mt. lemmon cycling

Lisa Bourne: My Mt. Lemmon Cycling Bucket List Ride

By Lisa Bourne,
CTS Contributing Editor &
Senior Director of Diversity, Inclusion & Social Impact at Zwift

Climbing Mt. Lemmon by bike had been on my bucket list for over ten years – ever since I learned about CTS and the Tucson Training Camps. I was drawn to it for the mental and physical thrill of climbing up a mountain for multiple hours, and through four different microclimates, followed by a 40 minute+ sweeping descent back to the valley floor! And if that weren’t enough I wouldn’t even need to fly out of the country to do it! To say I was excited and nervous was an understatement, but to fully understand the impact and magnitude of this adventure I need you to indulge me as I provide more of the backstory.

Falling in love with riding uphill

First, how did I,  a Black female cyclist who’s lived in the Texas flatlands for almost 10 years, fall in love with climbing? It’s an unlikely love affair I trace back to my California rides with the AIDS Lifecycle (ALC). Oh ALC, how I miss thee! It was 7 days and 550 miles of open roads through the California landscape from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and riding with some of the most lovable people you can imagine! I’ve completed the event three times, and three times I’ve vowed never to do it again because the physical challenge is so massive. But, of course I’m planning to sign up for 2022! 🙂  I conquered my first ‘long’ climbs on ALC and that sense of accomplishment once you arrive at the summit is like no other feeling. In that one moment every worldly problem I have completely disappears, I feel closer to God, and then gravity takes over to glide me back home. The descent is like a process of magical alchemy, transforming my physical efforts to get up the mountain into a relaxed state of balance, freedom, and flow where the connection between my body and my machine is the most beautiful union I can imagine.  

I’d say my ALC experiences expanded my cycling horizons and introduced me to more serious cyclists. That’s also where I learned about the mystical cycling mecca that has now become my favorite cycling destination: Mallorca, Spain. I have the global COVID pandemic to thank for cancelling my Mallorca trips – two years in a row – and so, to try to shift the disappointment into something positive, I started searching for a “replacement” challenge Stateside. My 46th Birthday was fast approaching, I was vaccinated and my fitness was peaking in time for my planned, yet cancelled, Mallorca cycling adventure. I went back to my bucket list and Mt. Lemmon, that 5,500-ft climb over 21+ miles seemed like the perfect alternative challenge!  Luckily my network of cycling friends has grown tremendously over the years and I was able to find a personal guide.  Flights and hotel booked, I rushed to the bike shop to change out my 28 cog for a 32 and thought I was ready!

Cycling in Tucson

We planned three days of cycling.  The first would be an easy 40-mile flat-ish ride on “The Loop”, Tucson’s paved bike trail system, and the east section of the Saguaro National Park. Wow! Now I understand why so many cyclists live in Tucson. A paved trail system over 100 miles long, criss-crossing the landscape and connecting neighborhoods – what a dream! The best we have in Dallas is a 10-mile loop around the manmade White Rock Lake. It’s not much, but it has kept me in cycling shape for almost 10 years – along with Zwift, of course. The Tucson trails were well maintained and well supported with restrooms and water stations.  

mt. lemmon cycling

Right from my first pedal strokes though, I knew I was in a different environment. Why was my breathing labored riding at my normal endurance pace on flat roads? Perhaps it was the travel, or the distinctly drier air compared to Dallas humidity, or just the anticipation of climbing from 2,400 feet in elevation (already much higher than Dallas) to about 8,000 feet above sea level. At this point I should have been pretty terrified of what was to come the next day, actually climbing Mt. Lemmon, but I had no fear and my brain brushed off my body’s initial reaction completely. I suppose it was my brain’s way of keeping my motivation high and my dreams alive. 

The night before the big ride I laid out all of my layers – bibs, base layer, jersey, arm warmers, knee warmers, long fingered gloves, short fingered gloves, etc.  To say I like to be prepared is an understatement, and given all the horror stories I’d read about the changing weather conditions on the mountain I wanted to be ready for anything. Our weather forecast looked great – or so I thought – 80 degrees F in the valley, dropping to 55 as we ascended, with reasonable winds. 

My Mt. Lemmon Experience

 It was a glorious morning as we rolled out of my hotel and headed towards the mountain! We stopped to fill up our water bottles before starting the climb because we had heard that the water at Mile 21 had been shut off. Just my luck. My guide agreed to carry an extra bottle for me, but in the back of my mind I was super concerned that I would only have 3 bottles of water and electrolytes for what was likely to be a 4 hour + ordeal. 

mt. lemmon cycling

Photo: Damion Alexander

We started the climb and I felt fantastic! The Saguaros were in full desert bloom, the sun felt warm but not too hot, the air was pristine, and the winds were fairly calm. My guide was an excellent photographer and took lots of photos that I’m now grateful to have. As the climb went on, my low back started to get sore (as it usually does) but I pressed onward thinking about the sense of accomplishment I’d feel at the top and the massive descent that awaited us. The changing microclimates were awesome and at some point it was actually reminiscent of Mallorca, minus the sea views of course.  We saw Indian paintbrush flowers, dead snakes, live lizards, Saguaro cacti, pine trees, beautiful rock formations and lots of cyclists! 

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Around Mile 10, which was also about 5400 feet above sea level, I started to run low on water. I also started to feel lightheaded, dizzy, and nauseated. This was not turning into the dream ride I had envisioned. At the same time it was as if my legs could barely generate endurance zone watts, which meant the remaining miles were most likely going to take me another 3 hours! My anxiety levels were climbing with every pedal stroke, along with my dizziness and nausea. As we reached Windy Point Vista at about 6,600 feet I broke down in tears and pulled over to the side of the road. No water left and no desire to push my body even further to higher altitudes, I knew I needed to turn around. My guide tried to tell me that I’d still accomplished so much – climbing up nearly 15 miles and more than 4,000 feet – but deep down I knew that I wasn’t going to ever see this ride as a win.  

mt. lemmon cycling

Photo: Damion Alexander

As we began to descend I let my brain relax, confident in my descending skills gained on the Spanish and Italian switchback descents, but my relaxation quickly turned to terror as I felt strong winds try to blow me off my bike and off the mountain! I wasn’t looking forward to managing 25mph+ crosswinds for the next 30 minutes or more. What happened to the calm wind weather forecast? My deep dish carbon wheelset wasn’t helping matters, either. I had even tried to buy a lower profile carbon wheelset before traveling to Tucson, but they were out of stock due to the pandemic. I literally said prayers to my Spirit Guides up in Heaven and to God that I would stay upright. My Guides came through and I breathed a major sigh of relief as we finally returned to the valley. I even enjoyed one fantastic moment of descending bliss where I hit 42.3 mph on a straightaway, and that made up for the rest of the crosswind drama! 

The final day of my Tucson adventure was a perfect ride exploring the city, with more Loop cycling and even time for an outdoor brunch. My Coach had wanted me to push the last day with more climbing but considering my body’s response the previous day, we decided a flat ride was in order. So what lessons did I learn on this bucket list trip? 

  • Listen to your body and don’t be ashamed to call it when you’ve reached your limit! Yes, I realize suffering is a key part of our beloved sport, but it’s also important to stop before you’re totally exhausted or in danger, and to celebrate what we accomplished instead of dwelling on what we didn’t. 
  • Always bring a compact crankset and a cassette with a 32-tooth cog when tackling a long climb. Maybe you won’t need it, but sure is nice to have and I’m glad to be able to spin my legs more freely on climbs!
  • Research the starting and ending elevations on climbs before planning a trip. The Mallorca and Lake Como climbs I’d ridden before all started from sea level, or close to it. If I decide to tackle the big climbs in Arizona or Colorado, I now know I’ll need to take steps to get ready for the higher altitudes. 
  • Practice bike handling skills! The unexpectedly strong crosswinds on Mt. Lemmon were frightening, but would have been a lot worse if I didn’t have confidence in my ability to go downhill.

Overall I’m grateful for my Mt. Lemmon experience and proud that I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. Will I go back? Probably not. This girl is sticking to climbs near the ocean that end with lazy days on the beach!

Lisa Bourne is the Senior Director of Diversity, Inclusion & Social Impact at Zwift, and an avid cyclist with 18+ years professional experience (Retail, Ecommerce, Consulting, Non-Profit), an MBA degree from Harvard Business School and 20 years on the bike. As an African-American woman and one of the only active members of her family, Lisa’s primary goal has been to try to inspire and motivate others by riding 5,000+ miles per year on her bike. She has also volunteered in various cycling ambassador capacities (i.e. Team Luna Chix Seattle, Bicycles Plus Dallas, Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) Diversity & Inclusion Consultant, etc.) with the goal of driving diversity and inclusion within the sport. Follow Lisa on Instagram and Linkedin

Photo credit, featured image: Damion Alexander

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Comments 6

  1. Bravo! You rock!!!! Thanks for sharing every part of it, the good and the bad. We have all been there – in the box of pain and fear, mixed with joy – and will be again. Mt Lemmon has been on my bucket list for a long time, too. You have inspired me to get to it!!

  2. Lisa, I never realized it at the time, but I was extremely lucky to have come of cycling age in Flagstaff. Living and riding at that altitude gave me a huge advantage for rides like the annual Mt Lemmon race that was put on in AZ in the 1970s. The one thing that I did fear was the heat, so I always made sure to be a little underdressed at the start line.
    I call it a race, and for many of the participants, it was just that, but for me, a non-climber, it was a great training ride, and I considered it a victory simply to finish. I urge you to embrace the lessons that you learned and give it another try. You can do it!

  3. Lisa, I really enjoyed your Mt Lemmon story. I live in Colorado which is a huge advantage riding and training in altitude in the Colorado mountains. I’ve never been able to go further than Windy Point, but 19 miles is an outstanding accomplishment. Colorado has many awesome climbs, but Mt Lemmon remains my favorite. Way to go!

  4. Lisa
    I enjoyed your write up. Like you my life cycling journey began with the AIDS rides. Mine was the 1st Philadelphia to DC Ride. Training for those rides pushed me to to the next level of fitness where I could really enjoy pushing myself.

    I think your story is more interesting because you didn’t make the summit. Frankly, if we always make our goals we aren’t setting them high enough. I’ve learned more through my failures on the bike and in life than I have in the victories. Of course the victories are more fun and nothing wrong with that.

    Speaking of fun, we’ve got some great seaside climbing here in Santa Barbara and CTS even has a training facility here ( happy to give them a shout out because I enjoy their articles so much)

    See you in the mountains

    1. OMG! Hi Kevin – My first AIDS Ride was also the Tanqueray ride from Philly to DC in 2000 I think! What a small world! How lucky you are to live in Santa Barbara!

      Thank you for your comment!

  5. Lisa – Great write-up! I know you wrote that you weren’t planning on trying it again, but I recommend re-thinking that. Where I live (southwest Louisiana) it’s flatter and more humid than Dallas, and I’ve done that climb three times, the last one thinking about the store that sells a bunch of different kinds of fudge – pistachio! – and coffee. And don’t forget your middle jersey pocket is the perfect place for a third water bottle. 🙂

    You made the right decision to pull the plug when you did, but you can get up that climb in another try.

    All the best,

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