Slow Going: 2021 Arizona Trail Race Report
With formidable reroutes, overgrown mayhem, and challenges inherent to riding in the rugged Sonoran Desert, the 2021 Arizona Trail Race has proved to be a tough one. Eszter Horanyi takes us along for the ride in this report from the trail. Learn about the course changes, hazards, and those who’ve prevailed here…
Words and photos by Eszter Horanyi (@ez_gone_coddiwompling)
It’s been two and a half years since the last Grand Depart of the Arizona Trail Race. A lot has happened since the last time a group gathered to race the 300-mile version or the full border-to-border 800-mile version. The AZTR route has undergone a variety of changes over the years as more trail is built and mining and fires cause reroutes, but this year’s edition received more tweaks than usual.
First off, new trail had been added to Canelo West, cutting out the final (fairly heinous) miles of trail to the town of Patagonia and replacing it with beautiful flowing singletrack built by Rob Bauer. The new reroute was a definite upgrade in terms of trail but took the Patagonia resupply off route. Next, instead of taking the highway all the way to Sonoita and then climbing the headwind-prone Santa Rita Road, riders were treated to an easement through private property in Hog Canyon, removing nearly 13 miles of paved highway riding. It also removed the Sonotia store resupply, meaning riders had to carry enough food to get all the way from the start to Tucson at mile 130. The last major route change was the addition of Sunnyside and Scotia Canyons. For AZT800 riders, this was just a several-mile deviation off of the dirt road route that is normally used from the border to Parker Canyon Lake. For AZT300 riders, who traditionally start at Parker Canyon Lake, this meant first riding south on a dirt road before picking up the AZT and riding it back north to Parker Canyon Lake before heading out on the Canelo Hills—a figure-eight prologue before getting into the heart of the matter.
And finally, the biggest change of all: the race was being run in the fall instead of the spring.
After record-breaking summer rains, word on the internet was that the trail was overgrown with catclaw and other pokey plants that call the Sonoran Desert home. A fire that had engulfed the area surrounding the final 20 miles of trail also created the potential for difficult travel. Rumors of ruts and washouts also circulated as riders prepared for an unprecedented year on the trail. Several people chose not to even start because conditions sounded so horrendous.
All the changes ended up having one very important, and perhaps unintended, result: everyone who was on that start line, really wanted to be on that start line.
I’ve spent a fair number of years hanging out the night before the start of the AZTR at Parker Canyon Lake. First as a racer, then as a spectator and proud member of the peanut gallery, and this year, as a photographer. The smaller number of racers this year made it easy to wander around, beer in hand, and talk to nearly everyone. I got to put faces to people who I’d only known from the internet and met so many others.
While I’d expected a high level of fretting and nerves over the rumored trail conditions, people seemed excited for the challenge. The level of positivity in the face of the unknown was astounding. I could tell that this was a truly unique group of humans who, for the most part, were well equipped for the challenges ahead. There was little mention of the waist-high grass surrounding the start of the trail, and even race organizer John Schilling’s car alarm accidentally going off at 5 a.m. didn’t cause any consternation.
These people were ready and focused.
While normal attire for this race is standard-issue bike clothing, some people had added ankle gaiters to their kit, others full-length gaiters. Most had found some combination of shorts, leg sleeves, and socks to keep all the skin on the lower half of their bodies covered. Many didn’t show any skin below the neck, and some people only had the lower halves of their faces exposed to the elements.
Soon after the race started, as AZT300 riders headed south for their prologue loop, I positioned myself at an awkward but pretty water crossing in Scotia Canyon near the bottom of the singletrack descent. This was new trail to nearly everyone, the towering trees and flowing water surprising many, and the reviews all came back positive.
This is so neat in here! There’s so much water! This is a great warm-up loop before the Canelos. Stoke level was high.
One of the big benefits of the addition of the Sunnyside/Scotia Canyon loop was that the startline peanut gallery not only got to see racers off but also got to see them come back through nine miles later. Race creator and former organizer Scott Morris and race super-fan Tim McCabe directed racers through the intersection with the promise that they’d be at the next one too to show people the way.
Shortly after the 300 riders came through, the 800 riders, who’d started at the border 10 miles away, started to trickle in. For them, the Sunnyside and Scotia addition really was just part of their prologue. For me, it was fun to see familiar faces. Chase Edwards came through with the largest grin I’ve ever seen a racer have on her face. Her enthusiasm for the task at hand was clear. She was led through Parker only by Nate Ginzton who had chosen a fully rigid drop-bar rig as his bike of choice.
With most of the field through, I headed over to the end of the Canelo West section to see how riders were faring on the new trail. On my ride in to find a pretty backdrop for photos, I ran into a community member with a weed wacker. Tomás, a Patagonia local, had decided the trail was far too overgrown and took it upon himself to get it trimmed back before the race came through. We chatted for the better part of an hour as he told me of building his first mountain bike in the ‘70s and his many adventures bike touring around the world. “Touring in Indonesia is amazing,” he said. “You should go!”
Because of the unexpected conversation, I missed getting a photo of Kurt Refsnider, who was far ahead of the field by this time, but I got to make a new friend, so I’m pretty sure I came out ahead. I got up to an interesting spot by the time Kait Boyle rolled through, and I spent the rest of the afternoon shooting images of people enjoying the (mostly) flowy trail. Clothing may have been covered in burrs and other sticky things, and I heard reports of long stretches that used to be trail and were now just packed down grass, but everyone seemed happy.
Three hours later, Tomás was still back at his truck at the trailhead, over the moon about getting to see racers come through and holding a gate for them. We talked for another hour about the town of Patagonia, the local trails, and the pros and cons of bike touring on a tandem.
As the race went on into the night, Kurt charged ahead. Bodhi Roether, a youngin’ from Durango gave chase, and Nate Ginzton continued to work his way through the 300 field on his drop-bar bike. Kyle Quinn and Peter Schuster, both of Colorado and both on singlespeeds, maintained a steady and consistent pace behind. In the end, Nate would put on an impressive show of bike handling with curly bars and finish the 300 second behind Kurt before continuing his journey toward the Utah border. Behind him, Kyle and Peter would pass a fading Bodhi in the later miles of the route to claim the next spots back.
For the women, stomach issues sidelined Kait on the first night, and Kristen Tonsager took over the women’s lead of the 300. Chase Edwards, racing the full 800, would repeatedly challenge for the front of the women’s 300 race. In the end, she would play the long game and sleep before the end of the 300. Kristen rode away with the 300 race win and finished not far behind Kyle and Peter on their singlespeeds. Chase Edwards, also racing the 800, finished second, and Emma Millar was the third woman to the finish line of the 300.
I ended up spending three days wandering around various parts of the route taking photos of the racers. Whether it was early in the morning on the fast and smooth singletrack of the Rincon Valley or at the end of Tiger Mine Road seeing riders getting ready to drop into the Black Hills in the evening, I never heard a negative word or complaint about the course. There were bloody knees, torn pieces of clothing, and stories of running out of water and baking in the sun, but I’ve never seen such a consistently positive group of racers who were so excited to be out there.
In the end, conditions were slow. Race winner Kurt would end up finishing seven hours slower than his fastest time on the route with a time of 52 hours. He claimed that Oracle Ridge was in the worst shape it has been since the first time he raced the route in 2009. There were crashes and mechanicals, and I’m sure there were tears and meltdowns, because this is bikepacking, after all. But I think the general consensus was that conditions—maybe outside of Oracle Ridge, which really did sound terrible—weren’t quite as bad as the internet had made them out to be. It was a reminder that you never really know until you go.
It wasn’t a year to break records on the AZT, but it was a year to have an adventure. And if it took wearing spandex bike shorts and knee-high hiking gaiters to do it without ending up a bloody scratched-up mess by the finish, then that was just all part of the fun.
To everyone who took on this beast, congrats! Thanks for making the Arizona Trail Race such a beautiful event.
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