Our partner in podcasting, The Gravel Ride Podcast, spoke with John McCarrell of the Mt. Lemmon Gravel Grinder of Tuscon, Arizona. This event will test riders’ equipment choice, skills and climbing legs as they tackle the backside of the formidable Mt. Lemmon!
Automatic Transcription (please excuse all errors)
John, welcome to the show.
Well, thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here.
As is the tradition. I’d like to start off by asking a little bit just about your background as a cyclist, how you got into the sport and how you eventually found yourself in the gravel sector.
Well yeah, so I moved to Tucson in 2002 and started working at, right after college and started working at a destination resort here and my folks were living here as they retired and, got my first taste of mountain biking actually. So that was my intro into cycling, was mountain biking here in the Tucson area with so much great terrain here. So I, I progressed, into actually becoming a mountain bike guide. So I have an outdoor adventure, cross-functional hospitality background at the resorts, where I started my eight-year career basically, and outdoor adventure. So mountain biking was the first part of that. , and then, through friends got onto the roadside was very, always was interested on the roadside. , as a kid growing up, riding my bike around our neighborhood and so on and loved the speed and the freedom.
So, but the problem I had was I didn’t have a road bike. And so through some friends, great friends actually, I inherited a road bike and, did my first El tour to Tucson, about a month later and I was hooked on the roadside as well. So I was bouncing back and forth between, mountain biking, somewhat professionally as a guide and also on my own, but, also loved the road bike as well. So a lot of, a lot of folks around here in Tucson go back and forth because there’s a lot of great roads and great mountain bike trail. So that was, that was through, through that time period of the early to mid two thousand for me. , and then, sort of moved away for a couple of years from Tucson, came back, married and looking to grow a family and, and got back into both of those things. And, and then just sort of, fell into the gravel side of things I suppose because, you know, also I just love riding my bike on dirt roads. So I was just doing that with my mountain bike. , and then as things evolved in the gravel world, you know, I now was able to get a gravel bike and start hitting some of the, terrain around Arizona.
Yeah. It seems pretty natural. As someone who’s got knowledge of Tucson through my family down there, I’ve seen so many dirt roads, , and obviously the mountain biking’s great down there. So I can imagine kind of the combination of a drop-bar bike that enables you to go off-road and combine some of the great road riding there just opened up a whole new type of riding for you and types of destinations that you might head out to on the bike.
Yeah, absolutely. And, and you know, some folks who are familiar with Tucson over the years. We’re also, we have a lot of great writing, but we also have a lot of horrible roads getting better, much, much better than the recent, last two or three years. But a lot of rough chip steel and, and, in monsoon season always brings the gravel and the sand, you know, onto the road surfaces. So I think some, some of the pure roadies felt like they were doing gravel already. , and so going wider, Tyler, you know, for that reason, and then going to bliss for that reason and then saying, Hey, I can, I can now take this thing down my gravel driveway. You know, a lot of folks here still have gravel driveways and such. And then, and then, of course, just the freedom of, I can pretty much take this bike anywhere. , and then, you know, as you mentioned, things evolve in the tire. The tires now have knobbies and there’s more clearance and, you see a lot more, certainly a lot more gravel bikes around the Tucson area on all surfaces because of that reason. So it’s pretty fantastic.
Yeah. And the handful of times I’ve done the El torta Tucson perimeter ride, there’s that river crossing, which inevitably caused flat tires back in the day for people running, you know, 23 see tubed road tires.
Yeah, absolutely. So a couple of those crossings and that’s what makes that event, pretty famous for that reason is, some folks, can, can certainly handle a bike in that terrain and get through it and others have to hike a bike, those sections. But, yeah, absolutely. Right.
That’s so true. That’s so true. So we’ve got you on today to talk about an event you created the Mount lemon gravel grinder. How did that come to be originally? What was the first year that you ran it?
So, the first year we ran, it was in 2016. So, we’re in our fourth year this year, so we’ve had three years under our belt, a really interesting story. How that came about, came to be. , I actually, nets, Susan Frank and her husband, who produced the old Pueblo grand Prix, which was, produced in 2011 through 2014 and that was a downtown criterium race, in downtown Tucson. And at the time was sort of getting out of helping some friends of mine, put on, or trying to put on the Mount Lemmon grand Fondo, which is a cycling event up the famous Catalina highway on Mount linen. Most people refer to that as Mount lemon highway, but check the technical name for that is Catalina highway, in the Santa Catalina mountains, Mount lemon being the summit of that. So we were looking at, putting on the Matlin and grand Fondo on the heels of the Matlin and marathon, which was an uphill marathon and they had just completed their fourth and final year of that event.
So, anyway, I was on the peripheral of that, helping some friends out. , became a stay at home dad. So I had some time, I wasn’t, you know, working full time and, and they decided that wasn’t something they wanted to do and they had full-time jobs and they were fam, young families and so on. So they, we stopped pursuing the Mount lemon Gran Fondo. But when I had met Susan, it had been two years post old Pueblo grand Prix and she was thinking about bringing that back and possibly tying in the mountain and grand Fondo. And so we sorta headed in this direction for a little while, almost the year. And we were really in the early stages of exploring those two events and how they could work together and so on. , and, oddly enough, I guess, or more, I guess it’s not oddly, I would say probably more natural for me with my background.
As I mentioned before, an outdoor adventure, at the resort I was working at, I already have this unique relationship with the forest service, on Mount Lemmon, with permitting, with putting on events, with, logistics, with organizing, volunteers and a staff of people. I kind of already had this background that I didn’t really know I had that could apply to, you know, special events. And that’s when that opened up for me. I really embraced it. So when I was just, , discussing this idea with the community of Summerhaven, which is the community on the top of Mount Lemmon. So folks who ride Catalina highway love to go to the cookie cabin or go to the ski area up there. And, and so I talked to the community up there and they said, why don’t you do something on the backside with the marathon event on the front side, on the paved road at the time that it was not a very well received experience by that community and a lot of other challenges there.
And so I said, okay, well that’s not what we’re looking to do, but you know, that sounds nice. And, but that kept coming up over and over. , and the mountain and grand Fondo idea but continued to become more and more difficult to try to produce. And so, I also am very familiar with Oracle, again through my guiding experience of guiding hikes on the Arizona trail through the Oracle community there and some and some mountain biking. But I had also attended a, a mountain bike event back there put on by Epic ride called the soul ride. And they had produced a 100-mile mountain bike event in that area. And the last event there was an Oh five. So, you know, the community was sort of used to that. , there’ve been some changes there as well. And, , you know, long story short, more and more we were getting pulled towards the Oracle community and towards putting on an event on gravel, and not on a page. And so, , it just became the direction we ended up going in. , and, the pieces sort of started coming together rather quickly and within a three month period, , we partnered with Arizona zip line adventures. We partnered with the Arizona trail association and we put on the first mountain, , gravel grinder in 2016 in about 90 days.
And have you retained the same course over the years?
So [inaudible] for the most part, yeah. So we’ve gone through just like any event, , you know, especially putting on that quickly, , we certainly went through some growing pains, but for the most part, the course has remained the same. So the course is concentrated on a 40-mile loop. Okay. So it, it starts on an outlet and highway, which, , that’s why I mentioned the Catalina Highland mountain and highway. It actually starts on Kat mountain and highway, , also known as the Oracle control road, which I can talk about here in a minute. , but it takes the, the control road up the backside of Mount linen. And so on the first year, , you know, we wanted to be conservative with the chorus. We wanted to be conservative with, , you know, the, the riders and volunteers and everyone who was coming together to produce a quality event.
And we wanted to be conservative. So we decided let’s concentrate on this 40 mile loop. And then the control road continues all the way up to smer Haven to the mountain and fires in there. We actually decided to just do, , an out and back, , another three miles to a reasonable turnaround point and come back down and then complete the 40 mile loops. So the first year we had two distances, we had the 40 mile and the 50 mile. , and we had 112 riders the year. So we were, we were really happy with that. , we had a solid medical team with a lot of, , event experience, , a communications team again with a lot of back country of inexperience, , really, really solid stuff, learned a lot, , learned a lot about, , just, you know, all, all the production in general.
, learned a lot of things, got great feedback from the community and from the writers who absolutely loved the event and wanted to see it grow and improve. So we got a lot of constructive feedback, which is really important. , and I have to remind myself as a participant, you really take those surveys to really communicate with the organizers to, to help them if we don’t communicate and hold those things in both, both constructive and both things, we absolutely love. , you know, we could possibly lose those events. So, , so yeah, that was our first year. ,
yeah, it’s interesting when I look at the course profile on your website, it’s Spartan interesting having that out in back section. And I can see, obviously, you know, it changes the physical demands of the loop quite dramatically from the 40 mile event, which is sort of touches that climb up to the smer Haven to the 60 mile loop that if I’m looking correctly, it’s about a 3000 foot climb they’re encountering on that out and back to get all the way up to smer Haven.
Yeah, no you’re definitely, correct on that. So, we, I’ve never done the Leadville 100. , it’s actually happening tomorrow. , but there is a solid Tucson contingent of riders that have done, done the lead though 100 and a couple of them have referred. They’ve compared the two of the, the climb up Columbine and the climb up the backside in terms of the width of the trail, if you will. , it is an out and back. The, elevation gain as you mentioned, 3000 feet. , one of the differences is that we’re not above 10,000 feet. So the start of the event in Oracle’s at 4,500, for those that don’t know Tucson proper is at 25 or 2,700. So it is a nice gain in elevation in the fall just to get a little bit higher. , and then from there, , as you saw the profile, it undulates up and down.
And then when you get to the first aid station, which is where the 40 miles turns to complete the loop, , that is around 5,000 feet. So it undulates, you know, from 4,500 up and down, up and down to 5,000. And then you start your descent from there and then you go up to the 50 mile turn around, which is , exactly a thousand feet of in three and a half-mile, and then you do the, the next 2000 feet of climbing in the next five miles after that. , so yeah, not only, not only is it the climbing that you have to contend with but then you’ve got to descend all that backdown. So,
yeah. It’s funny you mentioned Leadville 100. Cause I was thinking the same thing I’ve done Leadville and I was thinking that did remind me of that where you just have this massive climb you get up and it is very interesting and fun to see the athletes who are head of you coming down the other way and hopefully you’re ahead of someone and you’re seeing them come up. I remember from my personal experience at Leadville, love him or hate him. Lance Armstrong was racing that year and it was really fun seeing him bombed down as I was climbing up that big climb.
Yeah. And that’s something that, the writers who are doing, especially, especially in the 60 mile where, you know, that’s, they’ve mentioned that, you know, even the, you know, Kyle Trudeau is a professional rider from Tucson. He rides for CZ, racing, , on a mountain bike team. And he’s in, he’s in Colorado this weekend, or he’s been there for the last month. You know, he’s my go-to guy for, just feedback, rider experience. , he’s also spoke here in Tucson about riding the backside, really sharing a lot of knowledge about the course, about his, his setup, things, things of that nature. And, and just talking to him about, , you know, he’s a really good descender, with just good all-around rider, but he’s really good to send her and just how every now and again, somebody who kind of creeps over the virtual yellow line, if you will.
And you know, constantly reminding folks who, who aren’t used to that format that, Hey, this is an Outback and your lane is over here. You know, whether, whether you like the line that you’re on at the moment, you kind of need to take that line. And, but yeah, and then on the other hand, so, you know, on the front end of the things, yeah, definitely. , you know, last year, you know, the pile was not the first one to the top. So he was able to sort of gauge his effort and where he was at by writers coming down and, and so, and the other writers as well, really, you know, when they start to see other writers coming down and they look at their garden and I’m like, Oh wow, I’ve got two and a half miles still to climb and they’re already on their way down. It’s, you know, but it breaks up the suffering a little bit. Right? You can kind of see like, Hey, I, I’m going to get that joy here, you know when I hit the turn around. So.
Yeah, exactly. So let’s talk a little bit more about the terrain specifically. I think you very succinctly answered the question on the website as to what bike I should bring with the answer. Yes, pretty much saying any, any bike you bring is probably okay. Obviously within a range. And as with any gravel event, I think you’ve, you’ve, you point out the fact that probably gonna love your bike in some sections. And Hayden and others depending on which end of the gravel spectrum you chose. But let’s drill into this. The type of terrain we’re on, obviously like on the flatter lands, my, my imagination and my experience in that area would be, Hey, these are just nice dirt roads. Maybe with some stutter bps on them, but fairly easy riding. But I can imagine as you get up the mountain it starts to change. So talk, talk a little bit about the terrain that one’s going to experience and what types of bikes you’ve written on that terrain and what you might recommend.
Yeah not women itself is, is a very unique notion in this in this region. , Mount lemon is considered a sky Island. We have several islands in this region. One of the neat things about the sky islands is that you can experience the five different ecosystems as you move up the mountain and elevation. So, you know, we’re in the Sonoran desert, so we have, you know, the desert floor and then as you move up, you get into the swirls and then into the scrub Oaks. And then you get into, the junipers and then Ponderosa Pines all the way up into some Aspen groves on that lemon. And so you pass through all of these, whether you’re driving up the mountain, you’re riding your bike on the front side or the backside. So, , it’s really neat in that sense.
And not when it is not really a or the Santa Catalina, this not really a huge, like a range like the Rockies. It’s, it’s really this Island all sort of, you know, you can circumnavigate it, around the base. So, pretty neat as far as that terrain goes. the wa like the floor of the font, if you will, that you’re going to see and the views that you’re going to experience on the backside is the Galileo’s and the San Pedro river valley. , and so you again, starting at 4,500 feet, you sort of RSI desert grasslands and then you move up into elevation and , it get to experience all, all of those, all five of those ecosystems. So that’s really neat. , the Oracle control road. So that road actually is almost a hundred years old. So it was established in 1920, , and it was the first access to the top of Mount linen actually.
So, Catalina highway wasn’t established. This is the case side on the front. It wasn’t established for another 30 years or so after that. , so in the mid-1950s, so, again, it was established in 1920. This is the, what they call the Oracle control road. And so from the community of watercolor to the community at Summerhaven, the ranchers and the miners actually petition the forest service, the US government to put in a row so they could have easier access. And so the road that we’re on is, is that very road and it is very, it’s not maintained consistently. So actually this past, I would say may in June before the monsoons hit, the forest service was maintaining it for the first time in 14 years. So it’s actually in much better shape now than it has been in the previous melon and gravel grinders events in the past three events.
So, but it is a forest service, road. The reason why they called it a control road is because it is very windy and it’s very narrow in certain places, and there’s only enough room for one car to travel up or down the road at a time. There’s no room for passing. So the control road was controlling the time of day that they would allow traffic up the mountain and then allow traffic down the mountain. So that’s where the word control road comes into. And, and folks just refer to it as the control road, these days. So when they say the control road, that’s what they’re speaking about. So, it, it goes back and forth between, rough and smooth sections. , there is a lot of, granite, rock where the, the bed of the road, is almost like cobblestones in certain places.
, and so it can be very rough in that sense. , there’s a lot of, loose rock, loose gravel, especially because it’s up and down. Like you mentioned the course profile. It’s, it’s, I would consider it a technical road. , you know, it’s when folks ask about, you know, do I need a mountain bike? Is there a single track? You know, there’s, there’s no single track, but, but if you’re not a good bike handler or you’re just getting, you haven’t eroded the course or anything, I highly recommend a hardtail 29er, is perfect, running that tubeless. , and that will really help you on, on the fastest sense. And also give you some good climbing gears because it is, just undulating. But all of these are rough sections that I’m mentioning. I say all of, there are some rough directions.
They’re not miles and miles loft. Actually, you know, they may be a hundred yards at the LA at the furthest, most of them are just shorter sections, but there’s also a smooth sections in between that maybe are only a mile or less in between in certain places. So the console road is, is, , there’s the control road, which is the main climb up the backside. There’s the haul road, which I’ll talk about. And then there’s the paved section of the course, which all comes towards the end. So you get this mix of all three and they sort of come in a sequential order, , which is, which is interesting. So you know, it’s kind of flat loads the ride when you’re going up and down the control road, whether you decide to do the 40, 50 or 60, , you know, it’s sort of all that decision making, sort of speak as all on the controller.
And then you as you go further up the mountain on the control row, there are about three major sections that are, very Rocky. Like again, the rock bed, if I’m saying that correctly, the actual road itself is just solid rock. , and the forest service has been on that to grind that back down to grade a if you will. So, it’s more palatable now by a passenger car even where before it was always four wheel drive. But, but I am always impressed with the folks that, are, you know, taking full rigid bikes on their drop bar road, bike season. , but just a single speed, you know, all kinds of bikes just to challenge themselves against the terrain. You know, not, not out there to, to podi or anything like that, but just to see like, Hey, I can get this done under my own tower on this rig.
, and the, one of the biggest topics of conversation here locally is, is not so much where you’re going to do gravel or your cross bike or your mountain bike, but what modifications are you doing to the bike that you have or what are you building? And that’s always been neat to hear people talk about that. You know, gear ratios, tires, sight you know, clearance suspension, not suspension, full rigid. , it’s, it’s truly is the gamut. , and it requires, you know, the easy answer for me is to say, you know, when in doubt you can do a hard sell 29, or if you’re not sure. And you know, cause I definitely want people to have a great experience and they’re gonna show up sight unseen. But those who have ventured out there time and time again, the neat thing about it is they’re pre-writing on different setups every time. It’s not just taking your, your road bike and your pre-writing different parts of a road. Right. And it’s the same bike. Like it’s your pre-writing to view the course, not to, you know, change anything about your bike. But people are pre-writing because they’re also wanting to know if they should change something about their ride and as you mentioned, where do I want my suffering to be here, here, here or here or here, you know, which would I rather tolerate and then I’ll modify.
Yeah. I think that’s, that’s the constant interesting conundrum about all these events and I think it’s one of those things that makes it interesting to go back to events year after year as you kind of tweak your set off, set up as you use to sort of assuming you’re not in that location. You don’t have the luxury of going and climbing mountain lemon at your leisure and testing different things. Going back and changing things up. I think someone I was speaking to articulated it in the following way in terms of the tire width is you’re getting, if you’re expecting it to be a very long day for yourself as an athlete, then having wider tires or if you think it’s going to be challenging, having the wire tires on your setup will just give you more comfort. And the sort of downside of maybe not having the fastest setup for the road section or smoother section is far outweighed by the upside of when you’re bombing down Mount lemon, you’re comfortable, you feel safe and secure and you’re having a good time. So it’s certainly not unique to the Mount lemon gravel grinder. This conundrum of what’s the best set up. And I think the best advice always is, just get out there and do it. Don’t over-analyze things. It’s, these events really are about having fun and you’ll learn a lot along the way. And then second, optimize around what’s gonna make you the most comfortable and make sure you’re going to have a fun, safe outing.
Yeah, absolutely. Just, you know, think about being happy, you know yeah, absolutely. And w what’s evolved, over the three years, is the, you know, we’re growing. So we had 112 writers. The first year we had a 188 riders the second year and we had 300 riders last year. , and more and more gravel bikes started coming, you know, into the event than previous, previous it was more mountain bikes. , again, most people have mountain bikes in the Tucson area to go off-road. So that’s mostly what we were seeing. And then last year was a lot more noticeable, where the gravel bikes were coming in, even more so. , and most of those gravel bikes are either doing the 40 or the 50. , and there’s, more mountain bikes doing the 60, as I mentioned with the climbing and the descending.
But the on the racing side, if you’re, if you’re listening and you’re on the racing side, there was a lot of racing going on in the 40 and the 50, and those who are, who are wanting to go on podi spots, we’re doing that on gravel bikes and, , and just couldn’t believe that 40 miles of gravel, right. Most people are thinking, you know, a hundred miles or 150 miles, but the 40 miles of this course, they just couldn’t believe how, how punishing it was. I guess because of the, there’s nothing flat about it. You know, you’re either going up or you’re going down. And so there’s some significant, there was rough stuff as I mentioned on the dirt side, there’s some really fast, you know, 35 plus mile gravel, the sense which can be very nerve racking and white knuckle. So you gotta be a good handle on that.
, but also the page climb, we have a, I call it the S and this web road, Webb road is a six and a half mile paved climb. That’s just relentless that a, at about a 6% grade that comes towards the end of all this. So you get off this rougher stuff, you get off the gravel a little bit, and then you’re on a basically a smooth road and all of a sudden your body goes into shock. Like it’s not used to. It’s used to kind of bouncing around a little bit and then your body is just on this absolute smoothness. , and then you just gotta tap out this tempo to get up this climb, at the end. And so your body just goes through some different changes there throughout the course. , and some advice I’ll, I’ll, I give folks, the way our course is set up is if you’re thinking about the 40 mile loop, the first 20 miles is, is, is the dirt in the last 20 miles is, is hard packed, gravel, dirt road.
But, about 13 miles of that is pavement, including this climb. So the advice I gave, I get of actually anybody is, you know, what, you know, set up your tires, what have you, for comfort, all that on the, on the, on the dirt stuff. But we have an aid station, right as the dirt transitions to that pavement. And a lot of people, had pre loaded CO2 cartridges, one, you know, one for each tire plus their backup. So they added more CO2. And I said, you’re going to need water bottles anyway, grab something to eat, but just air up your tires as hard as you can and just ride that road because you’ve got that Cline. , and people just absolutely love that advice and had, a great experience, you know, in that transition there, , coming up that climb. So. Right.
That makes some sense. So at the end of the day, are, are people hanging out afterward? Are you doing a kind of party at the, at the finish line for folks?
Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, amongst some of the changes that we’ve experienced, we’ve also, we’re also, changing venues. So, so the first two years that we had the event at Arizona zip line adventures, and last year, we outgrew that space actually. , and we were shuttling people, from a satellite parking location. So we moved to the Y YMCA, , a mile and a half, away from the zip line, so still on Mount Limon highway and, and really grew into that space, nicely. , and, unfortunately though, we had a nice little after party, but unfortunately the [inaudible] is a dry campus. And so, they hadn’t, lifted their deed restriction to allow us to, you know, have a nice frosty beverage. , but we were, we were growing and so I knew, geez, I don’t know how long we’re going to be able to stay here at this.
Then you, , and, and the YMC was certainly well received because there was no shuttling or, you know, it really, achieved what we needed it to achieve. , but in the last three years of this three, sea ranch, became, under new ownership and became completely revamped and they revamped it to become a special event venue. And so it’s this beautiful place. And they started talking to us about a year ago about, Hey, you know, consider bringing the grinder, you know, basically back up the road, past the zip line, a half a mile, the other way it’s still on, on the highway, to the three ranch. And so, it’s, we’re really excited about it this year. And Barrio brewing company is the beer sponsor. We’ve got a huge beer garden over two and a half acres. , we’re, we’re still solidifying several bike manufacturers that are going to be coming in and doing demos, on.
We’re kicking this event off on Friday this year. , we have plenty of room for camping, but right near pepper sauce, campground as well. , we’re literally within walking distance. A two-minute walk. Next door is a RV park with full hookups. , and then the zip line is a half mile and they have camping. So it’s, it’s becoming a weekend long event. , and the after party this year, we’re , having a live concert, so from three to seven, we’ve got two local bands from Oracle that are going to be playing on the main stage. , we’ll have, food vendors, coffee vendors, just, it’ll, it’ll be the largest event, so far that we’ve done. , the community is really excited, to come out and be a part of the event. We already got some great volunteer organizations coming in. , as I mentioned, local bane and, local food vendors, local arts and crafts, which is going to be a nice flavor, in terms of just industry folks. We’re going to have some local folks there as well. , and so it’s going to be a nice community feel and we’re really excited about it.
Great. Well, it sounds like a great event, John. I appreciate you spending the time giving us an overview of it. I hope to make it, if not this year, in future years. Yeah.
Thank you. Thanks for having me. And, yeah. I hope you hope you can make it out.