Spring Training Cactus League Tour

January 20, 2011
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

The rites of spring. For motorcyclists it means prepping idle mounts for that long-awaited first ride of the year. For baseball fans it means big leaguers reporting to Spring Training and getting whipped into shape for Opening Day. Motorcycle USA combined both of these last year, bolting east from our Southern California office to take in Arizona’s Cactus League.

Take me out to the ballgame... We packed our saddlebags for Arizonas Cactus League.
Take me out to the ballgame… We packed our saddlebags to go catch a 2010 game at the Arizona’s Cactus League.

The Cactus League has been hosting Spring Training camps for major league teams since the late ‘40s, when the San Francisco Giants and Cleveland Indians first set up camp. Back in the day, Spring Training let ballplayers trim some fat and sharpen skills lost during off-season jobs like shilling cars or other temporary gigs. Fast forward to the present and MLB salaries are more than enough to get players through the lean winter months, but players still got to shake off the rust of winter.

The current Cactus League features 10 ballparks and a robust schedule. Competing with rival spring training location, Florida’s Grapefruit League, Arizona ponied up incentives to fund a host of stadium builds and upgrades throughout the Phoenix metro area. A total of 15 teams now call AZ home February through March, including all five California clubs, the Arizona Diamondbacks and nearby Colorado Rockies, as well as clubs from further away, including the fan favorite Chicago Cubs.

Getting to Arizona from our Southern California office  we skirted through the Glamis dunes.
Getting to Arizona from our Southern California office, we skirted through the Glamis dunes.

So the Cactus League was our destination. But the thing about destination rides, you have to get there first. Fortunately, our starting point at Motorcycle USA’s Irvine, California office provided plenty of our favorite So-Cal backroads to get us to our destination with as little Interstate time as possible. We also found ourselves aboard some ideal rides for the sport/touring job, the Kawasaki Concours 14Honda VFR1200F and Suzuki Hayabusa. My riding company included MCUSA Road Test editor Adam Waheed and Digital Media Producer Ray Gauger.

Our mounts packed with three day’s kit, we headed east on California highways 76 and 78, two of our favorite roads and the photo backdrops for more than a few of our motorcycle comparison tests. Crossing Anza-Borrego State Park we dropped into the Imperial Valley and skirted the Salton Sea, past the town of Brawley and traced 78 northward to Blythe. From there it was 150 miles of droning on I-10 to Phoenix.

Arizona State Route 88 provided some great curves  even if traffic was high during our visit.
The desert bloomed during our visit  with actual rain prior to our arrival - leaving this stream to spillover at Tortilla Flat.
The desert bloomed during our visit, with actual rain prior to our arrival – leaving this stream to spillover at Tortilla Flat.

We hit Phoenix late in the evening, the brilliant night sky of the empty desert dimmed by the lights of one of the nation’s fastest growing regions. The communities of Glendale, Mesa and Scottsdale surround Phoenix proper, with the metropolitan area home to more than three million residents. We holed up for the night in Scottsdale – the nearby Scottsdale Stadium reputedly one of the best venues to catch a Cactus League game.

While the Phoenix metro is a concrete jungle of surface streets and freeways every bit as tedious as LA, the perimeter suburbs are launch points for some fantastic rides. Fueling up in the morning, a pair of local riders approved of our planned route to Tucson – making an eastward loop through Tortilla Flat into Globe and down state highway 77.

Heading through Apache Junction, our route started winding through fields of saguaro cactus. Arizona State Route 88 meandered through the Superstition Mountains and delivered stunning scenery, along with heavy traffic by tourists as enamored with the views as we were. The roadside attractions on 88 are tourist traps, giving me flashbacks of childhood vacations that had devolved into Clark Griswold-like POW death marches. As more and more cars and cactus gawkers clogged the road our throttle hands cramped with frustration. Where’s the wide open desert country?

Arriving at the ghost town/tourist stop of Tortilla Flat saw the traffic flow terminate, as soon after we had the road all to ourselves. Pristine surfaces and plentiful kinks… Yes, a whiff of motorcycling nirvana! At least for a while, as the pavement soon ended. Locals queried at the Tortilla Flat stop didn’t seem certain if the road was paved up ahead or not, or if dirt, how long it might last before returning to pavement on the other end.

Eventually 88 turns into a dirt road  itself a former stage route known as the Apache Trail.
The dirt section of Arizona’s State Route 88 proved memorable, with the former stage coach path terminating at the Roosevelt Dam.

Stopping at the dirt, we reckoned 25 to 30 miles till the junction with definitely-paved AZ-188. Turns out it all would be loose, dusty dirt – with the route a former stage coach road called the Apache Trail. The conditions were ideal for a dual-sport or adventure bikes like the R1200GS, not so much for our current mounts. In the Concours 14’s case, we had a near 700-pound touring rig (900-plus pounds with rider and gear) bucking and swapping its way around the often steep, sometimes rutted route.

Concerns faded as we creeped along admiring the beautiful terrain, or in Adam’s case flat tracked along with the 166 rear wheel horsepower Hayabusa. Despite concerns, the bikes handled the dirt with little more than a shrug, just a handful of dicey moments, before emerging on the back side of the Roosevelt Dam.

We’d burned serious daylight with our Tortilla Flat excursion, more than half the day, and had travelled a whopping… 44 miles! Now on the smooth pavement of AZ-188, we made up the difference on a high-speed blitz. Arizona Highway Patrol must have a field day out there, with its open terrain, perfect road surface and wide sweeping corners begging for law-breaking paces.

From Saguaro desert to Ponderosa Pines and snow - Catalina Highway
From Saguaro desert to Ponderosa Pines and snow, the Catalina Highway delivered the best riding of our journey.

Our boss man, Ken Hutchinson, a former Arizona resident himself, had warned beforehand of possible trouble with the law. As our speedos climbed, one particular tale of his wouldn’t go away – that of him riding in an AHP car as a grinning trooper shuffled through a deck of licenses he’d collected over the years from plucky riders that decided to run. Our luck held though, as the road was all but abandoned during our weekday late afternoon run. Nevertheless, mind those throttle hands, as not only is a license in peril, there’s a shot you’ll end up wearing pink britches on Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s chain gain! They run things a little different down in AZ.

Stopping briefly in Globe, we ripped through the 100 miles to Tucson on AZ-77 with a little more discretion as the light faded. Arriving at Tucson in the black of night, we turned in after a day that seemed much longer than its 220-mile odometer indication.

Walking up, two items were on the Tucson agenda: Mount Lemmon and Cactus League game.

The road to Mount Lemmon looks promising on the map. Twisting and turning for 38 miles from the valley floor, the ride more than lived up to expectation. Climbing almost 6000 feet in elevation, the terrain transforms from cactus desert to pine-covered snowy peaks. High altitude keeps the white stuff up at Mt. Lemmon through early spring, with enough snow to keep a ski resort running part of the year. A forest fire in recent years obliterated the Ponderosa Pine surrounding the resort, as well as many of the cabins that make up the unincorporated town of Summerhaven. However, it’s still an amazing vista.

We budgeted a half day for Mt. Lemmon, but were rushing to catch our afternoon game. The road and its panoramic views of Tucson proved too distracting, and the road itself is exhilarating. Cambered turns, sharp corners, high-speed sweepers… Mt. Lemmon has to be a choice route for the Tucson riding community, though we reckon it gets quite crowded on the weekends. An entire day could have been spent on the mountain road, with the quality of its mileage making our entire trip worth the effort.

Watching the ballgame at Spring Training.
Brews  dogs  peanuts  Cracker Jack...

But Mount Lemmon had to be abandoned, we had a ball game to catch! Making haste to downtown Tucson, we arrived at Hi Corbett Field. Site of the first ever Cactus League game in 1946, Hi Corbett is notable for its age, with the amenities akin to a Single-A or rookie league venue. Finding easy parking with our motorcycles, we picked up tickets and found our seats.

Arriving a couple innings into a game between the Rockies and Indians, the on field action was spirited and the crowd jovial. While the overall mood is laid back, that doesn’t mean the players aren’t giving it their all. Jobs are on the line during the spring, as old pros fight to retain positions, while the young bucks cut their teeth in hopes of an opening day invite. Every team is still a contender in spring, and the optimism of a fresh season sees fans follow their squads south. The influx of tourism dollars in the local economy totals in the hundreds of millions, with Cactus League claims of more than $350 million generated in 2009 alone.

Our game proved entertaining enough, but we came to eat a hot dog, hear the crack of the bat and sing during the seventh inning stretch. Experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of the old ballpark, Hi Corbett didn’t disappoint. (In retrospect, our visit proved quite timely as the Rockies moved their Spring Training facilities north to Scottsdale, leaving the oldest of the Cactus League venue abandoned for 2011.)

Bart and Adam concur  Cactus League journey a success.
Bart and Adam concur, Cactus League journey a success.

The ball game completed, we throttled on toward home, this time making more direct tracks on I-10 to Phoenix. From there it was a restful sleep before the 400-plus mileage back to Irvine. We retraced our lonesome back highway steps, with one slight alteration, diverting through Borrego Springs for one of the crème de la crème of So-Cal roads, Montezuma-Borrego Highway.

In the end we arrived home rejuvenated, satisfied that the winter kinks had been worked out with a 1300-mile run. Another riding season lay before us, brimming with opportunity for the next epic ride. With those Mount Lemmon curves still fresh in mind, the urge for a doubleheader beckoned. It took some doing not to give in and shout, “let’s play two!”

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