El Tour de Tucson XXIV

19 11 2006

The largest cycling event in Arizona, is without a doubt El Tour de Tucson. Nearly 9000 people paid for the right to ride their bicycles around the perimeter of Tucson knowing that they get priority over traffic signals for a day. A $12 million boost to the Tucson economy, this is not your average Sunday ride, but in order to do well, you should ride for 12 sundays prior to the event. This is something I was unable to do this year with any regularity, and my result showed this lack of physical preparation.

As is the case every year, I was excited to right in the premeire event of the city and state. I have managed to improve my time every year since I started. Here is a short list of my times:

XX – #2722/3146 – 8 hours 45 minutes 26 seconds – 12.6 mph
XXI – #1466/3131 – 6 hours 46 minutes 40 seconds – 16.1 mph
XXII – #953/3543 – 5 hours 52 minutes 23 seconds – 18.8 mph
XXIII – #418/4018 – 4 hours 58 minutes 18 seconds – 22 mph

Many stats and trends can be gleamed from these results, but the most obvious trend is the one going upward in the speed category. Nearly doubling my original speed last year, I was able to finish just inside the platinum finishing time. I had a lot to live up to this year.

My 5th official trek around Tucson as not as fun as last year’s record event, however, it was still a good time with humorous tidbits strewn about the course:

I arrived in Tucson Friday afternoon in an effort to avoid the Friday evening registration rush. I was only coming from the Phoenix area, so I also wanted to avoid any rush hour type traffic. Registration was breeze, and I quickly moved to the tables with the free give-aways. The best one this year was the bike tube offered by Specialized bikes. I stopped by the ABRA table where Don Melhado was manning the booth to promote track racing, USA cycling and the ABRA. He mentioned to me that a member of the Saguaro Velo team was going to be handing out bottles on the top of Snyder hill. I had thought about asking them for one in the back of my mind, but I did not want to ask for too much as I was no longer a member of the team. Being the great people they are, Nancy Ellis mentioned that there was indeed going to be an extra bottle or two, and that I would be welcome to one as long as I made it to the hill before 10am. I did not know how much I was going to need that bottle.

The night before the ride was possibly my most memorable part of the ride. Me and the other travelers from Phoenix were planning to have dinner at Oregano’s, but were soon faced with the wait line it’s reputation has created. I quickly thought of a similar alternative that was nearby: Sauce. Since Jose and I were required to attend the platinum meeting in order to get our well deserved platinum pass (well deserved last year, in my case) we were not able to get to the restaurant until a little later. Once I arrived, I was surprised to see some old neightborhood friends sitting at the table with my wife and kids. It was great to see everyone eating together sharing stories of parenting, cycling and other crazy events. This is what El Tour is about, bringing people together.

With that said, I still wanted to post a respectable time even though I had not been able to traing to my fullest capacity all year. My strategy was to follow the lead group as far as I did last year, or close to it. That way, if I get dropped, or rather, when I get dropped, I still have many people to follow all the way to the finish line.

Jose and I arrived downtown and parked at about 6:30am. The starting time was 7am. I figured we were cutting it close. Once we arrived, things happened rather fast. We preped out gear, pumped up our tires, and moved our bikes to the platinum area. upon arrival, we were uprepared for the mob scene that awaited us. There was a crazy line just to get into the platinum area and people were everywhere. Somehow, we got out bikes in the gate, and quickly found out that the only room was at the back of the area. We were essentially starting in the same place we had last year. The only difference was that we didn’t have to get there at 4:45am (but that was a fun experience too).

The starting gun went off, and the ride began. Having never started in the actual platinum group before, I was unprepared for the massive bust of speed these guys are capable of. I was trying my hardest just to keep up with everyone at the start. I looked down at my speedometer and saw some pretty huge numbers, 28,29, 30 mph. It was nuts. There was no way I could keep that pace up so quickly, or for 109 miles. I quickly fatugued, and slowed to a pace I could maintain for a while; it was somewhere around 24 mph. Still not shabby for a weekend warrior like myself.

As I rode down Mission road, passing Ajo, I knew the first river crossing was coming up quicky. I was already tired, and just wanted to get past the river so I can recover a bit on the other side. Still speeding around the bend half way to Irvington road, a large group was ahead of me. I was trying to catch them to get a decent draft, when I noticed a massive decelaration. I then saw some head drop. As I got closer, I heard many bikes crashing into each other. I slowed, quickly, called out to slow down, veered to the right, making sure I was not cutting off other people who were still upright, and pedaled past the accident. All these noises and sensations occured within about 2 seconds. I feel bad passing crashes, but yet, I also knew, help would be on the way quickly, and there was really nothing I could do to help except clear the way so others could pass as well.

Just before the first river crossing is a left turn onto Drexel road. I took this at a reasonable speed, but I felt a slight bump in my rear wheel. I think I rolled over one of the many pits in the old sun-damaged road and caused my rear wheel to bounce and land on its side. This cause a pinch flat, as my rear wheel suddenly started to feel soft. I called out that I had a flat, and slowly made my way to the sideway. At this point, there was no way I was going to catch the lead guys, so I semi-leasurely changed my rear wheel. This was an odd experience. I had never flatted this early although I have seen others flat ever earlier. The wave of riders never stopped for the duration that I changed my rear tire. This was about 10 minutes. I’m glad that I was prepared for a flat, and that I stopped to purchase some CO2 cartridge refills. Changing the tube took 9.5 minutes, and inflating took less than 10 seconds. It was the only good part about flatting. I remounted and in another mile, I crossed the Santa Cruz River (with no free Krispy Kreme donuts awaiting us on the other side this year).

Old Nogalas Highway had a slight headwind that slowed many people down. I think I was riding with people who were more or less at my similar ability because they weren’t hammering as much as the lead group, and most were having trouble with the headwind. Being a stubborn and determined man, I still wanted to try to finish in a respectable time even though I knew even at this point, 5 hours was out of the question. I lowered my body down a bit, and just kept pedaling. I passed seveal people. At one point, many were following me. I eventually made it up to a lady in a purplish jersey and passed her. I had dropped the previous set of people, and she grabbed onto my draft.

Still pushing, I barreled my way to Los Reales road, but not before I saw another guy go down on the pavent. As I wheeled past, I saw blood coming from his chin, and heard people asking for cell phones. Someone else volunteered theirs, and I was off to continue my ride again.

The roads in Tucson are not very well maintained. Along the way to Los Reales road, I started to hear some serious rattling coming from my bike. I looked down and noticed that the bottle cage was loose. Great, it really wasn’t going to be my day. I really didn’t want to lose this bottle change either beceause it went so well with my bike, and it cost $30. Not to mention that if someone ran over it at the right speed, it would most certainly end their day. Since I had no tools, I thought the best way to deal with it was to take out the bottle so that it didn’t rattle so much. Eventually, I left the bottle in, empty so that the screw would not wiggle out the other side and fall out. This strategy ended up working as the bottle cage made it though the trip to the end.

Before getting onto Kolb road, I looked back to see who was in my draft so that if I needed to move, I could do so and either give warning, or move in another direction. I noticed a lady in a purplish jersey, not recognising her at first. She then said

“Hi, I’m Diane. I’ve been following your wheel for the last 10 miles. I hope that’s OK.”

Well, considering that there really isn’t anything I can do to have her not follow me, aside from putting do the hammer (energy which was most certainly not available to me), I figured it was a good time to strike up a short conversation. We both mentioned how crappy the roads are, and eventually, I wore down as I had been pushing without a draft for quite some time.

Kolb road is always fun because the surface is fairly decent (well after Valencia) and it feels like you’re going downhill, right up until the end.  I whizzed as fast as I could to reach the gradual uphill that is Irvington road. Turning onto Houghton, the menacing Houghton hill approached quickly. I was amazed at how far back the cars were backed up after that left turn. I see it every year, of course, but for some reason, it seemed longer here. I made my way to the left side of the road so that other riders wouldn’t slow me down and rouine my rhythm as so frequently happens on these short sprint climbs.

On the way to Freeman road, and the nice 3,4 or 5 mile downhill run (I’m not sure exactly how long it is), a girl next to me mentioned that the climbing was easier here because they normally ride in a higher altitude. I mentioned that we were fast approaching 3000 feet above sea level. She was from Flagstaff, and said she had never been to Tucson before. As a goodwill ambassador to my home town, I welcomed her, and made sure I told her than she needs to hug a cactus before she left town.  That always gets a reaction. Hers was a little shock, and amusement at the idea.

We reached Freeman road, and I ran across another Saguaro Velo member. He was a junior rider I had ridden with on a training ride earlier in the month. I wished him well, and proceeded to bomb on the downhill that is Freeman road. As in the recent Cochise County Cycling Classic, there was nearly no need to pedal on this downhill on my new bike. It was awesome. I passed several people without doing anything excepting keeping a decent aerotuck. These parts were my favorite of El Tour.

After crossing the Sabino Creek crossing, I headed up over Snyder hill. Gratefully, and with as much energy as I had after such a steep climb, grabbed a water bottle from Nancy Ellis. Now, I had a dilemma, I had two bottles in my bike cages (one still rattling around), and I had another in my rear pocket, I had no room left.  So, doing what any cyclist would do, I dumped one bottle. But, trying to do so in a responsible manner, I did not want to dump it where no one would pick it up, I gently tossed it to some people who were there to watch the event. I only hope they grabbed it and either kept it, or at least picked it up off the ground.

After several miles of rolling hills, the turn toward Oracle came up. I slowed up a little as this is an uphill gradual climb that turns into a fairly nasty climb in only a few short miles. As I slowed up and gasped for some air, I heard someone say

“Hello, again”.

It was Diane, catching up to me, and passing me.

“It’s good to see you again”

Well, sort of. I wasn’t happy being passed, but still it was nice to see a familar face on the road.

I eventually made it back to Downtown, I finished the ride. Between the finish and the point where I saw Diane again, I spent the majority of time without any protection from the wind. I was able to keep with with a group along Tangerine road and we hurled down at about 30 mph (but I had turned off my speedometer earlier, some I am only guessing).

Silverbell road is also usually the huge mental block for most people. It’s long, uphill, usually in a head wind, and the road is very harsh. This road also teases you because at various points along the way, you can see downtown, and it doesn’t seem to grow in size.  I think I had prepared mentally for this section of road more than any other on the route because it is the road leading to the finish line. This section of road was tiring, but did not feel as long as it used to, in part ot my mental training. If only I had trained for the whole event like I had trained for this section of road.

Upon reaching the finish line, I looked for my daughter who was with a couple family friends. It’s tough to spot anyone with so many people there, but I saw a wave out the right corner of my eye and tried to get Eliana’s attention. I don’t think she saw me cross the finish line until my back was to her. She was my motivation for those last 20 miles, and I’m glad she was there, even if she missed me. She’s not even 3 yet.

I was tired. My lack of training and preparation had left me tired and dehydrated. And adding insult to injury, my time for this years ride was no where near the personal best last year’s time was. At 6 hours,  20 minutes and 48 seconds, this year was only good enough for a silver medal. I was tired, and couldn’t make the walk over to the medal tent. My wife didn’t event want to get it because I have so many, and it was only a silver. I never did go pick it up, but I will have it mailed if I can. This medal will probably be more important that any of the others as it will be a reminder of the things that happen if you are not prepared.

As for El Tour, in general, this is absolutly the best ride in the country. There are people of all ages and skill levels participating. This much is evident in the number of crashes (I saw a total of 4 ambulances, each loading people on stretchers as I passed by). But, if you prepare and train well, there is no reason anyone can’t achieve their own personal goals. My goal is to return to my level of fitness from last year, and surpass my personal best time.

Back on track to legitamite Platinum status.




One response

7 12 2006
Mark Mecikalski

Dear Saul: What a weird co-incidence. I broke my elbow in EL Tour, and I decided to Google “El Tour Accidents”, and your blog showed up. I didn’t recongnize your last name, but I remembered your first. I still ride with SV. I thought I saw you at the start, but didn’t yell at you, because I couldn’t remember your name then. I was in the second row in gold..got there about 4AM…this was supposed to be my platinum year…last year I finished less than 2 minutes out, and had gotten there at 5:30, but started 2/3 back in gold, so this time I showed up real early. I too was amazed at the initial acceleration..got my HR up to MAX! TOo bad you were back of platinum, but I noticed some platinums started arriving at 5:30!
Another SV, John Thaxton, was 5 rows behind me, and must have passed, because I caught up with him and Scott Ellis just past Sabino, on Sunrise..I don’t know what happened to Scott, I didn’t expect to be riding with HIM..I know he crashed sometime..anyway he did some good pulls up to the Oracle hill, where he proceeded to zoom up to the next group ahead, and that’s the last I saw of him. His wife had offered me a bottle, but I had two and a camelback, so I passed.
John got cramps on the Tangerine descent and dropped back, eventually finishing less than a minute more than 5 hours. I was cramping, but managed to hang on the back of my pack, when, for no good reason, just before Avra Valley road, the bozo in front of me swerved to the left and took me down. My front wheel was overlapping his some, but he was three feet away!…Why the hell did he do that??? There was no reason to..nothing to avoid. Maybe he was tired..I was, and didn’t get out of the way…I’m glad you are more courteous. Anyway, I went down, and my front wheel was too bent to continue, even with the brakes open..probably just as well, because I wanted to keep riding, even though my elbow felt funny. A sag support was right there and took me downtown to meet my wife, and to see the front group arrive. Ave. speed 22.5 miles for 87 miles. Maybe I wouldn’t have made it, but I suspect I would have, since I was ahead of John, and he said he never saw me, even after I crashed. Anyway, I got a radial head fracture, only slightly displaced..no cast, and hopefully it will heal up OK.. Needless to say, I think El Tour needs to do more for safety, if nothing else, have a list of safe riding rules that accompanies registration..I think I’ll give them my two cents.
By the way my water bottle almost fell out on those southside roads. Good riding! Mark Mecikalski

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