucson is bursting at the seams with RVs, campers, and retirees in February, Sarah Swallow resides about sixty miles south of the city at the Appleton Whittell Research Ranch  – an Audubon property nestled just outside the quiet little town of Elgin – planning each year’s Ruta del Jefe event…

The last time I was in these beautiful grasslands surrounding Elgin was in February 2020 at the Ruta del Jefe, just before the pandemic seized life as we know it. A few weeks ago, Josh and I traveled down to see Sarah. I needed an escape from the brutal cold, ice, and snow in Santa Fe and space to clear my mind. Having not ridden consistently all winter, I wanted to get some rides in before taking on the Ruta del Jefe in March. Sarah offered up a spot to park my camper, so after a few days riding mountain bikes in Catalina, AZ, I relocated to the research ranch for some gravel miles. We had an enjoyable ride, selecting one of Sarah’s many routes in the area to spend an afternoon riding and shooting photos.

While it is very arid, Elgin is in fact not in the Sonoran desert. Instead, it lies within the ecotone of the loamy bottom and clay loam uplands, with forest woodland and grasslands. I.e. you won’t see any saguaros here! Just beautiful native (and invasive) grasslands, wineries, and ranchlands. The fertile soil in this area makes for prime ranching and farming, yet is also a big reason for the invasive grass species as ranchers have seeded their properties with non-native grasses since they first arrived in the area.

This zone is exceptional for gravel riding. I first came down to this area in 2018, after seeing some of Sarah’s routes she was riding around Patagonia, AZ. Later, in 2019, I hung out with some friends from Austin around Kentucky Camp, off of the AZT, to ride for a long weekend. A few weeks later, the first Ruta del Jefe took place. Since then, the San Rafael valley has become a destination for gravel cyclists.

This winter, Sarah was hosting group rides as part of her Sky Islands Adventure Ride Series, which Josh and Reese recently profiled, and has been super generous offering them up for all. Some are hardpack gravel, perfect for a drop-bar bike, while others are more rugged, better suited for bigger tires, and dare I say, suspension…

The route we rode was a pleasant mix of both. It meandered through Elgin, la Cienegas, Papago Springs, Sonoita, before looping back on public easements and ending right back at the Research Ranch. I was on my Sklar gravel bike, Josh on his hardtail, and Sarah was on her 2020 Diverge Pro Carbon gravel bike, which we’re featuring today.

As pictured, this carbon chassis is rolling on 700c x 48mm Rene Herse Hatcher Pass tires but for her rowdier routes, Sarah also puts 27.5” x 2.2” Rene Herse Umtanum Ridge tires on to offer just a bit more cushion and traction on the loose doubletrack. Her bars are 46cm wide ENVE Gravel bars and the Rogue Panda framebag offers plenty of cargo space for water, tools, and other ride essentials…

This weekend, I’ll be heading back down to Elgin to ride and photograph the 70 mile Ruta del Jefe course, so if you’re heading to the event, be sure to say hey! As for Sarah, I just wanted to thank her for offering up a place for me to crash for a few days, ride bikes with friends, and reconnect to a landscape I’ve come to love so much.

Long live Jefe!