For the 109 mile el Tour de Tucson, the day started early, with the alarm clock going off at 4:15am. Getting ready, the only mishap initially was finding out that the local Starbucks wasn’t open at 5:00am when we arrived. Fortunately, Bruegger’s Bagels was open.
We arrived at 5:20am, and were one of the very last riders allowed to enter the gold starting area. I was happy just to be in gold, so that was fine by me. Many people arrive as early as 4:00am to line up closer to the start, staging their bikes, and then heading back to their car or hotel to get a final bit of shut eye.
At 7am, the ride starts. Being about 200 yards back from the start line, I roll past the start at ~7:05am. I wouldn’t know at the time, but it turns out that 5 minutes would prove to haunt me later.
The first couple of minutes I roll very easy, trying to avoid any crashes, and just looking to find someone that seemed to be going at a speed that I liked. I was there with my friend Chris Z, and in the start/finish area we had talked about trying to stick together this year (unlike last year). Once a race starts, however, my stick together plan always seems to go out the window. I had a goal to finish in under 6 hours (and be a gold finisher), and if Chris was right there with me, that would be awesome…but if not, well, I know he’s having fun whether my wheel is around or not.
River Wash #1
I get to the first river wash crossing (about 8 miles in), and look back and it seems I’ve left Chris behind, even though I was trying to ride smooth and steady. They had “rolled” the sand of the wash, packing is down nicely, so getting across the 1/4 stretch was pretty quick. Then a cool thing happened…as I mounted my bike, Chris rolled up right next to me. He had kept me in sight all along, and so we rode together again for a few minutes.
At this point, more than ever, I’m on the lookout to keep up and draft behind anyone and everyone that’s moving fast. We take a turn and head south into a strong wind, and someone comes around me, making great time. I get on his wheel, and the race is “on”. For the next 30+ miles, I average over 20 mph, and whenever someone faster comes from behind, I get on that wheel, and lay down some amazing (for me) miles. Essentially, I didn’t let anyone pass me, which as I sit here now, is stunning to think about. Primarily what worked, was getting behind a few tandems. There were 3 really strong tandem crews that seemed to be jockeying around, and by letting them do the work to break the wind, allowed me (and many others) to hang back and just enjoy the ride in their slick stream.
40 miles into the race, at around 10am, I realize that I am just flying. I’m well under the 6 hour pace, and I begin to question just how fast I’m riding. I’m not exhausted, but signs of fatigue are indeed setting in. I know the second river wash crossing isn’t much farther ahead, so I slow down for a couple of miles and kinda coast in.
River Wash #2
The second river wash has deeper sand, plus it’s much narrower, so that crossing is considerably slower. At the exit, I refill my water bottles and eat a couple of oranges. I’m not feeling hungry, but it just seems like the thing to do. I know the next section is the make-or-break area, as the majority of the climbing is about to begin.
The next rolling hill section has a number of short steepish climbs, each a little higher than the last, with super fast down hills in between. By the time we turn north toward Oro Valley I know I have to be extremely cautious with my energy. I can feel just how close to the point of exhaustion I’m at, but there are still 10 more miles of climbing before the fastest and funnest portion of the course is found…the descent from Oro Valley to I-10. By the time I get to the high point in Sun City Vistoso I am really struggling, averaging less than 10 mph.
Cruising over 30 mph
As the descent begins, I’m just rolling, hardly pedaling, waiting for faster riders to come from behind and sweep me up, and sure enough, they indeed do just that. I get swept up by an awesome group, led once again by a tandem crew, and we start making some really good time. For the next 10 miles, we average 33 mph, which does an amazing thing for my morale.
Just before we arrive at the aid station at the end of Tangerine Rd, I move up to the tandem crew and politely tell them thank you…and in a joke that only a tandem crew can offer, they say, “You’re welcome. That’ll be $10.”
Stopping at the aid station, I refill my water, and eat bananas, oranges, saltines, and a granola bar. I know I need food, as my stomach is grumbling. There are just 19 miles now to the finish, and it’s 11:45am, so I’m feeling pretty confident I’ll finish before 1pm. I do the math in my head, and 15 mph will get me home in time, which seems “easy” as my recollection is that it’s fairly flat from this point on.
Leaving the aid station, we turn and head south, and I’m again reminded there’s a bit of a wind blowing this day. It’s probably only 10mph, maybe 15mph, but having departed from the last great group, I’m suddenly alone, and having to do all of the work into the wind. Being alone, in a race with 10,000 participants is just a strange feeling…even if only for a few minutes. I want to go faster, but I know that it doesn’t make sense to be riding solo into the wind, with my energy levels this close to fully spent.
Struggling to Finish
Eventually I get swept up and we start making really nice time headed into the final significant hill of the day. This hill seemed easy to me last year, but this year it threatens to break me. I struggle to the top and lose touch with the group. With just 10 miles to go, I’m again alone, and again struggling to keep even a 15 mph pace.
The final 10 miles is surprisingly hard. It’s slightly up hill the entire way, and headed south, it’s into the wind as well. Even more discouraging, it’s a kind of rolling section, where you continue to roll up small hill after small hill, each time thinking, “ok, this will be the last one.” Except it’s never the last one, and I mean this happens ~20 times…every half mile, like clockwork.
During this section, I somehow convince myself that although a gold finisher finishes in under 6 hours, surely, they don’t mean finishes at exactly 1pm…since it took me 4 or 5 minutes to even cross the finish line, I’ll be a gold finisher even if I cross a minute or two after 1pm, right? So I worry less and less about getting home before 1pm, and just focus on finishing in a relaxed manner, without killing myself. A number of times I let people go by that are going just a tad faster than me — people I should be drafting behind, but due to fatigue, I let them go.
I rolled over the finish line at 1:00:26 for 1159th place of 3817 finishers. Just 26 seconds after 1pm, and for my effort…I get a silver. They don’t care when you start…just when you finish. It’s a ride, after all, not a race. I won’t pull punches, it hurts just a little bit to know that I worked that hard to come up that short.
I had 2 major goals for the day: Ride faster than 6 hours and get a gold. I did ride faster than 6 hours, but not fast enough to get the gold. Still it was an amazing day. Times this year were slower than last year, with the winning time 10 minutes slower and 400 fewer gold finishers. That tells me there was a pretty significant wind we had to deal with. Based on my energy level at this finish, however, I was probably stronger last year. I just didn’t have the flat tires and the stop lights (I was never stopped at a stop light this year), that cost me so much time last year. And this year, I think I rode much smarter.
Needless to say, it was a great day, and I can’t wait to be back next year. One change of plan is readily apparent: we are going to line up earlier at the start. I’m thinking 4:45am would make a HUGE difference.