The following tells the story of how I ended up biking 80 miles around Tucson on a men's bike, wearing a camelback and gym shoes, crying tiny tears of joy...and consequently started a blog...
Let's talk about this picture….
Here I am, wearing a camelback and a grimace. My hand is on the saddle, holding my body weight up because I just rode 80 miles on a men's saddle and my lady parts could no longer bear to touch any surface...
I have been waiting to write about this for years. You see, In 2012, I competed in my first tour: El Tour de Tucson. It was everything I had hoped cycling would be: it was scenic, it was challenging, it made me feel like a real cyclist. But it was also my first race, my first tour, and really my first time biking with more than 3 people. I didn't even have a bike. I learned SO much that I was dying to share all my experiences with my cyclist friends, and consequently ended up starting BicycleBettie.com.
This Saturday The University of Arizona Medical Center El Tour de Tucson presented by Casino del Sol Resort celebrates it’s 33rd year, and for those who are on their way there, or just considering registering for a tour, here are all the things I learned on my first go at El Tour de Tucson:
I had just began cycling before I signed up for the 2012 El Tour, and didn’t really give myself enough time to prepare. The week after the race, my knee was swollen and I was diagnosed with tendonitis, the technical term for how your knees feel after playing “weekend warrior.” I’ll never forget what my doctor told me:
“Have you ever biked that far before?”
“Well, you can’t go from zero to sixty overnight!”
Even if you only have a couple of weeks to train, don’t go in cold. Follow a simple, progressive training plan to help get your butt in gear for the big day. The courses are challenging, but not impossible!
Go to the Expo!
I had never been to an “expo” before my first El Tour, and I thought expos were just for picking up your information packet and buying jerseys. But I was way off. In the days before the event, a giant auditorium is converted into bike-a-polooza - the auditorium is filled with vendors, music, demonstrations, and all kinds of free stuff. One of my biggest regrets was not going earlier to spend more time at the Expo!
Prepare for rain and shine, sleet or snow
El Tour is notorious for being unpredictably inclement. The year I competed, it was a perfectly sunny 72 degrees, but in past years there has been rain and even sleet, so pack options so you can dress appropriately on the day-of.
Plan for the Masses
Every year during and leading up to El Tour, downtown Tucson is inundated with nearly 10,000 cyclists - which obviously makes traffic and parking an issue, and can overwhelm local businesses. So be part of the solution… not part of the problem. Avoid driving when possible, make reservations at restaurants in advance, and be patient.
Choose Your Hotel Carefully
Let's be honest, you don't need anything fancy… but a free continental breakfast is key. Here are some other hotel hacks that may help your tour:
- Like many long-distance tours, El Tour has several length options, with different start locations. We mistakenly booked a hotel near the main start line, but not our start line. We ended up biking 20 extra miles (around in circles) to get to our start.
- Also, a lot of the hotels give discounts for participants, so feel free to ask.
So there I was, ready for my 80 mile bike ride, camelback loaded with water and snacks. I didn’t realize there are pit stops every few miles with water, snacks and toilets… If you are racing for time and in a hurry, the volunteers will even run out to you, hold your bike and top off your water bottles and shove a sugar cookie in your hand. It’s a full-service kind of tour :)
Know the Rules
Well, here I am again. Killin it. Eventually someone told me (kindly) about the headphone thing.
Some rules for El Tour: Helmets are required, but No Aerobars, no two-ear headphones, no peeing in public, no drafting off cars or receiving help from unregistered bandits (aka “bandits” - possibly my favorite El Tour terminology). If any of this is surprising to you (like the headphone thing!), review the rules here.
Every year there are crashes, and some have even been fatal.
- The most common crashes happen right at the start at the race, when everyone is packed up. Crashes also tend to happen when rounding corners and when people stop short.
- I would recommend giving ample space to families riding with little kids, who may stop more frequently or abruptly than older riders.
- In past years, weather has also proven hazardous. Avoid ice and use your best judgment when crossing puddles.
- There are police and race volunteers directing traffic and cyclists at every junction, so please follow their directions, especially because not all roads are fully closed and they might be aware of traffic situations that you cannot see.
Test Your Gear BEFORE
I didn’t own a road bike. I borrowed one from a friend, another female sometimes-rider. Neither of us were experienced enough cyclists to realize it was outfitted with a men’s saddle. You try riding 80 miles in a men’s saddle and we can have a conversation about pain.
Plus, I had never ridden the bike before and was tripped up by the shifters. I had somehow shifted into the most difficult gear at the start of the race and - looking up at the mountain foothills I was headed for - had to swallow my pride and ask one of the bike patrol guys to help me shift out. Talk about being red-faced. So save yourself some pain and embarrassment and go for a mid-length trail run to work out any bugs.
Enjoy the Scenery
I really regret not taking photos while on El Tour. It’s such a scenic route, and if you’re not racing for time I really recommend stopping and taking a few pix along the way.
Thank the Volunteers
A tiny tear ran down my cheek as I chugged my way up a defeating foothill, wind in my face, a complete stranger cheering me on, whistling and shaking pom-poms. It was like she could see my struggle, and gave me a personal little push.
The people of Tucson make an annual event out of cheering the El Tour cyclists on, creating funny and inspirational signs, and ringing cow bells all along the route. Maybe it was the fatigue of pushing my body to the extreme, or maybe I’m just a sentimentalist, but this outpouring of support and pure joy shared with strangers literally brought tears to my eyes.
Besides the spectators, there are police, medical volunteers, bike patrol volunteers, support station volunteers, and an untold amount of behind-the-scenes people who work year-round to put this together. Please thank them, even if it’s with heaving breath or a tired wave.
Oh… and buy the photo package. You will thank yourself later.