It looked like the invasion of the bike people. Cyclists began lining up for the ninth annual El Tour de Tucson at 4 a.m., and spectators waited under a cold November sun for what has become a feature of this event: the sound of 1,854 cyclists—a good part of the 1991 field—snapping their toe clips into position for the 7 a.m. start.
What began in 1983 as a minor event—only 198 cyclists took part that year—has grown into one of the biggest charity bike rides in the country. The 1991 El Tour, which drew riders from 32 states, as well as from Canada, Mexico and Taiwan, raised $160,000 for the Arthritis Foundation.
But Richard DeBernardis, the event's founder and organizer, says raising money isn't the main reason the event is staged. "Unlike other charity rides, we're not a bikeathon," says DeBernardis, who in 1979 became the first person to bicycle the entire perimeter of the continental U.S. "Our main objective is to put on a unique biking event that people of all ages and skills can attempt."
He means that not every rider should try El Tour's daunting 109-mile course. Some may choose to begin the ride at staggered intervals and bicycle 25, 50 or 75 miles. The attraction of El Tour for more casual riders—this year's race drew almost 700 such cyclists—is that it allows each one to set a personal goal. For the more seasoned, El Tour provides the chance to compete with some of cycling's biggest names.
The participants included Kent Bostick, a 38-year-old ground water hydrologist from Corrales, N.Mex., and the world amateur record holder at 5-km and 10-km on outdoor tracks; Paul Solon, 38, a lawyer from Tiburon, Calif., and winner of the 1989 Race Across America; Norman Kibble, 45, a bicycle mechanic from Tucson and national road-race champion in the 45-49 age group; and Jonas Carney, 21, who is from Annondale, N.J. and is a national team member and 1992 Olympic hopeful.
"When you get people of that caliber out there, you want to win," says Tom Tease, 29, another top rider.
El Tour's course skirts the perimeter of Tucson, running along broad boulevards, down narrow roads that wind through barren desert populated mostly by jack-rabbits and saguaro cacti, past smelly horse corrals, deluxe resorts and the mouth of a scenic canyon. But what makes this course special are the three water crossings. For short stretches, they turn a bike race into a foot race.
Luckily, this year two of the three crossings were dry, but competitors in studded cycling shoes still had to hop over creek-bed boulders, carrying their bikes on their shoulders. The Lower Santa Cruz River crossing, which is about 300 yards wide and is the second of the three fords, was especially tough, and some cyclists lost their footing and fell as they sprinted across the loose sand.
In past years, heavy rains have left the washes running and given more than a few of El Tour's riders a scare as well as a chill. In 1986, the water at the Upper Santa Cruz River crossing was so high that El Tour officials thought it was unsafe for cyclists to cross. Using two-by-fours and plywood, officials built a makeshift bridge that dipped in the middle and shook as the cyclists ran across it. The bridge was so narrow that racers had to wait in line to cross single file.
"But a few riders didn't want to wait and tried to brave the water," says Dwight Nelson, 35, an engineer from Tucson and a six-time El Tour veteran. "It came up to mid-thigh, and they were carrying their bikes up over their heads. This was early in the race, and it was still cold out, so afterward they probably wished they'd waited."
Some riders have tried to beat the waterlogged crossings by using garbage bags. One year Ralph Phillips, 41, a Tucson bike-shop owner, stashed two plastic garbage bags under his shirt at the start of the race. Until he reached the Upper Santa Cruz crossing, they served as windbreakers. At the river bank, he fashioned the bags into waders and secured them around his thighs with rubbers bands.
"It worked," says Phillips. "Of course, it took a lot of testing beforehand to find out which garbage bag worked best. I settled on Hefty bags with metal liners."
Most of El Tour's top riders despise the crossings, but Bostick takes a philosophical view: "This is my idea of a triathlon. Cycle 109 miles, run a few hundred yards, and if there's water to fall into, I get to swim."
As the winner of the previous four El Tours, Bostick was the man to beat. In fact, the race might have been named Bostick versus Tucson. A pack of local riders, led by Tease and Doug Love-day, an unemployed 24-year-old with a degree in biology from Arizona State, teamed up in an effort to break Bostick's streak and ensure victory for a hometown cyclist.
Even though he was a marked rider, Bostick's strength kept him in the lead pack through the early going. But his unofficial teammates—his wife, Carol Ann, and their friend Larry Risley—were delayed at the 45-mile mark by a flat tire on Carol Ann's bike. Fearing that he couldn't stave off the Tucson riders alone, Bostick waited for his teammates to make the tire change, allowing the lead group to pull away.
Bostick and his teammates caught up to the leaders, but bad luck intervened again when Risley had a flat at Sabino Canyon and had to quit the race, 75 miles into it. Their strategy to that point was for Risley to match every other Tucson attack, giving Bostick a chance to hang back and rest for the finish. With Risley out, Bostick was on his own.
Even so, Bostick still had his nose in the breeze for the last run down Oracle Road. A strong headwind kept the lead pack together as they raced the final half mile—downhill to El Conquistador Way, then a hard right, followed by a quick uphill sprint of about 400 feet to the finish line.
On that half-mile stretch, Tease attacked first, with Loveday on his wheel. When Bostick pushed ahead of Tease, Loveday broke away and angled for the inside lane, barreling into the tight turn at 25 mph.
Loveday sprinted across the finish line in an El Tour-record time of 4 hours, 22 minutes and 21 seconds. After a grueling 109 miles, Bostick was a wheel back, at 4:22:22.
Molly Taubeneck set a record for women at 4:25:24, only three minutes behind Loveday. "Competing against the guys is one of the things women like about this race," said Taubeneck, 28, a critical-care nurse from Tucson. "It tugs on their egos a little, and I get a perverse pleasure out of that."
But El Tour is as much a community festival as it is a competition among top riders. Local police staff the major intersections to keep traffic at bay while the cyclists pass. A 131-member bike patrol, part of a volunteer force of 2,500, keeps tabs on riders who might run into trouble on the course. Cyclists pass cheering fans who line the roads, including young children holding out trays of water, fresh fruit and muffins. The morning after the race, The Arizona Daily Star publishes the names and times of every rider.
One of the most familiar cyclists to El Tour fans was 73-year-old Rose Panziera Steward of Tempe, Ariz., who may be the world's oldest female triathlete. She began riding at 7 a.m. and was still on the course when darkness fell. El Tour's rules state that riders must stop at sunset, but no one was bold enough to tell her that she had to quit.
"I was determined to finish this sucker," said Steward, who had a headlight rigged to her bike to help light the way. At the 91-mile point, she was huffing along in the pitch-black night, struggling to see the road through her trifocals, when, thinking she was about to hit the curb, she turned abruptly and took a spill. She bloodied her hand, arm and leg and reluctantly decided it was time to pull out. But she promises to return next year. "I just wish there were more cyclists my age," said Steward. "It gets lonely out there."
Then there was John Neuner, 38, a computer data specialist at Samaritan Health Services in Phoenix, who had more than fitness on his mind when he and his 36-year-old girlfriend, Marie Romano, a project manager at Samaritan, set out to cycle 25 miles. The couple finished at 3:30 p.m., then headed for the medallion tent to report in.
Behind the table hung a banner: RIDER 6051 WILL YOU MARRY RIDER 6050? Romano, a.k.a. rider 6051, didn't see the banner at first. Neuner, who had gone to elaborate lengths to set up his proposal, nervously nudged Romano and pointed.
Rider 6051 did a neat double take, then her eyes popped, and she fell into Rider 6050's arms. Tired cyclists still pouring over the finish line must have wondered what was going on as El Tour's loudspeaker played the Wedding March.
Leo Banks has written a number of stories for Sports Illustrated.