John Rides El Tour
I’m sitting in the hotel room with my bike packed away for travel and ice on my sore shin. So, somewhat immobile, I thought it might be wise to record my experience at the 2013 El Tour de Tucson for future reference. I doubt words can give the physical element the sensation it requires, but this is my attempt to record and share.
The first hints of promise came from The Weather Channel app on my iPad days ahead: rain with cool temperatures in the 40s and 50s were forecast. To a man from the Upper South, this sounds like a normal November outlook, but I have come to learn that it was the foreboding of a most unusual cycling event. Many have quoted that it rains three days per year in Tucson; I experienced two during my four-day trip. But, let’s not make this just about the rain.
I arrived on Thursday gleeful to see a few Vision Quest Coaching (“VQ”) friends and reconnect with the strangeness of a mob of multi-skill-level, middle-aged cyclists away from home, most away from family as well. Somehow, it is an excellent escape. The plan was to put my bike together and meet everyone for the opening “recognition dinner” for El Tour. Friday’s agenda was an early ride to plan for the two “river wash” crossings of the event, which was Saturday morning. Sunday’s “recovery” ride was set as an ascent of Mount Lemmon, a rugged and cold looking peak that looms like a large caretaker over the two-story and desert sprawl of Tucson.
The rain forecast began to stoke the ever-spontaneous and just-a-step-ahead of by-the-seat-of-the-pants nature of VQ (truly part of the charm if the hyper-organized can table their angst--note to self). As I set down my luggage in the room, the frustrating group texting app told me that our energetic leader and personality, Robbie Ventura, decided that the rain forecast for Friday morning meant that he needed to move up a ride to the first of the two river washes…to 15 minutes from that very moment when I set down the bags. My bike was still in pieces in the travel bag, so I wasn’t going to make it.
The crowd gathered in the lobby later for the drive to the recognition dinner, which was held at a Native American Casino 30 minutes away. It was the standard charity banquet with silent auction items, dignitaries (Arizona’s Coach Lute Olson, basketball legend and cyclist Bill Walton, elected officials, yada, yada, yada), challenging cash bar, and the expected chicken entrée. I sat with Robbie and his associates from TransAmerica. The young women next to me made a passing attempt at explaining TransAmerica’s product line to accommodate endurance athletics, but I was a little dense in understanding. What I got out of it, and from Robbie’s public comments about them, was that TransAmerica had been creative, proactive and accommodating with insurance products and financial support for the industry.
The speeches were repetitious and droned through dinner with a bonus interpretive dance feature to Mendelssohn’s “He Watching Over Israel” (that dance could be a healthy blog post by itself). We snuck out. I have no idea how long that dinner went, but it seemed to be a grand stage for those committed to the charitable aspects of El Tour and the casino sponsor.
El Tour Eve
Friday morning was rainy, but not too bad, so the crowd loaded up in vehicles to inspect the second of the two river washes. On the way out, Dan Jerger and Robbie regaled those of us in the lead van with a set of stories of Robbie’s pro training days living in Tucson and Dan’s detailed knowledge of the river wash and ensuing topography. So, despite the weather, the day was starting out light and fun.
I don’t know what I expected. From my friend and coach, Carlos Soler, I understood the washes as silty ravines into which desert sand flowed when rare rains occurred. We were going to have to ride and/or portage across two of them. And, since sand and water do not equal mud, the experience was one to plan, but not fear. To compound my anticipation, the rumor was that if the second wash reached two feet deep, the event authorities or local law enforcement would close the wash and re-route El Tour. The notion of a surge of rainwater reaching two feet deep is not one of comfort to me, thinking about the water in my cycling shoes and the absence of traction with the plastic and metal cleats on the bottom. The river wash was promising to be an experience of awkwardness, embarrassment and losing time to the agile.
Our inspection was more comforting that I expected. It was a 1/4- to 3/8-mile-long sandy driveway with a drop across a 12-foot ditch at the end. The most challenging aspect looked to be the steep bank climbing out of the wash, which crested at a parking lot behind some type of club facility. Several hours into the rain of Friday, the wash was moist, but evidenced zero running water. I could handle this…it looked easier than the short distances of dirt roads in rural northern California and southern Illinois that I traverse monthly on narrow road bike tires.
We drove the course away from the second river wash through a subdivision, over a steep, but short, hill and then onto a major traffic artery with three increasingly large “roller” hills. Per Dan and Robbie, the top of the third roller was about mile 50 and marked the last point of difficult obstacles, terrain or roadway for the entire Tour. So, my “race plan” seemed really clear: do my damnedest to stay with the fastest group I could through mile 50. If the course was flat to rolling, or downhill, from there, I could piece together a good ride at the five-hour goal to which Carlos and I agreed, rain and cold aside. It also meant that I would plan to carry three hours of hydration and try not to stop for any reason until after that third roller hill. Don’t lose the group going the pace I need until I’m past the worst the course dishes out. Period.
Next came a trip to the Convention Center downtown to pick up our registration materials, enjoy an expo of everything cycling and suffer a Platinum Rider Orientation. Registration was organized and a breeze. I found every aspect of organization for El Tour very well done. The Expo was…well…an expo. I did find another trigger point “toy” (something I almost bought online a couple of times) and some Rock Tape to use on my shin splint (I now know it was tendinosis: inflammation of the tendon next to the tibia. I don’t know medically, but I think it was just a shin splint on steroids for which the treatment ends up being: steroids.), both appreciated and good finds.
The Platinum Rider Orientation was a dark comedy. Evidently, Robbie has a running irritation of some years with a hippie curmudgeon named “Nippy” who is lord and master over “platinum status” at El Tour. As best I can tell, platinum status is simply excellent positioning at the start of the event. As the event has thousands of registrants, this positioning is very important if one wants to put in a good time on the event’s time system. Apart from that, I’m not sure what platinum status got us, but the preferred positioning itself is a prize without a doubt.
Robbie and VQ had pre-arranged for our entire crowd to get platinum passes, but the requirement to attend Nippy’s talk was amongst the price to pay. Nippy enjoyed his perceived control over the moment, but the irony loomed early as his PowerPoint of vital, must-have information was on a 15-second slideshow while he spoke in 20-second sets. Nippy had no information other than the sentences on the slides. The slides were too big for the screen (I was missing the first and last three characters on each line) and a question from the audience really screwed up his timing and the entire gig. There was also an obvious lie being lived as platinum status, per Nippy, was reserved to Cat 1 and 2 cyclists, the badasses of the saddles. The room was a comfortable mix of avid hobbyists and a few lean, serious looking bike dudes, not to mention everyone from VQ from Cat 1 on down to Cat whatever.
Robbie had words with Nippy over our passes, the result reportedly being that Robbie would arrange to get into the platinum “corral” the next morning without passes and without Nippy’s involvement. By the results observed, Robbie won that one. We were done with Nippy.
We then went into a vacant convention room for Robbie’s VQ planning session for El Tour. This was excellent material, but I kept wishing I had it in writing or at least in PowerPoint note print-outs to review later. However, the wisdom was a compilation of everything Carlos has taught me and a validation of my race plan from earlier in the day, so the crutch of a hard copy wasn’t a material detriment. We covered the course, the river wash crossings, riding in a large group, clothing for foul weather, nutrition, logistics and “what to do and not to do the night before a big event”. We were as good to go as were going to get. The rain persisted outside, constant and light.
As we left, Robbie said he’d take a group to see the first river wash since not everyone got to ride over the day before. I jumped at the chance with little other to do than laying out my rain gear for the rest of the day. What we saw when we got there was very different from the long silty road and moist ditch from the morning. The first wash was much shorter (a blessing), but it was already a running stream more than 12 feet across and 6 inches deep. More rain promised a wide and deep problem here. Nippy had given us a possible alternate route map if Wash #2 was closed, but no one had mentioned an alternate for this. It looked like a Montana trout stream that would require waders. I snapped a picture and texted it to Carlos with an ounce of concern.
The balance of Friday for me was quiet and alone. I fear the social animal in me around crowds like this (one glass of wine or whisky means three or more) and I wanted to focus on having a good event with methodical and unrushed preparation. I did so: fixed the bike and clothes with the race numbers, laid out the maximum warmth and dry gear (forecast was now for 45 to 50 degrees and light rain, perhaps 0.25”…we got 2.1” and 48 degrees), took a long hot shower, shaved my legs in preparation for embrocation cream, fixed three water bottles with Hammer Perpetuem powder (café latte flavor), fixed my reserve nutrition gear (Walgreen’s pill bottles) for three refills of Perpetuem, laid out three mountain huckleberry Hammer Gels as reserves in case of bonking, loaded a plastic tube with Endurolytes, and iced the shin a couple more times.
I had self-diagnosed the shin soreness a couple weeks before El Tour. I have no idea what triggered it, but it was getting progressively more achy as days passed. It flared a little extra when I hammered long and intense workouts on the trainer and walked my beloved puppy, Teejay, three to four miles a day. The no-break trainer workouts seemed to make it inflame the most, so I talked to Carlos about backing off a little. I did, but the problem pretty much persisted without much change. However, it wasn’t going to keep me from starting this event with hopes of making the goal.
The Crack of El Tour Dawn
The morning of El Tour was dark and wet, wet, wet. We suited up anyway, of course. Personally, I think I had a pretty good attitude considering the conditions. I brought lots of clothes, including my Gore cycling “wet suit” and gloves, which are the warmest and driest things I know. I was going to be as fast as I could be, as comfortable as I could be and would have the nutrition on board like I needed. I don’t think I felt my fastest as I’ve put a few pounds back on since the big birthday trip, but I knew how my power numbers had looked, and I can keep a 22- to 23-mph pace over flat and rolling terrain for a long time without question. In the end, I wore a base layer, VQ arm warmers, a VQ short-sleeve jersey, short VQ bibs, two pairs of wool socks, Gore Windstopper jacket, Gore Windstopper pants, a Pearl Izumi wind cap (with ear flaps down) and Gore Windstopper full-fingered gloves. Looking back, I chose well. I saw many, many, many who did not.
Breakfast was warm and unmemorable in the nondescript “Palm Room” of the hotel. I wished I had made a second micro-pot of Starbucks House Blend in the room. The crowd of 35 or so riders proudly wore VQ kits of various vintages and many adopted trash bags as raingear. The group photo must be a hilarious with the get-ups as they were, but graciously, I haven’t found any postings of the picture that was taken.
We rode the three miles across Tucson to the event start in the middle of downtown. Again, it was very dark. Perhaps we had one headlamp in the bunch, so the darkness seemed even more present on the streets. The chill began after the second mile. Robbie had planned a route to the event that hopped onto sidewalks for a few blocks to avoid riding next to streetcar tracks--a good move in my estimation, but a nerve-wracking one as we approached the crowd…on the sidewalk.
The sounds of the event reached us a block before the people. Big 80s rock, rain, shivering cyclists, rain, announcements, rain, pushing people and rain. We scrapped through the masses to the platinum area where an insider moved a gate for us and let us sneak in under Nippy’s nose. I swear I thought he was double-checking credentials when he came over to pompously tell us that platinum status would receive some grace because of the conditions (what the grace was I’m not sure).
We stood there for half an hour (the requirement was to be in the platinum corral 30 minutes before the race or to the back of the pack you went). At 6:50, a men’s chorus recording of the national anthem was followed by a live version as the singers were late to the podium and then the moment too intense not to let them sing. The booming voice did say that the first river wash was to be detoured--thank the Lord--no mention of the second for which we had been told an alternate route. And, then, the 31st El Tour de Tucson was off without further ceremony.
What I Came For
I have little memory of how it began on the bike. I stayed with the group around me, but saw no one from VQ after the first pedal stroke. I was a little anxious of the mass of riders, the hazards that came with the rain and the unknowns of the darkness, so I wasn’t too aggressive in trying to move up in the group in that first mile. I just tried to stay put. When I do this again, I’ll play that hand a little differently and try to move up early and often.
After it became apparent a “selection” had been made, I swiped the computer to see what the average speed of my group was. It appeared as 22.5 mph, which looked AOK for me, but I did wonder whether it should have been a mile or so higher for that early in the event to achieve the sub-five-hour goal. However, with the cold and rain, this would/should work. I also had in my head that the “work” of the event was the first 50 miles, after that the terrain and situation should be quicker for me. So to be at 22.5 mph early should have been fine.
As an aside, I repeatedly wished there was a synonym for “selection”. In the 24 hours before El Tour, Robbie, Dan, Dave Noda, maybe every one of our experts, wore this term out and it sounded to me like the stress point at Auschwitz. I understand that they meant there are moments in an event or race like this when skill sets parse away riders into groups and that, if one knows when that moment is, one can make the extra effort to stay with the quicker group and thereby improve one’s results. At El Tour, some of the selection points were more apparent: the two river washes and the stretches that with heavier wind exposure (especially Frontage Road, a 17-mile beast in the last 25 miles with a wicked crosswind from the west). How you got through the non-cycling river wash parts was a measure of fitness and athleticism, so ironic to me for a selection point, but it obviously was. For me, the biggest selection point was the five miles or so after the second wash in which the terrain was slightly uphill with some distinct hills (ending in the three rollers). It included four or five short segments on subdivision streets. There was no opportunity for building momentum, and there was little value in a group if you could find one. “Selection” indeed.
I knew that the first river wash was at 8 to 8.5 miles. That first wash was my first mini-segment in my head to give it my best effort until I got past it. I had to learn the wet pavement, make sure my group was going at my race plan pace, stay off the front and settle the mind. As a little self-coaching, I had decided to start happy music in my skull to keep my attitude as cheerful as possible with the weather as it was. So, I imagined a Sara Bareilles playlist early (the misery was already there from that thirty minutes waiting in the platinum corral), but immediately wished I had paid more attention to the lyrics. I couldn’t get through an entire song without stopping to figure out a phrase. “Brave” and “Chasing the Sun” were the go-to tunes for the day. Thanks, Sara.
I recognized the detour of the first wash and became aware of dim sunlight for the first time. That was my cue for paying more attention to my cornering and positioning. With quicker pelotons, I have been disappointed that I lost position in fast turns. I’d start in the front five and end in the last five, a fast fade over a few meters. Some of this is confidence within a group and with my own skills, but at least half of this is keeping the head up and paying attention to how this works (okay, maybe a little experience doing it, too). It was in my personal checklist for the day and, with that detour, I locked in on it and didn’t get disappointed in a corner for the balance of the day.
My group was perhaps fifty riders at this point. I stayed off the front. I think whoever was on the front was enjoying it, because there was little-to-no rotation. Whenever a corner or adjustment arose, I dropped back a position or two, just to lock in my avoidance of the workhorse lead spot. I guess there’s a cycling mantra in regards to those who take pride from leading a pack for miles and long pulls: “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em” is to the endurance cyclist's “use ‘em if you get ‘em”. No problem.
The rain delivered on some particular difficulties. First, I now know that the city streets of Tucson have few storm sewers and no drainage. Water collects and stands where it falls, as it has no place to go. The more rural, perimeter roads of Tucson run amidst a hard desert table earth that absorbs as little water as the concrete of the road itself. So, the constant pitter patter of El Tour 2013 was a constant refreshing of things to be avoided. You didn’t know what was under a puddle, whether it was a pothole, slicker than other paths or deep enough to really slow you down. In a few places, law enforcement had placed cones around a puddle indicating something sinister of which I will never know. You just had to pay close attention.
The cold, in a hellish partnership with the rain, delivered on difficulties, too. I lost small motor skills in my fingers after about an hour, especially in my left hand, which made shifting rings very hard. By the end of the ride, I was basically using the palm of my hand to get the job done when needed. I guess because I was shifting more often with my right hand, it never got quite so bad as the left.
The media has documented several cases of hypothermia from Saturday’s El Tour, but I don’t think I saw anyone really in trouble until the last few miles. Those I did see shivering on the bike were less dressed than I (and probably lower body fat) and that’s the only difference I can imagine. My VQ friend K. C. from Naperville, Illinois was taken off the course by someone when she got off her bike at the second river wash, visibly shivering and responded to a question with some sounds that they took as borderline delusional. K. C. was taken next to a fire, wrapped in a blanket and embarrassingly photographed for the Arizona Daily News documentation of the freakish day. I never got that cold, somehow.
I was successful in hanging with my 22+ mph group all the way to the second river wash at mile 47/48. I will admit a little pang when I recognized the approach roadway from the prior day’s reconnaissance, realizing the test of non-cycling skills was not to be avoided in a few short moments--they did not close it or detour us. A few hours later, this segment would be re-routed and closed, trapping those who had passed the detour point barreling towards the wash only to be turned back. I heard this was a few hundred people and that it closed a little after noon (I would have passed through around 9:30 am).
My plan for the river wash from Robbie’s and Dan’s guidance and from my personal association of this with gravel roads I have ridden, was to stay on the bike rolling as long as humanly possible. It has to be faster to roll than to carry the bike and attempt to plod through wet sand in cycling cleats. In other words, I was going to minimize time off the bike come hell or high water (odd reference intended). AND that worked. I rolled a good ¼-mile before the drop down to the ravine forced everyone off the bikes because of the depth and looseness of the sand on the bank. It wasn’t that bad in the end. After a few nervous moments banging my Speedplay cleat on the pavement because it was clogged with gunk, I was back on my way.
Without a doubt, the river wash broke up the group of 50 into solo riders. Only one person at a time could chart the line down the driveway and across the ravine. The gentle inclines, quick turns and short streets of the subdivision did the rest of the destruction of a peloton. Prior worries about making a wrong turn (go figure: the route of El Tour is not marked on the road in any way whatsoever) were not realized as law enforcement and volunteers blocked the incorrect alternatives. And then came the hills.
The first hill out of the subdivision was the steepest of the day, but short enough to visualize 100% on the bike. The data will really tell, but I think I attacked it and did not hold back, because I remembered a good descent during which I could recover. I also thought the descent was a moment in which I could use my momentum and strength to catch up to a handful of riders in hopes of reforming a group of worker bees and windshields. The recovery on the descent happened, but the group did not. As I accelerated down the hill and turned right onto wider pavement, few riders lay before me. My thought was that such would be okay for a little while: I had the climbs of the three rollers ahead which would be solo work. I needed the group after the top of that third roller.
It was on the rollers that a moment of levity and oddity occurred. Pushing up the first hill, I passed a guy on a recumbent bike. What kind of idiot or badass wants to do this event on a recumbent?!? And, as I was chuckling to myself and cresting that hill (stuck on lyrics again, I’m sure), he passed me like a rocket going down. Perhaps a human on a recumbent is more aerodynamic, because it is rare that someone passes me on any downhill. But it looked funny and was odd enough to keep spirits lighter than the moment argued.
Another thing that happened on the rollers was a confidence builder: I was passing other riders. Maybe they were registrants for shorter distances and taking it easier, but it didn’t matter, I had enough strength to pass on uphills. I glanced at my Garmin and noticed power numbers above 400 watts, so I knew I still had some zip and was doing fine on the day--a good boost of information.
Two other critical things happened at that point, too, as I had achieved the pivot point in my race plan: 1) I had to make an assessment of nutrition and natural break needs and 2) I understood how important focus had been up to this point.
Nutrition had gone close to plan. I had taken in three Endurolytes per half hour and was not feeling serious muscle fatigue. Cadence was still up around 88 to 90 most of the time I needed it. However, my total focus on keeping my head up to avoid problems on the road and to make best use of other riders had left me not sipping hydration every ten minutes like I normally do. Because of that or nerves or fate or intake of rain water through a gaping mouth, I didn’t need to “go potty” yet. I had only drunk half my bottles and was three hours into El Tour. Did this mean I was due cramping, shutdown and bonking in the coming miles? Did this mean I needed to “catch up” by downing what I had in short order?
I chose not to follow the “catch up” strategy because I remembered something in the Hammer propaganda about the body only being able to absorb so much stuff over any period of time. I think the message was that too much fluid did not mean “hydration to the rescue”, it meant “natural break imperative” coming sooner. I felt okay too, so I didn’t feel like I needed to adjust anything too much. I had the three gels in my jersey pocket as quick, emergency energy, but I couldn’t get to them without stopping because of my multi-layers of clothing and lack of use of my fingers for small things. What to do?
I consciously backed up to the mini-goal idea. I didn’t know when or where the next aid station would be, so my revised plan was to work with what I had and pedal with a purpose until I had to stop for a chemical toilet or unfortunate vegetation. I would also back off of the Endurolytes to three per hour as I wasn’t taking in enough fluids to flush through what I was taking in. I need to take sweating into this equation, but that was a total unknown in the rain, cold and wind of the day. In the end, this plan worked. I never cramped. I guess I had hydrated in the days before the event sufficiently, too. (Robbie made us stop at a convenience store the prior afternoon to buy an “extra” half-gallon of bottled water to drink for the balance of that day and I had chugged down a good bit of it.)
The focus thing through halfway was a little surprising. First, to the negative, I realized I had rarely adjusted my hand position, so I was contributing to the numbness in my fingers by putting my weight on the heels of my hands constantly without release. I was doing this first because I needed it for bike control on the rainy roads and in the larger group. I was doing this second because it was so miserable that I wasn’t thinking about it. With this little 50-mile assessment, I knew this was a problem and adjusted for the balance of the trip.
Secondly, and to the positive, I wasn’t looking at my data as an obsession. The race plan had to do with group riding and a solid effort to the top of the third roller at about mile 50. It did not have to do with wattage. I was thinking I could make up for any loss in speed from terrain or the river washes on the second half of the course (which ended up not being entirely true). And, with the rain, the screen was obscured almost continually. At the 50-mile gut check, I decided to stay with this for the most part: work the people and the terrain as long as I was not losing speed to my average. If I was losing speed, I thought I’d need to start giving chase from one solo rider to the next as long as I felt good. Thank goodness, that never was necessary.
What did happen was that small groups began to reform. Coming off the third roller, I saw a bundle of three riders 100 meters or so ahead. I put in the effort to bridge to them and quietly sucked the back wheel until they noticed me and decided I should be part of their workload. As I did, I realized that I was stronger than they were and we fractured into two groups of two. Before I had to make a decision about what to do about two guys pedaling at 22 mph and wanting to go faster, but not having a prayer to keep that up forever, a larger group came from behind and engulfed us.
The group was about 25 of which 15 were wearing a jersey proclaiming “El Grupo”. The visual was that most were 17- to 18-year-olds, fresh meat to my cycling eyes. Maybe they would produce the speed and give cover until the next aid station assessment on bathroom and nutrition. It turns out they had what I understand as “poor group skills”. Although one kept shouting encouragement to share the work and organize, they never, ever did. The same three or four guys pulled for 15 to 20 minutes. There was no rotation. The group did not stay tight front-to-back or side-to-side. No one was reading wind direction, so the only alignment was a general get-exactly-behind-the-next-guy line.
As an aside, the rain meant it was never a good idea to get directly behind somebody because of the “rooster tail” of water coming off the tire. Robbie had correctly suggested a slightly off-center approach would make one happier--he was so right. He also suggested reading the wind continually for a back-left or back-right choice that would be energy-saving. Right again. And, when I was looking for another echelon rotation or sharing of the pull, none came until El Grupo was sufficiently diluted in the peloton to have no effect on the result.
Our group picked up others barreling forward into the grayness and the speed got inconsistent, which frustrated me. But it was getting quick enough that I was picking up 0.1 mph every mile or so (okay, so I was watching one element of the data at that point). And, then we turned onto Tangerine Road with a tailwind. The forecast was for winds of 12 to 15 mph. I doubt that’s what it ended up (more like 20 mph), but it was enough with a long, straight, slightly downhill run to create incredible speed. The map will tell the distance, but all I remember was that suddenly I was traveling at 30 mph and barely pedaling at all. I picked up momentum to the point that I moved up to the front five or six of the peloton and balled into a position to soak up as much of the gift as I could and it was incredible. We had to be picking up riders falling off of the front groups, but I didn’t notice.
The warp speed came to an end with a 90-degree turn. Now, the “gift” was a wicked crosswind that many did not know how to manage. My sailing skills came back from prior avocations and I went to the lee side of the peloton to avoid the beating. Speed dropped to the upper teens and we marshaled forth toward Frontage Road and the stretch returning to downtown Tucson.
As we snaked through an industrial area toward the interstate, a group came into sight on the horizon. I don’t think I had been passed by any rider all day to that point, with the exceptions of the recumbent guy going downhill and the break-up of the group at the river wash. So, I figured that group on the horizon had to be a bundle of the fastest riders beginning to flag and I felt good enough to try and move up a little.
It is also important to note that I didn’t know where I was versus the goal of five hours or less on the day. The distances reported and online (Map My Ride and Strava) did not agree from 111 miles to 104 miles. Then we had the detour of the first wash (and I didn’t know whether that added or subtracted distance). With the elements, I figured I/we had a little grace coming on time, so I settled on trying to maintain a five-hour 100 miles, which I think would be proud for 90% of amateurs on a bike on most days. And so it went forth.
It was then that I found myself at the front, exposed to the crosswind and to the natural headwind of cycling (and the blowing rain that went with it). I wanted to bridge to the next group and apparently no one was interested from my group. I made the decision to go. Five seconds in, another latched onto me yelling, “never bridge solo!” I yelled back, “so are you going with me?” to which he did not answer. He didn’t have to. Within a moment, the peloton behind me “got religion” and followed. We gained the wheel of the group before us in nice time.
There were several spots on the course where we were routed down to two- and three-lane, one-way access roads and for which law enforcement had created a barrier giving us an entire lane of the road as a bike lane. Glorious! The trade-off for the width of nice pavement without debris was riding alongside an interstate with the noise and pollution of the traffic and such as Frontage Road with the heavy crosswind. It was Frontage Road onto which we turned as we caught the forward group.
The thought of stopping for nutrition or a break was now tabled. I did not want to lose the group and I was yet to feel worse the wear for it.
My hunger was to move up again, but I also wanted to take the moment for some recovery away from the front and wind. As I wove up the peloton for position, I came up to a baby blue and white Trek with a rider boldly wearing a yellow GEICO poncho flapping to the annoyance of all. This bike also had small cameras attached…Robbie! I found out later a quirky side story of Robbie blowing a tire and getting dry gear and a new wheel from someone on the side of the road. That’s why he wasn’t further up the road and I could catch him. BUT, even with his immediate charming of someone out of equipment, I had caught him and that was a little inspiration. There were others of the VQ “big boys” in this group, too: the Chicago crowd that look lean and fit and stick together. Wow! The fat kid had found them and was on the team for a moment. So I tempted fate and scrolled my computer to check distance: mile 85…just 15 to 20 miles left, less than an hour if we kept speed. I could make that.
But, the group did not keep speed. At one moment, we were surging to 25 mph and then backing off down to 16 mph the next. We were catching other forward groups and giving up none. I kept with it. At times, Robbie or another rider would sort of attack off the front. I gave chase every time. Knowing how competitive he is, I thought if I could hold Robbie’s wheel, I would at least be proud amongst the VQ team in this peloton. It was at that moment that he said to me: “Only five miles to go. If you’ve got it in the tank, don’t leave it. There is no reason to be #120, if you can be #100.”
OK, I did have it in the tank, but didn’t want to go off the front alone and look stupid when I burnt the match totally. What I did was hold through the turns and focused on the thought of the straightaway to the finish line up 6th Street. And that’s what happened. I turned on the burners and stayed in the front half-dozen of the peloton as we accelerated. The crowd got tighter and some anxiety was apparent in the language of the pack. I ignored as much of what was going on as possible and followed the lead wheel. (There is a little story here, but I'm trying to keep the essay as a whole to a PG-13 Rating.)
We crossed the finish before I realized it was coming. Robbie was just behind me (one second in the official results). The data shows the other VQ boys in our peloton within 3 to 5 seconds of my time, but 15 to 25 people back, that’s how thick it was. All of 5 VQ riders, including Dave Noda, finished ahead of us. The race clock cut us off the 5-hour mark by seconds, so I did not make “platinum” by that amount…no allowance or grace for the weather.
Standing in the rain amongst the finishers, I was happy and validated. I finished with a very, very respectable peer group and not faltered from the elements, nutrition or fitness (somehow the least of my worries at El Tour). The official result was 5:01:23.83, #108. The newspaper results reflect 1,614 finishers for the century plus route. It does not list the number that didn’t finish or didn’t show up.
It took less than five minutes for someone to suggest that we avoid the crowd and more El Tour and return to the hotel, posthaste. I was up for that and took off with a couple other VQ riders. The hot shower, hot food and rest incentive was too much to pass up. Also, the thought of standing in line for a “gold” medal for the event seemed demeaning, all things considered.
The Lessons in my Head
- When asked publicly by Robbie at the victory dinner for lessons learned, what came off the cuff was, “it was all X-factor”. In other words, the things that were fresh in my mind that got me through the day weren’t the fitness, speed, power, cadence, etc. of cycling. They were a list of aspects of riding wisely. But, upon reflection, I know that wasn’t the real truth. Lesson #1 was that I had the cycling fitness that I wanted and needed “in my pocket”. I didn’t have to think about it. THAT is an awesome and powerful notion. It also makes me wonder and be inspired by what could be if my shin wasn’t swollen and I was a few pounds lighter. AND it means that the equipment and mechanical stuff I have is just fine to compete as I want.
- Keep your head up. This sounds silly, but it is very true to me. As one bears down, the natural tendency is to look down or only to the wheel just in front. However, the hazards and opportunities lie further ahead. Maybe helped a little by the rain on the screen of my Garmin, unreadable without a swipe, I kept my head up all day and I gained confidence from it. The rain and wind made keeping one’s head up to read the road even more important, without a doubt. So, the more the elements are present, the more the focus.
- The hazards on the road and the elements are owned by everyone, what makes a difference is how one uses them. I can quickly fall into a mindset on the bike in which I am continually assessing myself against the elements or aspects of the ride, like hills. And, of course, if I’m riding alone or off the front of a local event, there is more of the end story in “man against Mother Nature” than when you’ve got a group.Some of this is natural and healthy, some of this comes from training solo most of the time and some of this is good ole “race” planning. However, this needs to be balanced against what one can do with the other riders on the road: organizing for sharing the work, positioning to keep out of trouble at the back of a pack, conserving energy, taking advantage of topography to gain advantage, resetting the mind for the next element and “kicking the can down the road” (my term for segmenting the effort--just do well until the X point and then reassess, which makes 100+ miles at 20mph+ easier).
- Road hazards and conditions can be a constant drone, but they can add an interesting element to occupy the mind. Weird and torturous, but true.
- Water on the road isn’t nearly as challenging as deep water on the road. Deep water is an unknown (could be a pothole under the surface) and it slows the bike down instantly. I knew this, but El Tour made it all the more clear.
- A crosswind is a beast and the trigger for even more focus on x-factor elements. I can’t just wait it out.
- The fastest group on the course is taking the same breaks the 1 mph slower group is taking, they’re just further down the road. So, the truth is that pushing early into the faster group is not giving up recovery entirely, it is just burning a modest match earlier.
- I hate to take a lesson from my nutrition at El Tour, but it did teach that I could stretch things in those conditions on that day. I might be able to do it again on another day or I need to plan for not stopping and treat it as a bonus if I can (like I did at Clarksville this September). I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me earlier, because it makes more sense to plan for your best day and best effort.
- PUSH over those hills if you can see the top and plan recovery. Attack. This is different from the strategy of gauging the effort by pitch and wattage and holding to a climbing plan. If it is a hill I can knock out at VO2 level, I can recover quickly enough that this isn’t too much at the expense of the rest of the day.
- Group skills (organization, alignment for the wind, appropriate sharing of the work at the front, echelons, distance between wheels front-to-back, distance between riders side-to-side, communication, etc.) are a virtue. Perhaps a third of riders on days like El Tour have them, but there is little I can do about it. So, take them when you find them and work around them when you don’t.
- I’m not sure about the on-the-fly advice I got about not chasing solo. I get it, but if the group I’m with is not organized or inspired it seems to me to be worth the effort if I can see the group ahead at a reasonable distance.
- The companion of the “don’t chase solo” statement is perhaps that one needs to work on how to inspire a group. That’s a tough one as the group has differing skill levels and differing goals…have to think about that.
- The Boy Scout motto is “be prepared” and it applies to cycling as well. When heading out to an experience like El Tour, one needs to be self-sufficient and prepared on nutrition, on-the-road repairs, clothing, etc. I was ready and equipped for El Tour in most ways, but not others.
It would be a tragedy not to add to this essay a comment about the coach behind the effort. I was prepared and able for El Tour because of my work with Carlos. He was there with me on the bike. I cannot conceive of an aspect of what I did or how I did it that does not stem from his planning for me and the attitude he brings out in me every day. So, the final lesson from El Tour was simply a validation of the incredible things that can happen with a superior coach.