Within a few miles of starting El Tour De Tucson a few weeks ago, a mantra came to me out of the blue. It was a phrase I’d heard from a co-worker. It was “Calm yo’ tits.” (Hearing it for the first time was doubly funny since it came from the mouth of the most Disney-obsessed young Mormon woman on the planet.)
Here’s the thing: When I rode El Tour De Tucson last year, I rode a high of starting out fast and furious. I was feeling way too good and pushed way too hard when I should’ve saved more for later. I’ve been hanging my head in shame ever since.
This year, I was determined to ride calm and cool – like Spock, Iceman, Arthur Fonzarelli and Jan Ullrich gene-spliced into one El Tour de Tucson-riding machine. I would reign myself in by repeating “Calm yo’ tits” whenever my mood swung. Ripping it up with a fast time? Calm yo’ tits. Feeling like I should be motoring faster? Calm yo’ tits.
To set the stage, last year’s El Tour went beautifully for me until about the 55th mile of the 76-mile race. The route turned up Silverbell Road into a headwind and a slight climb. At some point both my quads contracted. When I finally loosened them up, I could barely spin the pedals without warning signs of another cramp. My average speed went from respectable to laughable. I was literally embarrassed.
I didn’t want that to happen again.
At the last tours – and in fact for most race events I’ve ever done – I’ve relied on gels and Skratch Labs drinks. I can’t even remember exactly where I found two vital pieces of advice: that I was too low on magnesium and that I needed to eat some solid food earlier in the ride and save the gels for later. I do know that my wife, who had four Ironman triathlons to her credit (including one in the 11-hour range) and has actually been coached, had advice for me.
And then there was the pickle juice debate: I was skeptical. It’s just a bunch of salt, right? Well, one of the faster local people pointed out that the vinegar in pickle juice is just as important.
When I lined up for El Tour De Tucson, here’s how I was loaded:
- Two packages of organic fig bars (total of about 400 calories)
A vial of pickle juice
Three bottles of EFS mix, about 100 calories each with a huge hit of magnesium
A bottle of EFS gel for the final stretch
Two Hammer gels just in case
An extra serving of EFS in a Nuun tube
Two packages of electrolyte brews I found at Sprouts
All of this was loaded into either my jersey or my amazing Beer Babe feed bag.
OK, now let’s talk about the ride day.
We started it off by breaking my coffee fast with a perfectly made cappuccino at a place called Ombre; we grabbed breakfast at the adjoining Bisbee Breakfast Club; their baked oatmeal is a perfect way to fuel for a race. It’s also on the big side – two people could pretty much split it.
From there, we made our way to the race start at the east campus of Pima Community College. This is a bit of a chore since Google maps wants to route you up roads closed for the event, and the El Tour map in the race packets isn’t very handy. There’s also not much signage near the start line. This made my wife, who was at the wheel, a bit crazy. It’s really the only criticism I have of El Tour De Tucson – well, that and the absolutely dog-ugly t-shirt that is already pulling drivetrain-cleaning duty in the workshop.
I don’t do this stuff for the t-shirt. I do it for a good ride and a good vibe. Even last year at my worst point, I had nothing but praise for El Tour De Tucson. This year’s tour – from course to volunteers to traffic control – was just as good.
I was Fonzi-cool through the chaos of the first 10 miles. I chatted with a few people and tried to find my happy place … that perfect pace where I can settle into a groove and establish a good base for the race. The course starts off with a bit of climbing, and then a long section of screaming downhill. I held back a bit on the descents, choosing to keep the legs fresh for the later parts of the ride. I ate my first fig bar on schedule 40 minutes in, and finished my first bottle of EFS in the first hour.
The first 18 miles flew by. I stopped for a good pee at the “push a bike” section, and then the course got a bit hilly. There was the steepest climb of the route, and I blew past a bunch of people but also met some people I’d ride with on and off for the rest of the ride. If I were smarter, I would’ve pulled us all into a little group. I’ll give that a shot next year.
The next 20 miles had some climbing, but also more than a few descents to break things up. The climbs were a bit tough, but I rode inside my comfort zone. I largely ignored my heart rate monitor, but dropped to the lowest gear of my 2X11 drivetrain early and spinning it out instead of pushing big gears.
I ride a 1999 Lemond Zurich. It’s been repainted and refitted with a 2016 Ultegra 6800 group and wheelset. It has a slick Ritchey handlebar/stem combo. In the months leading up to the Tour (this year and last year), plenty of new bikes have turned my head. But then I ride this thing in a tour, and it feels like I’m on a monorail. So steady and comfortable. I know it’s not 100-percent future proof with its 1-inch headtube. I’d love at some point to have a road bike with thru-axles, disc brakes and room for bigger tires. But holy cow, it’s really hard to give up on this bike. Really, really hard.
Here’s the interesting part: In analyzing my Strava data afterward, it appears the I climbed faster in 2017, yet descended slower.
How about them apples?
I made my first real stop just before the big Oracle climb. I refilled all my bottles, and dumped my EFS into one of them. I recognized this next 15 miles or so as pivotal for my ride. I resolved to repeat “calm yo’ tits” no matter who I passed or who passed me.
I had some good chats with a guy doing the 100-mile ride, and teamed up shortly with a few different people. Thing is, none of us were paced perfectly for each other. I seemed to be climbing faster, while others hammered the descents or flats. The Moore Road section was a bit desolate, and the surface is pretty chewed up. How rough was it? The rattling would actually ring the little Knog bell on my handlebar!
My confidence was growing here because my legs felt good, but the rest of my body seemed happy, too. No aches, no pains – and I was sharp mentally. I’d stuck to my schedule of one fig bar every 40 minutes, and one bottle of EFS every hour.
At the end of Moore, we had our screaming descent toward the freeway. And toward a repeat of my old enemy … Silverbell Road.
Last year, my legs started to get that funny electric tingle that warns of cramps right when I crossed the I-10. This year? Nothing. Not a twitch. I told myself to “calm my tits” and check in again five miles later. Sure enough, rock solid. I rode into a rest stop a bit up Silverbell, which was the last stop for the ride. I ate half a banana, grabbed some bits of chocolate cookie … and then – I noticed little cups full of pickle slices. Brilliant! Perfect! I quickly gobbled a few cups and topped off my third bottle with Gatorade – I figured better to have something with salt in it rather than just all plain water, especially since I’d used my pickle juice already.
As I rolled out of the rest stop, someone latched onto me. He was moving a bit more slowly than I probably would, but I figured he would help me stick with my “calm yo’ tits” mantra. He turned out to be fun to ride with since he could talk about stuff like long-haul air travel and solar power. He was eventually unable to keep the pace, so we parted ways and I headed out alone.
I hit the 65th mile, than the 70th. Not so much as a twinge of problems from the legs. My back was holding up, and I was still mentally really alert. Silverbell seemed to fly by, especially without last year’s horrible headwind.
Sure enough, the course made its final turn toward the finish line, and I rolled in with a strong finish. I lopped more than 45 minutes off my previous time. The thing is, I could’ve done even better. I had a hard time being disappointed with myself about that because I rode and ate according to plan. I now have a very good idea of what I need to do to avoid cramping and stay focused and dialed in through a good tour. My official results brought me into the top half of the pack, which I’ll take any day!
To really make a big improvement next year, I am convinced that I’ll need to find a few other people to form a pack. If any of you want to join me, I’m gonna aim for a moving average of 17-17.5 mph. Hit me up if that sounds like a good pace for you, and let’s see about working together.
After the race, I refueled with a giant burger at Graze. After some rest at the Varsity Club hotel (which I highly recommend), we headed to the new-to-us Tucson Hop Shop to have beer; I dearly love the beer at Pueblo Vida, but I couldn’t get my head around voluntarily heading into the downtown Tucson traffic again.
I have to say, Tucson Hop Shop is one of the coolest beer bars ever. Such a relaxing vibe – and that stupidly delicious Sri Lankan fusion food truck helped, too.
I am 100 percent on-board with riding El Tour de Tucson in 2018. Again, hit me up if you think it would be fun to ride with me!