Last weekend I participated in the inaugural Pinyons and Pines bikepacking race in Arizona. While a blizzard on the northern loop created conditions that were unrideable for all but a couple of superhumans, I got to enjoy 184 miles of this picturesque course before the weather turned.
The Pinyons and Pines track is ~280 miles and starts/ends at Flagstaff Bicycle Revolution. It consists of two loops: the first heads south through Sedona and returns to Flag via the Arizona Trail (AZT) and forest roads, and the second heads north around the San Francisco Peaks, taking racers through a landscape riddled with extinct cinder cones. Riders climb roughly 21,000 feet throughout the course.
In addition to the fact that it traverses some of the prettiest landscapes in AZ, I picked this race because it’s close to home and relatively short, so it would serve as the perfect gear shakedown for the upcoming American Trail Race. It also contains more singletrack than other events I’ve participated in, so I thought it’d be a great challenge.
5 days before the race, I took the Amtrak to Flag so I could preride parts of the course. With my crazy work/school schedule, I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to train with my bike fully loaded, so I was glad to get in a few days of riding with my bike geared up.
Amtrak is a fantastic option for me because the line that runs through Albuquerque has train-side bike checking. I don’t have to dismantle or box up the bike; I just toss it up to the baggage person. The train got me to Flag at 8:30 p.m., I loaded all my gear on the bike, and set out to find a good camping spot.
It felt so good to sleep outside, listening to the wind roll through the pines. The morning views were phenomenal too.
Pre-riding the south loop
The next morning, I took off early to start pre-riding Loop 1. I was most interested in seeing what the water situation was like and figuring out how long it would take me to clear the singletrack sections. As it turned out, my first order of business was to help clear the course of nails.
A short ride out of town leads to a nice section of AZT singletrack, followed by a series of rocky roads overlooking the red rocks of Sedona.
The ride to the top consists of a series of steep rocky hills, which for me included a lot of hike-a-bike…
…but the views from the top made the climbs well worth it!
The weather was hot and the skies were clear most of the day, so I was happy to find that all of the tanks were full.
The singletrack leading into Sedona was a nice mix of technical trail and flow. At first, it was a bit tricky to roll with my bike fully loaded, but was lots of fun once I got my balance down. I took my time with this part of my ride and camped just outside of town so I could scout the second half of Loop 1 the next day.
The route climbs out of town on Schnebly Hill Road, which is a popular path for the various Sedona jeep tour companies. It was fun to pass by groups of tourists, many of whom were fascinated to see cyclists climbing the hill and would cheer and shout out words of encouragement. The climb has lovely views all the way up!
The rest of Loop 1 follows a mix of dirt roads and a couple of great sections of the AZT heading back into Flagstaff. After stopping in Flag for a snack, I cruised north of town on Loop 2 and made a cozy camp along the AZT.
Pre-riding some Loop 2 singletrack
The only section of Loop 2 that I pre-rode was the first 10 miles of singletrack, mostly to gauge how much hike-a-bike there was but also to see what the first potential water source looked like.
Happy with my reconnaissance, I headed back toward town to make camp and set myself up for a rest day before the race. With the amount of the course I’d pre-ridden (~140 miles), I was comfortable with where gear had settled in my packs and had a good idea of how long it might take me to finish the race.
The race takes off from Flag Bicycle Revolution, where they kindly treated us to coffee and donuts during the pre-race meeting. Turnout was great for this inaugural event, with 45+ people showing up (including 33 solo riders and 5 duo teams).
A brisk start to the day made for a much easier ride to Sedona than what I’d experienced during my pre-ride. Last time, I stopped at 2 tanks for water, but now the 5 liters I was carrying got me to town. There was also a rejuvenating breeze at the top of each hill.
I had a great time chatting with people at the top of climbs while shoving a quick snack in my mouth. Liz Sampey, who just set a new record for the women’s division of the AZTR 750, joined in for the ride to Sedona and I had a blast rolling a few miles with her. It’s always so inspiring to swap stories with other women in the mountain-bike community!
My goal was to make it to Sedona by 9:30 for dinner, but I cleared the singletrack more quickly than I projected, got in around 4:30 and enjoyed a dinner of 3 crispy chicken sandwiches, a Carmel frappe and a Coke at Burger King.
I was feeling strong so I decided to ride until either midnight or when I felt like I was going to fall off my bike. Brian Martin and I crossed paths on FR 228, and it was nice to chat a bit as we plodded up a few climbs. At one point, on either 228 or Mormon Lake Road, we saw three people walking down the road with flashlights. It was an odd hour and place to see people walking without packs, and was far from the last camp we saw. Brian commented that one guy appeared to be carrying another and we guessed that they were probably drunk, but just around the corner we came upon a wrecked razor that had missed the corner and bashed into a tree, so maybe it was theirs and the person was injured rather than drunk (or maybe both, since they didn’t ask for help).
I rode one more section of singletrack and intended to cruise the next dirt road since that’s an easy way to get in some night miles. As I neared the end of the trail, however, I heard two razors race by, the occupants of both hooting and hollering. Anyone going that fast and loud down a dirt road at midnight is no one I want to share the road with (especially after seeing the wrecked quad), so I opted to make camp and get an early start in the morning.
Next morning’s ride back into town was enjoyably uneventful. I stopped at a gas station and loaded up on sandwiches and cheese. I got enough provisions to get me through the next evening, anticipating that I’d finish the race by 9 p.m. or so.
Mother Nature had other plans for me. ❄❄❄
By mile 135, snow started falling as I climbed the AZT. It was nice at first because it kept things cool as I pushed my bike up the rocky trail, and didn’t get everything wet like rain would.
As I progressed along the trail, however, it really started piling up.
After descending from the AZT, I was happy to find that the dirt roads were rideable even though they were soaked. It was raining steadily but lightly, so the cruise wasn’t bad. But as I made my way up the next climb, I entered snowfall that was heavier than on the last one.
I had nice traction on the snow until I started descending the other side. Here, it was melting in some spots and the road was too muddy to ride. I walked more than I rode for a while and eventually made it as far as the intersection of highway 180 and FR 9222C, the start of about 10 miles of forest roads that we were warned were unrideable when wet. As promised, it was an absolute mess. I decided to make camp in a bank of trees a bit down the road and see how I felt about trudging through the mud in the morning. If I decided the trek wasn’t worth it, I had easy access to a ~25-mile ride down the highway back to Flagstaff. I checked my phone to see what the weather was supposed to be like moving forward: snow continuing through the night and the next day. 🥶
While checking the weather, I saw a message from Dana, the race organizer, saying that his friend Jim was driving over to see if I wanted a ride. Knowing that I had a guaranteed 10 miles of muddy trekking from where I was at, and guessing that the roads beyond that would also be a terrible mess after several more hours of snow, I quickly decided to opt out, tore down the bit of camp I’d set up, and rushed back to the highway to see if I could catch Jim.
Right as I was getting back to the intersection, I saw a truck slowing down to pull off the highway. Perfect timing! Jim showed me incredible kindness and gave me a ride back into town where I enjoyed the hottest shower, started cleaning my gear, and excitedly began plans for tweaking my setup for this weekend’s trip out to North Carolina for the American Trail Race 😀
A big thanks to Dana Ernst for organizing this fabulous route! Given the nice mix of terrain, the beautifully-contrasting landscapes of the two loops, and the moderate distance covered, I’m sure this event will rapidly grow in popularity! I hope to be back next year, maybe with a bit of snow gear just in case 😂☃️❄️