How to choose the best steed for the Mt. Lemmon Gravel Grinder

Choose your weapon.

It’s an age-old decision that has determined the outcome of important situations like knocking out Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat or fighting off Agent Smith in the Matrix.

It’s also the most crucial decision you can make after registering for the Mt. Lemmon Gravel Grinder (no relation to ’90s pop culture) on Oct. 26.

This ride’s varied terrain and elevation gain/loss is legit. Matched up with your strengths and weaknesses on the bike, choosing your weapon wisely is paramount.

So we talked to some seasoned gravel pros and veterans to find out what they recommend to tackle the backside of Lemmon.

Not your usual gravel course

But first, here’s the low-down on the courses.

The Mt. Lemmon Gravel Grinder follows a 40-mile loop, with an out-and-back off-shoot for the 50- and 60-mile courses. The routes take cyclists through the lush, semi-desert landscape that skirts the lower elevations of the Santa Catalina Mountains and leads the way to the main climb up the “backside” of Mt. Lemmon.

The terrain consists of a mix of gravel/dirt and paved roads that wind through sections of the Coronado National Forest and through the neighboring town of San Manuel. Riders pass through local cattle ranches and former mining operations while rolling across cattle guards, over small narrow bridges and through dry washes. Participants will see views of the San Pedro River Valley and Galiuro Mountain Range, a sky island mountain, from everywhere on the course.

It has a cool history too: Almost 100 years ago, in 1920, the Mt. Lemmon Control Road was the first road constructed to access the higher, cooler elevations of the Santa Catalina Mountains. For 30 years, it was the only way to Summerhaven, a small community where many vacation at the top of Mt. Lemmon.

Elevation gain is significant:

  • 40-mile course: 4,100 feet
  • 50-mile course: 5,150 feet
  • 60-mile course: 7,050 feet

For all you math-whizzes, that’s around 100 feet of climbing per mile on average.

A snapshot of the 60-mile course gives you an idea of why “choosing your weapon” is a tough one:

The 60 Grind is made up of 45 miles of dirt/gravel roads and 15 miles of pavement. Riders will cover 44 miles of dirt/gravel roads before coming to 15 miles of pavement following by the home stretch of the remaining 1 mile of dirt road back to the finish. This course is somewhat technical, especially early on in the gravel/rocky sections, and requires good bike handling skills with solid judgment no matter which bike you choose. 

Check out all the courses and profiles

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Consulting the pros and veterans

John McCarrell, Mt. Lemmon Gravel Grinder organizer

John McCarrell, the organizer of the Mt. Lemmon Gravel Grinder, recommends pre-riding the course to get a true idea of what you’ll be working with and how your bike feels.

“It’s a hard race — 4,000 feet of climbing in 40 miles,” McCarrell said. “It’s rough and rugged, and it’s a heavy hitter.”

He includes some recommendations of where to start if you’re not sure which bike to choose.

McCarrell said the advantage goes to the gravel bike when it comes to climbing, flats, and pavement. But on the descents and washes, a mountain bike handles the best. Overall, a true gravel bike is an all-around good choice.

Setup-wise, McCarrell recommends the following:

  • Gravel bike: 40mm tires and climbing gears.
  • Hard-tail mountain bike: Either rigid front fork or minimal travel will work fine. A 26, 27.5, or 29er? You make the call and run them tubeless. Minimal width will work, and a slightly wider front tire is also nice on the technical descents.
  • Gearing & tire pressure: Set up your tires for comfort in the rough stuff. The 12 miles of pavement climbs approximately 2,000 feet in the last half of the course.
  • Pro tip: Prepare and pre-load some CO2 for airing up your tires at the Black Hills Mine Aid Station before hitting the pavement.
Kyle Trudeau, pro cyclist

Kyle Trudeau (Construction Zone Racing), is one of the fastest dudes you’ll see on a mountain bike in Arizona, and one of the the fastest you’ll also occasionally see on a cross bike or road bike. This 2015 Single-Speed MTB National Champion’s speed and talent translates to multiple machines.

Trudeau has also raced the Mt. Lemmon Gravel Grinder every year since its inception — three years ago — and he’ll plan on racing it again this year.

Last year he won the 60-mile race, beating his competition by nearly six minutes.

“My bike setup was set up really well for the race last year,” Trudeau said. “I raced on a Scott hard-tail mountain bike since the backside of the road was too rough to descend on a gravel or cross bike.”

Trudeau said tire choice makes a big difference — he went with Maxxis Pace 29×2.0, EXO casing with their low rolling resistance and tough sidewalls, he said.

Kyle Trudeau (Construction Zone Racing) rolls toward a win on the Mt. Lemmon Gravel Grinder 60-mile course in 2018.

This year, he’s going to try out his Scott Spark full-suspension bike, “since the weight penalty is very marginal for the added comfort,” he said, adding that he’ll run the Maxxis Tread Lite tire for some extra speed on the pavement and dirt road sections.

“The MLGG course is deceivingly difficult,” Trudeau said. “There is the major climb up the backside of Lemmon, but once you get done with that, there is a long way to go with Webb Road being the final test before reaching the finish line.”

He said there is a lot to like about the race.

“The fact I get to race on the mountain that I spend countless hours training on is a major one,” Trudeau said. “Also, the town of Oracle is incredibly hospitable for the race and everyone involved, and views from the race course are hard to beat.”

He also said the course ranks up pretty high on the physical-toll factor.

“There isn’t much time for rest as the descent off the backside is over quickly, and there is a lot more pedaling to go before the finish line,” Trudeau said. “The best advice I can give is go with more over less when it comes to bike setup. It is called a gravel grinder, but this is the Wild West, and our gravel roads aren’t too friendly to smooth, narrow tires.”

Erin Morley, Arizona gravel grinder veteran

Erin Morley (Rooster Racing AZ), pretty much lives for gravel, cross and anything dirt. He’s raced the Chino Grinder multiple times, the entire Arizona cyclocross series, Javelina Chase and the Mt. Lemmon Gravel Grinder among others. He also enjoys exploring the gravel less traveled with his Rooster crew.

Morley, who wanted us to add that he’s also charming and incredibly handsome, won his age group (Men 40-49) last year in the 40-mile Mt. Lemmon Gravel Grinder and second overall for that mileage.

Erin Morley (Rooster Racing AZ) rides the 40-mile Mt. Lemmon Gravel Grinder in 2018.

We asked him a few questions about the ride and what weapon he chose:

CI: Other than your endurance and ability on the bike, what do you think contributed to your performance as far as your bike setup/configuration?

EM: Nerves of steel and partially closed eyes.

CI: Is there anything you would do differently?

EM: Yep, more tire (ran 38c on gravel bike) or switch to MTB with a narrower tire.

CI: How would you compare this course to any other course you’ve done?

EM: Definitely not the usual gravel race I do. It’s overall better done on an MTB, which isn’t the norm.

CI: What do you like about this race?

Well organized, nice vendor area, challenging course, sweet podiums.

CI: How hard is it compared to other courses you’ve raced on?

EM: If we’re comparing it gravel races, it’s by far the most technically challenging on a gravel bike. It’s really more of a fire road MTB race, in my eyes.

CI: What advice would you have for riders going to this race?

EM: If you’re not incredibly confident in your abilities on a gravel bike, bring the MTB. If you’re doing the 50-mile distance, bring an MTB regardless! Other than that, bring your climbing legs. And caffeine. Lots of caffeine.

CI: Final weapon of choice?

EM: If I do the 40 again: Argon18 Dark Matter gravel bike. Upgrades from last year: Redshift suspension stem (game changer), Wider 42c WTB Resolute tires, bigger (42t) cassette. If I do the 50 mile: Giant Anthem 29r (full suspension w/twin lock-out). Only change would be from a 2.35 width tire, to something in the 2.1 range with a less aggressive tread (less rolling resistance for those paved sections).

A cache of resources

Still wanting more details to choose your best weapon?

Head here for more details on the courses, best bike choices and event venue details.

And while you’re at it, register before prices go up and get your grind on.