Photo Story: Riding The Outskirts of Arizona's 'Valley of the Sun' in Frigid Sleet
Words and photos by Ben Gavelda Towering mountains all around are caked in white and capped in clouds. Our hands can hardly grip the handlebars. Our fingers and nerves are numb to the bone, stiff and claw like. It’s hard to tell if our frigid digits are controlling the brakes or not as we wind out of the trail, bumping over rocks and squishing through mud and trickling streams. It’s mucky and slow and the van seems so far way. The sleeting just ceased and now a cold wind rips through our wet bodies burrowing the icy sting deeper. But damn is it beautiful, this desert turned wet terra, all this red-orange rock and green doused in water, glimmering in pockets of fading light. You’d think this were some high alpine epic escape, yet we’re merely on the outskirts of The Valley of the Sun—and it sure isn’t shining like it usually does. It’s late February and up-and-coming rider Georgia Astle and I are here exploring the trails around Phoenix, Arizona. We’ve been alongside rounds of dealers, shop owners and integral bike folk for Devinci’s annual early season desert gathering. The brand and crew have been based out of compound harboring a full demo fleet of bikes, on-hand mechanic, private chef and deluxe digs. The platform has given the mish-mash group of folks from BC, Oregon, Utah, and beyond time to ride, talk shop and swill beers. Even though the weather hasn’t aligned as everyone had hoped, it’s made for beautiful scenery and some massive puddles to push the limits of the rental minivan.
Phoenix is one of the largest cities in the United States, yet there’s a bit of solace in and strangeness each trail network we explore. From sweeping skyline views, saguaro forests and melting sunsets, to stoned and stumbling teenagers and gunfire. Arizona is interesting. Riding through the web of South Mountain Trails delivers steep technical climbs, snippets of flowy descent of plenty of rock chunk challenges. Over at Hawes Trails we find mellow winding trail, mean cholla cactus and beauty views of the Salt River.Then the rain hit. Trips to Sedona singletrack were on the agenda, yet the 1-2 feet of snow forecasted there was not. A freakishly frigid and wet storm began smashing the area and kept us cooped up in the compound. Instead of venturing to the vortex of Sedona we set out exploring more trails around Phoenix rain or shine. So we set out into South Mountain trails again. Atop the backbone ridge of National Trail we pause and watch gray brooms of moisture sweep over the city and soon over us as we pedal on. Normally desert riding and rain don’t mix, and often turn trails into bike-stopping fudge, but the decomposed rock around the South Mountain drained the moisture well, letting our wheels spin free.
Back at the compound water gushes off the house and the backyard lawn fills into a moat. And it keeps coming, through the night and well into the next day, unleashing a pounding only a fierce desert storm can. By afternoon it tapers slightly and the group splinters off into riding factions with some headed to South Mountain and others exploring the Gold Canyon area. We all return cold and tired, yet full of another fat tired story to tell. Our evenings are again filled with shucking mud and sand grains from all parts of gear, talking bikes, travels and relaying stories of trail from our mountainous homelands. Early the next morning a horizon of mobile homes and palm trees smears along the side of the road in the morning glow. Soon dawn breaks as we mount our bikes in the hills east of the city. Bits of frost splinter the ground as we pedal into unfamiliar territory of the Youngberg trails. Fog holds thick to the ground, wrapping two-story saguaro cacti in a misty cloak. As the day warms the trail soon turns to muck and we decide it’s best to turn around. While we search for more singletrack our time wears thin with flights to catch. It’s hard to leave the stark beauty of shining sun now that the storm has passed. The trails are tacky, the desert reeks of verdant beauty and snow-plastered mountains line the horizon and we can feel our fingers again.