For some North American pro cyclists, winter is, as they say, desert season.
In mid-January, four well-known off-road riders, Keegan Swenson, Russell Finsterwald, Kerry Werner, and Ryan Standish, traveled to the Arizona region known as the Borderlands for a four-day bike tour. They utilized hotels rather than camp, and enjoyed a steady “Zone 2/endurance” pace. They frequented gas stations when they could and encountered gentle horses in the middle of nowhere.
Finsterwald created the route, which lead the quartet south of Tucson and into the Borderlands, to incorporate as much gravel as possible. This year, he and Swenson will be competing in the Life Time Grand Prix, while Standish will also ride XC MTB and gravel this year. Werner was readying for the UCI cyclocross world championships.
Enjoy this snapshot of their adventure.
Russell Finsterwald: The Spirit Tour was something Keegan and I actually plotted last winter, but weather postponed the trip and our training schedules never really aligned to make it happen. But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we were able to plan out a much more adventurous route, swap road bikes for gravel bikes, and recruit two other friends for the trip — Ryan Standish and Kerry Werner.
Keegan Swenson: Russell was the route maker for this one, so we fully trusted his guidance and figured there would probably be some hiking as Travel Agent Finsty is well known for it.
Swenson: Overall I’d say we rode a pretty solid pace, just a proper Zone 2/endurance pace with some tempo on the climbs and of course a bit more here and there because some of the roads were so steep you just had to do what you had to do to make it up with the bags and all that. We also had one little race up a climb because we figured it would be good to test the legs a bit after that many miles/hours in the legs, and because it sounded like fun.
Kerry Werner: For me, I was getting in some training for world champs. I had been slogging away in Europe for three weeks prior to this trip, and felt like I needed to stretch my legs a bit. Heading into the warm desert for a couple long days definitely soothed the soul. Only time will tell if it was a kick in the pants I needed for a little boost before ‘cross world champs in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Editor’s note: Werner finished 21st overall in Fayetteville on Sunday.
Finsterwald: We opted to take the gravel bikes as 2022 sort of marks the year all of us will be diving headfirst into the gravel world. In the few gravel races I’ve done, I’ve relied on my MTB skills to carry me through, but I’ve quickly realized gravel bikes are a completely different ride. The handling is much different and there’s a lot more finesse to it. When things got steep and loose, we all rode our bikes a bit timidly at first, but by the end of the trip it was clear we all picked up more skills along the way as we were flying down rough and rugged descents. What a thrill!
Werner: I fell in love with Moon Pies on this trip. My favorite dessert is s’mores so it makes sense, but this revealed itself in a big way out in the desert.
Swenson: I’d say the snack that hit the best was the gas station hot dog at hour six on day 4. It really hit the spot. I also became a huge fan of Payday bars out there. Those quickly became a gas station go-to.
Ryan Standish: The Spirit Tour was a good way to get things rolling for the 2022 season, after spending the winter leading into it in the cold Utah winter. Highlights with this crew always involve getting “iced” and not knowing exactly what we were getting into. The country down on the AZ/Mexico border is phenomenal, and the gravel riding is unreal, so that was also a highlight.
Werner: Yes, this was training. Was it the normal protocol? Maybe not but it sure did make me happy and that counts for a lot at the end of a long season.
Besides Russell and Keegan’s race up to Coronado Peak we were just riding a steady endurance. My plan was to not thrash my legs too hard. I didn’t want to dig too deep a hole before worlds so I was drafting a lot and trying to mitigate muscle damage. Ryan and I let Russell and Keegels pull!
Russell Finsterwald: Each day presented its own highlight, and often times the highlight was getting through a section of the route I wasn’t sure we could complete. I didn’t tell the guys this, but I felt we had a 50/50 chance of the first day’s route going as planned. In Arizona, there is a lot of privately-owned land. Some is gated and some you are allowed to travel through. You never know what you’re going to get until you get there and luckily the private land was not gated and travel through was allowed. Additionally, to connect two of the roads, we had to hike through a narrow, rocky canon I found on Google Earth. Also wasn’t too sure if this would be passable but it worked out in the end.
Werner: The San Rafael valley outside of Patagonia was awesome. Just golden yellow and brown grasslands with the road stretching out for miles in front of you and mountains crowding the peripheral. It’s a sight to see.
I really had a blast on day 4. We added a 40 mile bonus loop onto our already 70 mile day and while dumb, it was worth it. Lots of fun, technical jeep road descending early on followed by even more as we made our way towards Kit Peak from Patagonia
Swenson: Honestly, I don’t think there were many lows out there aside from struggling to find dinner in Bisbee one night. The couple restaurants that were open were quite busy, and we were trying to be extra safe with Covid because we didn’t want Kerry to end up with Covid right before ‘cross worlds, as that wouldn’t be ideal. So we ended up with Burger King which was fantastic and really hit the spot.
Finsterwald: I’ve briefly visited the Southern Arizona region and knew the area had a lot to offer, so it was neat to build a route that would take us through some rugged and remote areas during the day but spit us out in civilization where we could find a bed to sleep on for the night. Oh ya, we cheated a bit and left the tents at home and splurged on hotels. This allowed us to travel relatively light and cover lots of ground during the day.
Standish: I think we all went through the dark times of bonking and knowing there wasn’t more food for a long time, but I wouldn’t consider that a real lowlight since you get to learn a lot about yourself and get a good idea of how to deal with it when it comes to racing. For the most part, I was focused on chilling, not letting my testosterone trick me into racing when Keegan and Russell said they were gonna pin it on some of the climbs.
Ninety-five percent of the time we were cruising, appreciating the landscape and opportunity to catch up with each other, laughing, and having a good time.