Photo credits: Elliot Wilkinson-Ray
Our water situation was dire, which is never good when you’re 28 miles into a 45 mile day in Southeastern Arizona, and temps have been in the mid to high 80s. To make matters worse, Noah and I were staring at two barking dogs. Granted they were “only” Australian Shepherds, but that didn’t mean their teeth were any less sharp than a Rottweiler’s. I casually stalled my gait a bit to let Noah go first, the sacrificial lamb of sorts (sorry Noah), but he went all Crocodile Dundee and dog whispered those Shepherds into submission. He then calmly walked to the farmhouse front door and knocked, but no one was home, which meant that their water hose was all ours. Disaster averted. After filling our bottles, and those of the other riders in our party who had been waiting at a distance to see if we’d be attacked by the barking dogs or not, we finished our mixed terrain adventure with a ripping descent off the southern flanks of the Santa Rita Mountains.
I’d traveled to Tucson to join The Cyclist’s Menu, a destination food, cycling and culture experience, where eating together is the focal point and cycling is the accent. I’d come to coach and speak about sports nutrition and, of course, enjoy some spectacular desert mixed terrain. Speaking of riding, the cycling options in and around Tucson, AZ, well, they’re simply stellar. In the span of five days our crew explored over 265 miles of gravel, tarmac, dirt, sand, and broken pavement, and rode through remote, and strikingly beautiful, areas like the San Rafael Valley, where the only traffic you see is the Border Patrol and an occasional ranch truck. Its stunning vistas and vast, empty expanses were straight out of “No Country for Old Men.” Our base camp was nestled in the corner of Saguaro National Park West and allowed easy access to Tucson’s iconic cycling routes, which meant we bagged nearly 50 miles of dynamic mixed terrain riding right from the doorstep.
Now all this great riding wouldn’t be possible without the proper fuel, and that’s where professional chef Zander Ault, aka Chef Z, came to the rescue. When asked about his background, Chef Z says that “over the span of my cooking career, I’ve found an emotion tied to food that transforms the typical gathering. It creates a moment where people revel in the same place, together, satisfied.” To top off the culinary experience, all the food was locally sourced from the Cascabel Valley, 75 miles from downtown Tucson, and purchased by Chef Z at the farmer’s market.
The yin to Chef Z’s yang is coach Heidi Rentz, an XTERRA and Mountain Bike Pro who’s spent the past seven years guiding, teaching and introducing hundreds of people to cycling. Heidi and Zander blend the connection between endurance fitness and nutrition in a way that is unique to the two of them.
Each day began with a steaming pour-over from Hotbox Roasters and some of Coach Heidi’s famous cashew butter. Five-grain oats, poached eggs, yogurt, a variety of butters, toasted coconut, and hot Samurai Cereal were the other breakfast offerings. Lunch could be piping hot European grilled cheese and fresh, local greens, prepared right in front of you at rides’ end. And dinner, well, that might originate from any culture, which meant that one night we ate Ecuadorian Churrasco Steak with fries, onions, fennel, roasted tomatoes with thyme and cracked pepper, poached eggs, fresh arugula and olive oil, washed down with Sanitas Brewing Company beer. You hungry yet?!
More than anything, though, these amazing meals meant that riders started and ended each day gathered together, swapping stories, bonding, making new friendships around shared experiences, both on and off the bike. The meals became more about about “us”, rather than “I”. Coach Heidi, tapping into her inner Zen master, encouraged us to use chopsticks, which forced a deliberate engagement with the food and slowed the eating process down, meaning that we talked more. When asked what inspires his cooking, Chef Z says, “I grew up in a family that understood the importance of eating together, home cooked meals, and fresh ingredients. Fresh herbs and vegetables were used all season long in the kitchen of our small farmhouse in Katonah, NY. Little did I know, these tiny nuances of childhood would come to play a huge role in establishing myself as a cultivator of food, aspiring chef, and cycling camp coordinator.”
The final day’s ride was all about the canyons, Box and Madera, with Box Canyon looking straight out of a John Wayne Western movie. All that was missing was the unsuspecting stage coach that was about to be robbed by some surly banditos. It was easy to get lulled into a meditative trance by the sound of the gravel crunching under our tires and the warm desert air that swirled lightly around us as we rode east. Our route rolled through the Santa Rita Mountains – a sky island in desert vernacular- home to Mount Wrightson (9,453 feet), which juts jaggedly out of the parched desert lowlands, its hulking slopes covered in high desert chaparral, mixed conifers, madrone, aspen, oak brush, and ponderosa pine near the snow speckled summit. A paved descent off the lower slopes of Mount Wrightson meant that we barely had to pedal back to the car, where Chef Z was waiting with an amazing lunch.
If you enjoy food and riding your bike, you’re going to want to pay attention to what the Chef Z and Heidi have up their sleeve for the remainder of the year. I promise, you will have the time of your life, even when you’re being stared down by snarling desert dogs.