Being a full-time RVer allows us to explore new cities and revisit those that didn’t rock our world the first time around, like Tucson. If it wasn’t for the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show and Sentinel Peak RV Park, I would still have an entirely wrong impression of this desert oasis. Here’s how I discovered Tucson’s bike culture while in town for the show.
Tucson: Not the Town I Thought it Was
Cities and crowds are rarely on our itinerary but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get hands-on metalsmithing instruction from fantastic teachers in town during the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show.
During the last week in January and the first week in February, thousands of jewelry buyers, makers, rock hounds and fossil freaks descend on the town. They attend exhibits, visit wholesale only gem shows and take classes. Getting to the events is overwhelming at first but really fun after you learn how to brush off all the traffic hassles along the way.
You’ll hardly ever find Jim and I in RV parks, but I booked us a spot at the brand new Sentinel Peak RV Park, Tucson’s only downtown park. After bribing Jim with a full-hookup site for an entire week, he was a good sport about steering our rig into the chaos. The tiny park’s rates aren’t cheap but the people who run it are fantastic and the location is totally worth the price. For bicyclists like me, the best part is that it’s only a few pedals away from Tucson’s cross-town bike paths.
Shift Happens: Tucson Really is Bike City
I’ll be honest: I always had a grudge against Arizona. After college I transplanted myself from San Francisco to Phoenix so I could intern at a newspaper and was thrown into red state culture shock. Politics aside I was stunned that unlike San Francisco, getting around on two wheels in Phoenix was suicide. I left bike commuting, Critical Mass rides and motorcycle bars behind, became a car commuter and hated every day of the one year I lived there.
While doing time in Phoenix, I’d always heard that Tucson was Arizona’s alternative culture paradise. I visited a couple of times but all I could see was the massive sprawl of strip malls and suburbia.
Decades later when Jim and I arrived in Tucson as RVers, it seemed that nothing much had changed. As a first-time Gem Show visitor it took all my strength and patience to get around without committing road rage. This year as a second year attendee, I booked us a spot at Sentinel with the hopes of avoiding those hassles. By the end of the week I got all that, and more.
Looping Around with a Bike Map and a Hardtail Trek
Before my classes started I wanted to get the real scoop on biking in Tucson, so I found my way to Ordinary Bike Shop on 7th Avenue. They were great and didn’t even snicker at my 1992 hardtail aluminum Trek. The guys shared lots of free advice about biking in Tucson and told me about the newest and cheapest way to avoid flat bicycle tires in the desert, Stan’s NoTubes Sealant. With goop in my tires and a brand new Tucson bike map I was off and rolling.
What a joy to jump onto Tucson’s biggest bike path, the Loop. In less than a mile from my RV I was off the street and into a peaceful riverfront world for several miles. With practically no elevation gain in this flat, sunny outpost I hardly broke a sweat. Riders from all walks of life were smiling, waiving to each other and having a great time. Have you ever seen that on a freeway?
When I did have to jump into Tucson traffic my bike map helped me avoid the worst congestion. Sure, I made a couple of wrong turns and almost killed myself in traffic, but I always arrived at my classes in one piece. Each day I rode anywhere from 7 to 13 miles. One afternoon I even hopped onto a bus to save time after learning that every Tucson city bus has bike racks.
I also had a happy commute along Tucson’s Third Street / University Avenue Bikeway. Known as a “Bike Boulevard” this 10-mile low-stress cycling route spans east/west across the heart of Tucson. This is what really changed my mind about the city. Funky clues like this Little Free Library revealed much about the forward-thinking character that makes Tucson a progressive island in the heart of conservative Arizona.
With each revolution of my wheels I gained a greater amount of respect for the off-beat thinkers who worked hard to make Tucson such a bike friendly city in a car-culture state.
Riding on urban streets redesigned for safe bicycling gives Tucson high marks in my book. The traffic markings, diversions, crossings and signals that encourage bicycling and divert automobile traffic away from riders was everything that San Francisco’s Critical Mass advocates fought for during the rise of the bike commuter movement. I saw people of all ages using the bikeway to get around town, not just for recreation.
Although Portland has similar bike boulevards, I feel that city’s narrow streets and extreme congestion make it an unappealing place to ride. In Tucson I never felt like my life was in danger the way I did while just walking in Portland.
For one week in February I happily pedaled around Tucson to different gem and jewelry shows, went to my classes and got to know the unexpected side of this town that I never knew existed. Free of the usual traffic hassles we always encountered in Tucson, I left knowing that my hardtail bike and I will definitely return for next year’s show.