Ride Notes for El Tour de Tucson 2014

So today I rode 104 miles in the 32nd Annual El Tour de Tucson, for which I had been training for the past five months. By way of explanation, El Tour is an annual bicycle race held in Tucson to raise money for charities. (This year's event apparently raised $7,000,000 for a variety of charitable organizations.)

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I began training for this ride at the beginning of July, and since that time I have ridden an average of 80 miles per week, for a total of 1,500 miles. That being said, I still wasn't sure until a week ago if I would go on this ride, even though I remained committed to training as though I was going. What's more, if I was going to go, I couldn't decide whether to go on the 75-mile or 104-mile ride. The furthest that I had ever ridden was 75 miles, and that was the previous week, so I had doubts as to whether I could complete the 104-mile route.

On the last day of registration, I finally made up my mind - I decided to go, and I registered for the full distance, which encircles the city of Tucson.


On the night before the ride, I stayed up late - which should be no surprise for anyone who knows me - although I had originally intended to head to bed early in order to have plenty of rest before the ride. But I stayed up late writing an application for my Windows Phone that tracked my location using the phone's GPS system and uploaded my location to a website that I set up for the race. (By using this application, Kathleen was able to watch my progress on her laptop as I raced around the city.)


Before heading off to bed, I went over my pre-cycling list that I had created after I had forgotten to bring my water bottles on a ride a few weeks ago. This was quite helpful, and after I had all of my usual things together, I made my final decisions for which specialty gear I was bringing with me. I knew from the weather forecasts that it was going to be very cold in the morning, and one of my cycling friends here in Tucson had lent me a bunch of cold weather cycling gear. With that in mind, I knew that I would have to carry anything that I brought with me for the duration of the ride, so I needed to balance staying warm before and during the ride with the limited space in the pockets of my riding jersey.


I eventually decided on a light jacket (which I could remove before the ride), a vest and a baklava (which I could remove once it warmed up), my pull-over sleeves (which I can pull down during the ride), and knee covers (which I could remove if necessary). My friend had advised me to only bring two water bottles with me and to refill at the various stops along the way. This would save on weight, but since I got my seat-post-mounted dual water bottle holder working earlier in the week, I chose to bring four water bottles and bypass all of the stops. Once I had everything ready for the ride, I climbed into bed around midnight.

I woke up at 2:00am, which was only two hours after I had gone to sleep, and for some reason I was unable to get back to sleep. I had my alarm set to wake me up at 4:30am, but by 4:00am I decided that any efforts to lose consciousness were going to be fruitless and I reluctantly got up. Since I had packed everything before going to bed, I just had to load everything into car and head out across town. (Along the way I dropped by a McDonald's to pick up an egg white McMuffin for breakfast.) The outside temperature was 45 degrees, so I decided to acclimatize during the drive by opening up the car vents and turning on the cold air in the car. My teeth chattered the whole way, but I knew that it was going to get worse when waiting for the ride to begin.

I arrived at the Tucson Community Center (TCC) in Downtown Tucson shortly before 5:00am. I chose to park at TCC because it's around the corner from Armory Park, which was the start and finish line for the race. There were several other cyclists getting their bicycles ready as I pulled into a space in the TCC parking lot, and once I packed my gear for the day onto my bicycle, I rode over to Armory Park to get in line.

2014 El Tour Ride Day Fiesta Map

Cyclists in the race are lined up by category: Platinum riders must have completed the ride in less than five hours in previous races, and riders in that group need to have a VIP pass that designates their Platinum status. Gold riders complete the ride in five to six hours, Silver riders complete the ride in six to nine hours, and Bronze riders complete the ride in nine hours or more. With that in mind, I knew that I would never qualify for Platinum, but I might qualify for Gold. I normally average just under 17 miles per hour for my distance rides, and completing 104 miles in six hours would be a small fraction faster than my usual pace. The El Tour event guide said that people begin lining up for the Gold category around 3:30am, and by the time that I pulled into line around 5:00am there were several hundred riders already queued.

The line of cyclists in front of me around 5:20am.

Just by coincidence I got in line next to a couple of cyclists who have been riding with the folks from Sabino Cycles. We recognized each other, so we spent the next couple hours chatting before the ride began. As the morning progressed, an announcer began describing the schedule for the ride. He informed us that around 9,000 riders had registered for El Tour, with around 2,700 riders for just the 104-mile ride.

The line of cyclists behind me around 6:15am.

It was bitterly cold for most of the time we were waiting, but everyone was thankful that it wasn't raining like it was for the previous year's El Tour. But still, the temperature was around 35 degrees for much of my time in line, even as the sun was slowly rising in the East. (See the Ride Statistics later in this blog for the final temperatures.)

As the time approached for the race to start, all of the cyclists began to shed layers of clothing, so I folded up the jacket that I was wearing and packed it away in one of my jersey pockets. Some of the other cyclists were wearing "disposable clothing," which was an interesting discovery for me; apparently clothes that are left near the starting line are gathered and donated to charity, so a bunch of cyclists wore clothes that they intended to donate, and they tossed those aside before the ride.


In the last few minutes before the race began, the announcer introduced the Mayor of Tucson, who helped count down the time to the race start. In the final few seconds, I quickly pressed the start button on my Garmin GPS and I launched the GPS application that I wrote the night before so Kathleen could keep track of my progress during the ride. As the race began, we all looked like a bunch of penguins as we collectively waddled our way up to speed, and then I was savagely amused as I heard the sound of hundreds of cycling cleats locking into their pedals and the beeps from dozens of GPS devices starting up as we collectively took off in a massive sea of cyclists.

Video from the start of the race.
(Note: I go speeding by at 0:53 in blue and yellow.)

I was concerned that the start of a race with thousands of cyclists would be chaotic, but it was actually very organized; I guess most of the other riders were just as concerned about not hitting someone else as I was. That being said, within the first couple miles the knee warmers that I was wearing had fallen down to my ankles, where they remained for the rest of the ride.

I started out at a great pace - averaging 19 to 20 mph, even though I knew that I still had a lot of riding to do. This was painfully obvious to me, because I was continuously calculating how many miles I had left. (I started my calculations during the first mile.)

A little over 20 minutes into the ride we hit the 7-mile mark, which was the first of two river crossings that require all cyclists to dismount and carry their bicycles across through the sand. (Thankfully the river was dry.)

Lugging my bicycle up the far side of the river.
(Notice how red my knees were from the cold, while
the knee warmers were uselessly hugging my ankles.)

The race organizers added a nice touch for the experience - a large mariachi band was playing on the opposite side of the river, which was a lot of fun.


The next 22 miles were pretty straight-forward - we rode the long way around the south side of the Tucson Airport, then along the frontage road south of I-10, and then around the Air Force Base. I was 1 hour and 45 minutes into the race when I reached the Pima College East Campus, which meant that I was passing the campus 15 minutes after the riders had started the 75-mile race. This made me think, "Wow - if I had decided to do the 75-mile ride, I would be just starting out, instead of having completed 30 miles of riding after two hours of freezing."


To help alleviate my self-misery, there were dozens of well-wishers cheering us along. Actually, there were hundreds of spectators shouting encouragement for most of the race, and the Tucson Police Department was nicely blocking off traffic for cyclists.

After I made it past the college, I faced one of the first real challenges of the ride: we had to ride up the steep hill on Houghton road past McGraw's Cantina, then we continued to climb the hill along Escalante road to the highest point in the race.


After that, we turned past Saguaro National Park and headed down Freeman road, all of which was coincidentally in my part of town. As evidenced by my blogs, I ride through this part of town quite often, so I made up for time lost during the hill climbs by speeding down Freeman road as fast I was comfortable. (Which I prefer to be less than 30 mph.)


After riding down Freeman, the route took us down Houghton to Snyder, which quickly led to the second river foot crossing over Sabino Creek. Once again, the race organizers had hired a mariachi band to serenade the pack of weary cyclists as we made our way through the dry creek bed.


A group of friendly volunteers was handing out water and sliced fruit as we arrived on the opposite side of the creek, but I strolled past all of that so I could get back on the road as fast as possible.


After I got back on the road, we faced a short-but-serious climb up Snyder road. As I was slogging my way up the hill, the cyclist next to me exclaimed, "It's a good thing this climb is so short!" To which I whole-heartedly agreed. As we started down the far side of the hill, I saw a cyclist wipe out badly in my peripheral vision; the accident sounded terrible, but I'm not the kind of person who feels compelled to look, even though the other cyclists around me craned their necks to see.


I should point out that I spent most of the race as a solo rider. I would often pass a group of cyclists or solo rider, only to have them pass me a few miles later, or they would pass me and then I would pass them. Either way, I would repeat this scenario with other groups of cyclists or solo riders throughout the day; no one seemed to be riding my same pace throughout, and I couldn't find a good group where I was comfortable for the whole ride. There may have been wisdom behind some of the groups' decisions to negotiate parts of the course at a slower pace, but I can't be sure.


As I passed the 50-mile mark, my left calf felt like it was forming a charley-horse, and I thought to myself, "Oh no... this cannot happen. Not today." But I kept pedaling anyway, and eventually it seemed to work itself out. This was great, of course, because a charley-horse could have ended my ride. (And I would have had to try and figure out how to get home since I drove our only car to the starting line.)

As I pulled onto Sunrise Drive, I was thankful that I had ridden that route several times before, so I knew what to expect - there's a big hill just past Kolb road, and several more hills before reaching Swan road. Once we reached Swan, we were treated to 13 miles or so of mostly downhill riding, and I took advantage of the time to make up for some of the time that was lost during the hill climbs.


One thing that helped greatly during the ride was the recent addition to my riding arsenal of an Ivation Beacon, which is a Bluetooth-enabled, bicycle-mounted speaker.  With this in mind, I brought an interesting mix of music with me: I had several songs from well-known artists (Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, King's X, Extreme, Rush, Sammy Hagar, The Who, and Van Halen), but I also had a mix of less-known artist that I like (Angelica, Dave Beegle, Gary Hoey, Gideon's Press, Neil Zaza, Novella, Paul Gilbert, Stavesacre, etc.) Listening to music helped me to keep from focusing on how much pain I was in; my muscles were aching, of course, and my road bike has no way to dampen the bumps and cracks in the road, so I was taking a lot of abuse throughout the race; I can't think of how difficult the ride would have been without some good music to keep me company.

As I pulled onto La CaƱada, I faced four miles of climbs. According to the ride profile, this was supposed to be the steepest climb of the race, but to be honest - it didn't seem that different than most of the other steep climbs. (Although it still wasn't fun, of course.) While I was riding through this part of the course, I started doing the math, and I realized that it would be nearly impossible for me to make the Gold level for the ride. Nevertheless, I continued pushing toward my goal pace.

Showing faux enthusiasm for the
ride despite the pain and exhaustion.

After I pulled onto Moore road, I was treated to ten miles of gradual downhill riding. I can't lie, after 70 miles, that was a really nice change of pace. I tried my best to duck my head down and pedal hard, but my right upper arm was really starting to hurt, so I couldn't stay in that position for long.

When I got to I-10, I began the long, 25-mile, continuous uphill climb to the finish line. I knew about the climb from having studied the route profile before the ride, but knowledge of the gradual climb was even more demoralizing when I realized that I was in Marana. For 20 miles or so the route followed the frontage road to the west of the interstate; this may have significantly reduced the number of traffic lights, but for the first time in the race I actually had to stop for traffic lights. The police officers assigned to the race course were doing their best to prevent cyclists from having to stop, but I was often riding alone, and solo riders were usually forced to stop until a larger group of cyclists arrived. Just the same, many of the cyclists (including me) tried their best to thank all of the police officers who were directing traffic for us.

My registration number for the race was 2621, and numbers were assigned depending on the length of the ride for which each rider had registered. (Riders who registered for the 104-mile ride were assigned numbers 1 through 3999, riders for the Fun Ride were between 4000 and 4999, riders for the 75-mile ride were between 5000 and 5999, riders for the 55-mile ride were between 6000 and 7999, and riders for the 40-mile ride were between 8000 and 9999.) The tags that riders were required to pin to the backs of their riding jerseys were also color-coded, which meant that you could quickly tell which length any rider was travelling. (104-milers were white, 75-milers were yellow, 55-milers were green, and 40-milers were blue.) Of course, this meant that as I neared the end of the race, I would see a rider from the 55-mile or 40-mile race passing me, and I would comment under my breath, "Oh yeah? I've been riding for twice as long and twice as far, so suck it, dude."

Notice the long hair flying in the breeze...

As we approached downtown Tucson, the race route departed the frontage road, and after a quick jaunt around the base of "A" Mountain on Mission road, we turned onto 22nd street and headed east into Tucson. My GPS showed that I had passed the century (100-mile) mark, so I knew that my part of the race would soon be over. Nevertheless, the ride along 22nd was terrible; large splits in the pavement had most of the cyclists cursing this part of the ride.

As I turned north onto 6th avenue, I could soon see the finish line ahead of me, which was a welcome sight; there's something about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel that gives you an adrenalin boost.

Riding the last few hundred yards to the finish.

A group of cyclists were clustered at the finish line as race workers were marking the numbers on each riders' jersey with their final race standing (Platinum, Gold, Silver, etc.) While I had hoped for Gold (under 6 hours), I realistically expected to finish the ride in 7 hours. With that in mind, having finished the race in 6 hours and 17 minutes of continuous pedaling was a time that I could be happy with.

Walking away from the finish line.
(Amazingly enough, my legs still worked.)

After I exited the race course, I found my way through the myriad tents that were set up throughout Armory Park to the area where they handed out the medals for each rider. Oddly enough, all of the medals appeared to be bronze - only the lanyard for the medal listed the actual Platinum, Gold, Silver, or Bronze standing.


Once I picked up my medal, I noticed that I had received a text message from Kathleen congratulating me for having completed the race. It seems that my Windows Phone application had worked perfectly for the duration of the ride, so Kathleen had been tracking my progress and knew that I had just finished.


I wandered over to the tent for Sabino Cycles, where I said "Hi" to a few folks that I knew, and I had a few of the snacks that they were graciously providing for cyclists. One of the cyclists at the Sabino Cycles tent was one of the guys with whom I had been waiting that morning; we had seen each other periodically during the day, although we never seemed to be riding the same pace, and he crossed the finish line a few minutes after me. I asked another of the riders whom I knew from my Saturday morning rides to take a quick photo for me to send to Kathleen.

The race is over, so now the smile is real.

After a few minutes of visiting with a few folks, I hopped back on my bicycle and rode back to the TCC parking lot, where I packed my gear into the car and started the long drive back to the east side of Tucson where Kathleen and I live.

Ride Stats:

  • Primary Statistics:
    • Start Time: 6:59am
    • Distance: 104 miles (102.6 miles on my GPS)
    • Duration: 6:17:15 (6:15:06 on my GPS)
    • Calories Burned: 2729 kcal
    • Altitude Gain: 3173 feet
  • Speed:
    • Average Speed: 16.4 mph
    • Peak Speed: 31.4 mph
    • Average Cadence: 83.0 rpm
  • Temperature:
    • Average: 51.2 F
    • Minimum: 32.0 F
    • Maximum: 68.0 F
  • Heart Rate:
    • Average: 149 bpm
    • Maximum: 170 bpm
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