Tour de Tucson is a race, unlike some charity rides which go to great lengths to avoid being a race.
- Most charity rides let you start when you want; TdT starts with a Big Bang mass start precisely at 7:00 a.m. All 4,500 racers go at once, or try to.
- Most charity rides do not time the riders; TdT uses electronic timing chips on the riders’ ankles and every racer gets an official time and place.
- Most charity rides discourage pacelines and pelotons (large packs of riders in close formation); TdT expects pacelines and pelotons.
Yet, TdT is a citizen race, not a pro race, although many pro riders do enter. All these considerations have immediate implications, even before the start. The biggest difference is in the sheer number of racers. The Tour de France will have less than 200 racers; TdT will have 9,000 racers with about 4,500 in the premier 109-mile division. Here is what happens in a race like this.
Among riders of similar abilities, a peloton will cover ground much more efficiently than a solo rider. So, solo stragglers will be gobbled up by a peloton. The peloton will grow as it consumes slower solo riders and will likely start to move marginally faster with more strong riders to share the lead. Then the weaker riders who are barely holding on to the pace will get spewed off the back of the peloton in ones and twos, where they become solo stragglers to be gobbled up by the next peloton coming up the road, which will be moving a bit slower than the preceding peloton. And thus the race goes, with the gap between pelotons gradually increasing as the miles roll along (at least until the river bed crossings, more on those later). So, if you want a fast time and a highly placed finish, you better get into an early peloton, because very few riders are strong enough to bridge the gap between pelotons, especially later in the race. But to get into an early peloton, you must have a good spot at the starting line since the pelotons begin forming as soon as the gun goes off. But 4,500 racers scrambling for a place at the start will stretch out over several city blocks. The racers at the back of the starting line have no chance of ever seeing the lead peloton. If you want a fast ride, you have to be at the start line very early.
All of this goes to explain why I found myself at 3:45 a.m. on Saturday, November 21, riding slowly in the pitch dark towards the start line in downtown Tucson. I rode past a storage facility I had noticed the day before, but it was hopping now. Somebody was running a night club out of their storage unit. Loud music, cars all over. I made it to the start line by 4:00 a.m. and claimed a spot. I wasn’t nearly the first one there. Several racers were sleeping on the street, even in the chilly forty degree temperatures of a desert night, and dozens more had already claimed their spot. I didn’t want to waste energy shivering for three hours at the start line, so I was wearing three layers of everything and that was barely enough. The time passed slowly as the nervous tension rose. For most riders, a thermos of coffee during the pre-dawn hours meant a full bladder and a long wait in a porta-potty line. At 6:00 a.m., the PA system came on and the last fitful sleepers on the pavement were blared from a groggy sleep to a hyper alert.
Now, one other dynamic comes into play. I was lined up in the Gold section (first-come first-served), with Silver behind me and Bronze way down the street. But ahead of even the Gold section was the Platinum section. This was reserved for very fast riders and most importantly, they do not have to rise early to claim a spot. They can show up 15 minutes before the race and roll right up to the front. But to get into the Platinum section, you have to have credentials:
The primary qualification for Platinum is overall finish time. To qualify, cyclists must meet one of the following requirements:
- Cat #1 or Cat #2 USCF cyclist (essentially a pro level racer; must provide proof)
- A top-ten nationally or internationally ranked cyclist, triathlete or biathlete.
- A Tour De France qualified starter.
- Finished a previous TdT in under five hours.
Since TdT is 109 miles, that means you have to ride almost 22 mph for five hours, even with the river bed crossings, which are a real slog. In my dreams, I would love to qualify Platinum, but I have only once broken five hours for 100 miles and I don’t know how I could cover nine more miles than that in the same amount of time. I didn’t want to try so hard for Platinum that I bonked and didn’t finish at all.
Ten minutes before the start, I begin to shed some, but not all, of my warm clothing. Just then, the officials allowed the Gold section to move forward and close ranks with the rear of the Platinum section. I got caught hobbled with a pair of tights half off and my front wheel not installed on my bike and in the mad scramble to move forward, I lost about a hundred places. But what’s a mere hundred places among 4,500 racers? I finished getting down to my race wear and had a bag of excess clothing. But every other rider has the same idea and the start area would look like a bombed-out homeless shelter with all the discarded clothing lying around. The officials caution us that EVERYTHING left at the starting line will be hauled away as soon as the race starts (and in fact, it does all go to a homeless shelter). I notice the race officials have left their table at the start line unmanned. I ask a bystander to put my bag of clothes under the table, hoping it will be mistaken for belongings of the officials. Maybe I can get my stuff back after the race.
At precisely 7:00 a.m., the gun goes off. A couple of quick turns and we head south, into a southeast wind. Riders start crashing with alarming frequency. Water bottles bounce out at each pothole, which spill more riders. I try to find a balance between riding cautiously, leaving room between me and the cyclist in front. But the convenience of catching a close draft repeatedly lures me onto a wheel ahead of me. But my mantra is:”Don’t trust anybody not to do something stupid.” So I ride in echelon; that is, offset from the rider in front of me rather than directly behind, so that I always have an escape route.
At about mile 8, the first obstacle looms, the Santa Cruz River. And it is an obstacle for two reasons, one of them physical and one of them personal.
- Physical: The Santa Cruz is a dry river bed, which means loose sand. The entry to the crossing is narrow, the bed is loose sand, and the short climb out is steep. Any pelotons that have already formed disintegrate in the crossing. Many riders have to walk the loose sand, some take the opportunity to shed more clothing, and some grab a bite to eat. And on we go, with new pelotons forming immediately after the crossing.
- Personal: Last year at TdT, I came down in a car. Unbeknownst to me, I had DVT (deep vein thrombosis; blood clots in my legs); probably from the long drive in the car. When I started crossing the Santa Cruz last year and hopped off the bike to carry my bike through the loose sand, the jolt of running dislodged my blood clots and they went straight to my lungs. Instantly, I had the use of only a fraction of my lungs. That was the end of my race last year; nearly the end of me. Long story short, my race was over, but it would still be about a week before the necrotic lung tissue killed by the clots would cause serious pain from the decaying tissue. Ultimately, I passed out from the pain. Backwards into an empty bathtub. My recovery has been excellent and I wasn’t worried about a recurrence and I rode right through the Santa Cruz River crossing with no problems, looking for a new peloton as I exited the river bed. But I was still glad to have the Santa Cruz River behind me.
The temperature rose. I pulled off my warm gloves and threw them away. I started to pull off my jacket, which I did not want to throw away. Then I remembered Gerhard Gulewicz ended his RAAM ride in a crash when his jacket got caught in a wheel. So I rode up to the front of the peloton, then swung over to the side of the road and stopped to pull off my jacket and stuff it in my pocket, and still managed to catch the rear of the same peloton. Staying hydrated is also an issue. There are 17 aid stations on the course. But I planned to ride without any stops. To do this, I had to plan my nutrition carefully. I projected that I would need five bottles of liquid with various mixtures. But I only had two bottle cages. So I carried my first bottle in my pocket and pitched it when it emptied. And I had a Camelback containing two bottles worth of fluids. Crew support is not allowed unless you come to a complete stop at an aid station and I wasn’t planning to stop at all.
We turned a corner to head north and finally had a tailwind. The peloton really started moving. More fun, but more dangerous too. I tried to stay near the front without being the lead rider. The “slinky effect” is very wearing if you are farther back in the peloton. As the peloton corners, the lead riders can take the corner without slowing down, but everybody else slows down and then has to accelerate to close the gap. Repeated slowing and accelerating is a lot harder than steady pacing. But if you ride NEAR the front, you are going to inevitably find yourself IN the front as the lead riders pull off for a rest from breaking the wind. Our peloton had grown to about a hundred when we came to the second dry river crossing at Sabino Creek. This crossing was longer, narrower, sandier, and curvier. Nobody was able to ride this one. Immediately out of the crossing were the steepest climbs of the race. The one-two punch of the river crossing and the climbs totally obliterated that peloton and I didn’t see any of those riders again. I saw a group forming ahead of me and knew it was worth a lot of immediate effort to catch them rather than waiting for a peloton to form up behind me and catch me. So I put on a surge and caught a wheel and watched from near the front as we gobbled up riders in front of us until we again had a peloton near a hundred. But everybody wanted a free ride. For a long stretch, only three of us, including me, took turns at the front, pulling a long train of riders (more about the other two in a bit). Did I say train? We approached a railroad crossing and, down the track, a train is coming. The gates aren’t down yet, but just after we cross, the gates do come down and any pursuers get a rest and a bigger gap to chase.
We turn south for the home stretch of 30 miles into the wind. Now, time and distance play through my mind. Could we possibly make it to the finish in less than 5 hours? My bike computer says “NO.” My heart says “Maybe.” But, into the wind? No way. I pass 100 miles at 4:34, by far the best century I have ever ridden. That leaves 26 minutes to do 9 miles, into the wind, to make Platinum. The pace picked up a bit; more riders came to the front to take a pull. We made the last turn, swept under the interstate into the downtown finish and rolled under the finish line just before noon with a time of 4:56. Platinum! After last year’s disaster, I was on the verge of tears at the finish.
Every rider has a story. After the finish, I found the two riders who had shared long pulls at the front with me. One was Troy Huerta. After last year’s TdT, his hips hurt very badly. He had a double hip replacement just six months ago and rode for Platinum today. The other, Dave Elsberry, is an ultramarathon rider. We first met in September at the HooDoo 500 race. Elsberry finished third solo in that race (517 miles in 40 hr 13 min). He thought TdT was a “bit of a sprint.”
I was the fourth 60+ rider (only five of us geezers made Platinum). One of those was John Howard, about whom Steve Gerbig (my RAAM teammate) had this to say: “Assuming this John Howard is the one and only, he's one of the best American cyclists ever: World Ironman Champion, 4-time US road champion, 3 time Olympian, RAAM runner up, and former land speed record holder on a bike at about 150 mph (drafting behind the Summers Brothers streamliner.) Pretty much unbeatable by other 60 year old guys.”
And I even got my bag of clothing back. Six hours later, racers were still coming in.
- Drew Clark
[Drew is UMCA Records Chair. - Ed.]