“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.”
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.
“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!
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