Column: My experience at the Chuska Challenge

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Last weekend I took the opportunity to explore a part of the state I was not very familiar with. Along the eastern border of Arizona in the Chuska Mountains just above the small town of Lukachukai was the annual “Chuska Challenge Mountain Bike Festival.” Usually a small get together of local riders for a short track cross country race, this year was to be a little different with the addition of the AES Cove Classic. A longer expedition type loop of about sixty miles with over 7,500 feet of climbing.

For those unfamiliar, AES stands for the “Arizona Endurance Series” which is a series of grassroots events across the state designed to inspire people to ride. The schedule can vary, but averages eleven to twelve different locations with rides ranging from 50 to 750 miles. All of the courses are designed to be navigated and supported on your own. It is each rider’s responsibility to download the course GPS file, plan for the gear and supplies they will need and to finish the route under their own power and ability to keep their bike rolling.

Having participated in several AES events before, I knew what I might be in for when twenty or so of us rolled away from camp at Buffalo Pass on a frigid Sunday morning. Since these are not races, the pacing is different and comradery high. General chatter helps dissipate the nervous excitement in regards to the adventure that lay before us. Almost right away a rafter of wild turkeys wandered through the brush. A good indicator of the type of natural wonders this day was sure to bring. Navigating via the digital breadcrumbs on my handlebar mounted GPS I began to get into the groove. A mix of two wheel drive dirt roads blended into forgotten access paths across grassy fields and through the pines. The aspens where already starting to turn and that gave bursts of fire oranges and yellows as the breeze caused the leaves to tremble high above. During the pre-ride talk we had been told about a few navigational challenges, the first of which would be to find a newly cut, rather faint bit of singletrack that would descend down into the community of Cove some 1,500 feet below the start point.

Finding the beginning of this trail was relatively easy… but dropping off the mountain through the overgrowth fully focused my attention. Behind the seat to keep myself from going over the bars, the route felt straight down. A raw, old school vibe that brought me back to when I first started to ride. Well before trail design had been refined. It was brutal, nasty, difficult and perfect in almost every way. After Cove the road climbed very steeply across slabs of slickrock. Eventually flattening only to become a sandy several mile traverse across the edge of a steep mountain side. From here the ride mellowed considerably. Crossing high alpine meadows and offering incredible vistas of the valleys below. Passing by several groups of sheep I was impressed with the attentiveness of the dogs that guarded them. Every time they ran out to bark and protect their flock from any potential harm. Not a person in sight, these dogs did their job like true professionals without any instruction or hesitation.

The finale of this loop was a summit of Roof Butte with an elevation of 9,787 feet and 360 degrees of spectacular views across the high Arizona deserts and into New Mexico. I was plenty tired at this point and was happy to know the last few miles were mostly downhill back to camp. All in all it was a great event that I will look forward to completing again next year. Thanks to Mark Povich and Prescott local Kurt Refsnider for putting in the effort to map the route and organize the ride.

Steve Reynolds is a columnist for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Instagram at @Prescottopia. Contact him by email at sportsdesk@prescottaz.com.