LOCAL LOAM: Riding Mt. Lemmon with TORCA

“The riding on Mt Lemmon is special. And if you’ve ridden here, you know why; it’s not easy to access, there’s rocky terrain, there’s stuff that will tear your clothes or your skin, or break bikes. It’s rugged, it’s raw, and that’s why we all love it. But it also poses some real challenges in maintaining those trails.”

-Tara Alcantara

As Tara laughs about the “desert kisses” -bright red hues of fresh blood and torn flesh- that dot her calves, I can’t help but wonder, where the heck did she learn to ride like this?

We’re descending a club favorite: Bellota, a five-mile section of the Arizona trail. Tara drifts through loose corners, charging through trail chunder at a pace that makes me wonder if perhaps Rachel Atherton has not yet met her match. While never having focused much on racing, Tara Alcantara is the president of TORCA (Tucson Off Road Cyclists and Activists). It’s one of two local advocacy groups, and it’s the only one dedicated entirely to working on the federally-managed Mt. Lemmon.

Tucson has been all over the mountain biking media as of late. Nearly every major outlet has posted content from the area. During my own Tucson pilgrimage in December 2018, I saw for myself just what makes this riding so special. There was snow on the ground at home and I was itching to ride some good singletrack, plus I had tons of questions for the local advocacy group.It’s this crew that will be paramount in ensuring continued trail access for generations to come. The amount of available riding in Tucson can well disperse increased trail traffic, and the diversity of the riding areas will accommodate riders of all skill levels. And since some of the most popular trails are actually non-sanctioned, groups like TORCA will be key in helping secure that these trails remain forever open to knobby tires.

Tara and her husband Art are among the group’s original, founding members, and Art was the president of the organization before Tara took the helm. Why form TORCA? Tara and Art loved riding Mt. Lemmon, whose 9000’ peak towers just outside of Tucson city limits. The mountain is best known for its big descents, jagged rock, spiny cactuses, and plentiful singletrack. But, they noticed a need for more maintenance and advocacy specific to these trails. They are well loved by the mountain bike crowd, and while they don’t see the same amount of traffic as in-town trails, their sheer ruggedness means unforgettable satisfaction from a clean run.

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“Cat claw” is a bush that doesn’t really look like a cactus but its small spines are shaped like its namesake. Hooked sharply, they don’t just pierce flesh, but rather tear through it–hence the desert kisses. Removing cat claw from the trails entirely would be impossible, but trimming it back goes a long way to allowing riders to focus on navigating the sharp granite and quartz and avoiding the vicious Cholla cactuses. After getting kissed in a few sections where the bush had grown back over the trail, I was quite thankful for the rest of the trail where those sharp spines had been cut back.

There was a real need for maintenance. These trails can get overgrown; they get hit with a lot of water, and that makes them pretty tough. But these trails also happen to be amazing. Sometimes those rough and rugged trails are the best trails! 

Tara Alcantara

That sentiment- of gnarly trails being good trails- is excellent and it’s one that I would love to see embraced by all advocacy groups.

For the mountain bikers of Tucson (and beyond), the riding community’s biggest challenge with Mt. Lemmon was with the land manager, the United States Forest Service, which falls under the Department of Agriculture. This federally managed land requires a very different advocacy strategy than state, county, or city managed land. Due to the federal hurdles advocacy work, including trail maintenance, was non-existent for a long time. Trails were literally fading into obscurity.

A second advocacy group began working hard well before TORCA came into existence, so it’s important to remember that TORCA is not the only group around. As I understand it, the Sonoran Desert Mountain Bicyclists focus their advocacy efforts on city and county managed land; there are many more riding spots around Tucson than just what is presented here.

We’ve had lots of challenges, but the biggest one is working with the US Forest Service. [We all are seen as] just a bunch of rag tag riders and [the Forest Service] doesn’t care who you are. There is one person doing the job of four, and doing it with no money, so trails are not a high priority on their list. 

– Art Alcantara

 Looking at the map of Mt. Lemmon, it’s clear that there are quite a few trails already existing. But even though TORCA has not built trails from the ground up, there are so many fading ghost trails that they can easily expand riding opportunities just by reviving old trails.

“Before TORCA, the trails on Lemmon were just blown out, just gone. The only people who would work on them were the hikers. There were trails that just shut down because people stopped riding them.”
Brannon Mamula, TORCA treasurer

All this talk about how great the trails on Mt Lemmon are is fine and dandy, but there is a catch: these trails are remote. The start of Bellota is located at the end of a 12 mile drive up a rough forest service dirt road. It takes well over an hour to reach the trailhead in a full size pickup. And performing maintenance on the other club favorites, Cañado del Oro (“CDO”) and Red Ridge trails, requires arranging either a 60 mile (yes, six-zero) paved road shuttle, or accessing the trails via the infamous Charouleau Gap Road. This “road” is a legitimate rock crawling route favored by local 4wd clubs, complete with a 4.0 difficulty rating. It’s literally classified as “Do not take trails this rating and higher unless you know what you are doing.” It’s a favorite Arizona 4×4 destination for a reason!

The lack of direct financial aid from the local Forest Service has forced TORCA to become as self-reliant as possible out of sheer necessity. The federal government’s budget for the department of agriculture–the parent agency for the national forest service–is suffering from a tight budget. The USDA’s budget has been cut nearly 20% since 2016. This means the ranger district is underfunded and, to make matters worse, local district turnover has been high.

Luckily we’ve broken through the hurdles! It’s been 7 years, and it’s taken a long time to navigate the federal government. We’ve now earned our stripes and proven ourselves to the agency. 
Tara Alcantara

TORCA’s approach was simple: focus only on Mt. Lemmon. Sonora Desert Mountain Bicycles have been around for quite a while longer than TORCA, and they are doing great things within the regions other riding zones. But Mt. Lemmon is its own beast. Not only are the trails more rugged, but working with the land owner, the US federal government, can be akin to swordfighting a seven-armed dragon who missed lunch. And who lives on a bed of cactus.

TORCA had a huge victory in 2018 when they won both a grant from the Arizona State Parks OHV fund as well as a grant from the US Forest Service in conjunction with the Wilderness Alliance. These form the “Backcountry Trails Project”, and focus on three excellent mountain bike trails: Cañada Del Oro, Red Ridge, and the Bellota portion of the Arizona Trail.

These grants enabled TORCA to purchase two off-road vehicles to better access these trails: a six-seater Polaris Ranger UTV, and an off-road built Toyota Tacoma 4×4. These allow the club to be self-sufficient with its trail days, key if they are going to rehab these remote routes.

Like any hardcore mountain biker, I love challenging trails and I hate to lose trails, so TORCA is going to be our best bet in keeping the gnarliest Tucson trails around for many years to come. Desert kisses and all.

Jeff making a jump off a rock with a large saguaro cactus in the foreground and looming storm clouds above.

Local Loam is a series produced by Jeff Kendall-Weed to share the stories of successful advocacy groups who build rad riding communities through excellent trails. 

Produced and written by: Jeff Kendall-Weed @jeffweed.
Video: Colby Mesick @colbias_funke.
Photography: Chris Brus @Chris Brus.

Supported by:
PNW Components
WTB
Ibis Cycles
Kali Protectives
Kitsbow Cycling Apparel
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