By 7:30AM I am back on the road. With 8 degrees it feels almost warm. I feel that I had two beers last night. Klaus is happy with his brand new rear tire [he also skipped the beer...].

Roughly 120km and almost 2000m of climbing, half dirt half pavement, are on the to-do-list today. So not quite an easy day. However, doing the climbs on the smooth dirt road through the beautiful Tonto National Forest, I have remarkable climbing legs today. Good timing!

I also have some personal thoughts to get to terms with this morning, so the time passes by rather uneventful. Climbing through a beautiful, calm, slightly snow covered pine forest. The forest is generally quite a "normal" forest. Only the occasional prickly pear cactus between the huge pines don't really fit it in for me [still don't know much about plants, but did some research on cactus since they will play a role today].

In the early afternoon, I reach the pavement again and also today's highest point at about 2000m. What follows, effortlessly shoots into my downhill top 3 of the trip [together with Atigun and Thompson pass in Alaska].

For weeks and weeks I stayed on fairly high elevation which in part was the reason for the low temperatures. Today I finally "fall off the cliff" of the Colorado Plateau. I already lost 700m in elevation yesterday. Now I drop another 1300m over the course of 40km down to Salt River. An incredibly nice and fast downhill... If I wouldn't stop every 5 minutes to take notice of the changes in landscape and vegetation [and completely smoke my break pads by doing this]. It is an incredibly intense experience that would fill pages but I try to keep it loose and short.

Based on the vegetation I must fly through at least 3 climate zones within 40km. I drop from snow-covered pine forests into a Mediterranean-like vegetation with bushes, small trees, smaller cactus and beautiful red rock formations. And then ultimately into a desert with huge [I mean enormously huge] Saguaro cactus. If I'd have known that I actually wouldn't see them again afterwards I would have taken at least one picture with Klaus and one of these cactus to put them in perspective. They are huge [and old] like trees. Also all sorts of other cactus: funny looking teddy bear cholla, bonker hedgehog cactus, barrel cactus, organ pipe cactus... Learned a lot about plants today!

But not just plants: butterflies, many other insects and I also see my first, huge tarantula slowly crossing the road in front of me [I think, I prefer bear country]. For rattle snakes it's fortunately too cold. They remain mostly inactice this time a year. I also see a small batch of wild boars that are equally odd to me in this landscape like the cactus in the pine forest this morning.

When I turn around to see where I came from, it is this huge mountain. Beeing on top of the Plateau everything seemed more like hills. Mind-blowing. I could go on and on and on...

After a break at the bottom where Salt River carves a nice canyon I climb up again a bit [leaving the Saguaro cactus behind again, I realize]. And then it happens what was meant to be happening...

I strip off my long cycling pants. I ride in shorts!!! It's warm!!! Shorts!!! Do you remember when I last wore shorts? I do! If you are in for a challenge, guess! [solution at the end of today's post]. You can't believe how excited I am. [Even though I must admit that I handle cold better than the heat]. Based on all the warm-hearted and slightly worried messages I received while traveling through the cold, I guess some of you are excited, too!

While I am trying to solve the logistical challenge of stowing away all my clothes I also realize that I can finally delete a sentence out of my vocabulary. Over the last few month I repeated almost daily whenever somebody confronted me with their concern that it might be not the best time to be biking around: "I know I am a bit late in the season but I couldn't be here earlier due to travel restrictions!" Now I am actually in the perfect season. Temperatures are mild, nights are chilly, in the sun it can be hot, but hot in a civilized manner. It would be a huge challenge biking around here in summer. Even in Mexico it will be fairly mild as long as I stay away from the coast [I plan to stay in the mountains anyway].

On another note: It's also the 22nd December today. That's means days are finally getting longer again. By traveling south I was more or less able to keep my daylight hours constant the last few weeks. Much, much more than the cold temperatures, the short days were [still are] a huge pain in the butt. Happy that days getting longer and temperatures warmer again! Very great day!

Solutions to the shorts quiz: the last time I wore shorts was on August 31st on my way to Canada climbing up Thompson Pass out of Valdez. It seems like forever.