Zephanie Blasi rides a Bianchi Methanol mountain bike. It's a powerful machine for a petite rider, but she can handle it, to say the least. In fact, Blasi is ranked as one of the 10 best female mountain-bikers in the country, and she's fighting for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team that'll be headed to Brazil in 2016.
© John Wagner
>> Click on image to view
it larger in a separate window.
By Martin Cizmar
FRom the lonely summit of Mount Lemmon, the caravan of spandex-clad cyclists and huffing minivans climbing the Catalina Highway for a change of scenery looks like a line of ants marching across a watermelon. Zephanie Blasi spends a lot of time on these pine-shaded slopes a mere 40 miles from the center of Tucson, but she's usually moving far too fast to spot her house on the cement waffle below.
As best anyone can tell, Blasi is the only professional mountain-biker who lives in Arizona year-round. As the summer heat bakes the desert below, that means driving up Lemmon to hit the trails that zigzag across the breezy sky island.
Blasi, 36, chose this setting. A native of outdoorsy Missoula, Montana, she moved to Arizona as part of her plan to climb the mountain-biking ranks, hoping to eventually land a spot on the U.S. team at the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. It's no long shot — Blasi is consistently ranked as one of the 10 best female mountain-bikers in the country, and she's only getting better as she travels to race against Europeans, who've long dominated the sport, and the fast-improving Chinese on their native turfs.
"In the winter, Arizona is awesome," says Blasi, whose easy cadence, wavy blond hair and petite frame make her seem like a Wildcat coed turned townie. "We have so many professional athletes here in the winter because you can train without worrying about the weather. In Montana, I used to have to get bundled up in gloves and a hat. But the summers are really hard — and I really hate rattlesnakes."
On this Saturday in late August, Blasi takes it easy as she rides along the Marshall Gulch and Sunset trails, dusting up pine needles, popping over gnarled roots and bombing down a steep slab of granite where hikers walk gingerly. All this as she's on the mend from a concussion she suffered here a week ago.
In one section of the Aspen Draw Trail, riders have to quickly weave their handlebars between twinned aspens. Monsoons slicked the path, and Blasi lost control, putting her helmet to good use. "I've been pretty out of it all week," she says, chewing on carrots and celery from a hummus plate at Summerhaven's Sawmill Run restaurant. "Today, I walked a few sections I'd normally ride because I still don't feel quite right. I don't wreck often, but when I do, it's pretty nasty."
Blasi has been falling more lately, but it's because she's been pushing herself. She easily bests the other women in local races, often "chicking" most of the male racers in the process.
"She humbles a lot of men," says her husband, Chad. "They don't really know who she is until they start riding and she just punishes them."
"I do enjoy that," Blasi says. "Especially if the men are a little arrogant."
But no one gets better by winning all the time. Blasi felt she was in a rut in the American circuit, so she asked her coach to find a team in the World Cup series in Europe. She now races with English women a decade her junior, riding for boisterous crowds of Europeans who set up chairs and blankets along wooded courses in Belgium and the Czech Republic. "Over there, it's like college football — thousands of people show up to watch the races and cheer," she says. "They're rooty, rocky, muddy courses. You have to be mean, because everybody is fighting for that single track."
She hasn't won anything on the World Cup circuit, but the challenge is paying off, says her veteran coach, Rob Kelley. He says her chances of making the Olympics seem good, although it's too early to know for sure.
"Zephanie's strongest suit is her handling ability — she's done some downhill races in the past, and so she's very comfortable going downhill fast," he says. "If you don't race a mountain bike, you'd be shocked at what they have to ride over, and being tentative is the kiss of death."
Stateside, she rides for crowds of hundreds, and even if she does make the Olympics, it likely won't pay off with fat contracts. Blasi is an elite athlete in an obscure sport where the odds of cashing in are on par with winning the Powerball.
Her husband pays the bills working as an aircraft mechanic, and he uses those skills to keep her bumblebee-colored Bianchi Methanol, which is worth more than the Chevrolet truck that carries it, in tip-top shape.
But Blasi is used to people thinking she's crazy for getting up before the summer sun to brave rocky gullies for a job that doesn't pay much. At least Blasi's mother — who cycles 6 miles to work every day, even in the Montana winters that drove Blasi to Arizona — understands.
"My mom is very proud of me," Blasi says. "My dad doesn't really understand it. He says, 'Well, if you're not making a lot of money and it's a lot of work, why are you doing it?' But there's a self-satisfaction. I just love it so much."
>> Back to People Archive
Story ArchivesFind previously published stories online... [more]
Global SnapshotsSend us a photo of you or someone you know posing with Arizona Highways. We'll post it on our website. It's that simple... [more]
Photo of the DaySend us a photo of you or someone you know posing with Arizona Highways. We'll post it on our website. It's that simple... [more]
Social MediaJoin our Facebook, Twitter and Flickr communities for behind-the-scenes glimpses at Arizona Highways... [more]
Events & PromotionsEscape, experience and explore Arizona, one event at a time... [more]
Travel GuidesThere's so much to see and do in Arizona. Let our online travel guide be your one-stop resource for planning your next Arizona adventure... [more]