Professional mountain bikers escape the winter in Tucson

By Dave McElwaine Nearly four million visitors head to Tucson, Arizona, each year, to enjoy abundant...

By Dave McElwaine

Nearly four million visitors head to Tucson, Arizona, each year, to enjoy abundant sunshine and warm temperatures. Increasingly among them are thousands of cyclists, including some of the top professional mountain bikers from the US and Canada.

"I can drive to Tucson from Durango in eight hours. I went to college here, and it only usually rains one or two days in the two months I am here to train," said Team Specialized's Todd Wells, who explained his motives for choosing Tucson as his early season training home. "The temperatures are usually in the 70s or 80s (degrees Fahrenheit), and there are a lot of places to ride." Wells represented the US at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

"For as long as I have been seriously training, Ontario's athletes have always been big on the Carolinas and Tucson, Arizona," said another pro racer Adam Morka of Trek Bicycle Store. "Now after three consecutive years in Tucson, I find the riding, warm weather, and the company of other serious athletes keeps me coming back for more and more miles every year."

Other pro mountain bikers who flock to Tucson in the winter include Sam Schultz (Gary Fisher/Subaru), Andy Schultz (Kenda/Titus), Troy Wells (Cliff Bar), Chloe Forsman (Luna Women's MTB), T.J. Woodruff (Adventure212), Emily Batty (Trek Bicycle Store), X-Terra star Melanie McQuaid (Sho-Air), and Melanie Meyers (Specialized D4W).

Forsman and Meyers are full-time students at the University of Arizona, and the Schultz brothers work at The Cycling House in North Tucson that caters to visiting cyclists. They provide coaching, guide services, and even do the cooking for the visiting groups.

The Wells brothers, both Todd and Troy, often spend the first part of the off-season in Mexico before resuming their training in Arizona, and T.J. Woodruff is also a USA Cycling certified coach.

The Tucson Convention Bureau claims that Tucson has 350 days of sunshine per year. While that may be a bit exaggerated, the number is certainly higher than most locales in the US and Canada. Tucson has also worked hard to become one of the most bicycling-friendly cities in the US with 630 miles of striped bike paths, 72 miles of shared use paths, plus 100 miles of residential biking routes.

The city is surrounded by five mountain ranges which help the cyclists in their quests for greater fitness: the Tucson Mountains, Santa Catalinas, Rincons, Santa Ritas, and Totolitas.

At an elevation of over 9,000 feet, Mt. Lemmon towers over the Tucson Valley and offers racers the opportunity to train at altitude. The Catalina Highway starts at an elevation of about 2,500 feet in the Tucson Valley and takes you to the top 25 miles later after riding countless switchbacks. Because Mt. Lemmon receives an average of 180 inches of snow each year, there are times even in March where portions of the road may be closed to traffic.

While in Tucson, many of the riders compete in local races to sharpen their skills. In February, the Schultz brothers along with two others, won the 24 Hours of Old Pueblo after besting a stacked Kona team that included Barry Wicks and Ryan Trebon. The early season mountain bike race drew 1,650 racers to the Tucson area.

In early March, US National Under 23 champion Forsman, Melanie Meyers, Melanie McQuaid, and T.J. Woodruff all competed in the Tucson Bicycle Classic, a three-day stage race on the road. Nearly 500 racers participated during perfect 70-degree days.

Read the complete feature and check out plenty of photos, too.

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