El Tour de Phoenix 2008

Preparation:  Another year and another El Tour de Phoenix.  I almost didn’t do the ride.

Six days prior to the ETP, I rode in a GABA sponsored event called “Around the Tanks.”  It was an exceedingly flat ride around the base of the White Tank Mountains, way west of Phoenix.  In scheduling that ride, I figured it either might be a good (flat and easy) tune-up for the ETP, or it might just serve as an end itself, a good solid spring ride to top off the season before the summer heat.

That ride was held last Sunday.  After about 8 miles on the course I met Jules, a 61-year-old female cyclist, and we soon found our riding pace almost perfectly matched.   We encountered some decent winds on the long second leg headed west, and dogged it out Southern Avenue, drafting each other every 2 miles or so.   Keeping pace with Jules was no easy feat either, as she can keep a good 18 mph on the flats (without wind).  Amazingly, we finished the 76-mile ride in lock step with each other, but I felt pretty wrung out.   A final 2 miles straight into the 12 mph headwind with me leading really tested me.  Knees were sore and quads tender.

Cleaned up my bicycle on Wednesday and changed out a rear tire that had worn almost flat.  I then tried to do some fine-tuning to my front derailleur, which is no longer indexed properly.  The cables needed some tightening, but I just couldn’t get the indexing adjusted.  Went down to the bike shop and was told that my chain was so worn out and stretched it was dangerous and about to fall off the bike, and that I needed a new cassette as well.  The mechanic fixed the front derailleur min-max range adjustment while the owner tried to sell me a new Trek Madone 5.5 (I’m not quite ready for that, but…)  He also tweaked the chain tension but told me I only had “a few more miles” left on it.

Rode again on Thursday, a 15 mile flat spin out to Riverview Golf Course for the first round of the new USM golf league.  Played better than usual, and probably blew my handicap for the rest of the season <sigh>.  My riding, however, felt sluggish, legs still heavy and muscles still barely sore.

With this as a preface, I had to decide.  I vacillated all night Thursday, and continued to do so Friday morning.  Kill myself on the ETP or not?   In the end, my logic from last year prevailed.  The ride is right here in my backyard.  Mesa police, Scottsdale police, and Sheriff Joe’s weenies have barricaded every intersection on the route.  It is the premier Phoenix event.  I simply cannot not do it.

I won this Cricket coffee mug during ETP 2008 registration
I won this Cricket coffee mug during ETP 2008 registration

Registered and picked up my timing chip Friday morning, then played another round of golf at Western Skies (Linda dragged me out of course).   I downed plenty of water and several apples during golf, then loaded up on spaghetti and spinach Friday night.  Some good breezes picked up and I started worrying about course conditions for Saturday morning.  The course is tough enough without headwinds or crosswinds.  Early to bed, but not before watching the Suns convincingly take out the Timberwolves.

Up at 5AM, big bowl of cereal, then another apple.  Popped some Tylenol and a Claritin for allergies.  For the ride, I readied the following:  2 Clif bars, full Camelbak of strong Gatorade, and 2 more bottles of Gatorade.   Last year it seemed I had plenty of water but not enough electrolytes, which probably caused my cramping at the end.

I arrived at the race about 25 minutes prior to the 6:30AM gun, and had to hustle to top up the tires, gather all my crap, and head over to the staging area.  This resulted in my positioning about 7/8 back in the starting pack.   As we waited, I recalled last year’s start being cold, but this year the temps were perfect, already about 60F, and with only a slight breeze.   We suffered through a corny unprepared speech, and then a simply fabulous rendition of the national anthem, sung by 4 (or maybe more) guys in barbershop-quartet-like harmonies, with lots of reverb.   I was grinning at the excellent quality of the recording – just awesome.

The gun sounded, and of course, we just sat there for a minute or so as the front riders took off onto the course.  Your personal race time is started at the gun, not when you cross the start line, so a sluggish start can add minutes without reflecting your effort.  To make matters worse, a big group of riders started nudging in from the side entrance, and once they got an initial flow going, it really slowed everyone’s progress.

It probably took 2 full minutes or so to finally get enough speed up to clip in and cross the start line.  The first mile was surprisingly slow.  I assumed riders would be itching to stretch their legs and go, but everyone took it fairly easy.   We rounded onto University, and finally the pace started to zoom.    The slight breeze came out of the east, and we were cranking due west.

I found a pace line, grabbed onto the tail end of it, and soon found myself doing about 26 mph.  I figured it was smart to take advantage both of the wind and of the large number of riders still around me.   As the riders thinned out later on, so would the drafting opportunities.

As we reached Hayden Road and turned north, I tried to keep up the pace, but started slowing.  The winds were increasing and still coming from the east, creating a crosswind drag.  I was also trying to save energy for the 3 climbs I knew were ahead.  Lots of riders cranked past me on our way up to Shea Blvd.

We then headed east on Shea, and fortunately, the breezes had shifted around a little bit, now coming mostly from the south.  Still a crosswind, but mostly not a headwind.   Shea rises slowly at first, then ascends in three steps, with the last leg the steepest.  Here I saw many ambitious but under-prepared riders falling out, either off on the sidewalk resting or shifted down into their lowest granny.  My legs felt heavy up the last climb, so I didn’t push overly hard, but kept up a decent 10-11 mph.

The next descent was excellent, 3 miles or so down through Fountain Hills, then another 2 miles down onto the Beeline near Fort McDowell Casino.  Once on the Beeline, I expected the southerly winds to be helping us, but instead I still felt much more of a crosswind from the east.  That factor hurt us all plenty as the Beeline started a long slow 7-mile rise up to the Bush Hwy turnoff.   I slowed to at least 13 mph and started figuring my race time would be fairly poor accordingly.

I also figured that the southeasterly winds were going to kill us once we made the turn onto Bush Highway.   Making the turn, however, the route starts plummeting downhill to the Saguaro Lake entrance, and I realized that by drafting other riders wherever possible, I could keep up a good speed even into the winds.  Hit 38 mph at the big drop around the lake, crouched down as low as I could get.

I was having trouble with my front derailleur the entire ride.  The mechanic’s adjustments were not to my liking at all, and I swore once at it while somewhere near the lake.  This got a giggle from a cute girl in a pink jersey, and we talked for a while before I passed her going up a small hill.  She later zoomed by me going downhill, yelling out, “How’s the derailleur?”   This continued for about 4 repetitions, with her faster on the descents, and me faster on the ascents, while she grinned and asked for a derailleur status each time.

We chugged up from the lake into a series of rolling hills, and everyone was drafting everyone else as much as possible, still pushing a decent 18-20 mph pace.  About 2 miles short of Usery Pass, I lightened up to try to muster some strength and prevent burnout, and so did a few other riders.  We joined the 25-mile race in progress coming from the opposite direction on Bush and began the long climb up the pass.

The climb is about 3 miles, on average about 4-5% grade, but definitely steeper in some sections.  Within a half mile I was onto my granny chainring, and within another mile I was on my granniest gear, wishing I had even another.   Still, I climbed no slower than 8 mph, not bad.  Like last year, I passed at least 50 riders going up the hill, many of them 72 milers.   This thought helped to soothe the vectors of pain shooting through my legs.  Remembering the cramps of last year, I steadily gulped down the Gatorade.

Nearing the top, I cranked it back up onto the large chainring and stood up on the pedals.  The southerly wind was concentrated at the top of the pass, and drafting became an issue again.  It seems almost unfair to work so hard to get to the mountain’s top, only to then face so much wind that you have to pedal down the mountain too.  I found a pace group and even then we all needed a steady pedaling cadence to descend at only about 23 mph.

The ETP route was changed this year to go straight down Usery Pass Road all the way to University.   This is a very-welcomed change by me, for it allows a straight-shot route to the finish line without crossing traffic (during a descent no less) or encountering an intersection stop.   We soon turned west onto University and flat ground, still keeping a 19-21 mph pace or so.

I knew the final turn up Power would be at the 6400 block, so I watched as the house numbers slowly diminished, 8200, 7700, 7100…  At Sossaman Road, I knew we had only about 2-1/2 miles remaining, but I stayed in the small pack, not wanting to lose the drafting.

We rounded the turn with only a mile and a half left.  Our pack had about 15 riders in it and I was sitting about sixth.   At Adobe Road, with 1 mile left, I decided to make a run for it.  I wasn’t sure if I could sprint (well, sprint is a relative term for me) for a whole mile, but it seemed like the right thing at the right time.   Crouching down as low as possible, I slipped 2 or 3 gears up and started to push, doing maybe 22 mph.

I soon had about 75 yards between me and the group, but still more than ½ mile to go.  With legs really starting to strain, I suddenly realized that I had unintentionally made myself a target.  At any second, I figured that 3 or 4 burly riders were going to scream past me, or that at least part of the group would very soon tuck in behind me for the final stretch, then sling past.  That thought made me push even harder, although I also actually felt like I might hurt something in the process.

In some serious strain, I finally reached the last ¼ mile right turn into the finish line alley, and glanced back in surprise to see the remnants of the group, now a long fragmented line, and now a couple hundred yards back.  I crossed the finish line but didn’t think to look at the big digital clock there, and instead just proceeded to the exit to turn in my chip.  Strolling into the fair grounds, I finally thought to glance at my watch.  The gun sounded at exactly 6:30AM, and my watch read about 10:32AM – hmmm.

The girl in the pink jersey found me about 10 minutes later and asked how my derailleur did on the ride <grin>.

My friend from the Tanks ride, Jules, who I did not see prior to the race, crossed the finish another 10 minutes later.  She of course rode about the same speed as me but did 3 rest stops (I did zero, like my ETP last year).   We hung out for a while until another club rider we both know joined us, and we then went to check out the official finish results.

On the posted results I finally found my rider number #827 and started grinning at my finish time: 3:59:35.   I had no idea that my labored efforts at the end put me just inside the 4 hour mark, and by only 25 seconds.  (All but one rider of that final pace group finished outside 4 hours.)   Using her Garmin 305, Jules told me that the total climbing was about 2,100 feet, and we burned an estimated 4,100 calories.

Unfortunately, the ETP gold medal time was 3:45:00, so I was way shy of that.  Getting a little closer, though.

The dirty details of the race results are below, with a comparison to last year.  Bottom line is that although I definitely improved (I’m real happy with the 18.0 avg), I’m still riding on the slower side of the middle of the pack.  Still, that’s OK with me because it seems I tend to ride with the fast women. <grin>


A couple final notes:

  • I deliberately did not take note of my odometer during the ride nor did I check the time.  I decided it would only serve to remind me of how long or far I had yet to go and thus make it hurt even more <grin>.
  • I can hardly believe that I made it through the entire course without a single stop.  Through every traffic light (if in effect), across all traffic flows on left-hand turns, no waits for traffic at intersections, no mechanical stops, and by election no rest stops.  I had to make one hard brake on the home stretch as a car pulled in front of me – that’s it.
  • No cramps this year!  I attribute that to all the Gatorade.
  • A full Camelbak and one extra bottle were just right.  I returned with one full untouched bottle.
  • I didn’t eat anything on the course.  Never got very hungry, I was too busy riding to fumble with the Clif bars, and they don’t taste all that good anyway <grin>.

Another ETP in the books.  It is a beautiful course and shares many of the same roads that Jack and I rode in May 2007, up the Beeline and by Saguaro Lake.  Riding it for speed is not exactly my idea of fun, but it is a challenging test.  Just like last year, the race is very professionally run and the course is nicely cleared out as much as is possible.

One more thing.   The county or state has repaved the lane going NE on the Beeline Highway, and have added a nice wide smooth shoulder – now all the way to the Saguaro lake turnoff.  Swee-e-eet.

I talked to a number of riders out on the course about their favorite ride in Arizona.  The hands-down winner is the El Tour de Tucson, held each November and sponsored by the same group (Perimeter Bicycling Association of America).  They say to expect an extremely well run event, beautiful course, and almost 10x the number of cyclists as the ETP (over 10,000).  Another possibility for the calendar: http://www.perimeterbicycling.com/!ETT/ETThome.html