By Taylor O’Connor
Founder of Mount Lemmon Hill Climb Steve Wilson is proud to see how far the event has come. What started as a casual event, grew into the annual bike climb with more than 250 participants.
Wilson says he started biking Mount Lemmon with a few of his friends in the early ’90s. Eventually, that group of friends grew into 30 people. Later, Wilson pitched the event to the Greater Arizona Biking Association board, of which he was a member, and it became an official GABA ride.
Since then, the event sees the riders biking the 59.6 miles in a casual, fun way. This year, the hill climb is 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, May 17.
“It’s a physical challenge where people can test their mettle a little bit. They can accomplish something. It’s a great place to meet other people who do similar and it’s great to be outside in Tucson in late spring,” Wilson says.
Mount Lemmon is ranked 33rd on the list of 100 of the toughest road bike climbs in the United States and is right up there with famous passes in European tours because of the number of miles bikers can go without stopping. It’s a place where bike teams train and residents leisurely ride.
Along the way up, people can stop at rest areas along the way where they can get snacks, water and pie to stay energized and nourished.
Wilson says the ride itself is beautiful with dramatic changes, as saguaros give way to spruce trees. It’s unique to Arizona and people around the world are called to the nature and the challenge.
What’s the best part of the event in Wilson’s eyes? “Finishing. Getting up and all the way to the top; Rolling into Ski Valley feels pretty darn good.”
Once bikers make it to the top, it’s all smooth sailing from there, Wilson says. The path goes downhill for 45 minutes and it’s not too steep, allowing bikers to cruise all the way down.
It wasn’t always so smooth.
“Initially the highway was in pretty bad shape and they began to rebuild a section of the base. I was 32 at the time and I couldn’t even make it. I was a little out of shape. They continued to build on it and I thought, ‘Let’s see if I can make it to the top,’” Wilson says.
Wilson and a few of his friends took off on a Friday and tried to bike to the Ski Valley recreation area parking lot.
After a few hours, the group made it to the top, but wanted to keep working at this trek to improve. In the years to come, Wilson and his friends continued biking and tried to invite people to join each year.
The highway eventually finished, and the climb became an official GABA event. Wilson is still considered the event’s founder, but he is not a GABA board member. He tries to make it out to the event annually.
He encourages participants to do hill training before the event.
“If you’ve just been riding around the loop you will find it challenging,” he says.
While on Mount Lemmon, riders should pay attention to traffic.
Wilson says the Hill Climb pushes bikers to the best of their abilities. The community is encouraging and at least one person reaches the top for the first time. “If you’re unsure if you can make it (to the top), this would be a great time to do so because of that support.
“It’s an unforgettable experience when you roll into the Ski Valley parking lot. You know you’ve done something.”