Sedona By Road Bike: Good, Clean, Sunburned Fun

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First off, this was a honeymoon. The first thing everyone would say when I said we’d rented road bikes in Sedona was, “really?”. As fun as I know getting to ride the 1,000 miles of red rock would be, it just wasn’t that trip. We hit the pavement, and even ventured off it for a few miles, and you know what? It was damn fun.

Getting to the saddle was the first challenge. After a wedding (ours) that kept me up past by bedtime by a full four hours, I woke up early to squeeze in a trainer rider before brunch. Only then did we get packed for a 10pm flight from GR to Sedona. Do the math on that; that’s two hours past my bedtime, a three and a half hour flight, plus a short jaunt to the hotel in Phoenix. It felt like 2 am by the time we bugged the Ukranian lady at the Grand Hotel and got our room.

After a short run Monday morning (road, cactus, sun, totally worth it) we took on the two hour drive to Sedona. It wasn’t until Tuesday that we picked up bikes and got to ride. We ended up renting from Absolute Bikes in Oak Creek. They set us up on a matching pair of Specialized Diverges in sparkling purple. Stem at the very top of the steerer tube, angled up, massive saddle bag and in the first few pedal strokes I felt like I had retired and gone to a Cherry Capital Cycling Club ride.

Traffic was pretty nuts. Our ride was like trying to pass a parade from Sedona to Oak Creek and all the way down to the road’s junction with the interstate. While the town had a nice bike lane, it ended a good ten miles before we got to our main target, Coconino National Forest. Riding a perilous patch of pavement between the rumble strip and debris, we made it by the skin of our holy matrimony. Once into the park, we saw only one car, and it was a park ranger. The gravel roads went on forever; a full day and a full pocket of snacks and you’d have an incredible five or six hours just curling and climbing along through the cactus and the ridge line. I was aching to have my 3T with 35s for the perfect exploration, but on skinnier tires and a short ride window, we turned around. Sara decided to post up at the Coconino entrance and I high-tailed it back to pick up the car.

It’s a long, steady grade back up to Oak Creek, and while I started off at tempo, I eased off and just enjoyed the view. Every single turnoff seemed to boast a hiking trail head, and over the course of the week we learned that even the subdivisions all had a their own trail connected to something bigger just in their backyards. Each parking lot was packed, and the traffic on the main road was at a crawl. Having two wheels and a designated lane was a godsend; I think I rode back to Oak Creek faster than it would take me to drive the car back down to nab Sara.

We checked into our AirBnB the second night in Sedona, a little garage-turned-studio run by a nice lady named Ingrid. To Sara’s delight, the room looked like it was out of a home decor magazine. Every inch of it was perfect, with a stunning view of red rock and Sedona out the kitchen window, patio doors, and even out of the shower window. And that one room studio boasted two showers, with the second tastefully secluded by some tall plants outside, just in case the panoramic views from inside weren’t doing it for you. The room also came with a free desert cat named Gus. Well, I named it Gus, and stuck with the name even upon learning it was a) a girl b) named Jasmine.

Day Three was our second day on bikes and Sara’s last. She drove down to Oak Creek and met me at the bike shop, then we made a turn west on Beaver Flat Road, a small highway with a lot less traffic. This road led us away from the red rock, it looked like the high desert I’ve seen in eastern Wyoming; brown, windswept, and with even the flat roads finding non-stop 1 and 2% grades. We had a slight downhill on the way out, aided by a strong tailwind. The drivers were incredibly nice, giving us plenty of room and a wave. Way better than Kentucky; my rides there were a non-stop cacophony of horns, fingers, and death threats. So, as always, screw Kentucky, Arizona rules!

We made it to yet another trail head and turned back, with Sara hopping into the car in Oak Creek while I soloed on the last five miles to home. The road went past Bell Rock, the first place I saw mountain bikes not riding along shoulder. From the second we’d hit Sedona, there were always a few mountain bikers in #laidback baggies going from their hotel or a bike shop to the next trail. While I’m sure those 160mm travel bikes and body armor are necessary out on the rocks, I took a self-centered (and slightly jealous, to be sure) pleasure in watching these extreme shredders struggle up the little climbs through down. (Ed. note: I need to point out here that there were dozens of eBikes around town, both heading to trails and loaded on racks and in the back of trucks. It’s incredibly hard to say, but I would venture so far as to guess that 1 in 5 bikes had a motor, and that’s being conservative. I didn’t notice any shops renting them, but I only went to two, and didn’t as to see what they had to rent aside from what was parked out front for pick-up. Definitely interesting to see that many motorized bikes though.)

On the way back, I tacked on Schnebly Hill, which is probably only worth mentioning for its name. It was a useful recon though, as I discovered that the 11 mile climb I’d hoped to ride Friday morning was only paved about 1-1.5 miles; the rest was rocky, jagged trail frequented by the countless jeep tours, many of them pink and nearly all of them piloted by a man or woman wearing a Crocodile Dundee-style had and Celine Dion microphone. Waving ‘G’day, mate!’ to one elicited no accented response, or any reply at all.

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Our third day with bikes was going to be a big one, and with plans to celebrate our final night in Sedona at a fancy restaurant known for big dishes and dessert, I needed to make sure I got some value in my assigned three-hour ride window. After a quick hike to Cathedral Rock, I was free to fly from 9am until lunch. Cathedral Rock put us in our place; after running and hiking two different trails in the days before, we we’re pretty sure we were the world’s greatest hikers, in spite of our decided lack of fanny packs, tall wool socks, floppy hats, and ridiculously big backpacks. We made it twenty minutes leaning straight into the steep, rocky climb before we started to have doubts. The trail markers weren’t just up the trail; they were literally above us, leaving us to wonder how to scale the steep rock faces without a jock, a rope, and a helmet. After a few teetering attempts toward the summit, we instead turned around to enjoy what was the nicest panorama of the trip. In every direction, nature had drawn its own postcard and stuck to the ‘fridge for 10,000 years.

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We made it down safely and got back to Brewer Road. In two shakes of a crying baby I was in my spandex and ready to ride. Leaving Sara to go to her Korean energy class (lots of talking, limb shaking, and vortex-talk), I was headed to Jerome.

Given a strict window, I was motoring through Sedona and popped out on its western edge with a gradual descent for 15 miles to Cottonwood. Wes had ridden this same route four years ago, climbing to the town of Jerome and having lunch with his newly-minted wife in much the same fashion. I, however, was lucky enough to enjoy a return trip, albeit one on a time table. I decided that I’d turn around when I got to Jerome or at 1.5 hours, whichever came first. Along the way, I picked up and pulled a pair of riders, which is going to have to count as my first group ride of the year. Thanks, strangers!

Cottonwood sits in a hole at the bottom of Mingus Mountain, and it’s a long, long descent into town. You can see the houses and buildings sitting at the valley floor for a good thirty minutes before you actually get close, and I made the turn toward historic Cottonwood before I hit the new part of town proper. After the shiny, affluent and strip-mall vibe of Sedona, Cottonwood felt a bit more real. Not every house looked like a Cribs episode, and there were even quite a few empty. I took a natural break behind a closed-up thrift store, in the same parking lot as the neighborhood’s Goodwill. A golden retriever watched me lighten up with very little interest from across the alley, unchained and without lifting its head. No one was stuck on pretenses in this neck of the woods.

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It was a few more miles to the start of the climb, and with each pedal stroke there were fewer cars, fewer buildings, and a very slight change of grade. The final mile or so to the mountain already brings you up a hundred feet or so, and the climb itself starts at a roundabout with a gast station to one site and a cement plant on the other. Inauspicious, but blunt. Immediately the road tilted from 2% to 9%, tickling double-digits over the first quarter mile. Above, you can’t quite see the town, but there’s a big white ‘J’ on the mountain above the village. I wasn’t going hard, but I was able to stick to the big ring and pedal nice clean circles, soaking up the sun and the views. There’s a big drop off to the left side of the road, and all of the valley spills out from that recess. Steep rock wall alternated with clear views of the mountainside on the right as I picked my way up, up, and up.

I passed one other cyclist on the way up, a woman riding a pimped out and rebuilt Peugeot, the same brilliant blue frame I had hanging in the garage for years. Remind me to built something like that up again, won’t you? The final half a mile to the top was steep, and with no shoulder, I found myself sprinting past parked cars and diving back to the white line to let motorists by. They were all patient, with peak traffic of the day just hitting Jerome for lunch and a tour of haunted hotel, haunted bar, haunted bordello, haunted coffee shop; it is, after all, a ghost town. At it’s peak from the 1910-20s, the tiny town had been home to 15,000 miners. Those 15,000 miners and 29 bars contributed to almost yearly fires and a reputation as the most dangerous town in Arizona. Once the copper boom subsided, the population dwindled to just 100 in the late 60s before ‘booming’ once again to 450 today.

I don’t know where they put anything like 15,000 people, because the 2,500 tourist that visit every day are already crammed into every nook and cranny of the place. The town isn’t on a mountain, it’s in a mountain, which the next block not so much as next to the previous but above it. Much like the alpine villages we see in the Tour, the roofs, floors, and doorways are all built flat against the steep, sharp grade. Some of the more elderly were pausing in those doorways for a short break, letting other folks move past.

Wanting to linger but deciding not to, I made a quick about-face and vowed to return one day to get to the top of Mingus. Sara would have probably forgiven me for turning a three hour riding into a five hour ride, but I’d long since accepted and embraced that this just wasn’t that trip. In fact, I was a bit excited to get back to my bride and tell her about the ride, hear about her meditation class (again, vortex-talk), and get back to going full tourist mode.

The descent wasn’t challenging, and not wanting to find out where the hospital was, I was conservative going down. At one point I hit 43 miles per hour between bends and felt a bit reckless, but only until a tiny red Ford Ranger blew by me at about 70, slammed on the brakes, and nearly skidded around the next hairpin. He lives on the edge; I live a safe step back from it.

That gradual descent and tailwind turned into a gradual climb and a crosswind heading back to Sedona, and I was glad to have the Shot Bloks Sara insisted I take. While mostly 1-2%, there were a few short sections of road that hit 7-10%, including the last jump into West Sedona. It was a beautiful ride back, and I must say my ‘retirement-style’ Diverge was a trusty companion for the week.

That night, I made sure that my veggie enchilada, Mexican Coke, and blueberry sorbet was enjoyed for every minute of the hour and a half wait for Elote, a restaurant with a killer reputation and no reservations. We showed up at 4:45 thinking we’d be one of the first in line for the 5 pm open. Instead, we were one hundred or more places back, ultimately waiting just to wait. Given a beeper, our patience was rewarded by getting to wait in line for drinks, before being pushed to a side-pen to wait for a table. We ended up watching some kids stand splash in a nearby pool (if only we were all entertained so easily) before we belly-upped to the bar to be reunited with our bartender friend from earlier, Armando. Elote, if you ever read this, Armando it the man. The guy served eight people, made drinks, and charmed the Russian lady sitting next to us into a solid six drinks, and all with a smile. The food was at the every least equal to the wait, and I even sneaked a forkful of Sara’s elote cake, saving it from a tragic suffocation beneath a mountain of ice cream.

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Our final morning was chilly and I was up at dawn to squeeze in a ride. Of course, it was the coldest morning of the trip and, of course, I’d neglected to bring gloves. I spent the first twenty minutes of the ride alternating each hand to find some warmth under my jersey until I hit the lip of a curb one-handed and nearly crashed at a solid thirty miles per hour. I Sean Kelly-ed up and just rode, my normally purple hands going red, then white, before the sun finally rose above th buttes and instantly warmed the world. I meandered from Sedona to Oak Creek, finding a few quiet neighborhood streets and avoiding the school buses. It was a bit refreshing to see people living, not vacationing; a woman walking her dog, a father leaving his kids at the bus stop, an old man taking his recycling out. Sedona is a cool place, but there’s something about it that feels unreal. It’s probably the same thing people say about Traverse City who visit in the summer, at peak tourist season, but Sedona feels like its trying to sell you something, and it isn’t always a t-shirt or coffee mug.

Our trip to Cottonwood and Clarkdale to cap off the trip lost a bit of that shine and gleam and replaced it with rust. Historic Cottonwood is really only a few blocks, and Clarkdale, it’s even less.Both towns are established and busy, but not quite so confidently so, and with a different sort of draw. I’d love to stay in Cottonwood for a week and go to the same coffee shop every day, meet the locals, and pay 50% less for dinner every night, plus be closer to quieter roads and what looks to be plenty of gravel and firm two-track.

The grand finale of the trip was a three and a half hour train ride on the Verde Canyon Railroad. It was here that I leaned all those #knowledgenuggets about Jerome, saw some stunning sights, and felt like a strong young buck on a train with a median age of roughly 73 years old. The train ride turned around at the farm where they filmed a scene in How The West Was Won, an old Western I’ve seen with my dad starring Debbie Reynolds and every other star from the 1960s. We grew up watching old westerns and I have more nostalgia for films and stars from that era than what should have been my own...ever seen The Sons of Katie Elder? Wes and I have about thirty times.

The return leg was really a nap punctuated with a train whistle, capping off the vaction and reigniting another big night and day of travel. We needed the vacation, we needed the sun, and we needed the time together, and Sedona is a tough to beat. For cyclists, you just can’t go wrong. Show up, rent a bike if you have full suspension or rent one if you don’t, and point your front wheel somewhere. You can’t mess up the riding, road or trail, and with so many riders around town, it will take you five minutes to meet another group heading somewhere cool. Park the car, bring a lock, and get around by bike, and you’ll be glad you did.