Most cyclists dream of biking through massive mountain ranges. The Carreterra Austral in the Andes, the Leh-Manali road through the Indian Himalayas and Central Asia’s Pamir Highway consistently top the lists of favorite cycling spots.
Desert cycling rarely makes the cut. And I’m really not sure why.
Perhaps it’s because few people are acquainted with the splendor of arid places. For many of us, deserts are faraway places difficult to explore. Mountains, on the other hand, are fairly easily accessible.
Even if you hail from a level country like the Netherlands, the Alps are just a short jump away in Germany or France. If home is pancake-flat Kansas, you can zip to the Colorado Rockies on a weekend road trip.
From Fear to Favorite
Our first desert cycling experience was in the Sahara. I'd road tripped through the American Southwest but this was a whole different ballgame. We were riding bikes through one of the world's most inhospitable environments.
The sun pounded down on us without remorse. I was terrified of the vast empty spaces. Rolling sand dunes as far as the eye could see. No trace of civilization. Running out of water preoccupied my thoughts.
But after 1,000 kilometers through Morocco and Mauritania, I’d come to adore the desert. The desolate daytime beauty and star-filled night skies calmed my soul and cleared my mind. Desert riding now delights me.
Back in the USA after our jaunt into Mexico, we had time to kill. Our flight to Kazakhstan (departing from NYC’s JFK airport) was still six months away. With cold winter temps and snow blanketing the northern US, we were in no hurry to get to New York.
Google searches for “best road rides in America” turned up Mount Lemmon near Tucson. It’s a 28-mile monster of a climb. With an elevation gain of 5600 feet, you go from scorching desert to a cool pine-clad mountain climate in a matter of hours.
We were in. It would mean heading west and making a major detour, but this was one ride we didn’t want to miss.
We could experience the best of both worlds: deserts AND mountains.
The desert is far less empty than most people imagine. The saguaro cactus, left, has become a symbol of Arizona.