Do the Javelina

Desert Riding: Tucson, Arizona

Streaking past saguaros on the 50-Year Trail in the Santa Catalina Mountains     Photo: Chuck Haney

Not all Sonoran desert mountain-biking hazards have needles, as I was reminded on a recent ride. I was peeling down a stretch of craggy Tucson Mountain singletrack, my mind so focused on avoiding the flesh-tearing saguaro cacti that I didn't notice a pack of javelinas (snouted, piglike beasts about as tall as a tire) milling around the arroyo at the bottom of a hill. Seconds from impact, I hiked my feet high above the top tube and flew into the middle of the bifurcated herd, sending panicked javvies leaping left and right like flumes of parted water. They shrieked; I shrilled. When at last I stopped and looked back, the biggest of the bunch stamped a hairy hoof, and I beat a retreat, leaving their indignant porcine faces in the dust as I wheeled off down the trail.

Cactus-cruising around Tucson isn't just about dodging obstacles. Sure there are chollas and rattlers, but there's also serene beauty. Head up to the granite-strewn trails of the 20,000-acre Tucson Mountain Park (just a 20-minute ride from town) at sunrise and you'll see what I mean. I've lived here all my life, but I never tire of watching the Sonoran Desert morph from pink to gold to ocher, or the phantasmagorical cactus-shadow show cast on rock mounds. Part of a 26-mile network of paths, the seven-mile, javelina-heavy Yetman Trail in the northeast corner of the park is one of my early-morning favorites; in addition to guaranteed wildlife encounters, including coyote and red-tailed hawk, the beginner-friendly web of double- and singletrack sweeps over exposed rock, around 20-foot saguaros, down arroyos, and through sandy stretches of parched emptiness.

Or throw your bike on a rack and head to Catalina State Park, 17 miles north of Tucson, where technically superior riders can tackle the 50-Year Trail, an out-and-back route named for a half-century land lease that protects it from development. Red, hard-packed double- and singletrack twist through an ocotillo-studded landscape where granite rocks are jumbled up in unearthly formations. You'll need some quad power to crank up the steeper climbs, but once you make it to the extreme north end of the 18-mile trail, at the foot of the ragged Santa Catalina Mountains, you'll be rewarded with spectacular views of the canyon-cut Oro Valley. And if, like me, you embrace your inner masochist, seek out the technical Deer Camp Loop (the folks at Full Cycle, the largest bike shop in Tucson, can provide directions), a locally prized ring of unmarked singletrack just off the 50-Year where sharp rocks jut from the desert floor on steep climbs, just waiting to trip you up and send you reeling into the outstretched limbs of a particularly prickly patch of desert flora—or fauna, as the case may be.

The Dirt: To familiarize yourself with the near-limitless riding options in the region, pick up Map-Trails of the Tucson Area at Full Cycle($12, 520-327-3232), where you can rent both hardtails ($25 per day) and full-suspension bikes ($45). You can ride to Tucson Mountain Park (520-740-2680) from town, but you'll need a vehicle to reach Catalina State Park (520-628-5798). Wherever you ride, remember that this is the desert: Summer temperatures can climb into the hundreds, so get an early start, or better yet, ride in spring or fall.

Giant XTC DS/1

VITALS: $1,875; 800-874-468; www.giant-bicycle.com
WEIGHT: 4.2 pounds frame (including rear shock), 26.8 pounds complete
FRAME: Super-lightweight aluminum-tubed four-bar linkage design with air-sprung RockShox SID rear shock (3.75 inches of travel)
FORK: RockShox SID air (80mm of travel)
COMPONENT HIGHLIGHTS: Light and strong Race Face Prodigy cranks and powerful Hayes disc brakes
THE RIDE: Out West, where the terrain is relatively smooth and fast, riders have often grudgingly traded precise handling at slow speeds for the high-speed control of full-suspension rigs. With the Giant XTC DS-1, they no longer have to compromise. When you're in the saddle hammering, the XTC doesn't bob, yet it still soaks up moderate impacts with zeal. It accomplishes this with a design that positions the pivots so that pedaling doesn't activate the suspension. The rear shock hovers patiently, waiting to soak up the worst hits a trail can dish out. Even though the XTC—like all full-suspension bikes—still pogos when you stand up to sprint, it has the least bob for the buck of any bike to date. Not to say $1,875 is cheap, but given that a full-suspension frame of this caliber would cost $1,600 without a single component, the XTC is a bargain.

TURNER O2

VITALS: $1,995 (frame only); 909-696-9143; www.turnerbikes.com
WEIGHT: 5.5 pounds
FRAME: Lightweight aluminum hand-crafted by suspension guru David Turner, and a lightweight air-sprung Fox rear shock (3.1 inches of wheel travel)
THE RIDE: David Turner perfected his craft working with Horst Leitner, originator of the Horst Link, which allows four-bar linkage suspension to work so well. Turner's frames blend that modern-day technology with the very best in Old World craftsmanship. Run your fingers over the beautiful TIG welds. Take note of how easily the rear wheel slips into the dropouts. Scan the length of the down tube and notice how the rear wheel is perfectly centered. That's Turner making sure each bike that leaves his shop in Eagle, Colorado, is arrow-straight. The best part about the O2 isn't how it looks, but how it climbs. The back tire hooks up tenaciously on rough terrain, while the steepish head and seat angles keep your weight forward as the ascent gets vertical. The O2's steepish price rewards Turner for all his hard work. Place your order now and maybe you'll see your bike in July. —ANDREW JUSKAITIS

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