Finishing the 107-mile El Tour de Tucson is a rite of passage for local and visiting cyclists. The route around the perimeter of Tucson can be challenging to first-timers, but breaking the race into four chunks can help make it seem less daunting. Here are some tips and what to expect from someone who has ridden — er, suffered — in the race 14 times over the past 20 years:
MILES 0-30: Armory Park to South Houghton Road
The start of El Tour can be scary, because you are bunched together with so many riders. Keep your line and be ready to feather your brakes a lot as you leave Armory Park and head south on Sixth Avenue before turning west on 22nd Street. The temptation, as you eventually head south on Mission Road, will be to go fast during the first 10 miles. It’s better to ride at your pace. You don’t want to burn out before you reach the first (hopefully) dry river crossing at the Santa Cruz.
Unless you are up with the leaders, you’ll have to dismount and walk your bike across the Santa Cruz. With so many cyclists kicking up dust, it’s easy to feel like cattle, but it also can be a fun time to chat with strangers and listen to the mariachi band as you exit the riverbed onto Drexel Road. (Sometimes, volunteers hand out cookies or donuts, too!)
After a smooth ride south on South Nogales Highway, the Hughes Access/Alvernon/Los Reales/I-10 frontage section is one of my least favorites. The road is uneven and narrow in spots, although you can build up some nice speed at times. Stay with a pack to fight any headwind.
After you turn north on Kolb Road and scale the freeway bridge at Interstate 10, you can build up some serious speed before heading east on Irvington Road and then north on Houghton Road.
MILES 31-47: South Houghton to Sabino Creek
This section features some of El Tour’s best downhill stretches, but be careful of flatting. At high speeds, you can easily puncture a tire if you hit a small pothole or rocks.
As you start on South Houghton, watch out for road ruts and prepare for a short climb before turning east onto Escalante. You will gradually climb on Escalante and briefly up Old Spanish Trail.
Then comes a glorious descent on South Freeman Road to Speedway, where some riders will reach 40 mph. Once you are back on South Houghton, you will encounter a few short climbs (ugh) before turning left onto East Snyder Road. After about 2 miles, you will enter a housing development, then hit a dirt road until you reach an aid station, the unofficial halfway point of El Tour.
Take the time to load up on water, electrolytes, fruit, pretzels and cookies, and stretch your legs before crossing Sabino Creek. If it rains, organizers may put up planks. If it’s dry, you will have to carry your bike over the rocks.
MILES 48-77: East Snyder to North Thornydale Road
After winding through a housing development and turning left onto East Snyder, you’ll need an extra boost of energy to tackle the looming hill. If your legs cramp on the climb, don’t panic. Just get off the bike and walk it up the hill.
From there, it’s a nice downhill to North Sabino Canyon Road, then on to East Sunrise Drive, where you will embark on a 10-mile, up-and-down trek west to North Oracle Road.
The hardest climbing comes between North Kolb and North Craycroft roads. But after that, you can build up speed as you approach East Swan Road and maintain a decent pace before some more rolling hills until you reach North Campbell. Then, it’s mostly downhill as Sunrise turns into Ina and you turn right on Oracle.
Next is an 8-mile gradual stretch up Oracle. When you reach Linda Vista Boulevard, you will begin to climb (ugh) to Rancho Vistoso, which winds uphill to Silverton Avenue before leveling off.
Then you circle back to Moore Road, where you head west to Thornydale Road and then to Tangerine Road. Now you can exhale. It’s only 30 miles to the finish line!
Miles 78-107: Thornydale Road to Granada Avenue
After getting this far, you deserve to have a nice downhill section, and that’s what Tangerine provides. You can build up a nice pace as you head west toward Interstate 10.
Tangerine, from North Thornydale Road, drops nearly 600 feet to an elevation of 2,123 at the freeway. This is welcome news. I still have bad flashbacks of going up Tangerine in the 1990s, when the course went the other direction.
Be careful of the railroad tracks before the freeway. Slow down to avoid pinching a tire and flatting.
As you turn left on the I-10 frontage road, stay with a pack to draft other riders. In years past, you would turn right on Avra Valley Road and loop around and over Rattlesnake Pass before hooking up with Silverbell Road. But the course was shortened this year to avoid Silverbell, so you’ll stay on the frontage all the way — about 17 miles — to 22nd Street. These 17 miles will seem the longest you’ve ever ridden — especially if there is a headwind — so try to stay with a pack.
When you return to Armory Park for the finish, soak up the atmosphere, and take in the crowd’s applause as you eye the finish line. As El Tour director Richard DeBernardis once told me, “Cross the line and celebrate like you won it all. The concept here is everybody wins.”
That’s good advice, but here’s another tip: Keep drinking fluids and stretch your legs as you wait for officials to check your number and collect your time chip. One year, I didn’t do any of these things, suffered dehydration and took a painful ride to the hospital in an ambulance. The truth is, I failed to drink enough water and electrolytes during the race. So let that be a lesson: Stay hydrated!