Tucson is Tops for Cycling
11 REASONS THE WORLD IS WATCHING TUCSON
By Romi Carrell Wittman
Tucson is one of the nation’s top cycling destinations and it has the credentials to prove it.
Let’s start with The Loop.
For the second year in a row, The Chuck Huckelberry Loop earned top spot on USA Today’s 10 Best Reader’s Choice award for Best Recreational Trail in the nation. Tucson’s bicycle-friendly path beat out famed trails and riding paths around the country, including the Great Allegheny Passage in Maryland and the Virginia Creeper Trail.
At more than 136 miles, The Loop is the longest paved, vehicle-free public multi-use path in the United States. The complex network of paved, shared-use paths encircles the region, extending throughout Pima County, Marana, Oro Valley, Tucson and South Tucson. It’s just one of many reasons why Tucson is, definitively, a Cycling City.
Cycling and outdoor magazines consistently rank Tucson among the top “bike towns” in the country. And just last year, Tucson and eastern Pima County were deemed a Gold Level Bicycle Friendly Community for the fourth consecutive time since 2008 by the League of American Cyclists.
The Loop has only buoyed that status, and it came to be by virtue of a disaster. In fall 1983, a severe flood dumped more than seven inches of rain on the region in just four days. Normally dry riverbeds were quickly overwhelmed, their paths re-routing themselves due to the fast-running floodwaters. Structures all along the Rillito River were consumed and the path of the river itself was irrevocably altered. By the time the flood ended, some 10,000 people were left homeless and Pima County faced more than $300 million in flood damage repairs.
County leaders wanted to ensure that such an event never happened again. But as engineers began work to shore up and reinforce riverbanks, they discovered that locals were using the unpaved maintenance access paths for walking, running and cycling. And, so the concept for The Loop was born.
Today, The Loop plays host to a wide array of walkers, bicyclists, skaters, runners and even equestrians. It’s also become a major attraction for visitors. As former Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said at The Loop’s dedication in 2018, “It’s one of the largest and finest recreational amenities in the country.”
Realtor, avid cyclist and El Tour board member Damion Alexander said, “The Loop has led to the construction of several bike boulevards.” he said. “That makes it a lot better for cyclists and, the more people we get out cycling, the safer it becomes for all cyclists.” Bicycle boulevards are residential streets designed with bicycling and walking in mind. Currently, there are 10 in Tucson, most located near the University of Arizona and central Tucson. Another 30 are planned.
The annual El Tour Loop de Loop event takes place in September and is meant as a sort of kick-off to the region’s biggest cycling event of the year: El Tour de Tucson. Attracting more than 6,000 riders from around the world, El Tour de Tucson has contributed up to $90 million since 1983 for more than 40 different local and national nonprofits, according to the City of Tucson.
It has a yearly estimated economic impact of $10 million for the region, according to the city. A 2019 economic impact study sponsored by Rio Nuevo found that each El Tour has $3.4 million of direct spending impact.
TJ Juskiewicz, executive director of El Tour organizing body Perimeter Bicycling Association, came to Tucson in 2020 after a 30+ year career directing some of the nation’s top cycling events. He said he was drawn to Tucson because it’s something of a biking mecca. “The weather is fantastic and the bike infrastructure is great – not just The Loop, but road shoulders and space. So much makes Tucson very bikeable.”
Juskiewicz added that the community is also a leading factor in Tucson’s growing reputation as a Cycling City. “Just the absolute love of cycling in this community and it’s been that way for a long time,” he said. “When you add up those things, that’s what make Tucson special. It’s the love and support of the community.”
This November, the 39th El Tour de Tucson takes place and Juskiewicz says upwards of 10,000 riders are expected. “It’s more than just a cycling event,” he said. “Tucson is a destination. People come here to ride then they can go have a world-class meal and stay at a great resort. They’re coming to ride, but they’re basically having a vacation, too. It’s an experience.”
Alexander said that the economic impact of cycling, specifically El Tour, is sometimes overlooked. “El Tour is a major economic driver for Southern Arizona,” he said. “El Tour laid the groundwork for all the other things that are going on. The reason The Loop is what it is, is because El Tour is a hub. It brought national attention and showed what cycling can do, not just for the health and well-being of a community, but also financial benefits to the business community.”