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Riding South: Arizona's Chollas, Cacti & Gravel

Words: Pete Harrington

Photos: Matt Clark

Where do you go when the ground is covered in snow? The spare room, of course. Or the garage. Or for the real crazies, the dedicated basement cave. Connect the trainer and start the suffering. At least that’s what Canadian riders do over winter: hunker down, spike the adrenaline with old ice hockey footage, and ride out the bad weather.

But despite the delights of the turbo, some riders choose to forego apps and screens in search of sunnier climes. A hardcore few take flight and migrate, at least for a little while, to Arizona.

“It’s kind of like the fourth dimension,” explains 7mesh adventurer Sam Schultz, about gravel riding amongst the cacti in Arizona. “It’s sharp, and it hurts. And it affects your riding style, too. You’ve got to change some of your line choices to work around it,” he cautions. “It’s fair to say that I’ve had more than my fair share of run-ins with the cacti.”

Back in fall, we took a trip south, rolling up to Brown’s Ranch northeast of Phoenix to shoot Spring/Summer gravel lines in a place 7mesh photographer Matt Clark frequently chooses as a stand-in for summer. “October through March is the perfect time to come ride in Arizona,” says Matt. But unless you like the heat, he doesn’t recommend coming any later. “I was there at the end of April, and I remember going for a run at 8 pm, and it was still 42 °C (104°F)!”

On the shoot for the Women’s Farside, an all-road, surface-adaptable summer trail short new for ’19, local rider Sally Aston took the lead, laying it out while Matt took aim and kept away from the cacti. Although for Sally, the threat of a scratched hand pales in comparison to the other reality of riding in the only US state to tick off all four North American deserts. “The challenge is water, especially on gravel,” she explains. “We’re usually riding out of the city, far away from water fountains or gas stations where you might make a stop. And from a safety point of view, you have to think about how much water you have and where you can get more.” But according to Sally, sometimes even locals make mistakes. “One early summer, we were on this sweet ride. But like idiots and even though we knew better, we ran out of water. Once we got back to the road, we were the people on bikes flagging down cars, asking for water because, ironically, we had crossed several rivers, but none of us had a purification straw with us to be able to drink safely. Lesson learned.”

Sally’s recent experience shooting for 7mesh was thankfully more positive, with the Women’s Farside shorts, Eldorado and Merino Henley drawing particular praise. “I ordered the shorts and shirt right after the shoot because they proved perfect for the mixed terrain of gravel riding,” she says. “I wore them last weekend on a group ride, and everyone was commenting how much they liked them. I paired the shorts with the 7mesh Women’s Bib Short underneath, and it was so comfortable, but I had all these extra pockets. It was very nice.”

Travelling south from Phoenix brings you to Tucson and Mt Lemmon, one of Sam Schultz’s favourite places to ride gravel, and the location for the FarsideMerino Henley and Eldorado Short Sleeve shoot.

While the photos from the session describe a baked-dry, apparently lifeless environment, Sam is keen to dispel some myths about the region. “A lot of people think that deserts are pretty much dead,” he says. “But just like the Sonoran desert around Tucson, they’re usually teeming with life.” And as he explains, it’s not all about the cactus. “In spring, the ocotillos are in bloom. Some people think they’re a cactus, but ocotillos are desert shrubs. They can grow as high as twenty feet, and sprout fiery red flowers that fall after the rains to preserve water.” Although they do have one thing in common with cactus: “They hurt like hell if you run into them!”

And then there’s the fuzzy cholla. “Sunsets in the desert are like nowhere else I’ve been,” Sam says. “And as the golden light catches their bristles…I don’t know man; it just seems spectacular to me.”

7mesh’s Spring/Summer ’19 gravel lines are now up and available to shop on the site.