THE MOUNTAIN BIKE feels more like a motorcycle as I fly down Box Canyon Road in the Santa Rita Mountains.
Gravity is in control. I can almost feel the rubber brake pads wearing away on the wheel as I try to curb my speed.
It takes split-second reactions to maneuver the bike around, over and through the countless potholes and bumps in the dirt road. Tremendous vibrations shaking their way through the frame to my handlebars let me know when I fail. My hands are bouncing so hard it takes all my strength just to keep them from flying off the grips.
Even with sunglasses on, the cold air whips by my eyes so fast they begin to water. The road juddering into my field of vision is difficult to make out at times. I try to focus on the irregularities of the surface and anticipate my turns, but it's like watching a movie on fast forward.
This is what mountain biking was meant to be.
But as I enjoy this downhill freeloading, a little voice taunts me. It harps on me about having to pedal back up to the same altitude from where I started. The ride back through the mountains to the truck could be all uphill--or worse. Perhaps it will be grueling uphill climbs that lead to super steep, super-quick downhill slides which turn into more grueling climbs. Which indeed it does.
"You will pay," says the voice of future climbs. "Oh yes, how you will pay."
"Damn you, voice," I scream into the wind. "I get that enough from the Visa people, now leave me be!"
I soon see what the voice implies. After three miles, Box Canyon is coming to an end. The easy riding is over as we leave U.S. Forest Service Road 62 to meet up with the junction of FS 485.
This is the first turn in what the guide book Mountain Biking The Old Pueblo calls the Helvetia Loop. The loop begins at the junction of FS 62 (Box Canyon Road) and FS 231. Authors Michael Jimmerson and Jim Porter give it three stars, their highest rating. Their book is a great resource for riding ideas, but for accomplishing this loop I strongly suggest buying the Helvetia and the Empire Ranch 7 1/2-minute topographical maps. The map in the book can be confusing, as can the directions. If you get off course, the book won't help you much.
This first turn is still in the realm of easy, as long as you're in reasonably good shape. This track, also known as Santa Rita Road, cuts through the Santa Rita Experimental Range.
The range was established in 1903 as a Forest Service research area, says Reed Sanderson, acting manager. The Forest Service was originally looking at how best to replenish ground cover lost from over-grazing. Eventually, studies on everything from plant burn recovery rates to reptile locomotion were done here, Sanderson says.
In the early 1990s the Forest Service turned ownership of the land over to the State of Arizona as part of a much larger reorganization of land management, Sanderson says.
Today the site continues to be used by researchers, especially those from the University of Arizona.
Access to the land is limited--it's not like National Forest land, so you pretty much have to stay on the road.
We pass through the range and hang a right on FS 505.
About a mile past the cemetery for the ghost town of Helvetia, there will be a fork in the road at the base of a 4,700-foot peak called Peach Knob. Hang a right there.
A little less than a mile after that juncture there's another fork. Take the left fork and continue on the main road up the mountain. This is where the biking gets hard. If you're not in shape, this place will let you know. It doesn't help that there's a fair amount of traffic on the road. In the hour or so we were on the uphill slope, we saw two horse riders, three motorcyclists, two trucks and a little Honda car.
Not all these made it to the top and one little truck came pretty close to getting stuck. But if you're seeking mountain solitude it might be a good reason to hit this route on a weekday when the weekend warriors are elsewhere.
Throughout this part of the ride, following the main track is probably the best advice. When you near the top there's an intersection between FS 505 and FS 4834. Bear right and stay on FS 505.
After that you come to the stunning vista over the foothills of the Santa Ritas.
This is Gunsight Pass and one of the best views of the day. The tall peak bordering it is Harts Butte and this pass at 5,680 feet is the highest point along the ride.
It's by no means the end of the battle, however.
A series of interconnecting roads remains between you and your vehicle back at the end of FS 231. Some of these road numbers appear neither in the guide book, the topographical maps nor even on the National Forest maps. The best you can do is use a compass and the landscape. If you keep heading south, you'll eventually run into FS 231. Here you want to hang a right and follow it to the end.
With any luck your vehicle will be there waiting for you. After this 16-mile loop it'll be a welcome sight.
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