2023 Arizona Trail Race: Hot Days, Fast Bikes
As riders of the 2023 Arizona Trail Race begin their sixth day, Wyatt Spalding shares a race update and gallery of photos from the first four days along the picturesque route. Find stunning photos from the trail and an in-depth report on how the race is playing out here…
Words and photos by Wyatt Spalding
The 2023 Arizona Trail Race is well underway, and riders are heading north on the trail known for its highly challenging terrain. Riders have chosen between the 300- or 800-mile routes, with the 800 traversing the state from Mexico to Utah. Last year, the endless overgrowth of thorny bushes in the southernmost regions made for difficult times on the course. Overgrowth is not much of a problem this year due to a feeble monsoon season. However, the AZT is always unyielding, and this year, it decided to test its partakers with scorching temperatures in the desert.
As day one unfolded, temperatures quickly climbed above 90°F while riders made their way through the Canelo Hills. The trail conditions in this area are brutally steep, rocky, loose, and exposed. The heat required many riders to carry 15+ pounds of water. The bikes were heavy, and the going was slow. Challenges aside, many riders passed me wearing big smiles as I snapped photos. For most of the day, Philippe Vullioud and Alex Schultz fought back and forth for the leading position, followed by Johnny Fitzgerlad and Dylan Turner. Katya Rakhmatulina led the women’s field, followed by Katie Strempke and Kristen Tonsager.
As the sun set, riders were thankful for the dropping temperatures, which made the tough climbs and hike-a-bikes through the Santa Rita Mountains more manageable. I crossed paths with Dylan Turner near Gardner Canyon and rode with him for a few miles as he headed north toward Kentucky Camp. As we arrived, Katya Rakhmatulina wasn’t wasting any time as she quickly filled up on water. She led the women’s field with a sizable gap from Katie Stremke, who was a few miles back.
After a long day in the hot sun, Dylan needed a rest and refuel, so he rinsed the salt off of his face and lay down on a nearby bench for a quick nap. By now, Philippe had created a solid gap between himself, Alex Schultz, and Johnny Fitzgerald. He reached roughly mile 134 in Tucson before stopping for a rest around 2 a.m.
On day two, most riders were heading into the Tucson area, where they would re-supply before ascending the infamous Mount Lemmon, a series of rugged peaks rising to 9,191 feet from atop the desert floor. It was another incredibly demanding day for many, and the temperatures exceeded 100°F in many areas. At this point, several people had scratched due to heat exhaustion. The idea of climbing out of Tucson amid the scorching temps was a tough one to fathom.
By mid-day, Philippe Vullioud and Alex Schultz were already making solid progress on Mount Lemmon, and Katya Rakhmatulina had slid into third place. This year, the “Lemon Pusch” was added to the 800 route, whereas before the route followed the pavement shortly after Molino Basin. The Lemon Pusch follows the official AZT Wilderness Bypass and is a string of incredibly challenging trails with hike-a-bike like no other. People typically ride the route the other way as a shuttle, which is a considerable effort even then.
I ran into Philippe toward the end of Bug Springs, the first trail on the Lemon Pusch. He was blown away by how rugged the terrain was. A thick layer of salt coated him as he explained his hopes of having enough water to reach the top. Even on Mount Lemmon, the weather was unseasonably warm. Difficulties aside, the trails on Lemmon take riders to some incredibly scenic places with good views around every corner. At this point in the women’s field, Katya had created a large gap between herself and Alexandera Houchin, followed by Kristen Tonsager, Hannah Simon, Katie Strempke, and Karin Pocock. Katya would begin her Lemon Pusch early in the evening and make significant progress, passing Alex Schultz and putting herself in second place overall before stopping for a rest.
On the morning of day three, the lead group began descending the backside of Mount Lemmon and making their way back into the desert. Philippe Vullioud was still in the lead, however, he suffered some heat illness on the mountain the day before and was taking some much-needed rest and recovery a few miles off-route in the town of Oracle.
It was around 10:30 a.m. when I crossed paths with Hannah Simon and Kristen Tonsager amid their Lemon Pusch. Hannah laughed hysterically at the situation as she hoisted her bike up and over jagged rocks on the exposed ridge line. Kristen was also in great spirits as she pushed her bike along the trail and onward to the top. They were only a few miles from the small town of Summerhaven and hoped to arrive before the shops and restaurants closed for the day.
In Summerhaven, Alexandra Houchin was filling up on water and eating snacks before riding the Red Ridge trail off the north side on her singlespeed, hoping to catch her partner Johnny Price, who was a few miles ahead. Alex Schultz was getting a bite to eat at the local cafe after taking a long rest the night before. Several riders had passed him, but he was well-rested and motivated to catch up. I later ran into Katie Strempke as she pushed her singlespeed up the Green Mountain Trail. She joked that every photo I have taken of her has been of her pushing her bike instead of riding—classic AZT stuff!
By mid-afternoon, Katya had made it into first place overall as she pedaled up Tiger Mine Road. Johnny Fitzgerald was not far behind, and Philippe Vullioud was returning to the trail after his rest in Oracle. Johnny was pedaling strongly through Oracle State Park. He mentioned how the beginning of the Lemon Pusch almost had him calling it quits, but a dot stalker inspired him to keep moving. Katya would continue to lead for most of the night before stopping to rest shortly after the Freeman Road junction.
It was the early morning of day four, and the lead group of riders was meandering over Ripsey Hill and onward to the Gila River. The desert was again unrelenting, and the bright sun quickly brought temperatures up to an uncomfortable level. While a few riders passed Katya overnight, she was up early and was back in second behind Philippe by 10 a.m., followed by Alex Schultz. For the first time, it felt safe to say that the lead 800-mile riders might also take the podium for the 300 course, a massive feat considering the addition of the Lemon Pusch.
Meanwhile, Ryan Sigsbey was resting near the Kelvin Bridge, where he was getting a pizza and sodas delivered from the legendary Old Time Pizza in Kearny before making his final push to Picketpost Trailhead. The delivery driver also left a pizza for Johnny Price, who was a few miles back. The remaining miles leading to the finish of the 300-course are notoriously difficult. Riding along the Gila River is often hot as it’s one of the lowest elevations on the route. The climb to Picketpost from the river bottom can seem endless. As something of a consolation, the remote area is incredibly scenic.
By 1 p.m., Alex Schultz had taken the lead and was tackling the final climb, followed by Katya and Philippe. As the three riders neared the top of the climb, Philippe had passed Katya and was making significant progress. Unfortunately, Philippe’s front tire flattened from a large cut somewhere down the trail. His tube would not work, so he had to walk to the finish, hoping to find a solution in Superior. At approximately 5:40 p.m., Alex Schultz was the first rider to ride into Picketpost Trailhead, winning the AZT 300 two years in a row. Alex rode slightly off route into Superior and will continue along the 800 route after some rest. Katya Rakhmatulina was the second rider in, followed by Johnny Fitzgerald in third. Katya took a short break at the trailhead before riding into the lead position once again on her way to the Utah state line.
Overall, it has been an fantastic year for the Arizona Trail Race, and many more stories remain to be told. It’s been a blast to follow, especially with four Bikepacking Triple Crown competitors in the women’s field, and it will be interesting to see how the rest of the race unfolds. There are, without a doubt, some amazing souls challenging themselves out there this year. Stay tuned for more!
Congratulations to Ryan Sigsbey from Brevard, NC (shown above) who took first place at the Arizona Trail Race 300 on Sunday. Ryan completed the 300-mile route in 3 days, 16 hours, and 3 minutes, which is impressive considering the conditions riders are dealing with out there. When asked how he he approached the race, Ryan replied, “The past few years I’ve been trying to come up with a plan to do the full Arizona Trail but I kept coming up short on time (and maybe courage). This year, in a somewhat last minute effort, I pulled together to make the 300 happen. It was incredibly difficult and relentless out there. The miles tick by slowly. Even the seemingly easy sections tested me physically and mentally. The heat this year added to the mix, making things even more intense. Thankfully, my bike and gear worked great, aside from scorching my rear brake pads coming down Red Ridge and having some difficulty swapping out pads.”
Further, when we inquired about his winning strategy, Ryan added, “I don’t generally find myself at the pointy end of these races and winning isn’t really what it’s all about for me. I do them to push myself and find out what I’m capable of. And this race pushed me harder than any other. The beauty of the desert was awe inspiring and the camaraderie from the other riders helped keep my moral up. As soon as I finished the 300, I said to my wife: there’s no way I’m doing the 800. But less than 12 hours later, after a lot of rest and food, I was already plotting the AZT 800. Here’s hoping I can make it in 2024.”
Shortly after Ryan, Dylan Turner took second with with a time of 3 days, 17 hours, and 24 minutes, and Eric Payne finished in third yesterday morning with a time of 4 days, 1 hour, and 27 minutes. Stay tuned for more updates from the ongoing AZT 800 and find a link to the Tracker below to follow along.
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