I went in to this year's Tour hoping to improve upon my time from last year (4:59). I now had my platinum status and could start with the fast(er) riders, thus, in theory, helping me with this goal. Unfortunately, I did not realize this goal, going about 10-mins slower than last year. Here's how it all happened...
On Friday night, they hold a mandatory, platinum riders meeting. They go over logistics--mostly just telling us to ride safe--and hand out our platinum patches which allow us to line up at the front of the riders the next morning. During the meeting, the speaker said to get to the start at 6am unlike last year's 6:30am. Since we have our spots reserved, we can sleep in a bit more than the other riders who get there at 4:00. Nice.
So I wake up Saturday around 4:30 anyway, get ready, pack the car, and leave the hotel around 5, getting to the start area at 5:15. I continue getting ready, prep my bike, make sure the wheels are in tight, etc... Then I sit in the car for a few minutes, trying to stay warm in the chilly air. I'll soon be standing for an hour in it. About 6:00, I get out and slowly ride over to the start area and find the front of the riders. The platinum section is already full!! Oh, I can get in fine, but at the back of about 400+ platinum riders. Still, we're all faster, presumably experienced with pack riding, and should stay together somewhat until the climbs start. I should be able to move up to near the front before that happens. No problems, and I'm not worried.
At the start, we're off like a shot. I kinda thought the front would take it somewhat easy, getting warmed up and all. But after a mile or so, I realize they're pushing it right away. So am I and I'm passing riders all around me. I happen to see other riders going slower and make a mental note of one smaller woman spinning away, but going like maybe 16mph as everyone else is zooming past at 23+mph. How they got here, I don't know and it'll remain a mystery.
Soon, I discover some (potentially) bad news: some of these platinum riders cannot hold the fast pace of the front of the group. They're drifting backwards as I and others push to the front. And several times, as I come around a rider, I see a yawning gap between us and the next riders up. Dutifully, I bridge these gaps probably about 4-5 times in the first 7 miles. My Garmin showed I was averaging 26mph during these 7 miles. Not bad for not having any sort of organized group around me. These early efforts will come back to haunt me later, unfortunately. And, I never really got too close to the front, either.
Then we hit the first creek crossing. Last year, I had to walk across it. This year, I rode it. I was slowed by several walkers in the way, but I never un-clipped. The bed was nice packed dirt. No problem. I can only assume the leaders went through here even faster. We all come out and the next problem appears: our group going in, had disintegrated during this transition. It would be awhile before we all got back together again.
In the distance, maybe a minute up the road, I can see the red & blue flashing lights of the police escort for the front riders. Then, I hear a nice long freight train. The leaders will have to stop, our only real chance of catching them. So I urge everyone on, but we're just not moving fast enough, even with two tandems in our midst. I'm trying to conserve my strength, but still catch back on. It's not going to work. The train leaves and we never do catch the leaders. I wouldn't see them again until a few miles later as they ascend a hill while we're about 2-mins back on the summit of another hill. Oh well. I assume I'm still closer to the front than last year and will have a nice shot at a good time. So I press on with the pace-making.
We encounter some of the harder climbing of the early parts of the route--nothing too steep or bad, but long and drawn out. Amazingly, I'm the strong one (or the stupid one) on the climbs, pushing us up at about 16mph and not over-extending myself. About 30-miles in or so, we turn right, and stand to get back up to speed. Suddenly there's a commotion in front of me and I see a couple riders crashing on the floor. The woman in front of me manages to swerve to her left--and toward me--to avoid it. We didn't hit, but it did create a gap in the group. Gotta love those gaps! So I start to close this one--in to a headwind. I get a little bit of help here and there, and after about a mile or so, and on a nice descent, we've rejoined.
I'm now a little sore. I try and shelter myself to recover, but whoever's up front lets the pace drop. So, on a nice long descent, I drop it into my 11-tooth and go up and set the pace like only I can do: 35mph with minimal effort. Behind me, there's another small woman who also appears to want to do well, as she's working with me while all the other males suck wheel. Figures.
We finally get some help from a small group of 4-5 definitely strong riders. They up the pace while I look for rest.
Then, we're in the second creek crossing. First one: easy. This: yuck! It was 4-5" of granular, dry sand, everywhere. No riding here. And this was the long one: about 1/4--1/2 mile total. So, we carry/drag/pull our bikes beside us while we run(?) across this. This is actually tiring--I haven't run in years!! Cyclocross here I come. Then we're out on the other side.
I clip in, and start pedaling. Again, our group is shattered everywhere. I'm now riding with 2 other guys and have no idea where the small woman and stronger riders are. Then we have the short, somewhat steep wall that maxes me out on my 39x23. But it's short and I'm over. Soon, we start re-grouping for the coming rollers. The second half of this ride is harder than the first. While there's no long sustained climbs, our legs are tired after 50-60 miles of hard efforts.
Then, IT happens. Somewhere, around the 65-mile mark, I'm out of the saddle, stretching a bit, on the shoulder of the road with the rest of the group to my left. I hit something, but never saw it. Immediately, I hear the "hiss" coming from my back tire, then I feel the rim on the pavement. Fortunately, no one was behind me as I stop quickly. These are also new tires that I had trouble getting on the rims last night. Then I remember: I forgot my tire iron in the car!!
I'm about resigned to raising my hand and sagging in. I was tired anyway and probably wouldn't be able to keep up on the coming hills. Well, I'll try changing it with my thumbs. Amazingly, the tire comes off extremely easy, and I end up doing my fastest tire change ever (I think).
Now, while I was doing this, I noticed at least 4 other groups of riders going by. And the nature of this event dictates that the faster riders are in front with riders getting progressively slower over time. Now I'm pretty much resigned to not attaining my goal. I figure I lost at least 10-minutes because of the flat: 2-3 mins changing, then at least another 5-7 mins due to riding with a slower group after (as compared to last year's time over the final 10-miles).
But, I struggle on, hanging by myself after the flat for a good 10-15 mins, slowly climbing the hills and fighting the wind (it's everywhere in Tucson!!). Finally, a group catches me and I up my pace. My legs are really sore now and my back is on fire.
At about the 85-mile mark, a rider to my left decides he'd rather be on his right and proceeds to move over into me. Luckily, we're about the same size and his handlebars only bounce off mine. As my hands were on the hoods, if he was shorter, his handlebars might've gone under mine and done some real damage. Instead, he just swerved me off the road and into gravel on the side. I move my weight back over the rear wheel, expecting my front to sink in, throwing me over the handlebars. Fortunately, it didn't. The surface was firm and I was back out on the road easily. So I accelerate away from him and up to the strong riders of the group who are now pulling away while the rest of the group slows for a sag stop.
Now, we're on Silverbell and the last 15-miles of the route. At the 10-mile to go point, I check my watch: we have 32-mins to go to beat 5-hours again this year. Definitely do-able if we maintain 20mph minimum. However, everyone seems tired and we're only doing about 18 on easy pitches (1%) and 16 on any steep parts (2%). Problem is, this 10-miles is almost all uphill at this 1-2% grade. Again, I find myself--all 200+ lbs of me!--closing gaps and setting pace on the climb. I'm toasted too.
We round the left turn onto Congress St, and finally pick up the pace for the last 400m to the line. These guys must've been sand bagging as they all sprint for the line. I accelerate a bit, but certainly don't kill myself.
Total time: 5 hours, 9 minutes, 25 seconds. Just about 10-mins slower than last year. All because of the flat. I can only imagine what time I would've gotten if I had stayed with the group I was with before flatting.
Oh well. I had fun--if you can call the suffering and pain fun--and there's always next year. I've learned my lesson about getting there early and will do it even in platinum.
I only had my iPhone with me, and it's hard to take pics with that when riding in close groups at fast speeds and on bumpy roads. But here's a couple of the better ones:
The start of the 109-mile group, all 5,000+ of us!!
Just to show what it looks like, some unknown (to me) riders cross the line about 90-mins afterwards...
The profile of the course with some landmarks...