by Casey Thompson © 2022 Bike It! Bellagio
This year, Luca and I took our annual trip to the U.S. — October to late November—before we even closed our shop for the season. Grazie mille to Luca T. for working solo to keep the shop open and running for 2 weeks! Our first destination was St. George, UT, where I competed in the IM 70.3 Championships. From there we took a circuitous route back to Virginia (my home state) where my family lives, stopping in several places along the way. Luca has always wanted a cross-country experience, and it definitely lived up to his expectations. Our experience cemented the opinion that the U.S. is not only beautiful but truly huge, and we need to take additional routes to see even more in future trips. Here’s a summary of our trip and the cool places we rode and that we recommend!
We flew into Salt Lake City and made our way down to St. George over 2 days. We stopped in Cedar City for a warm-up ride and bike check, all was good! I definitely suffered from the altitude change for the first week or so of the trip, I wish we would have arrived a bit earlier to get adjusted. I also did a practice swim at the Sand Hollow Reservoir pre-race (my second favorite body of water for swimming, after Lake Como, of course.) and we did another small ride around Hurricane, UT. We loved the riding out here! Luca tried out the race course while I rested the day before the race.
The 70.3 championship was the coolest race I’ve ever been a part of—impeccable organization and volunteers and a beautiful course. I also loved that the women’s and men’s races were separate days, so it was just women on the course on race day, what a feeling to be racing all together! The run is my weak point, and as usual I suffered through it, but I couldn’t have expected better, and I’m happy with how my day went. I was proud to be the only racer using a road bike without aerobars … thank you, Brivido, my amazing Bianchi Oltre XR4 for giving me a competitive edge, despite not having the aerobar advantage!
After the race we moved on to the Grand Canyon. Luca biked all the way from Jacob Lake Inn (a great place to stay with cabins and delicious cookies!) to the North Rim. The next day we drove to the South Rim and rode through the park. Although we enjoyed the wildness and serenity of the North Rim, the views along the South Rim were incredible, we had to keep stopping to take it all in!
The next stop was Sedona, AZ. We were hosted by an awesome couple that we met this past summer. They kindly invited us to visit and experience some of the best mountainbiking there is—and indeed it was fantastic! We biked a few extremely fun, fast, and flowy rides in this desert heaven! We loved the Slim Shady Trail (also for the name) and Mescal Trail. We definitely want to return to Arizona and explore more. The opportunities seem endless, and this is the kind of riding that you cannot experience in Lake Como, where most of the trails are steep, arduous, and unmarked.
While in Sedona, we were told that we must bike Mt. Lemmon in Tucson. It was not part of our plan, but we weren’t too far, so we adjusted our plan. First, we drove to Tempe to visit one of my best friends. We changed it up for a day and hiked Flat Iron—now this was tough, but I’m sure it’s the best view you can get in the whole area. the next day we cycled Adero Canyon, enjoying more great AZ scenery and cacti.
In Tucson we stayed with friends who were also up to doing Lemmon with us! We started this route early in the morning. I’m not a “long climber,” preferring rolling routes or short climbs, but thanks to the CLIMBR feature on the Hammerhead Karoo GPS (which both Luca and I use now), I was able to make it through and be encouraged to keep going. Of course we could not pass up a stop at the cookie shack at the top for a quick refuel! I’ll remember the descent as one of the most fun I’ve ever done—it seemed endless (even more than the Stelvio), and the views going down were so cool, I can’t rave enough about this descent!
After Mt. Lemmon, we started driving East. We wanted to see White Sands National Park in New Mexico. We found a hostel in the small mountain town near Cloudcroft about 20 minutes from the park. Luca fell in love with this town. We were both exhausted, but the next morning we couldn’t resist a small ride to see what the area had to offer in terms of biking. We rode up to Cloudcroft (partly on a gravel road, which was killer after Lemmon) and looped back down for a 25km loop. We talked to some locals who confirmed the area is perfect for cyclists of all types of bikes: road, gravel, mtb. This area also offered the added bonus of altitude training—we were above 2000m the entire time! Luca absolutely wants to return to that area. We visited White Sands that afternoon, and it was one of the most unique parks we had been to, definitely worth a visit if you’re ever traveling nearby!
Now it was time to get some driving done. We really wanted to ride in Texas or Oklahoma, but there just wasn’t time (next trip!). After stopping at the Heart of the Desert Pistachio Farm on the way out (great farm and store!), we essentially drove the entire evening and next day until we reached Little Rock, AR. We went for a ride, of course. We found a nice loop on the wine roads outside of the city to shake out our legs before heading to Memphis to visit a college friend and her husband!
Our favorite non-biking part of the trip: visiting Graceland, home of the King! We were already huge Elvis fans, but after visiting the Mansion and the several exhibits on Elvis and his life, we are even more appreciative and inspired by his talent. We were quite impressed by how much everyone (locals, family, other celebrities) really loved Elvis and how much he was able to accomplish in his career before his unfortunate death (or is he still out there?)
Memphis as a city also exceeded our expectations. My friend’s husband is a cyclist so he took us on one of the classic rides outside the city.
The next stop was Alabama. We hadn’t had enough of the Elvis experience, so while en route, we stopped at his birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, another great, small museum that exhibited the impact Elvis had and his legendary status.
In Alabama we stayed with another great friend and her family. We enjoyed the “Friendsgiving” she was hosting and also a small ride in the area. Many people are surprised when I tell them that riding around Birmingham is tough! Lots of punchy, steep, small hills, nothing flat whatsoever! On our way out of AL to NC, we stopped in the Talladega Forest to climb to the highest point in the state. This was another really cool (and tough ride), it would be neat to bike through the entire park one day.
We wanted to finish our trip with Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak and paved road east of the Mississippi. It seemed we were a day late, as the cold front came in, and it poured rain the entire day, with dropping temperatures from what we were used to and prepared for. Luckily we had planned a two-night stay in Marion, N,C anticipating our exhaustion after the ride. We decided to give the following day a chance and our Airbnb hosts kindly let us check out late so we could do what we came to do—conquer the climb! Climbing Mt. Mitchell was also a must for us as we had some “unfinished business” on the mountain. (About 8.5 years ago, on Luca’s first trip to the U.S., I wanted to take him on this epic mountain hike. It rained almost the entire time, we didn’t have the right attire, and there was no view at the top.. When we returned to our car, we found a note stating that we couldn’t be there because the park was closed--oops. While trying to leave the park, we found the gate closed. Luckily, a nice sheriff found us and opened the gate for us to leave the parkway, without giving us any fine (thank you, sheriff!). This fall gave us an opportunity to bike the mountain in better weather conditions, though it was still very cold, given the previous day’s rain, in the 20s the entire ride, but we made it! Mission accomplished. Mt. Lemmon proved to be a great training ride for Mt. Mitchell, we definitely think that Mitchell is more challenging!
We enjoyed our last BBQ sandwiches of the trip and made our way to Richmond for the night, staying with, yes, another college friend and training buddy at the time. We finally arrived in Williamsburg, VA, where we spent the Thanksgiving holiday with my family. We got in a few rides in Williamsburg too.
Although tiring, we enjoyed the cross-country driving experience and biking in many new places. There’s always more time in the day needed and so much to see, we will probably do it again someday! Thank you so much to our friends and family who hosted us and to those who gave us suggestions on where to ride and stay along the way. This trip wouldn’t have possible without you all, and we really appreciate it!
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