Nestled in the heart of the American Southwest, Tucson, Arizona offers a mecca of opportunities to ride your bike in winter, with a special emphasis for the gravel-riding aficionado. Tucson has it all: dry and sunny winters, great bike shops, legendary southwest dining, and uncountable miles of exploration on scenic dirt roads. Read on for a quick guide to this soon-to-be-on-your-bucket-list destination.
For a short, fast and flowy gravel-based spin, head to the Urban Assault Trail, located in the Catalina Foothils just northeast of town. It’s urban, flat and has limited traffic, unless you count coyotes and javelinas.
Another short ride, this one all paved, is heading up from anywhere in downtown Tucson up to visit the big “A”, clearly visible from Interstate 10, and located on the creatively named A Mountain in Sentinel Peak Park.
Road cyclists often flock to Tucson to challenge themselves with the nearly 7,000 foot climb up Mt. Lemmon Highway, finishing at over 8,000 feet of elevation. Start anywhere in Tucson, but many begin at the Safeway Shopping Center, at Tanque Verde Road and Catalina Highway. There are tons of rest stops along the 5-hour ride, mostly bathrooms, camp spots and restaurants; stunning views from the top await the climb’s successful finishers.
For a bigger objective on the gravel side of things, consider Redington Pass Road, a super accessible ride that offers loads of climbing, rewarded by stunning views. The super ambitious rider can combine this ride with The Dirty Lemon route for a total of 114 miles, complete with 12,000 feet of climbing, while mortals usually go out and back.
For a giant group ride, check out El Tour de Tucson, a road ride around Tucson that usually boasts over 7,000 participants on the weekend before Thanksgiving. This ride will celebrate it’s 40th year in 2023, and while it means a pretty crowded ride, you just can’t beat the community vibes.
Tucson’s cycling community is alive and strong, with riders of all kinds, including students commuting to the University of Arizona, road riders participating in El Tour de Tucson, and gravel riders hunting for miles of scenic adventure. A biking hub like this needs serious help to keep all those bikes rolling, and one of the best shops around is Sabino Bicycles; they offer everything from bike fit and maintenance to a solid offering of new bikes and apparel, all without an elitist vibe. Bruce Rhoades, the Sales Manager over at Sabino, promises great customer service, happy, smiling staff, and great gravel riding. Said Bruce: “It’s Arizona, we’re basically covered in dirt roads!” He’s not wrong; Arizona offers unparalleled access to desert riding, with terrain, views, vegetation and wildlife that is totally unique in the United States.
Riding in southern Arizona is best in the fall and winter, and even better in the right gear. You can’t go wrong on a great gravel ride wearing versatile, adventure-loving items like the Expedition Shell Short and the Prospect Tech Henley. Show Mother Nature some love with the Elite Tall Sock, colored via a collaboration between Landmark and PEARL iZUMi. And keep the gravel where it belongs with the unassuming but critical Gravel Gaiter.
Road riders will be happiest in a pair of Expedition Pro Bib Shorts and the Attack Jersey, though on chillier mornings they might opt for a warm pair of Thermal Arm Warmers and a Zephrr Barrier Vest. The last two (packable) items can come off and be stowed when the desert air warms in the afternoon. Lastly, a pair of Pro Road Shoes will provide the power to the pedal, without weighing you down on your long rides.
The (Non-Riding) Fun
Tired quads mean the ride must end sometime; or at least pause for a bit. Tucson is rife with opportunities to find entertainment. For the adults looking to replenish carbs in a bike-friendly setting, check out Catalina Brewing, where anyone who visits on a bike gets $1 off their first beer, plus there’s bike tools around for a quick fix if needed. Other bike friendly breweries include Tucson Hop Shop, Saguaro Corners, Dragoon Brewing Company, and more.
Thousands of visitors time their visits to coincide with shows at the Tucson Convention Center, which hosts wide ranging events like symphony concerts, ballet performances, the Gem Show, and the aforementioned El Tour de Tucson Expo. Nearby is the Children’s Museum, and also the Museum of Art. No trip to Tucson is complete without a stop by the historic Hotel Congress, where the walls portray news of the infamous John Dillinger, and the live music and tasty cocktails threaten the success of tomorrow morning’s ride.
Let’s be honest - you didn’t come here to hear about breweries, hotels or museums – you came for the riding beta. We’ll share one more tidbit, just for you: Tucson is only about one hour’s drive north of one of the greatest gravel riding areas in the world, surrounding the little town of Patagonia, Arizona. Here’s a short ride suggestion from the PEARL iZUMi Ride Spot to get you started.
Bounded on the other side by Nogales, Mexico, the hundreds of miles of gravel riding available near Patagonia offer endless open views in a scenic setting, and in town there’s even a cyclist-friendly haven, complete with delicious food and beverages, called The Gravel House. It is no accident that loads of biking opportunities, from bike camps and tours, to heading out solo on the bike-friendly Arizona Trail, and even the Spirit World 100 gravel race, which goes from Patagonia to Mexico and back, all begin here.