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Desert Double and Organ Pipe

Harry Watson  | Published on 7/1/2021


Over the last 40 years, many events that GABA has organized have come and gone.  It would seem as though an idea that is brilliant today may come to an end tomorrow.  There are many opinions as to why this is the case but rather than dwell on that, let’s take a stroll down “Memory Lane”. It’s the Papago Desert Double and the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument rides. 

In 1980 a local bicycle club decided to organize a unique event.  The club that would “morph” into GABA then known as “Los Turistas” settled on a 200-mile, single day event through the west and northwestern corners of our desert. They called the event the Papago Desert Double.   On the first weekend in May of 1980, nine determined bike fanatics took off from the University of Arizona Student Union and headed west out into the desert lands that were home to the Tohono O’odham Nation (Papago was the term that was previously used). The route had been researched by Scott Jacobson, one of the riders, and still an active member of GABA. At 200 miles in one day, the route was going to be a challenge by virtue of the distance so the decision was made to try and make the event do-able, without punishing the riders with thousands of feet of elevation to overcome. With old tech “generator” light systems or with a simple flashlight taped onto the handlebars, the group set out at 4:00 a.m in the dark with a SAG vehicle to guide the way until dawn.  By the time they reached 3 points, about 25 miles west of the city, there was enough daylight to let the riders see without their makeshift light systems.  The route would take them west through the reservation, passed the towns of Sells and Quijotoa.  They then headed north to Santa Rosa, next up, Jack Rabbit (yes, there is a wide spot in the road with that name), then up to Eloy and I-10, Picacho, the frontage road heading south, and on to Tucson.

Unknown to the riders on that day, winds would be howling out on the desert floor, visibility would be poor at best on part of the route, and the 200 mile event would take the riders over 15 ½   hrs. to complete.  Of the nine riders who started the ordeal, 6 managed to complete the ride.  May of those who began the event were able to turn the first 100 miles in 6 hours.  Of the 6 who finished, 9 ½ hrs was the faster time for the second century.  The winds and the dust took their toll on our riders.    

The word got out that a bicycle club in Tucson, Arizona was holding a double century and by the following Spring of 1981, the second Papago Desert Double Century was held.  Fast forward to 1985 and now the event managed to entice 55 riders to attempt the ride.  In 1986, many of our early GABA members, all local cycling celebrities, put their stamp on the ride.  The challenge had now become a serious cycling event. By 1986, there were 98 riders who tried their luck at the Desert Double.    Marvin Christy turned the course in 9 hours and 10 minutes!  Debbie Haas-Wyrsch joined the event and finished as well as Rudy Van Renterghem and Gene Chapman.  For those who have been involved with cycling in Tucson going back to the 1980’s, you will surely recognize these icons of Tucson, Arizona cycling.  Both Rudy and his lifetime soul mate tandem stoker, Kay, as well as Gene now ride tail winds on that great asphalt highway in the sky.  The ride continued through 1988 at which point it became the John Farr Memorial Desert Double.  Our local event was renamed for him, a Board Chairman for Habitat for Humanity and an avid cyclist with quite a distinguished reputation of being an advocate for the cycling community on a national level.  Another GABA celebrity Karen Ragland would actually do the Double 9 times.  She still rides with us on our GABA rides.  You will find her often times on the loop riding her Prince Pinarello.    By 1991, the event was “limited to 200 cyclists”.  The entry fee was $25 and you got a T-shirt plus a fully sagged event. 

By 1995, time caught up with our Desert Double.  There was one last attempt to revive it in 1997 but that would be the sad end to this piece of GABA history. 


Time would inevitably bring about change for GABA.  New rides would develop and others would fade away.  And now that Covid is in our rear-view mirror we can get back to having many rides.  The “Meet Up” has helped to breathe new life into our 40-year-old club.  Many riders are now part of our history.  Some of our early pioneers are still with us.   Many are gone but our bicycle club endures.  We are a big part of Arizona cycling history and we wear our 40 years of age quite well. 


As we do this retrospective on memorable GABA rides, we come to another special ride that had its moment in time.  In 1993, a new ride was organized that would take us west into the heart of the Arizona-Sonoran Desert.  Our destination was the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument which includes part of Southern Arizona as well as the border region around Lukeville and Sonoyta, Mexico.  We were headed for a camp ground just north of the village of Lukeville. 

This two-day ride was designed with multiple distances for riders of all abilities.  Over that weekend, one could choose to do either 65, 85, 100, or 125 miles.  There were several starting points so the idea was to check in at 3 Points, west of Tucson on the Ajo Highway, about 25 miles west of Tucson.  Depending on the distance that you chose to ride, you would then get out to your starting point.  And then it was wheels turning to Lukeville.  Back in the 1990’s, the highway from 3 Points to Lukeville was quite “rideable” and the traffic was much less than what we see today.  We would ride Highway 86 to the intersection of 86 and Hwy. 85 at “Why” Arizona.  If you did the entire 125-mile ride, you would ride through the desert past the entrance to Kitt Peak and head west to Sells on the Tohono O’odham Reservation.   At “Why” you would take Hwy. 85 south towards the border and Lukeville.

The campground proved to be a little primitive but with the help of the SAG crew and the event organizers, we managed to make it work.  We ended up pitching tents on dirt with a few rocks added for good measure.   The saving grace to the event was the presence of an RV that belonged to Jerry and Bev Pitcock. They were able to use their kitchen and provided the breakfast, the dinner plus the support necessary to put together 2 lunches.  The cost to the riders was $30.  The evening was quite the social gathering and after a calm desert night and much needed sleep, we all gathered our “stuff” in the morning and headed back to 3 Points, just west of Tucson.  On one memorable ride the return group managed to put together a “pack” of over 20 riders and this peloton flew back to 3 Points.  It was tail wind and included several really strong riders who took turns off the front letting the rest of the group to just “cruise” back to the start. 

From 1994 through 1997, The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument ride was held every March.  By the time this event ran its course, the fee had risen to $35.  Things were changing for the crew that managed this ride and by 1997, those who organized this event each year moved on to other chapters in their lives.  Another unique GABA event came to a close.  

There are many memorable rides in GABA’s 40 year history.  Those of us who have been around long enough to remember these special rides have fond recollections of so many of them.  They came and they went but they are all part of the colorful history of the bicycle club that we know as GABA.   Happy 40th…..