Sunday, November 20, 2011

El Tour: It Was Awesome. No, It Sucked. Anyway, I Finished It.

Century ride: a bike ride of a hundred miles. Never done one and it was time. Every year since I moved to Tucson I have said that this will be the year that I do El Tour de Tucson. It's such a classic Tucson event that I can't believe I have never participated. Well, this year was the year for real.

El Tour is an all-day event that includes four separate bike races (111, 85, 60 or 42 miles) plus a fun ride and huge downtown festival. I was doing the 111 miles, naturally. I don't know the name for a ride of more than a hundred miles: century-plus? Ultra-century? Maybe someone more knowledgeable about bikes than me knows what it is. Anyway, my training for this one was pretty mediocre. I did my commuting miles of about 100 per week, and then sometimes did a long ride on the weekends if I wasn't too busy running, swimming, going to dog shows, or (in the past two weeks) packing for moving out of Tim's house and back into mine. My longest ride was 83 miles but not counting that one I don't think I rode anything longer than 50. That's one thing I would do differently next time for sure. Also I might, you know, get a bike tune-up. I hadn't even cleaned my chain and I knew going in that I was having problems shifting into some of the gears.

Race morning weather was perfect! I was in shorts, short-sleeve jersey, and arm warmers. I bought the most awesome jersey ever at the Expo:

Now all I need is a U of A jersey and my bike wardrobe will be complete. (Actually, the other thing I need is to ride faster in order to represent Tucson and the U better... but we'll get to that later.)

I decided to ride from my house to the downtown start line. I figured it would be easier to do that than to mess around with parking. There are over 9000 cyclists that ride in El Tour and I know from experience that getting around town is a mess on Tour days. It was a beautiful morning. I cannot remember ever being at a race start line in November and not being cold, but there's a first time for everything. It was interesting to be in a setting that was at once so familiar (corrals, announcers, music) and so unfamiliar (everything to do with bikes in a race). I finally did get myself and my bike to the right place and then for the first couple miles concentrated mostly on not running into other cyclists. I never ride in groups, hardly ever even with one other person, so this was all new.

The course first went west out to Mission Road, which sent me right back by my house again. It then turned south and went all the way down to I think Drexel Road (correct me if I'm wrong) where it turned east again. Drexel Road stops at the Santa Cruz River and everyone had to dismount and carry or walk their bikes across the river, which was about 1/4 mile wide. Good thing this race didn't happen last weekend, when it was pouring rain. As it was it was bone dry. From there we kept going east, then turned south on Old Nogales Highway, past the Desert Diamond casino and to some road whose name I don't remember, where we finally turned east again. We hit Alvernon at some point further south than I had ever been before and took that to Los Reales and then out to the frontage road. We took the frontage road to Kolb and Kolb all the way to Irvington. Finally we were back in a part of Tucson I actually recognized.

I was having a great time for the first 30 miles, averaging 19 mph and honestly feeling great. I wasn't breathing hard at all and felt like I was barely breaking a sweat. 111 miles, piece of cake, I was thinking. There are lots of aid stations on this course and they put marathon aid stations to shame. Every one has cut up bananas and oranges and pretzels, not to mention water and legions of volunteers ready to hand you a cup, fill your bottle, or hold your bike while you use a Porta-Pottie. I cannot imagine how they get so many volunteers to stand out there all day, but it's pretty impressive. Some of the aid stations also had raisins, PB&J sandwiches, and even help-yourself GU. (I wish I'd helped myself to more.) The only downside of the aid stations was that the mood was so social I felt like just hanging out at each one for a while, rather than getting on with my ride.

Back to the course. From Irvington out to Escalante and Old Spanish, this was familiar eastside running territory. And hilly. The first part was extremely flat, not any more. But I like these hills and they weren't too bad. The best part of all was when we turned north on Freeman -- about 4 miles of screaming downhill with a tailwind. I was passing lots of people on every climb but was dropped on every downhill like I was standing still. I am the worst downhill rider ever! That's another thing that has to change before I do one of these again. I am open to suggestions, bike people.

From there, we headed west on Speedway to Houghton, and then took Houghton up across Catalina Highway to another part of Tucson I'd never been. This was where the second dismount-and-walk-your-bike-across-a-1/4-mile-long-wash happened. This one had more moisture and my cleats filled up with mud, which I then had to pick out with a sharp rock before I could clip in again.

Coming out of the wash, we rode out of this fancy-schmancy Sabino foothills neighborhood and up the steepest f-ing hill I have ever had the displeasure of climbing. I exaggerate not. It was short but terrifying. Terrifying because I was afraid I literally would not be able to ride up it. There were other people walking their bikes up and I knew if my legs couldn't do it I would fall over because I didn't have the energy to unclip. Somehow I heaved myself up and over the hill without falling, but I was heaving for breath at the top and felt like I didn't get my breath back for five minutes.

We were back onto familiar ground now -- Sunrise, my favorite road to ride... at the start of a long ride, not 50 miles into one. It's got some good climbs in it which I enjoy on fresh legs. My legs were starting to feel tired but I was still doing okay. We took Sunrise west to Oracle and then headed north on Oracle for a long time, all the way to Rancho Vistoso. For some reason I thought we were turning west on Tangerine, so when we passed it and kept going north it was a huge buzzkill and I lost lots of enthusiasm right there. But I was still doing okay and on pace to finish under 7 hours if nothing went wrong.

Then... something went wrong, and what went wrong was that I just plain ran out of energy and enthusiasm. This whole way I had been thinking, wow, Tucson is a beautiful city and the people are so friendly and what a beautiful day and century rides are awesome and how could anyone think they're hard... well, suddenly it wasn't fun anymore. We were doing a seemingly interminable climb up Rancho Vistoso, which I know well because it's a Come Run run, and it was windy and clouding up and I was tired of climbing and, in fact, I was tired of riding. My crotch was sore, my legs were sore, my feet were hurting from being in the clips for so long, and I was hungry. I knew I should stop and eat a GU but it seemed like too much trouble. (And that's ALWAYS a bad sign -- any time you catch yourself vaguely thinking it's too much trouble to stop and eat something that means low blood sugar is probably already affecting your brain and your judgment. How many times do I have to have this experience in an endurance event before I get it?) Anyway, we turned onto Moore Road and that was my low point of the trip. Everything between miles 70 and 80 just plain sucked. I was creeping along at about 10 mph -- maybe -- being passed by everybody, sunscreen melting into my eyes and stinging them... finally I pulled over and had the last of my Nuun sports drink and a GU and then just sat there for a minute or so before continuing. This was the part of the race where you are just grimly hanging on and know you just have to keep moving even if it's not fast. Also, my favorite mantra came to mind: "In endurance sports, no matter how good or how bad you feel, it's not going to last." Point being, take advantage of the highs and gut it out through the lows.

Finally I made it to an aid station on Thornydale, hung out in there for a while stuffing my face with fruit, PB&J, pretzels, raisins, and a hard-boiled egg, and when I felt my energy come back got back on course. Next came an awesome stretch of downhill down Tangerine. Many, many miles of no effort at all. At Tangerine and the freeway we had to stop for a train. I would love to blame this for not achieving my 7-hour goal but truthfully we only sat there for about 5 minutes at the most. Then we crossed under the freeway and most of the rest of the course was south heading back to town, although with a little detour to the west. Naturally we had a headwind the whole way back to town. This was also a familiar ride, down Silverbell. Somehow Silverbell is always part of my long rides. It has crappy pavement in addition to the headwind. My chance at finishing under 7 hours had disappeared on Moore Road, my chance at being barely over 7 hours (i.e., just enough over that I could blame the train) disappeared on Silverbell. Oh well.

The last 4 miles were the worst. My quads were screaming in pain and the bottoms of my feet felt like they each had stress fractures from so much time in the clips. I could really see how I should have gone on more long training rides. That was a big oops. I predicted finishing between 7 and 8 hours and ended up being exactly 7:30. I hoped for faster but was still okay with that time since it was my first really long ride and I hadn't been trying for any particular time, just riding comfortably. The finish area was packed and it was a lot of work to find the place where they were handing out medals. I couldn't find any free food at all so ended up just eating my extra GU,  not very satisfying. Then I still had to face the 4-mile ride home. Oh, that was not fun at all. Next year I will drive and park.

Overall, though, I have definitely been bit by the century bug (actually for me it was 120 miles: 111 in the race plus 4.3 each way between my house and town plus an extra .4 riding around the block to get exactly 120 on my Garmin). I want to do another long ride ASAP, and there will be no more excuses for not doing long, hard rides every weekend. Only problem is, I STILL don't know how to fix a flat. Yes, I have been to a class, been to BIKAS and had them teach me, had friends show me and coach me through it, and still when it is just me and a flat I become completely helpless. What do I do about that? Any ideas?


  1. Awesome post. It actually sounds a lot like my 1st El Tour--7:40, plenty of pain (and lots of snot). Were the mariachis not playing when you passed? The 2nd "river crossing" is Canyon Ranch btw, one of the most exclusive resorts. The last aid station had *giant* brownies and salty snacks too.

    As far as flats, do it at home once or twice (you're more likely to get a slow leak, so it'll probably be at home eventually). The critical parts are using the tire levers to get the bead off the rim, inspecting everything, inflating the new tube slightly and getting in the tire, inserting valve first and getting one bead situated, then getting the other bead all the way back on the rim (it gets super tough at like 5 & 7 o'clock where the valve is 12--but pushing it a little with the tire level will get you thru that).

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