One of my favourite things about visiting the Fountain Hills area of Arizona, just outside of Phoenix, is riding the old Cactus Cup cross-country racecourse at McDowell Mountain Regional Park. Though that event is no longer held there, the venue still regularly hosts other races, and for good reason – the riding is fantastic.
The main mountain biking area is split into three connectable sections: the Sport Loop, the Technical Loop and the Long Loop. Individually they're 3.0, 2.9 and 8.2 miles (4.8, 4.6 and 13.3km) long and comprise a varied mix of alternately swoopy, fast, technical and twisty terrain. While each section has distinguishable personalities they all share one common thing: lots and lots of cacti.
The landscape out here is dotted with classic saguaro and barrel cacti but the lower-lying stuff is what really forces you to pay attention. Desert plants lead a tough life and self-defence is a big deal so virtually everything at McDowell is either remarkably strong and stiff (so don't run into it), brutally sharp (so don't run into it) or both (so don't run into it).
Riding the trail already demands attention on account of its countless turns and short, punchy climbs, and the cacti add a whole other dimension – and just think about what it's like to race out here. Botch a corner and at best you'll just overshoot the turn, correct your line and carry on. More often, though, you'll catch a fistful of ouch. And at worst, you'll find yourself covered in sharp needles. Nasty, nasty stuff.
One kind of cactus is especially vicious with small sections that are designed to easily break off and stick to you when disturbed plus dense arrays of barbed needles that burrow further into your flesh the more you struggle and literally require pliers to yank out of your flesh. These cholla cacti are affectionately called 'teddy bear' cacti by the locals on account of their fun and cute appearance – but believe me, there's absolutely nothing warm and fuzzy about them.
Alas, our time in Arizona is coming to an end and we're now on our way to Las Vegas, Nevada – but not to gamble. On the ourskirts of town lies an awesome stretch of trails tinged with bright red rocks – the new home of the Cactus Cup, in fact – and we might even hit the fantastic but unforgiving playground of Bootleg Canyon as we approach town. Yes, more riding awaits...