Saturday, November 18, 2006

Tour de Tucson 2006 No Más!

[Highway 98 along the Mexican border was our favorite training road. We would ride to the distant mountains and back. These three pictures are training pictures, not pictures of the race course.]

No Más!
109 Miles
Tour de Tucson
November 18, 2006

The title for this accounting shall be, No Más (No More). That was the title that popped into my head while I was yet standing in Tucson, post race, around the results board and talking to Brian, Angie (Brian’s wife), Mike Thompson, and Fred: No más! But let me start from the beginning.

After Tour de Tucson 2005
Achieving Platinum last year was a great feeling, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it again. I got a membership in the local health club and started pumping weights. Ten pounds of muscle and three months later I was back on the bike. Fred and Brian were in great cycling shape. Both had obvious training goals that were a step up from last year. On my first ride back with the group, Fred and I rode to Ocotillo and Fred beat me over the little hills. My legs were in great weight lifting shape but they became over-pumped on the hills and I couldn’t stand on them. Brian’s goal was the Omnium Road Race in the spring. I could sense Fred and Brian’s intensity hadn’t waned since Tucson 2005 and I knew in my heart that I had to train with them as long as their enthusiasm lasted. So in the spring of 2006 I was mentally committed to race Tucson again, just in time to be forced to reduce my training due to the extreme summer heat.

Thursday, November 16
Pam and I went to Tucson on Thursday night and pulled off the freeway at the Tangerine Road Exit and we drove on the remaining 20 miles to Tucson on the dark, moonless Silver Bell Avenue and examined the home stretch of the race. Ever since last year I have thought about the surge and free-for-all in my group at the finish of the Tour de Tucson 2005. This year I wanted to position myself better and sprint across the finish line as close to the front as possible.
Before getting a motel room Pam and I enjoyed some late-night waffles at the Waffle House. We stayed at the Roadway Inn and were absolutely disgusted by the room. It didn’t even have a clicker.
Friday, November 17

Friday morning we went to the expo, then off to Beyond Bread, a fabulous restaurant we found last year which happened to be right next to Bookman’s, a fabulous used book store where we unhurriedly purchased an armload of books--mostly children’s books and whatever Agatha Christie books that Pam didn’t already have.

Pam and I met Brian and Angie at 5:30 pm back at the expo. We watched a PowerPoint presentation by Dr. Arnie Baker who explained several problems with Floyd Landis’ drug test. The French press as well as other journalists attended the event and made several interviews. At 6:30 pm we attended the boring Platinum Meeting where all platinum riders received their passes to the platinum staging area on race day.

Back at the motel room, this time at Riverpark Inn (where we also stayed last year) Pam jokingly said goodbye to me as I was starting to go into race mode and rehearse in my mind all the events and contingencies that lay ahead. I mixed my bottles with utmost care.

Pre Race
I woke up at 1:00 am and lay in bed until 2:45. I got up and turned on a small light and Pam stirred and said, “Are you kidding?” She stared at me for a moment. “Never mind, do what you’ve got to do.” I slowly prepared everything and then at 4:30 am we went to get our pick of parking spots at the start line. I told Pam that I would rather be early, relaxed, and have the best parking spot than possibly feel frantic when things didn’t work out like I had hoped.
Pam and I set up the Revmaster behind the car, and then sat in the hatchback watching the people arrive. I found and greeted David Bailey who was the next of the Imperial Valley riders to arrive. He arrived early, like he meant business. I gave him a couple of hand warmers. I looked around for Fred who said he would arrive by 4:30 am, but I didn’t find him until after 5:00 am. We warmly greeted each other and wished each other well as we walked together to the porta potties. The last of the Imperial Valley riders I found was Brian. He was staged well in the Platinum area, a giant smile on his face, bouncing up and down like a boxer. He was dressed for cold this year, but the weather was almost pleasant (last year he was uncomfortably cold). I offered him some hand warmers, but he said he already had some. I could tell that Brian had rehearsed his day too. [actually I accepted your two warmers and put them on my thighs.]
I rode the Revmaster a bit between 6:20 and 6:40 am. All platinum riders were supposed to be in position by 6:45 am for a 7:00 am start. I saw Floyd Landis above me in the scaffolding as he spoke a few words to the thousands of riders. Robbie Ventura and a few other notables raised their arms as they were recognized.

My Goal
I felt pretty confident that I could achieve Platinum again so achieving Platinum was a secondary goal. My thoughts were preoccupied with staying with the lead group.

The Race
The start was so fast. We followed the classic wave pattern of traffic jams; going 27-30 mph and then slowing due to congestion. Then repeat. My heart was at its maximum. There was less congestion at the Santa Cruz Canyon this year, and I could jog pretty much at my own pace with my six bottles, unlike last year when I was forced to walk slowly and eat dust.

Coming out of the canyon I felt powerless for about a mile then my heart rate started to settle down. As my heart rate decreased, my leg power increased. I started passing people. Then as we turned left from Old Nogales Road to Los Reales Road there was a small accident as we rounded the corner. I turned outward to the right and went into the dirt. Now with both feet out of my pedals and a little congestion around me, I saw the lead riders riding off. I charged them as soon as I could. I charged for about 10 minutes hoping they would slow down for a short while. Finally I bonked (an anaerobic bonk). I had gone anaerobic for too long. This was a huge disappointment for my mind because I got dropped for a reason other than my fitness and out of my control. I looked back for the group that I had just left. They looked like ants on the horizon. I was in “no man’s land.” My effort to catch up to that first group was a gamble and I lost! I consoled my mind by saying to myself, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Now what was I going to do? I cruised until the pack caught up to me and then accelerated to stay with them. I felt my first cramping feelings in both calves and both quads and just tried to recover. I was disappointed and unaggressive for a long while.

Going down Houghton Street I heard a thud behind on the right side (I usually ride on the far left side. I hate getting boxed in) and I asked the guy to my right, “Was that a water bottle or did someone just go down?” He said, “Someone just went down.” Then on my left side, across the yellow line, a tandem passed at about 40 mph. I commented to another rider next to me, “Why do they have to pass so fast? They are not going anywhere. It’s not like they are going to break away. They are just being a hazard.”

The Sabino Canyon crossing was softer this year, and I couldn’t ride it like I did last year. I got through the creek bed, but didn’t feel as good as last year climbing the hills out of the canyon. Coming out of the canyon the big group split into several smaller groups all visible ahead and behind. Eventually these groups collapsed back into a larger group again. I was still suffering from negative thinking, but while riding up Oracle Road I felt my power returning.

I spent the rest of the race looking forward to a sprint finish. I never cared about my time; I knew a Platinum time was assured as long as I didn’t have a mishap, so my whole focus was the finish. I analyzed last year’s finish dozens of times in my head. At the bottom of Tangerine Road a rider hit a sign and went down. For every mile after Tangerine Road I was planning my finish. Up Silver Bell Road we were crawling slowly into a slight headwind. For the first time all day riders started to converse one with another. The pace was easy. Some complained of being tired. Others, like me, were waiting. I was going to move with the surge and finish aggressively. As we approached about mile 105 I whispered to the rider on my right, “Any minute all hell is going to break loose.”
Moments later I heard a sound just ahead on the far right: “Oh bicycles! Clack, clack, clack!” I took air, lost sight of everything, felt impacts to my body on all sides. I was sprawled out and wondered if I was going to get run over. My brain went through a process analogous to a computer shutting down and rebooting. My brain executed its diagnostic tests and slowly started directing my actions. I felt pain in my right hip. It took a few moments before I dared move my body at all. I rolled to my elbows and knees and took another inventory of my body parts. The girl rider ahead of me moaned out, “I think I broke my collar bone.” On my other side I heard, “I think I broke my knee! I wanted so badly to finish this race.” I made it to my feet and without focusing my eyes on anything in particular I said, “What happened?” The guy with the hurt knee answered as if I were talking to him. He explained that he hit a rock and went down. He pointed to a rock the size of a golf ball. The others who had fallen or stopped were all long gone now. Just four of us remained there. I picked up my bike and without noticing that my brake was rubbing I attempted to finish the race. Before I pedaled off I looked at the girl who was standing on the side of the rode in shock. I wish I had had the presence of mind to say something encouraging to her, but I said nothing. Her sad face lingered in my memory, but I later reasoned that she had to be a tough girl to be riding as fast as she was.

Post Race
I crossed the finish line and Pam asked with a puzzled face, “What happened?” I quickly told her. We walked over to the results board to see how much time I had lost. We saw Brian and Angie before 12 noon, so I knew that Brian had made Platinum again. We waited for Fred. Fred didn’t make it. Fred was the strongest man in a group that died. Fred looked strangely mystified by his Tucson experiences. This was not the moment to analyze Fred’s race, but I later thought that Platinum groups are formed in the first 30 minutes of the race. After that there is really no jumping ahead to a platinum group. After the first sorting out was over, I never felt like I had to struggle the rest of the race. In a phone conversation, Brian expressed the same thoughts.

Pam felt sympathy for me because of the crash and my road rash. And she doted on me like a good nurse. We got in the car and quickly drove north on the freeway. We could see hundreds of cyclists on the frontage road and on Tangerine Road. On the way home we stopped at the Red Lobster in Yuma. Pam was fun to be with, and I thought that when the kids are all gone we will be a happy old couple.

I have always been a health nut and I really love cycling, but I have serious misgivings about the dangers of riding fast in the Tour de Tucson. At this point I am disinclined to ride it again but, like Pam said, “You never want to have another baby right after giving birth.”

[The photo is of Highway 98 "The Grade" between Ocotillo and Jacumba]


My good friend, Brian McNeece, also wrote of his experience of this same race. His website is no longer active, so no link is possible.


El Tour de Tucson 2006: The Center Does Not Hold
by Brian McNeece

Performing an event four times usually means that you arrive with enough experience to pull it off with excellence.  Third time the charm must mean fourth time the guarantee.  In the case of a 109-mile bicycle race, however, the long duration of the intensity can still leave one searching for answers when things don’t go as planned.

That was sure the case for me.  My training partners Fred and Todd had put in a four month regimen designed to get us ready to break the five hour “platinum” barrier once again.  Fred, who hadn’t yet broken that barrier, had put in extra hill sessions climbing the yawing Mt. Springs grade to make sure that he had the legs to stay with a strong group at key points on the course.  We all had become knowledgeable about nutrition and hydration for a five-hour effort.  But despite our preparations, in each case, something happened to disappoint us.

An Auspicious Beginning

Saturday, November 18 in Tucson broke with temperatures in the low fifties and just a hint of a breeze.  By dawn, most of the 4000 riders for the 109 mile race were already in place.  Todd had arrived earliest to be well-positioned in the second row of the platinum group.  David Bailey, who was racing for the first time, had to settle for another 30 yards back in the gold section.  I waited until 5:30 but still was in about the 7th row of platinum.  Fred was a little behind David Bailey.  Friends from Mexicali had also arrived and were excited as the sun rose to the tune of Queen’s “I Want to Ride my Bicycle.”

Even though I had prepared for the cold by dressing for snow and handing my extra layers off to Todd’s wife Pam.  Even though I had tapered for two weeks prior to race day.  Even though I had dug deep into my reserves on my training rides.  Even though I was an experienced racer with three tours under my belt.  All these even thoughs didn’t keep me from slipping into a sort of dull stupidity as I rode the first 8 miles to the Santa Cruz wash.  I could have passed a few people in that critical section.  But instead I just held my place and took the wheel of the rider in front of me.  Of course, the pace was fast.  We were going a consistent 27, and without a moment of warm-up, I wasn’t in sprint mode. But still, in retrospect, I’ve told myself over and over that the key to this race is to ride as hard and as aggressively as possible in the first 30 miles.
 I’m getting too critical already.  For in fact, my starting position itself put me way up in the ranks.  And just sitting in with this group meant that I was a couple of hundred people ahead of David Bailey and Fred Fischer.

After the Wash: Push Until Tetanized

At the Santa Cruz Wash, we dismounted our bikes and began to jog them through the three-inch pad of coarse brown sand.  Some cyclists carried their bikes; I found that I needed to lean on my bike for support simply to keep moving through the thick sand.  By the end of the quarter-mile crossing, my shoes were filled with the stuff, and my lungs were burning.  As usual the wash strung out the bunch of riders into a broken line with one, two or three rider clumps.  I was at my physical limit at that point and just struggled to keep a wheel.

Heading south on the Old Nogales Highway the strung-out lines began to congeal again, but now into a single file group that began to work together a little.  A group of ten began to grow into a mass.  Up ahead I could see another group forming.  Some stronger riders came by me and took the lead, raising the pace from 21 back to 24.  By and by we caught a group and were again close to a hundred strong and five or six wide on the roadway.  We surged and slowed at speeds up the 30 miles per hour.  My breathing was labored but I didn’t feel I was out of my league, didn’t feel any possibility of being dropped like I often do during a criterium with my own age group.  In fact, I took a pull to bridge my section of the pack when a strong attack over an overpass created a gap.  I had no problem bringing us all back together, though I was definitely looking for recovery as we approached the right turn on Irvington that led up the first incline.  Around this time, I felt a tap on my chest.  It was David Bailey passing on my left.  “Man, you’ve been working,” I commented.

I was surprised that he had already caught us (it was about mile 27) for as I say, we had been hitting a torrid pace for the last ten miles or so, and the sections before that were not conducive to passing.  In other words, David had been extra fit and very aggressive right when he needed to.
Turning uphill on Escalante, I noticed my legs were already very tight.  Not a good sign.  I stayed with the crowd up the hill and by the time I got to the top, I was worrying about cramping.  Damn. What’s up with that?  Cramping in the first 30 miles?  I would have another 80 miles to ride.  What did I do wrong?  Not enough water?  Too many calories in the bottle?  My oatmeal that morning had not been very well cooked in the paper coffee cup I’d used and the old motel microwave.  Did that undercooked oatmeal soak up my water ration?

Already I began riding in protect mode up the next section of uphill.  A few people passed, but for the most part I was keeping up with traffic. 

About mile 35, just at the top of Freeman Road, where the course yields its first lovely downhill, my legs stopped working.  They hadn’t reached the state of total tetanizing, but pretty close.  I pulled to the side to let anyone behind me pass and stopped pedaling.  I needn’t have bothered, for I was already the last guy in the swarm.  I watched the pod glide ahead.  No one turned around.

Painlessly Alone

 And so I coasted a little and pedaled a little down the hill.  No longer needing to concentrate on the wheel in front of me, I sat up and looked at the spectators looking at me.  At the bottom of the hill, the traffic control was kind enough to stop traffic for just one rider.  Before the left turn onto Speedway Boulevard, I looked back up the hill to see if my pursuers were bearing down on me yet.  No sign of anybody.  Just an empty road.  Suddenly I felt like I was no longer in the Tour de Tucson.  Might was well just cruise now.  I’m not going to fight like a dog in no man’s land for another 70 miles.  My race is over.  No chance at platinum now.  I tried; I failed.  I pondered all these thoughts, but not with any desperation.  That was that. 

Again I came to an intersection where the volunteers blew whistles and raised their hands to guard me against the automobiles.  “Thank you,” I called to them, and kept rolling.  My legs were more comfortable now.  No imminent freeze ups in the thighs and calves.  So I just kept up a reasonable pace without strain.  I looked back.  Another giant swarm of riders was now visible.
My Gente to the Rescue

I took a right on Houghton Road. After another mile or so, the trailing group came up on me.  A bunch of them passed me, and I found a place in line.  My pace went up a couple of miles an hour, but right away, I noticed that the intensity level of this group was below the one that I had cramped up in.  In fact, compared to the skittish, surging character of the first group, this one was almost soporific.  Ah, my gente, I thought.  I can keep up with these guys to the end. 

I stayed relaxed all the way into mile 48 at the Sabino Canyon crossing.  Unlike Santa Cruz Wash, which is a wide open sand wash, Sabino Canyon is approached by a meandering dirt trail through a dusty wooded area.  Some parts of the trail are firm enough to ride. But many patches are very soft.  At the platinum meeting the Amazonian babe at the lectern admonished us to get off our bikes and hoof it through there.  But I tried to keep one foot in the pedal and use one foot for stability, like a scooter, through the soft parts.  My strategy was successful as I was able to clip back in halfway through the trail and ride to the actual dried creek bed where sand makes everyone get off. 

The hubbub there is always impressive.  Organizers have set up about 10 porta-potties; numerous volunteers man orange and banana tables, while others stand on both sides of the trail with one-gallon jugs and two-gallon containers of water.  The two-gallon containers are a bad idea because the spigot offers but a thin stream of water.

Riders scatter pell-mell here depending on their plan of action.  I sought a guy with a wide mouthed gallon jug.  “I got your bike,” he shouted, as I fumbled to open the top of my water bottle.  I had thrown away an empty bottle already and drunk two of the others, which I now refilled.  That meant I would have three more full bottles for the last 60 miles, or six total.  Incredibly, Fred had told me that he could complete the race on three water bottles.

I pushed my bike through the rest of the sandy crossing, up the embankment, clipped in and headed up hill nearly alone.  The off-road crossings split people up.  The next section includes a short but very steep incline lined with cheering, exuberant spectators.  Even with my 26 cog in the back, I labored up the hill.  At the top I passed a few riders and tried to keep a nice effort going down instead of yielding to the urge to rest. A couple of guys passed me.  I saw that we were a fairly evenly distributed line of riders quite a ways up.  Since my legs felt better but still not particularly powerful, I felt I had to ride tentatively.

Dog Day in Them Thar Hills

As soon as we turned uphill again on Snyder and then Sunrise, people were passing me.  Thus began the hilly section of the course.  Sunrise to Skyline to Ina and Oracle.  Rolling stretches of probably 4% hills of about a mile each.  Some of it must be downhill, but for some reason, it all seems up.  Nothing too demanding but it gets your attention and usually keeps cyclists single file and humble.  I got passed there when my legs tightened up again.  I basically felt weak and unable to ride aggressively.

Then the hills calmed down and I was once again riding in a group, where I took my place at the very back.  I stayed there for a good long time.  Just before we turned from Oracle onto Rancho Vistoso, I found that I could move up the group.  I took a turn at the front then dropped back four or five riders.
 Rancho Vistoso is a four lane boulevard with a planted median.  It’s at the highest part of the course to the north of Tucson.  We were strung out there again because of the climbing. I felt better because of the flat road and kept up a steady pace with a couple of people behind me.  Little by little our group grew with stronger riders coming from behind and weaker riders being overtaken.  Four miles of Rancho Vistoso is followed by about four miles of Moore, a slight downhill where we all took quiet turns with no one yelling like a maniac and nobody riding off the front. I’m writing this two weeks after the Tour, and now I realize that we had a fairly good group up there; everybody seemed to be on the same page.  No one was overwrought; it was a small group all keeping the same pace. I wish I had noted our rate of speed.  I still didn’t really think I was going to be platinum; I was just trying to ride as strong as I could, not cramp, and not spend more time than I needed to at the front. 
Born Again

I remember that I led the group around the left turn that is a prelude to the long lovely downhill of Tangerine Road.  Looking over my shoulder, I saw that my group had dropped back, so I let up a little.  Of course, then they came right by me.  That was the last time I took the front until we hit the bottom of Tangerine Road at the freeway seven miles later. I was surprised because there were four or five guys in front of me, and if I remember right, only two or three of them changed places at the front for the whole ride down.  We weren’t ripping the asphalt up, and that surprised me too.  Last year I grabbed the wheel of a guy and a gal on a tandem that hurtled along at 33-35 mph and wouldn’t give up the front position for a bribe.  So this year was a similar pattern.  When I get in front, I pull and then I move over.  Not these guys.  On a ship they would probably strap themselves to the tiller.  Never give an inch!  Don’t tread on me! Pull or die! 

Unlike last year, Tangerine Road in 2006 barely topped 33 mph on the downhill.  At the bottom, however, our lead guys were about stove in, for there I was at the front of the group as we crossed the railroad tracks and headed south east on the frontage road against the wind on bad pavement.  I was pedaling all of 14 mph for a bit at the end of my pull.  The group came by me and we naturally formed a double line rotation.  The group was still surprisingly small with only about 8 of us.  I took another pull.  I looked over my shoulder and saw two riders riding erratically at the back.  They both went down, and one began cursing. Somebody simply lost concentration at about 19 mph. 
Group Groping for a Leader

Our group seemed to find an identity again and we were working well.  I realized that I felt pretty damned good. We were up to 20 mph again as the road swung west again and slightly uphill.  Moments ago the wind was in our face; now it gently helped us along.  We turn a few turns at rotation, with the fading rider in the right lane shouting “clear.”  Just like last year, however, this felicitous synergy soon dissolved as riders didn’t come forward to take their turn.  Were they unable or unwilling?  Did this reveal something about their character that they would not offer the group their contribution out of a desire to conserve their energy, out of fear, or just a selfishness that comes natural to some people? Do they say, if I don’t do it, somebody else will. I wonder what goes on in those other minds of these strangers all around me.  I have no recollection of any of them, not their jersey colors, their bikes, nothing.

I know one thing; I had plenty of ganas left.  I wanted to go as fast as I could, for about now, with less than twenty miles away, I was again feeling that platinum was possible. My complete collapse at mile 30 seemed like a long-ago story, and I had re-entered the valiant cadre of real riders.  We tried to re-form.  Somebody shouted, “Come on, you guys, pull through!”  But this job fell to about four of us.  Then one young buck rode away and didn’t look back for a minute.  Oh well. Finally he realized that his efforts were futile, and he drifted back.  Just like last year, I pulled the group hard left on Lambert that leads uphill west of the rocky hillside over a saddle point.  The young buck came around me, but nobody else.  So I got on his wheel, and when he drifted right expecting the relief shift, he smiled when he saw it was me and said, “I guess it’s you and me.”  I nodded and put my head down for the rest of the climb and led the group to the saddle where some firefighter volunteers held out bottles of water.  Don’t mind if I do.  I snagged one from a young woman who filled her uniform nicely.  Wished I had thanked her.  Mr. Young Buck passed me again and now I drifted back. 

Semi-conscious on Silverbell

We were on Silverbell now, with 16 miles to go.  Our group now lapsed into that strange state of semi-consciousness that we all encounter on Silverbell.  The road heads southeast, trending slightly uphill with some very gentle undulations.  Magically, the groups coalesce into giant millipedes, two or three cyclists wide each pedaling zombielike at a much reduced cadence.  Fatigue, both mental and physical, has turned the body and mind into an automatic pedaling machine, and attention has compressed into a dull rotational dirge. 

But that’s not how I felt.  My legs did feel weak, but I wanted to go faster.  Now that I knew I was well stocked with water, I drank of the elixir liberally, way back in the pack.  Then I rolled up to the front and took another turn, just like on a training ride, about a minute.  I picked up the tempo at least one mile per hour to about 21.  Then I drifted back, and the tempo would again slow, like a drill motor with a dying battery.  Bullshit.  I went to the front again and pulled.  When I drifted back this time, a big guy, a guy big enough that you wouldn’t expect to see him this close to five hours, gave me a pat on the back.  I guess that just about made my day.

Third Wind? 

Around that time, four guys in yellow jerseys easily passed us and took their place at the front.  “Great,” I called out to no one. “Fresh horses.”  I go no response, no smiles, no nods, no amens or halleluyahs. For a time, the Mellow Yellows rode well.  I saw that their jerseys had Spanish on them.  When the pace again slackened, I went to the front alongside them and shouted, “Vamos, compas! Dale gas!”  When they said nothing, I become suspicious.  And when I picked up the pace at the front, I rode away from everybody.  If these guys had no gas left to give, it was over.  Well, that was fine, because once again, my heightened effort set my legs to cramping.  My ambition to be a hero was over too. 

I drifted back into the millipede, downshift and pedaled more slowly, more softly and drank down the water bottle given me by the firefighting princess. No more the crusader, I accepted my place in the matrix, dropped my head and didn’t look left or right in case someone might catch my eye and ask me for an effort.  Not really.  I was hoping for one last recovery. 
Mexicali Compadre Appears

Good news came when a familiar jersey passed me.  Hey Mexicali, I shouted to the green and red and white back.  ¿Quien eres?  He turned and I recognized Edgar Perea, whom we know as Garo.  “Hola Garo!  How are you?”  I stuck out my fist and he grabbed it.  He looked about as happy to see me as a San Diego Padre fan on a rainy day—in other words, morose.  But it wasn’t so.  He was just as tired as the rest of us.  Probably not one in fifty of us had actually ridden a full 109 miles nonstop as a training ride like we were riding today.  We were pedaling on fumes.  “¿Vamos bien por el platinium?” he asked.  “Are we in good shape for platinum?” By now, I knew we would be under five hours; that was why I was getting so motivated.  The only thing left to do was to better my time from last year.  “Si, Garo, vamos muy bien.”

To the Wire with Nothing in the Tank

Seeing Garo got me worked up again.  I realized that if I could work my way to the front of this swarm, I could save maybe up to half a minute over the stragglers.  So one more time, I moved forward.  There were about three miles left. It took me a while to find an opening in the heavy traffic so that I could “change lanes” and get to the left and pass people.  Unfortunately, once I got up to speed to pass about twenty folks, my legs cramped again.  Damn it!  I held my place as other folks had the same idea and passed me.  I spotted a woman in purple and black. She was a thickly muscled gal in her thirties who had passed me long ago on the hills of Ina and Oracle.  I was glad to see that I had caught her, and glad that she had done so well, for a time under five hours for a woman would put her in the top twenty female finishers. 

The group’s energy level rose like the hair on your head as we entered the commercial area of that part of Tucson.  Cones in the road meant we were close to the finish and the danger level once again spiked. I gave up any idea of advancing in the pack and tried to be on high alert for weaving riders or falling cones.  Sure enough, a cone fell in front of me but I missed it.  We swung left onto Congress with one mile to go.  Speeds were now back to 24 miles per hour with riders intent on finishing at top speed.  I stayed on Garo’s wheel even as we turned right onto Granada.  Miss Purple was just in front of him. 

A few spectators clapped and cheered as we crossed the finish line and coast to a stop amid the throng.  Garo and I shook hands and embraced.  Although he is a very strong rider, this was his first platinum finish after a few tries.  How coincidental that we who had ridden together in the Valley would finish in exactly the same time. 4:52:33.
Probably 60 riders from my group had finished ahead of me, completely filling one of the chutes.  The volunteers got panicky as we backed up.  I sized up the situation and diverted into the other chute, which was empty.  “Don’t worry,” shouted a kind lady.  “You’re times were already taken.”  I knew that.  I clipped back in and pedaled to the end of the chute, dismounted and expertly slipped off my timing chip and handed it to the Boy Scout at the end.

Jorge the Road Warrior

In two shakes Angie was there to greet me and take my photo.  Jorge Arredondo from Mexciali suddenly appeared.  He reported his time of 4:32 with quiet satisfaction.  I was apoplectic.  “4:32!” I shouted.  I think he was too stunned to speak. Later he learned that his true time was 4:42, which still put him as the top finisher for the Imperial and Mexicali Valleys.  Shortly afterwards, Joel Hernandez said hello; Garo reappeared with another fellow from Mexicali whom I didn’t know.  Again, how strange that we would all see each other with no effort amid hundreds of riders and spectators.  Angie took a picture, and then we went off to the results area to find Todd and Fred.

Four Musketeers Debrief Their Disappointments

Todd was there already.  At the first sign of him, I could tell he wasn’t happy.  A crash with 3 miles to go foiled his plans of finishing at the front of his group.  But even with a severe impact to his left hip and road rash on both arms and shoulders, he lost just three minutes to Jorge, David Bailey, and Joel Hernandez’ group and finished in 4:45.  “No Mas” was the title of Todd’s Tucson narrative, a result of his double disappointment.  Aside from his homestretch crash, Todd had tried to bridge a gap early in the race and failed.  Like me, he had to recover during the middle section of the course.  Unlike me, he was the victim of circumstance and had gotten gapped by a faster group when he had to slow for a fallen rider.  Despite a ten minute sprint to regain the fast guys, he couldn’t bridge.

As Todd and I commiserated at the results board, Fred and Mike Thompson arrived.  Mike, a great hill climber from S.D., hadn’t trained much, and found he just wasn’t in a good position for platinum.  He missed it by four minutes.  Fred joined our morose debriefing with his tale of being stuck in an uncooperative group.  “I pulled these guys for about 40 miles,” he muttered.  The result of his group’s recalcitrance: 5:09, another tough day for our man Road Tuna Fred.
Cool down, Rub down, Melt down.

We went our separate ways.  Angie and I got back to the Inn Suites, where a hot bath and last night’s leftovers beckoned.  Salad and pasta for the second time tasted mighty good.  Then it was off to the Jacuzzi, where I hoped to trade stories of battle with other veterans of the campaign.  I wasn’t disappointed. 

Jacuzzi Stories

Joe, a suave looking 50+ from LA, related that his only sub-five hour ride had been in 1983, a year before they instituted the platinum classification.  He’d lost 30 pounds since January and had pulled down a 5:30.  The glint in his eyes told me that 23 years since his first El Tour, he was on his way back to the knife edge of ambition. 

Dan, a wiry 46-year old, didn’t mind repeating his time to anyone who asked:  4:41:55–ten minutes faster than his previous best.  Joining us in the spa was the coach of a hockey team from Tennessee and an innocent bystander, both of whom sort of listened to the talk of Arnie Baker, Landis, cramping, and race dynamics.  Dan also related that he had fought through cramps and was saved by a little white pill, which turned out to be the very familiar E-Caps product that Fred and I eat like candy to no avail.

 I told Dan, “But cramps basically result from overexertion,” my point being that water and pills, vitamins, electrolytes won’t prevent or cure them.  You ride beyond your muscle capacity and they freeze up.  Training at race effort must be the only solution. He demurred, admitting that overexertion causes cramps (duh), but the magic pills were the answer.

Later I brought up the subject with Tony Darr.  His answer: “Motor pacing. You’ve got to get your legs going at race speed.”  And so began a Tony pep talk on the great team we’re going to have next year, how Monty has designed a jersey for us and will provide helmets, glasses, matching shorts, maybe shoes, even.  Sure Tony. And we’ll have massages daily, with the crew washing and adjusting our bikes while we lay in bed with our legs elevated. Sure. Order me a groupie, would you. Christine Armstrong will do.  I hear she’s free right now.Just give me a Jacuzzi and a few like-minded middle-aged maniacs to talk to.  That’s enough for me.

Slowing to a Crawl

Our Tucson stay ended pacifically.  Saturday afternoon Angie and I drove up the hill under the giant A cemented in place about 80 years ago.  We took in the panorama of the great city of Tucson, lulled into sleepy inaction by Mexican music from families lolling nearby.  The lights of the convention center reminded me of the excitement at the Expo the night before and the anticipation that very morning: race day at the Tour de Tucson.  In the distance, the low tan hills dotted with saguaro and sage made for an expansive tableau.  I love the openness of the desert. 

From there we quietly, slowly drove to El Torero, a family Mexican restaurant in Old Tucson, stuck in an ancient two story building at the back of a dirt parking lot.  El Torero had been serving food since 1956, with some of the original waitresses still carrying trays.  We noticed right away that this was not a cycling crowd.  The building, servers, and patrons made for an Imperial Valley ambiance. Thick men in flannel shirts and jeans, a Mexican family with the chubby daughter, Mom and Dad with Grandma and the college going son—it was hometown at El Torero.

Next morning at the Inn Suites breakfast buffet, the contrast couldn’t have been greater.  Lean, sharp-eyed cyclists wearing their trophy t-shirts from this year’s Tour and other events lined up for the fruit and the waffles. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

All of this makes me very reflective about this big chunk of my life.  Training for the Tucson effort is more than just riding four days a week.  It also means avoiding caffeine so that when I use it, I get a performance boost.  It means conscientiously doing my stretches and strength exercises for the back and arms, taking my vitamins and glucosamine for the hip and knees, keeping the pull-ups going for upper body strength, not drinking wine or beer with friends prior to a big training session or a race.  All of this is the life of a serious athlete.  It’s keeping the center tightly held together.  But it’s a healthy lifestyle–one that goes against the grain of the mainstream in this country.  In today’s America, it seems most natural for a man my age: thick and solid, not easy to move.  We are becoming a nation of squat, low-speed, high torque bulls.  Powerful but low to the ground and unyielding. 

Meanwhile, we cyclists seek the trim, svelte, quick-response look, ready to react, accelerate, and pounce on every opportunity. Or perhaps we do so just in our fantasy world, which lives on the bike. 
 Even after a training ride, I ponder my reactions to events.  When Benjamin attacks a mile from the finish, why do I chase?  Don’t I know he will fade in another 200 meters, and I will catch him all the same at my steady pace?  Why did I let up after the hill and lose a gap of 20 yards?  I need to teach myself to hold that effort, keep the faith, struggle on.  Do I appear to be making too much of this simple activity of big boys riding bikes?  Probably so, but just as card players say that one plays a poker game the way one approaches life, the same goes for cycling.  Perhaps more so.  It’s a marvelously rich allegory, or metaphor let’s say, for the way we conduct our lives.  Or the way we would conduct our lives if we could only throw ourselves into the business of living as we throw ourselves into the somewhat make-believe world of cycling.

No Full Time Pack Fillers Allowed

I wonder about the guys I rode with those last 20 miles of El Tour de Tucson.  I wonder about the slackers in Fred’s group, who, even though they stood an excellence chance of being platinum riders, didn’t make the individual and collective decision to test their limits, to launch off full tilt boogie for their shot at what had to be their goal. What do they do for a living?  Are they living like they ride, or escaping their pressurized life on a bike?
Just being in the race, in the hunt for a sub 5-hour 109-mile bike ride shows that they had the right stuff.  They had already set themselves apart from the ordinary humanity who live and die by the TV remote control.  Yet they couldn’t take the logical next step and take the risk of trying too hard and failing.

If I can ride a sub 5-hour 109-mile event through a cooperative effort with complete strangers, if I can communicate with these strangers and rotate my turn through a leadership role, well then I can also do the same thing in any social venue.  Start a business, run for office, write a book, lead a community organization.  Lead means knowing what the pack will do, knowing how to shepherd the flock as the flock helps shepherd you.  Another metaphor from cycling.  But the point is that the individual discipline and constant effort that anybody puts in on an event like El Tour and the tacit cooperation that allows riders in the 40s and 50s to average 22-23 miles per hour are the same ingredients for success in any endeavor.

Unlike Tony Darr, I don’t see cycling as such a consuming activity on its own merits.  Being part of a racing team and maybe winning a race or two is exciting, sure.  The adrenaline on the starting line is a powerful stimulant.  The strategy during the race and the outcome can keep one’s mind in gear for weeks puzzling over what could have been. But when it comes right down to it, racing feeds the child in all of us.  The man or woman in us desires something more.  There’s that social and moral imperative that I certainly feel: one must make a difference.

And we can make a difference.  Somewhere.  I’ve never wanted to be an administrator at IVC for the very reason that I didn’t feel that I could make a difference.  The constraints of the bureaucracy, I’ve always felt, would reduce who I was to just the place I occupied.  That may not be true, but that’s how I’ve felt.  John Anderson told me he ran for Superintendent of Schools for the County because he wanted to make a difference.  Again, I wouldn’t feel that way.  But there are other places to make a difference, and I think it’s up to all of us to apportion a part of our time, at least to that kind of goal. 

Last weekend I climbed our local Mt. Signal, an iconic peak rising 2500 feet from the desert floor.  It was my 15th ascent.  I’ve become sort of the hometown expert on this mountain.  Though it’s not so high, it’s nothing but a pile of loose gravel, pebbles, and boulders that keeps footing tricky and quite rugged.  For most folks climbing it is a one off event.  But over my many trips up, I’ve noticed that the mountain keeps shrinking on me.  What once was an imposing, confusing set of climbing options has become an integrated whole in my mind.  I’ve memorized most of the mountain, at least on the northern approach, and analyzed that whole into sections that each I see now to be just short, easy transits.  Though I still require four full days for my quads to return to normal, it’s not painful.  Climbing Mt. Signal is like El Tour de Tucson in that after facing both a few times, they come into sharper focus and become more doable. 

My personal goal for El Tour?  Did I mention that? Last year I finished 28th in my age group—way down the list from the front runners among the 50+ set.  In my idle fantasies, I hoped to rise into the top 15.  When I cramped up, I abandoned that dream, but that didn’t stop me from counting off the + symbols on the results page that indicated 50+.  After all, I did ride more than a minute faster than the year before.  Did I reach 25th place after all?  No luck there.  I actually dropped down to 34th place way, way behind Wayne Stetina, age 52, who came in 17th overall in 4:19:06 and averaged 25.6 miles per hour.  But I can take solace that 8 of those 50+ riders finished less than a minute in front of me.  Motor pacing…  Maybe Tony has something there.