12.15.2013

AES: McDowell 66.5 (Not Quite Evil)

What's the saying, third time's the charm? Two years ago the AES McDowell 60 was shortened to the McD 46 due to another race being held on a portion of the route. Last year I was doomed to a DNF thanks to weather & a failing bike. This year the route was modified to avoid tensions in a community the route passed through in years past. The changes looked good on paper, more miles overall & 'only' two major climbs, meaning a bunch of fast miles in the middle. Plus, the route would go through a newly acquired piece of land in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve: Brown's Ranch.

The starting area was bustling when I arrived. Most of the regulars were there, even a few from Tucson made the trek north. There were something like 40 riders at the start and we quickly arrived at the dirt, signaling the start of the race. Normally I drop back at the start since that's where I'll end up anyway, but somehow I found myself near the front entering the trails. I knew I was in over my head when I could still see Ray after two miles or so, dude can mash!! I started to settle into a more sustainable pace and one by one riders went by, most of them I knew so it was kind of funny to chat for a quick second as I dropped back.
The first big hurdle of the day, Tom's Thumb trail.
The first few miles are fast anyway and chunky. Then we started the climb up to Tom's Thumb. I had only been up this trail once before and I knew it was a rough go, 27 switchbacks in total!! The bottom portion of the climb isn't too bad. Eventually, the trail hits a dead end and turns hard right....and UP. Plenty of HAB to go around with short bits of riding between the switchbacks. The summit was attained, the sun was now in full glow and the day was shaping up to be a beauty. I stopped for a quick photo op & a snack before making my way across the top to the big descent off the north side.
Tom's Thumb viewpoint.
The north descent had a lot of riders concerned as it's a layer of loose granite, think kitty litter, over hardpack. Oh, did I mention it's steep, can be rutted, tight switchbacks and loaded with hikers?? I stopped at the final saddle to drop my seat and followed three other riders down. I felt good on the first few switchbacks only dabbing on one of them. There weren't too many hikers and the ones that we did encounter were cool. Jason came up behind me as we snaked our way down the mountain, he snuck by me when I took a bad angle at a sharp left. I followed his line the rest of the way only putting a foot down twice on the entire descent, nice!! I ditched the arm warmers & raised the seat at the bottom while Jason and I talked about how fun the descent had been.

On towards Brown's Ranch. This area, formally known as Pima-Dynamite, has been getting a make-over in recent months. Some have criticized the new trails as 'boring' and the local equestrian riders haven't exactly been wise when riding the trails too soon after a storm, post-holing the trails. One thing is certain, this is pristine desert, lush and green as the Sonoran desert can get. Throw in some random car-sized boulders and it makes for an interesting landscape.
Part of the new $4 million dollar trailhead at Brown's Ranch.
I really enjoyed the trails, they are quite the contrast to the beginning / end of the course through the McDowell Mtns. They twist and turn, undulate through the desert terrain and every so often provide a bit of a climb. I especially enjoyed the climb up Brown's Peak. The descent off the backside...not so much due to the horse damage. Hopefully the trailhead signage will educate the different user groups as to the sensitive nature of the trails in the area. Over time the trail will get worked back in as long as wet conditions are allowed to stabilize.

I caught back up to Doug at the Brown's Ranch TH, then leapfrogged him a couple of times over the next bunch of miles. I was getting ready to pull over near the top of a climb for a quick snack when I couldn't get my right foot to release from my pedal. I didn't topple over, but it was a struggle to unclip. I took a peek at my shoe and sure enough I had lost a cleat bolt and the cleat had turned almost sideways. No worries, I always carry extra bolts for exactly this situation. A quick chisel job on the remaining bolt and I could easily re-align the cleat, back in business. For the next 15+ miles, Doug and I rode together, all the way to the water stop inside the competitive loop parking area at the regional park.
Nice view of Granite Mtn while I changed out my cleat bolt.
The miles Doug and I rode together were a blur, fast flowy seemingly endless singletrack. I always forget how long certain sections of trail out there are. Take Pemberton for example, I know it's a 15+ mile loop, have ridden it countless times, yet with the new re-route off the access road I thought it would never end.
Four Peaks from the Scenic Trail ridgeline.
McDowell Mtns. from Scenic Trail seem so far away.
It was nice to ride the Scenic trail in the opposite direction from the past year. Over at the competitive loop parking area we stopped to top off our water & grab a snack. Jason rolled in as I was getting set to go and I think I was a few minutes ahead of Doug leaving the lot. A quick run down the small jump line of the pump track set me up nicely for the beginning of the Long loop.
The green is returning to the desert floor after a series of winter storms. I'm heading towards Bell Pass, the dip just to the left of the center peak.
The route exits the Long loop onto a maintenance corridor, both gates were open, so no need to futz with those! Back onto Pemberton once again and the countless wooden water bars. They're not so bad when you're rolling downhill, but tend to be a real pain in the ass on the uphill after a while. By this point I really wasn't looking forward to the mini grind up Dixie Mine or the bigger grunt up Prospector & Upper Bell. Dixie Mine came and went without too much issue, perhaps my newly mixed batch of CarboRocket was kicking in, I felt pretty good.
Looky here, Dixie Mine still producing gold!! A small splash of autumn color.
There's a short jeep road connector from Dixie Mine to the Prospector turnoff with a nice kick in the pants steep section where Dixie Mine trail exits to a separate trailhead. I walked a short bit there, but as I came to the next short climb I saw a rider in front of me. Who was that? I hadn't seen anyone in front of me for hours. I glanced at the trail sign when I entered Prospector '1.3 miles to Bell Pass trail'. Then I saw James, looking quite tattered, he mumbled '1.3 miles', I concurred as I settled into granny gear. I made it about 1/2 way through Prospector before taking a break and walking a bit over a steep loose section. After that I rode almost all the way to Bell before the tougher HAB settled in.

I finally crested Bell Pass and saw no one behind me. It was all downhill from here, steep, tight switchbacks, chunky monkey all the way.
Bell Pass, 4 miles of downhill to the finish!
I took it easy the first mile, just don't crash now!! It was now just past 4pm and the hiker traffic was extremely light, I only saw 1 hiker on the upper reaches of the trail and didn't see more until near the bottom where the trail really mellows out. At the bottom I could finally give my triceps a rest, downhills on this type of terrain is almost as taxing as the burly climbs!!

I finished just under 9 hours and there were still a few regulars hanging out. Over the next few minutes the other fellas rolled in, each glad to be done. Another successful AES event in the books and the sun was still shining, clearly this course wasn't tough enough if I could finish in daylight!! Nice job Jeff, we'll see what next year brings.
Post-ride gathering.
Moon rise over the McDowell Mtns.

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