Wednesday, January 6, 2010

How Lucky We Are

Tracy’s parents have recently moved to Green Valley, Arizona, and Tracy and I spent the last week of 2009 visiting them. I managed 267 miles over 5 days of riding in Southern Arizona, and there is no doubt that I saw more of the area than most people who live years in Green Valley. Besides the entire perimeter of Tucson, I visited places such as McGee Tank, Arivaca, Amado, and Elephant Head.

The Tucson area has one of the best climbs in the country, and I rode up to the ski area on Mt. Lemmon in April of 2007. Featuring 6000’ of climbing with very consistent grades, it’s about as enjoyable a climb as you will find. Since the Lemmon road was pretty iced in, I rode a clockwise route around the periphery of the city.

As far as bike lanes and striped shoulders go, Tucson is certainly a “bicycle friendly” community. Tucson is also proof positive that a large percentage of roads with defined cycling space does not guarantee a comfortable cycling experience. I found myself on edge during my entire 55 mile ride, wired on adrenaline in an effort to stay safe, despite having a set apart space a lot of the time. On certain stretches of road, I was very focused on trying to stay alive, and that’s not a lot of fun. It seemed like quite a few of those moments occurred while I was slamming into a 20mph headwind, which only compounded the unpleasantness. Thankfully, that wind was behind me for the last eight miles of gradual downhill riding. Nevertheless, effortlessly ripping along in my “secure” road shoulder would have been a lot more fun without the high speed drone of cars whizzing by. Taking the lane was not an option--I think they would have called out the National Guard to remove me.

As with Tucson, the Green Valley area is also set up very well for riding, and with a lot less traffic. Most of the roads have provisions for cyclists; the problem is that most of the roads go nowhere, and that “nowhere” is not very interesting. It’s a pretty small town, and the roads have been built almost unilaterally to service housing developments. Where a particular development ends is where the road ends. There are an awful lot of poorly surfaced roads outside of town, and actually quite a few within town itself. Interestingly, Green Valley would be excellent for commuting…if anyone had a job. There is an actual ordinance prohibiting people younger than 55 from inhabiting most Green Valley dwellings. Workers tend to live north of GV, in the next strip mall (whoops, I mean town) called Saharita.

Last September, a 94 year old cyclist was struck and killed in Green Valley by a 78 year old motorist while riding in a bike lane. Just about everybody is ancient around GV; it’s best to keep your eyes open even more than usual. Ditto goes for Tucson, even though the population there is a lot more diverse.

Of course, there are a few roads leading out of town, and I explored every single one. Most trips are out and back, as there are no connecting roads to make a loop. It’s a nice climb up to Madera Canyon, as well as up to the Smithsonian Institute’s Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins. By far the nicest ride I did was an out and back to Arivaca, despite the fact that I rode into a strong wind for 31 miles to get there. Which brings me to the major problem, at least for me: Not only is the wind very often strong, it seems to shift direction a lot. There is frequently a major shift around 11 AM, and this means that certain rides will put you into the wind in both directions.

Couple the wind with the often straight and monotonous roads, and you have a recipe for some quite boring riding. While boring is definitely better than the craziness of Tucson, starting a climb with a 4 mile straightaway is just odd. Most of these rides are not even Type II Fun (fun that is only fun at a later time, not while you are actually doing something).

Between the poor road surfaces, the dirt and rocks scenery, and the seemingly never ending wind, I’ll take typical Seattle winter riding any day. A few days after I was home, I did a favorite loop of mine through Medina, Kirkland, Downtown Bellevue, and Enatai. Starting from home in Downtown Seattle, I can get 52 miles by cruising around the south end of Mercer Island in both directions. Conditions were just perfect: damp roads, but not raining, 45 degrees, and hardly a breath of wind. It was Sunday morning, and traffic was almost non-existent, but this route is always pretty stress free, no matter what day of the week I ride it. There is not a preponderance of bike lanes, but I never miss having them, let alone feel they are necessary for safety reasons. The ride just flows, and I hardly have to put a foot down the entire time.

We have lots of great cycling in the Pacific Northwest, and in my head I have numerous routes as good as the one described above. If I could only ride the magnificent Medina/Kirkland/Bellevue loop for the rest of my cycling days, I would be fine with that. I can’t say the same about the entire South Arizona area, let alone any one particular ride I have done there.

Seattle is an expensive place to live, more expensive than just about anywhere else in the US, including any place in Arizona. But Seattle is green, and the water...the water is everywhere! Things are alive in Seattle. To me, it seems like you get what you pay for.

Yes indeed, how lucky we are.

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