I had a plan. Honest I did. It was a good plan. I would ride very easy for the first 1/3 of the race. Like, way below my normal pace. Then, based on how I was feeling, go harder in the middle 1/3, but still conserving energy for the final 1/3 – the final 30 miles, the last ten of which I knew would be straight into the 15mph+ headwinds of the day.
But I forgot the old joke – “You wanna make God laugh? Make a plan!”
A couple of days before the race, a friend of Hova’s said he was riding the 109, too, but hadn’t trained much all year, knew he couldn’t ride as hard as usual, and so he offered to help me with my first Century by riding it with me. What a great idea, right? After all, he had ridden El Tour many times, had a wealth of experience riding in massive groups (unlike me), and it seemed like it would be fun to ride with someone, rather than riding alone amongst 4,000 others.
I ate a healthy calorie and carb rich meal the night before,and then set out everything for the morning:
I went to bed early, then laid awake until 3:30am when it was time for me to get up and get ready. The NEW plan was for Hova’s Friend to pick me up at 4:20am so we could get down to the starting line by 5am. The race starts at 7am, but HF knew from experience that if you don’t get down there by 5am, then you get stuck waaay in the back with the “crazies” – the people that are out there just for fun, with no concept of safety in groups, no idea about drafting, pacelines, or eating right, or any of the stuff real cyclists must know to conquer long rides. If we get there by 5am, then we should be just right – about the upper middle of the pack; well behind all the speedy folks going for Platinum (finishing in under 5 hrs), and in front of all the crazies riding decorated hybrids, with propellers on their helmets, and singing songs.
Apparently, no one else knew the NEW plan.
We arrived exactly at 5am and found ourselves right behind the Platinum section – that’s the section of elite cyclists who either have already ridden this thing in under 5 hours, or plan to… today. HF thought this was great. We had thousands between us and the crazies. The Unfat Machine and I were not so excited, a feeling of dread coming over us as we glanced around at the Pinarellos and Trek Madones and riders with 0.003% body fat.
Hova arrived on the scene and gave us words of encouragement, then headed up to the Platinum section for his race. About twenty minutes before the start, Queen’s BICYCLE RACE filled the air and I snapped this photo:
I know that looks like a lot of riders in front of us, but it’s only about three or four hundred. The other three thousand eight hundred were all behind us.
They played the National Anthem, and then countdown began. 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… and I was off on my first Century ride. Hova’s Friend instructed me to just stay on his wheel and he would guide me through the insanity of the start. We had to ride a few hundred meters navigating a large median, make a right turn, and then the road would open up and we could relax.
The kinetic energy of that start was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Everyone started slowly, most of us only clipping in one shoe – which I HIGHLY recommend – because people were bumping and stumbling all over. I clipped my second shoe in, keeping HF in my sights – I was right behind him as we made the first right turn. Here is a video of that very right turn at the very start I am talking about. I make the turn about 29 seconds in… notice how many riders come after me.
After the turn, right when I thought it was time to relax and settle in to a nice, easy pace… everyone hit the gas, including Hova’s Friend. I was doing all I could to stay behind him. We hit 21, then 22, then 23mph. For over a mile I was cranking as hard as I could just to keep up – but I couldn’t get close enough to draft, so I was using all my energy just keeping up. At Mile 2, I felt completely cooked. At 2.1 miles I was suddenly Tom Hanks in Castaway, watching Hova’s Friend sail away from me.
At 2.4 miles he was gone. And I was cooked. 106.3 miles left and I was buried. Done. I had abandoned my plan, and the NEW plan worked about as well as New Coke. So there I was, moving over to the right, slowing, trying to catch my breath as hundreds and hundreds of cyclists rolled by me. In the first five miles of the race I saw nine riders on the side of the road with flats, I had to avoid five dropped water bottles, and I saw two crashes. I realized I wasn’t in a bike race or an eating contest…
I was in a war of attrition.
Just under eight miles into the ride comes the first dry riverbed crossing. I was never so happy to get off the Unfat Machine. As I lifted the UM onto my shoulder and proceeded across I glanced back, convinced I would see the last of the 4,200 riders. But I didn’t. There was just an endless stream of them flowing into the crossing. I couldn’t believe it. I had been passed by so many, how could there be more?
At the other side of the crossing I was in trouble because I thought I was beginning to hallucinate. I was sure I was hearing music and seeing Mariachis playing in the middle of the riverbed. I stopped and rubbed my eyes and in the light of the rising sun, saw this:
Yes, the El Tour de Tucson has Mariachis playing in the first riverbed crossing. I smiled for the first time since the race began.
Tears For Fears
After the crossing I mounted the Unfat Machine and continued on, wondering where Hova’s Friend was, but glad that he did not wait for me. One, because I just couldn’t ride like he rides, and two, I didn’t want his El Tour to be ruined because of having to stay with a fat guy in black and orange with an average speed of slightly under that of of the common box turtle.
I rode alone, continuing to try and jump on the wheel of faster riders in order to draft – and recover – but I could never keep up. Looking back, I now know this was due almost completely to my shattered mental state rather than being physically spent. The opening few miles had simply ruined me mentally and emotionally, and then there was the wind. Blowing straight out of the south, it was hammering those who were not tucked in behind someone’s wheel… those like me. I am not afraid to admit to all of you here that I cried behind my Specialized sunglasses at least four or five times in the first twenty miles of this race.
Okay, I’m a little afraid I just admitted that.
Somewhere around the 25-30 mile mark, a rider came up on my left and said, “Team Fatty. Good team to be part of.” I looked over and he was wearing a Team Fatty jersey. I said I hadn’t seen any others out here from Team Fatty. He said, “Oh, we’re here, brother. There’s one right behind me and a couple more.” I said I didn’t think I was going to do the team proud today, that I was already spent. He said, “No. You don’t think about it, you just do it. Come on.” And then he and the second Team Fatty guy let me get on their wheel and these total strangers – yet family members – pulled me for over two miles.
I wept again, but this time not out of despair, but out of… I don’t know why. I just felt like I had a chance. I was able to refocus and start thinking right again. We crested a hill and the first Team Fatty rider began to pull away from the second – the guy I was behind. This Team Fatty was larger than me, and was on a bike that was… let’s just say it was not the most conducive to a 109-mile ride. It was old, and had what couldn’t have been more than 20″ wheels. But this guy had been cranking his guts out to help me.
And now he was suffering. His breathing was labored, and his pace was slowing. I glanced back at him and said, “Come on, get on my wheel.” And he did. And I pulled him up a hill and along a highway until he recovered. Nothing all day felt better than that.
Team Fatty was my Well. And these guys let me drink until I was renewed. Until I could rebound. Until I could share my drink with another. In that moment I knew what this race was all about. And for the first time all day, I thought, “You can do this. You can finish.”
When the Change Was Made Uptown and the Big Man Joined the Band
After my encounter with Team Fatty my attitude changed, going from “I’ve blown it” to “I’m doing this.” I knew I still had forever to go, but we were turning north which would give us a tailwind, and I was determined to find quality packs of riders and get in and draft, conserving energy like my original plan called for.
But I was not having much luck. Perhaps it was because I had fallen so far back in the race that I was among the “crazies” as Hova’s Friend had warned me about. But I could not find anyone to draft with. No one to work with.
And then, there he was. Like a Leviathan rising out of the sea. Like a Wraith out of a bad Charlie Sheen movie (are there good ones?), I saw him. He appeared just briefly right alongside the Unfat Machine.
A man as big as the sky, dressed in a full Caisse dEpargne kit. He was the Big Man to my Bad Scooter.
And he could ride like Clarence can blow. I jumped on this man’s wheel and we averaged nearly 29mph for almost three miles, passing dozens and dozens of people. I could not read his jersey number as the wind had blown it up over his back, so I never found out who he was, how he finished, or anything else about him. He was well aware I was sucking his wheel and didn’t seem to mind. When we would hit heavy traffic and had to maneuver around people, I would make room for him to get in front of me and say, “Take it, Big Man” or “Go, Big Man” and he would go, pulling me along. We blew right by two rest stops and I didn’t care.
I finally lost him on a large hill that he crushed and I just could not hang on. But it was okay. Like my Team Fatty angels, this guy, this BIG MAN, whoever he was, helped me accomplish the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
Fizzhogg of Arabia
The second riverbed crossing came about 45 miles into the race. The 66-Mile event starts just before this crossing and if you don’t make it there in time, they force you to wait while the lead pack of “66 riders” come through. I was one of the last three “109 riders” they let through the crossing. Thank you, Big Man.
The first crossing – the Mariachi Crossing – was hard-packed dirt. This crossing was sand. Deep sand. Carrying a bike on your shoulder through deep sand after riding 45 miles isn’t the most joyous experience I’ve ever had. Throw into the mix several hundred other people doing the same thing, and then add a pack of 30 or 40 completely insane asshats – yes, I’m talking about YOU 66 Riders – and it’s just pure suckage.
As I’m trudging through the sand, here come the 66 Riders. How do I know? Because they are riding, yes, riding their bikes through the crossing, on the far left where there’s little sand, and even less room, and they are screaming at us, “MOVE, MOVE! SIXTY-SIX LEADERS COMING THROUGH! OUT OF THE WAY! SIXTY-SIX LEADERS COMING THROUGH!”
Okay, some might argue I’m jealous, but really? Seriously? You guys are going to come through like that, endangering lives, proclaiming yourselves as “leaders?” Um, point of fact, there 66ers… you ain’t the leaders. The leaders are the folks who started at 7am and have already crushed over 45 miles at a pace you wish you could keep. You want to feel like Alberto Contador and ride in a real lead pack? Then sack up and do the 109.
Those 66ers pissed me off.
I made it through the 1/2 mile crossing, sat down and emptied my shoes of sand. I also decided to lose the wool socks I began the day with and switched to my regular ones. I knew I was losing time, but my time no longer mattered to me. Finishing was my goal. And as I sat there watching these 66 idiots plow through people who actually had the nads to tackle the ENTIRE 109 miles, I thought even more that my time didn’t matter.
Once sand free, I refilled my bottles, ate a Fruition bar and was on my way, anxious to see what lay around the next corner.
Snyder Hill lay.
But after the climbs the UM and I have vanquished back home, I knew I had this. I triple-cranked it up the whole way, never leaving the saddle, never having trouble. I crested the hill, ready to turn onto Sabino Canyon, catch a tailwind and hit 30mph.
But we all had to wait at the intersection of Sabino and Canyon and Snyder because of a traffic accident. And wait… and wait…
Okay, so maybe my time did matter to me some. I wondered if the “66 Leaders” had caused this traffic accident. But luckily it was simply two cars, with no rider involved. After close to six or seven minutes, we were allowed to proceed. And I was on my way, with cooler feet, full bottles, and a positive spirit thanks to Team Fatty and the Big Man.
Tomorrow – The Final 55, Death on Rancho Vistoso, The Cobbles of Rattlesnake Pass, The Winds of Silverbell, and The emotional Finish.
Ride your bike.
Join Team Fatty and listen to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
You’re very good. You are, you are