Doing the Tour de Scottsdale hadn’t been in my long range plans. I only signed up for it a few weeks beforehand, on a whim. Wasn’t even sure why, other than the fact I’d never done it before.
But I’m sure glad I did sign up, for it turned into a nice outing — even if it was a suffer-fest the last few miles.
I had no expectations coming into this event, other than feeling I probably wouldn’t be riding very fast. I could tell, via my weekly group training rides, that my meager hill-climbing prowess had gone incognito. I think it went missing in August, when I was off the bike for almost three weeks, and was instead stuffing myself on the cuisines of Montreal and Quebec City. Seemed worth it then …
But all in all, I was surprised at how enjoyable this ride turned out to be.
Tour de Scottsdale route — 68.2 miles, 3000 ft of climbing
Market Street, DC Ranch, Northeast Scottsdale, Sunday, Oct 4, 2009
Maybe it was the full moon hovering on the western horizon, intermittently hiding in the desert sky, behind fluffy clouds that had the feel of rain, but carrying little threat. Maybe it was arriving at the staging area at 5:30 am, and finding plenty of parking spaces close by, and then easily finding a place to prop my bike along the security fence near the front of the start line. Maybe it was the relaxed feeling at the start. Even with the 1,200 or so riders, there was no sense of mad scramble for a good starting position that plagues similar rides, like the Tour de Phoenix, and the famed El Tour de Tucson. Maybe it was those fluffy clouds being lit by the rising sun, in hues of orange and gold that rendered the McDowell Mountains to the east in silhouette. Maybe it was the just-right, 72 degree, almost humid (humidity in Phoenix?) breeze that enveloped me as I sat down along the sidewalk near the start, leaning my back against a post that did its part to hold up the covered bridge that served as the starting area. Maybe it was the lively music playing through the loudspeakers, loud, but not so loud as to be annoying. Maybe it was the Christmas lights that lined the street, further enhancing the festive atmosphere.
But whatever the reason, I started the Tour de Scottsdale in a relaxed, “yoga” state of mind.
The ride was split into three events, starting at different locations, but all sharing the same course: sanctioned US Cycling Cat 1 & 2 men and women’s races, and then the “citizens” race for the rest of us. I’m sure this splitting up of the riders had a lot to do with the more relaxed feeling at the start — that and the fact we had a “rolling start”, being escorted for the first mile or so by ride officials. This prevented the crazy and often chaotic sprinting that usually accompanies events like these. There were no people cutting in front of you, forcing you to the curb. No touching of wheels, no water bottles to dodge. Those that have done rides like Tour de Tucson know what I’m talking about.
“It’s a ride, not a race.” — Yeah, whatever.
Speaking of Tour de Tucson, and its sister ride Tour de Phoenix, I’ve done these rides on many occasions, but stopped doing them the past year, for several reasons. (Side note: Tour de Tucson and Tour de Phoenix are put on by Perimeter Cycling. However, Tour de Scottsdale is put on by a different organization — DCB Extreme Adventures.) The first reason is due to the nature of these events. They are billed as “rides, not races.” They do this, I’m sure, out of liability concerns. But each participant is timed (they even go out-of-the-way to give you a timing chip), and the results are posted. That makes these races in my book.
Oh, sure, you can ride easy in these events if you want. It’s just that, for me, I can’t. I might say I’m going to take it nice and easy, and just enjoy a day out in the sun, but that never happens. Like many people, I get sucked into the occasion, and the next thing I know, I’m riding hard. Having the results posted means I just have to strive for my personal best, otherwise, I’ll regret it afterwards. That means hours and hours of suffering during the ride. (I’m partially joking here.) Might as well admit this psychology up front and make a race out of it.
In the case of rides like Tour de Phoenix and Tour de Tucson, wanting to post a good time means being ready to go at O’Dark Early. (You have to be at the start at least two hours before the race begins). Otherwise, you’ll have trouble parking anywhere close by, and you’ll be stuck at the back of the line, with the slower, more inexperienced riders. And nothing’s worse (read: unsafe) than having to pick your way through the masses to find riders at your own level.
I don’t mind the O’Dark Early part — I’m often up at 5 am to go riding anyway. It’s just that if it happens to be late March (Tour de Phoenix), or late November (Tour de Tucson), it can be downright chilly. I remember one year at Tour de Tucson it was a balmy 42 degrees at the start. And those of us wanting to be near the front had to stand in line for over two hours under such temperatures. Not exactly conducive to putting out your best performance. Many just brave the chilly temps. Others wear extra clothing before the race starts. But then, what to do with said clothing when the race begins? Carry it with you? It’s a great irony to be burdened with clothing you’re only going to need the first few miles. Do you give said clothing to a non-riding buddy as the start time approaches? Many do this. And many simply bring along raggedy clothes they don’t mind discarding at the start line. In fact, it’s almost expected for this to occur at the Tour de Tucson, and all the discards are gathered up and given to local charities (or so I’ve been told.)
Frankly, I was getting tired of this cold, early morning “hurry up and wait” scenario, so I decided to give the “Tour” rides a rest. I figured the Tour de Scottsdale would be no different, and then went ahead and signed up for it anyway! Ha!
It turns out the Tour de Scottsdale had none of these problems. For one thing, it was a nice, pleasant 72 degrees. For another, because the “real racers” were off at their own starting areas, nobody at the civilian start seemed overly concerned about their start position. There were plenty of gaps near the front even 15 minutes before the gun went off.
And they’re off! … Oops!
The “gun” did go off … twice. The first time, it wasn’t really a gun, but apparently the blown tire of some unfortunate soul. That sent the first riders off with a bang, only to be called back once the announcer figured out what was going on. The second time was for real, and due to the escorted start, we had a nice gentle roll-out.
I like the gentle roll-out. It works in my favor, for my legs don’t care much for rapid starts. I’m not a sprinter by any stretch of imagination. Me, I’m Mr. Endurance, often joking to my riding buddies that it takes me 20-40 miles before I feel warmed up. That’s not far from the truth.
Trouble was, I didn’t have 20 or 40 miles of warmup. Within a few miles, I’m riding in Zone 5. Yeah, that Zone 5.
I’m trying to catch up to riders I know, riders I had seen at the beginning, including one gal named Paula. At the start she had told me she was introducing a mountain biking friend to road biking, and was going to “ride slow.”
Paula had been about 10-15 yards in front of me at the start line, along with other members of the Phoenix Metro Bicycle Club. It takes me several miles of all out effort to catch up and stay with that group. Within 6 miles, I manage to burn a large number of matches stored in my meager energy arsenal.
I decide not to worry about it. I decide, since I’ve already blown my strategy of starting out easy and slowly picking up speed, I might as well see how long I can last in Zone 5. Then I can blow up and ride like a plodding burro the rest of the way. Ha!
It wasn’t quite that bad. By the time we reach Dynamite Blvd, (about ten miles into the ride), the pace settles back to a more reasonable Zone 4.2. It’s a nice race pace — one that if all goes well, I can maintain till the end.
I make it to the Shell Station in Carefree averaging 21 mph. Not bad for the 1-2% steady climbing we’ve done to this point, (and also, my best time ever up this climb). Paula stops to wait for her friend, and I keep on chugging. Soon, I encounter Pat, a rider from the group I train with during the week (TriScottsdale). We huff and puff our way to the top of Pima Rd, and descend southwards at a nice but not earth shattering 22-26 mph. There is a very strong southeast headwind. I stay out of the wind as much as possible, tucking in behind several guys in what soon becomes a very long pace line.
Stay outta the wind, bud!
After 6 or 7 miles, we turn up the first big climb of the day, Dynamite Hill. This hill is 3.5 miles long, mostly 3-4% grade, some 6% here and there. I feel good, posting my best ever time up this hill (14.2 mph avg). How did this happen? I shrug. I’m not going to look that gift horse (or is it burro?) in the mouth. We are now 30 miles into the ride — right at the distance where my legs usually start feeling good and warmed up.
My only goal is to stay with the pack. I don’t want to be dropped, for coming next is the descent down Nine Mile Hill, (it’s just like it sounds), and I don’t want to be stuck out in the wind by myself, and be robbed of all that “free” speed, going down this long, long descent.
I succeed in staying with the pack, and we cruise down hill at a steady 27 mph, with occasional bursts to 30 mph. I’ve gone down Nine Mile Hill on many occasions, and have learned over the years that this particular hill can fool you. You think the pedaling is easy, so you move to the front, into the wind, and hammer away for miles and miles. It’s very easy to get your heart rate into Zone 5 territory, if you’re not paying attention. And then the bottom of the hill comes and you turn south into the flats of Rio Verde, soon encountering a series of rollers. It’s here that you realize just how how hard your legs had been working, on that seemingly “easy” downhill.
I keep this in mind as I zoom down the hill in the pack, staying out of the wind as much as possible. The wind is now coming at us diagonally from the right. Experienced riders know to form little echelons (think geese flying), and that’s where I position myself, just behind and to the left of the rider in front of me. I pedal only when I absolutely have to. Some poor soul spends most of the time up front. Yeah, I was an unabashed wheel sucker — but so were most of the people in the group.
As we approach Rio Verde at the bottom of the hill, I happen to glance down at my GPS and see my average speed. (I try not to look at my average speed during rides like these — it’s often too discouraging.) But hey, 21.5 mph isn’t bad. Even so, I know I’ll be hard pressed to maintain this pace to the finish.
I miss the memo
Somewhere along the way to Fountain Hills, Pat drifts off the back, and I latch on to another small group. At one point, we go over a roller and the next thing I know, the rest of the group is 50 yards in front of me, just like that. I must have missed the memo — the one that said, “Hey, guys, let’s pick up the speed here.” The wind is strong. There is no way latch back on. I dangle off the back, pedaling slower by the minute. This solo purgatory lasts all the way through Fountain Hills. As I near the turn onto Shea Boulevard, a rather large and unruly pack catches me. I am given no quarter, being forced over to the curb in a rather annoying way. It’s the only unsafe moment of the ride.
Lurking in that pack was Pat, and also Paula, who had somehow managed to crawl her way back to my position. By this time, my energy is sagging. I should have stopped at the previous sag station to take on more fuel. I should have been drinking the Heed/Perpetuem mix that I had. My usual rule is 20 miles per bottle. For this 70 mile ride, I should be going through at least three and a half bottles. Shoulda. Coulda. But no, I had not-a. I had downed only one of my bottles, along with some gel. And now, since there was only twenty miles to go, I figured the other bottle would be enough. At this point, taking on extra fuel would do little good. For you see, it was already too late …
The pack inches their way past me. I can do nothing about it. Even so, the hill up Shea Boulevard doesn’t seem all that bad — until I remember the fierce southeast headwind is now a tailwind, giving me a false sense of climbing prowess. I reach the summit and cruise down the other side, soon turning up 136th St and on to Via Linda — a street I know well. From here, it’s a nice downhill for a few miles. I figure I can gain back some time. I figure wrong. One by one, other riders pick me off.
Maybe I can keep up with this guy. Nope. Maybe I can keep up with that gal. Nope. Maybe I can keep up with myself?
I see Paula a tantalizing quarter mile ahead, but the gap never closes. I must have burned my last match up the hill on Shea, and my left wrist is sore, making it hard to stay in the drops. (Note to self: Straighten those handlebars when you get home. No wonder your wrist is sore!)
I turn onto Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, pedaling with determination while taking deep breaths. I know there are two more climbs to come. The first, McDowell Mountain Ranch Road, is not the steepest or longest climb I’ll ever do, not by any stretch of imagination. It’s maybe two miles long, at 2-4% grade. Usually, this hill gives me no pause. But after 62 miles of Zone 4 riding, it feels like a big mountain. I break my rules and look down at my computer. My average speed has dropped to 18.5 mph. I wonder how much further it will drop before the finish.
A heavy-set guy in his mid-60’s passes me, gray hair and all. What was he doing passing me? I try to stay with him. I cannot. On the side of the road, a family of spectators take pictures. He pulls over to greet them. They are obviously part of his family. I keep climbing. Well, more like plodding. Plodding like a burro? Try tortoise. Before I reach the summit, Mr. Gray Hair passes me, again. The last match in my arsenal is now just crumbled charcoal.
One last hill false flat
I know these roads like the back of my hand. You think that would work in my favor. You think wrong. I knew, plunging down the west side of McDowell Mountain Ranch Rd, that there was one more climb to come, right near the finish. And this was the worst sort of climb. A climb that doesn’t look like one at all — a false flat.
I hate false flats. I’d rather be climbing a steep switch back at 20% grade than suffering up a 2% false flat. At least with the switch back, you can see the fruits of your effort. You can be impressed by your climbing prowess. On a false flat, you just feel pathetic.
I feel that way now. I don’t think I could have ridden the last few miles any slower. Well, I suppose I could have, but then I might as well have been walking. I’m exaggerating, of course. My speed wasn’t that bad, but I certainly wasn’t breaking any records. Thankfully, the finish line arrives two miles sooner than expected. (They billed this as a 70 mile ride, but my GPS said 68.2 miles.)
I had hoped to finish with a time under 3 hrs and 30 mins, but was only able to muster a 3:43, at 18.2 mph. Oh well, no matter. In the grand scheme of things, it makes no difference.
The pain in my quads fades away, replaced by feelings of euphoria as I reflect back on the ride. What a ride that was! And a pleasant one at that.
Kudos to the organizers
I didn’t see or hear of any crashes. That can’t be said of other similar “Tours” I’ve done. I never stopped once the entire 68 miles. The traffic control was outstanding. My hats off to the traffic cops and to the organizers of this event, for a job well done.
I’ll definitely keep Tour de Scottdale on my ride calendar for next year!