Why I Ride: Tour de Palm Springs Trip Report (No Poker Content)

by Lou on February 27, 2010

[This is one of my occasional posts about cycling. There’s no poker content at all]

Big, sponsored bike rides differ from the smaller group rides most of us are used to. And the major difference is that rides such as the Tour de Palm Springs, which purport to offer something for everyone, actually do. A rider’s experience is uniquely shaped by how far he or she rides, who rides along with them, their own expectations for the event, and all the myriad small things that when taken together, make up the event’s texture.

The Departure
I arrived at 6:30 a.m., parked one short block away from the starting area in one of the Spa Casino’s outer parking lots and watched as some of the 100-milers took off 20 minutes before the official 7 a.m. departure. When I saw riders pedaling away on the 100 mile course, I decided to get a head start too. My watch read 6:45.

I planned a hybrid 65-mile route that included the first leg of the 100-mile route up to Desert Hot Springs. Once the 100-mile route turned left on Dillon Road, I planned to follow it to the point where the 55-milers split off from the 100-milers at Thousand Palms Canyon, which would give me 10 additional miles for the day’s trip.

2009’s event was very different from this year’s, and fresh in my mind as I began pedaling up Indian Canyon. Last year we could see our breath in the air; it was that cold. It was also incredibly windy, and when we turned west on Garnet toward the windmills, the combination of rough road, bitter cold, high wind, and a slight uphill grade really felt like a punch in the gut.

But today was warmer and the winds were quieter. While Garnet is still bumpy, the mild weather made the ride easier—at least for a while.

The Fast Guys Blow Right by Me
Because I departed 15 minutes early, I was riding with just a few others for the first 45 minutes. Then I remembered what happens at the leading edge of events like this. When the 100-milers start their ride, the leading edge of the pack swells with the really fast guys—riders in high speed, two-abreast pace lines intent on completing 102 miles in less than five hours.

Watching them pass me with absolute ease was depressing, especially when they didn’t just pass me by; they blew by me. In their eyes, I wasn’t even there. My strategy was to catch the tail of each pace line that flew by, hang on as long as I could, then recuperate and get on another train as it rode by me.

Into the “Gray Zone”
Sitting in whenever I could quickened my time on the loop up and around Desert Hot Springs, but by the time I reached Dillon Road again, I felt the effects of my effort. Riding all-out and playing footsie with my aerobic limit put me in the “gray zone,” which is marked by the onset of tunnel vision and an inability to focus on anything but the road before my eyes. In the gray zone I can’t make decisions any more profound or complicated than just keeping the pedals turning in as neat a circle as I can muster. I can only see, think about, and react to whatever is right in front of me. I can’t deal with the periphery of my physical or intellectual world at all.

Breaks and rest stops were easily ignored during the first part of the ride. I blew by the first rest stop, and the second one too—that’s the first rest stop for the 55 milers; the little mini-mart half way up the long hill on Dillon Road—except for a quick visit to the porta-pottie. When I left the Dillon Road rest stop I looked to latch onto a pace line and hold it as long as I could, figuring I’d draft my way up the remainder of Dillon Road in a slipstream.

Finding pace lines was no problem. The fast riders—the guys who average 26 miles per hour or more on level ground and 18 to 20 mph up hill were easy to find. The tough job was keeping up with them. I latched onto each passing train. Sometimes I was able to hang on for only a minute or two, but I kept pushing—burying myself and wondering why—feeling like a failure for my inability to produce as many watts for as long a time as they do, while simultaneously feeling good about holding on at all, if even for the briefest of moments.

A Dialogue Between Body and Mind
In the intervals when I emerged from the gray zone I asked myself why I did this … and why all cyclists seem prone to bury themselves on occasion. When riding at my limit there’s always a war that ensues. It’s a battle between my mind and my will. Willpower urges me to keep pushing. “C’mon, you can muster a little more effort … just a bit more. Keep pushing. Don’t you want it any more than that?”

My brain says, “Back off. If you keep it up, your body won’t be able to process the demand and you’ll grind to a halt or keel over. You don’t want that, do you?”

Once my brain has its say, it ducks the really crucial part of the remaining conversation. It knows what’s coming, and my body always has the final word, uttered when my will to keep going can’t overcome my body’s overarching desire to simply stop.

My will can’t overcome the limits of my body. The best all the riding and training any cyclist can do is to push the body’s shut-down point a bit further away. But it can’t be overcome … not entirely, not ever.

The Joys of Descending
Happiness was passing the fire station on Dillon Road that marks the end of a seven-mile gradual pull uphill. Elation was reaching Thousand Palms Canyon and knowing that most of my hard work was done. After a quick, exhilarating five-mile descent I’d reach another rest stop, the first one where I really planned to stop.

Once I turned south on Thousand Palms Canyon I was riding by myself most of the way. The hundred-milers all continued eastbound on Dillon Road and the 55 mile riders hadn’t been scheduled to depart until 8 a.m., more than an hour behind me. Only a few other riders were on my route. Like me, they probably opted for the 65 mile hybrid ride, or planned to ride 100 miles before changing their minds somewhere along the way, or were just 55-mile riders who departed early to beat the traffic.

PBJ Brings Out the Philosopher in Me
The rest stop at the base of the hill had what I was looking for—what all cyclists crave if they are honest with themselves—boxes filled with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Not any sandwiches, mind you, but sandwiches made with crunchy peanut butter and strawberry preserves, served on wheat bread. You can’t ask for much more than that, I thought as I helped myself to an orange to go along with my PBJ.

A day that began with temperatures up around 49 degrees was only getting nicer. I started out with arm warmers, a short-sleeved base layer, and a wind vest over my jersey. I shed the vest and arm warmers, and was now in my summer riding kit: a short-sleeved jersey and bare arms. It seemed perfect for the day, which I estimated was now in the mid 70s and getting warmer.

My emotional state improved once I headed south, down Thousand Palms Canyon. Gone were the 26-mile-per-hour pace lines that blew me off the road. I was among my peers: riders of limited ability. Not only that, but all the real hills were behind me. One short, mild hill where DuVall Drive heads north to Dinah Shore, the bridge ramp on Dinah Shore that
takes riders from Cathedral City into Palm Springs, and a long, easy upgrade—I wouldn’t even give this stretch of road the dignity of calling it a hill—along Country Club Drive between Washington and Cook Streets were the only remaining elevation gains.

Thousand Palms Canyon is a road I ride frequently and one of my favorite markers is the point near Sun City where the pavement on Washington becomes smoother, wider, and easier to traverse than the older, rougher, narrower pavement in and immediately below the canyon.

In an effort to save money the organizers skimped on a few things this year. Gone was the traditional Friday night, pre-ride pasta feed. Gone too were the plentiful road markings of prior years. The turns were marked, but there were few intermediate marking to assure out-of-town cyclists—and with an estimated 10,000 riders, many of them were strangers here—that they were on course.

Leading the Lost
On Washington Street about a mile north of the freeway overcrossing, some Orange County riders were puzzling over a map, pondering the whereabouts of Country Club Drive. I told them to follow me, and led them all the way to the rest stop in Lowe’s parking lot at Gerald Ford and Monterey. Once there, you realize you’ve only got about 14 more miles to ride, and while you’re gently gaining elevation all the way to Palm Springs, it’s not really noticeable, and there was none of the usual westerly headwind to push back at you while you pedal into it.

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich at Thousand Palms Canyon tasted so good that I grabbed another one at this rest stop and muttered a silent word of appreciation to George Washington Carver for giving us the peanut. I also thanked John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich and the man for whom sandwiches are named, who ordered his valet to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread to mitigate his hunger while feeding his compulsion to gamble without interruption. I don’t know who invented strawberry preserves or whole wheat bread, but I silently thanked them too.

Because I left early and rode hard, I was on the leading edge of riders at both rest stops and never had to suffer the congestion that occurs when the bulk of the riders cruise in. I figured I’d keep pushing myself and found a trio of riders speeding off to Palm Springs, so I buried myself one last time to keep up. I was able to ride with them, but quickly found myself back in that gray zone, where I didn’t think about anything other than the immediacy of the next pedal stroke.

When riding alone, I sometimes try to recall old song lyrics, create rhyming couplets for my own amusement, or work out simple computational math problems in my head. But when I’m near my limits, I can’t do any of that. My heart rate monitor told me I was running about 75 percent of my heart-rate maximum most of the time … but when I checked my heart rate while trying to keep up with the fast moving pace lines, I found myself at the high end of my range, where it’s tough to breathe, fatigue sets in easily, and my brain just can’t seem to process as much information as it usually does, and I am completely incapable of multitasking.

I’m not fond of the gray zone, though I do like to venture there occasionally. A certain amount of suffering is good for cyclists. It takes me to the edge of my limitations, the borders of my abilities—where my will power eventually surrenders to my body’s desire to ease off. You can’t deceive yourself. When you’re in the tunnel and on the verge of “graying out,” you know it, and the only two things you can do are either back off or keep pushing until you simply grind to a halt, unable to generate enough energy for even one additional rotation of your pedals.

Some observers have opined that cyclists are masochists, but I don’t agree. Our desire to push ourselves as hard as we do is all about confronting our limits rather than relishing pain for its own sake.

The Children’s Crusade
I eased up about half way up DuVall Drive when I grew aware of more cyclists surrounding me—people on recreational bikes, even little kids on child-sized bikes, and folks who looked like they had not really trained for this bike event at all. Some were even walking their bikes up the hill. They were all wearing green wrist bands, signifying that they were 25-mile riders who started 2 hours after I did, and were now on the same home stretch.

I slowed down and spent most of the remainder of my ride on the left hand side of the lane to avoid plowing into little kids who were just having a grand time riding all over the road.

“Nightmare Alley” … Not Today, Thank You
There’s a section of Dinah Shore between Date Palm Drive and the bridge into Palm Springs that I call “Nightmare Alley.” It’s bumpy, narrow, potholed, and generally full of drivers who don’t cut cyclists any slack at all, and when you get to the bridge which is a lot narrower on the uphill side than it is on the downhill, there’s no choice but to take up the entire lane, pedal for all you’re worth, and hope no one really tries to run you off the road.

But today it was a piece of cake. The bridge’s right lane was coned off, so there was no need to look over your shoulder in anticipation of some maniac bearing down on you with malice in his eyes. Today we had our own lane, so I just sort of skipped up and over the bridge, knowing that it was only a few more miles to the finish line.

It’s Over
As the finish line grew closer, a cordoned off lane narrowed further and finally led into the parking lot where we pushed our bikes through a gauntlet of volunteers and boxes to receive our T-shirts, make our way through the exhibits, and ultimately to wherever we parked our cars.

I arrived about noon, five hours after departing with slightly more than four of those hours spent in the saddle. I rode 65 miles, burned 3,550 calories, with an average heart rate of 118 and a maximum of 160—definitely higher than my average riding heart rate of 108 beats per minute and my average maximum of 150. My speed was much slower than the guys in the wickedly fast pace lines who drove me into my own private gray zone and kept me wondering why they ride so fast and I can’t. I averaged 16.25 miles per hour, which is pretty good considering the hills and the fact that one’s average speed drops somewhat by having to slow down and then ramp-up again at traffic signals, never mind the fact that the pace at the ride’s end was artificially slowed by the funneling and crowding in the blocks immediately preceding the finish line.

I never made contact with people I had hoped to ride with. I never saw them at all, though with 10,000 bicycles on the roads it’s no wonder. I saw a few riders I knew as they passed me at the very beginning of the course as well as on the uphill portion of Dillon Road. But no one else. I’m assuming they all started after I did and never passed me, so we never saw one another.

It was all good. I look forward to the Tour’s annual appearance in mid-February, just as what passes for winter here in the desert starts turning a clear eye toward spring. It provides motivation to train in the cold, short days of late December and January, and when I ride at my maximum, that long, existentially mysterious trip into the inner reaches of my own personal gray zone forces me to dispense with all extraneous thought and concentrate on pedaling and nothing else. When it’s all over I muse about who I am, what I’ve accomplished and why, and how I feel about my gains and shortcomings.

The ride is a metaphor of grand proportions for all manner of things including introspection and self-awareness. That, along with all the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches one could eat on a bright spring morning—when the air is clear, the snow still sits atop nearby mo
untains, the ride is free of mechanical issues or flat tires, and it’s warm enough to ride in a short-sleeved jersey—is enough for me. It’s why I ride.

{ 1 comment }

Ben February 27, 2010 at 9:50 pm

This is really an amazing post!
Good for you.
Sounds like it was really awesome.
Would love to see some pictures If you have any.
Really inspiring!

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