Our foolish acts occurred in part because we were misinformed and over eager. We popped a flight to Phoenix with a new set of wheels made for every cycling condition. I wanted to give the bike and my soul a stress test. This was the ride for that. The photo above was art directed by me and cohort Yurij L pressed the shutter.

The first night Yurij and I camped behind an animal hospital somewhere in Scottsdale. We ended up getting a late start that day to finalize our gear and getting one last shower in before we embarked. The decked out bike to the right is my Surly Bridge Club. Loaded five days of camping with no cell service. I am torn between names for it. AZ. Mamba.  Hell Rider. Would any of these work?

We rhode across almost every type of terrain imaginable, save from crusted lava flows. Somewhere between eleven and fifteen rivers were crossed, most fully clothed without removing gear from the bikes.

The first of three shots above is the entry to one of the more dangerous stretches of single track a few miles south of Bumble Bee ranch. We stayed there the night before. After fueling up on homemade food, we encountered the most intense and unforgiving uphill (at altitude) climb I ever experienced on bike or foot. The second shot is underneath an enormous dam at Horseshoe Lake. The third is moment when a fast fast paved downhill turned into, well, this.

The sturdy Sheep Bridge. Our trail turned into a river so we hauled our gear up a rocky hill to the eastern side of the bridge. Little did I know the five hours ahead would be hell. If you’re going through hell, keep going.

The first official off-road section of our journey led us into a cul-de-sac in a fancy neighborhood with fake cacti that had hidden cameras inside. Yes. We plodded forth up someone’s driveway and found a barely bushwhacked trail off of it that used to be a river. We headed north from there, past Pinnacle Peak.

Thanks to Derek and Keegan, two new friends who helped us find the way and gave us their handy map! These fellow outdoorsmen offered us refreshing beer, good conversations about Paul Stamets, and some play with fun, energetic and triple coated doggy. We headed to camp from there.

Yurij the savage.

The second night we camped in a picnic area all to ourselves while overlooking Horseshoe Lake. We then soup and beans and stretched.

Last vision before sleep.

Lorenzo. Total badass. He was doing the same loop Yurij and I were doing, only solo. Strangely and coincidentally enough, he works in Cambridge, MA not far from my office. It is the road magic that pulls me into journeys like these. When you let your guard down from taking on endurance challenges the Universe favors your mission. The backbone behind most of my actions is creating meaningful connections with people. Whether for a moment or a lifetime, the bonds we build with others are the most important.

Note the bullet holes in the danger sign. Photo by Yurij.

Our hotel at Bumble Bee ranch.

First light after stealth camping behind an animal hospital.

The real reason why we do it. The owner of Two Brother’s Kitchen in the town of Anthem loved we were doing this ride. So much so, he offered his patio to us as a place to crash if we needed. We politely declined and had to keep moving. Anywhere outside of Boston people are friendly. Or maybe it’s just that road magic and adrenaline is contagious.

These pictures may tell a fun story. Please make no mistake, this was arguably the most physically demanding and grueling ride I’ve ever done. It was at altitude with no adjustment period, little training, on a new bike and diving in after a week of traveling. It forced me to rely mostly on my grit, patience and perseverance. I only took the camera out during the easier parts. Most of the time I was focused on my breathe, putting one foot in front of the other and hating myself. The more gorgeous the terrain the more brutal and uphill it got. One must embrace the suck for the fortune of majestic views, clean air and complete isolation.

The first day was a late start with a solid warm up to Scottsdale. The second was the most fun with a good portion of it on flowy single track, the fasted speeds and most paved downhills. Still a challenging day. The third day was the most relentless and testing of my soul. We hoofed through Tonto State Forest for the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen on west coast. We did make it to the peak (nearing 5k’) and ended up catching a ride from two angles in a pickup truck to Bumble Bee Ranch. That was five hours of nonstop, arduous uphill climbing that broke my body. While that was a grind, the fourth day was without a doubt the most dangerous. I woke up frigid with ice in my tent, fell many times on the trail and was assaulted by two cacti. One being the most dangerous in AZ,  the Cholla AKA jumping cactus. The single track was very treacherous with narrow downhills that led off long pits into boulders and plants that will ruin you. We also almost got bitten by a rattlesnake. The last day was consistently boulderous and slow in the morning on up and down unmaintained roads, then refreshingly dangerous as we hummed back into Arizona during rush hour traffic with reckless drivers. In the U.S., Phoenix has the fourth highest death rate for cyclists and pedestrians.

Arizona wanted us for dead, but we made it through with many lessons learned. We met genuine people, expanded our comfort zones, embraced many unknowns, learned the meaning of commitment, fought our inner demons, relished in the small wins, ate fried food at a VFW and camped under the stars all week. All while having the prettiest views I’ve ever biked. We started soon after the trail opened and we finished right before three solid days of cold rain. The timing couldn’t have been better!

We spent the last day and a half with my great aunt and uncle who live in Phoenix. In that time we saw Wand play a small venue, ate excellent Mexican and In-N-Out, found my new favorite vintage shirt, drank great coffee and explored the city by bike. It was fun talking cycling with the folks over at The Velo. There they confirmed the creator of the loop was indeed a crazy person for saying it’s a 6/10 difficulty. I think it should be renamed to the Gruel’s Loop.

I’m not sure what my next journey is or what else I’ve learned from this one yet, but I feel inspired to create more photographs than ever.

-BG