by Joseph Sheeley
From the time that I was in first grade, I would walk to school. Elementary school, which was grades 1-4, was about half a mile away, across a street and a parking lot, across a major street at a light, and then up a hill about a quarter mile to the school. Both of my parents worked, so I would get home about an hour before my mom and let myself in. For some reason rather than giving me a key, we had one hidden inside a bag of cat food just inside the back door that I could reach through the gate bars.
One I got to fifth grade, the middle school was about 2 miles away, so I started riding my bike. I would mainly ride on the sidewalk and lock up my bike in a fenced-in gravel lot under some grapefruit trees. Here I got used to riding a couple of miles each way per day. I also would ride to friends’ houses and just around the neighborhood.
One day a friend and I were at the school in the evening and discovered that we could get airborne on a berm between one part of the playground and a field. We took turns jumping the berm for the next hour or so, then I rode home. The next day, I was riding to school when the top bar on my bike snapped. I walked the bike home and got a ride to school.
We took the bike to the bike shop and explained that I was “just riding along” when the bar broke. They all laughed, then handed me a biking book that had a list of definitions. It had “just riding along,” or JRA, as a term used by those committing warranty fraud. Well, I was just riding along when the bar snapped….
We bought the first of several mountain bikes from them that day. The shop even had a trail ride they would lead. I went on this ride the next Saturday. They were much more advanced than I was so I only went on one or two rides with them after the first ride, but from the experience I learned where the local trails were and started mountain biking regularly. I even started racing in high school which lasted through early college.
One day I was out riding with a friend and we ended up going a few miles from my house. On the way back, he had us take the canal. It was then that I discovered that the canal was a great way to ride. In one five mile section there was a concrete path, but even where there was no path, the banks were flat, smooth dirt roads that didn’t have many ruts or rocks. These were perfect for a mountain bike or even a road bike with the right tires.
This is when I started doing longer rides, using the canal as a path since I could avoid most of the traffic, only needing to cross a road every half mile or so. From our house I could ride downstream about 15 miles to the end, way out near Sun City and the other retirement communities West of Phoenix.
The canal ended unceremoniously in a farmer’s field with an electric fence that gave me a shock a couple of times until I figured out what it was. The other way upstream would go about 40 miles all the way to Saguaro lake. I never made it that far although I tried a couple of times. The last 20 miles or so were out on the Indian reservation where there was nowhere to stop for water or anything.
The canal also allowed me to get to a lot of places in Phoenix. There was one place where a smaller canal, The Crosscut Canal, branched off. If you took that, then about a mile of road you could end up at the zoo. I did this several times one summer. I also figured out how to get to my grandmother’s house way out in Sun City. Going upstream would end up at a park way out in Scottsdale. You could get to the mall at Metrocenter going downstream just a half mile off of the canal. (Unfortunately, we usually ended up there early in the morning since we’d start riding around 6 AM to avoid the heat, so the stores were closed.)
Riding on the canal, I got used to doing longer rides of 30 to 40 miles. Once I was used to this, I started entering different chatity rides that would normally have rides of different lengths ranging from 25 to 100 miles with courses laid out around the city. There I learned the fun of riding in a pack where you could draft off others in the group and go faster than you could alone.
One weekend when I was about twelve I went with a friend from Phoenix to Wickenburg, a town about 50 miles out from Phoenix and probably 60 or 70 miles from our starting point. We went when it was fairly hot and I remember stopping along the way out for my friend to sit under a palo verde tree and cool off as he started to get heat exhaustion. We made it, however, stayed in a motel for the night, then rode back the next day. This trip made me realize I liked highway biking.
Shortly after that I signed up for the Best Dam Ride, which was a two-day charity ride for the Multiple Sclerosis Society that went from northwest Phoenix out to Parker Dam on the Arizona/California border with a brief trip into California in the end of the ride. It left from the Sun City area early in the morning and had lunch in Wickenburg, only about 35 miles out from where we started. It then went all the way out to Salome, AZ, for the night. I still remember that it was 85 miles that first day. This was a tiny town in the desert. We stayed at the high school, sleeping in the gym. The town was small enough to have pictures off all of the graduates for the last several years on the wall of the gym. Our sleeping bags and clothes were brought out separately in a truck.
That night we ate spaghetti and watched American Flyers in the gym. The high school cheerleaders even came out and did a cheer for us. It was really neat. We then settled down on the gym floor to sleep around 10 PM, the getting up and heading out around 7 AM after a quick breakfast.
The second day started with a long, slow hill climb and then a fast, 30 mph descent into a town of population 3. From there it was a long, flat ride until you descended down a long hill into Parker, AZ. I’ll always remember seeing Parker and the exhilliration of riding down that long hill. From there it was about 20 miles to the end of the ride at Parker Dam. We had the choice of being on the Arizona or California side, and went on the latter. It was neat to have ridden out of the state!
The day ended at a park at the dam. There was food and music to celebrate the end of the ride. From there our bikes were loaded up on trucks and we climbed into busses to be driven back to Phoenix.
I did that ride a couple more times, including with my high school bike club one year. I also started going out by myself when I was 14 and 15, this time extending the original ride to go into Kingman to Ash Fork, then through Prescott and back down to Phoenix. Those rides involved 100 mile plus days and climbs of 3000 feet or more. My longest day was Kingman to Ash Fork, leaving at 4AM and getting in at 6 PM, 110 miles away and 350o feet higher than where I started.
Looking back it was odd that my parents let me be way out there on my own, just calling them each day as I made it to the next town and new motel. Because I didn’t have a credit card my dad gave me a couple hundred dollars in traveller’s checks for food and prepaid for motels. To me the biggest danger was running out of water. I was able to go about 40 miles on the four bottles I carried, so I only needed to fill up a couple of times. Usually there was a town within 10 to 15 miles. An exception was between Parker and Lake Havasu City where the temperature could get up to 120 deg F and it was 37 miles of ups and downs throught the canyons around the Colorado River.
I rode less after learned to drive. I did rely on a bike during the first year of college in Tucson, including for 10 mile trips to the mall. I also did the Breakaway to the Border, a 2-day MS ride from Tucson to Douglas, AZ on the US-Mexico border.
I don’t ride too often and haven’t done more than 5 miles for several years. I do still have the mountain bike I had in high school, however, which is the one I put thousands of miles on back then. Looking back, biking has been a huge part of my life. Maybe it’s time to start again, now that the kids are grown.
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