My first real “century”

In November 2011 I completed what I’m calling my first “real” century.  (A “century” for you beginners is a 100-mile ride.  They also have “metric centuries” which is 100 km, or about 62 miles, but we Americans don’t usually count those as centuries!)  The ride was the big annual one in Tucson, the El Tour de Tucson.  It was 111 miles total this year (it varies over the years, but generally it’s right around 110 miles) and was ridden by over 4000 cyclists (over 9000 people ride in the various other events – they have rides of all lengths).  It generally travels the perimeter of Tucson and has two signature wash crossings where you have to get off your bike and walk to where the pavement starts up again!

Much like my introduction into cycling itself I really had no intention of riding in this event.  My cousin, a former professional cyclist, had ridden it many times years ago, and even won the women’s division once.  So, I was pretty convinced she would forever represent the family name in terms of participation in the El Tour!  …But, once again, peer pressure got the better of me and I signed up for the event.  One of the guys who got me into riding in the first place did it in 2010 and raved about the experience afterwards, promising to train harder the next year and urging me to join him.  Then another friend at work found out I was getting into cycling and he put the peer pressure on full blast.  So, I gave in and paid my $80 to register.  That was around June (the earlier you sign up the lower the entrance fees are), so training could begin as soon as possible.

The first thing I decided was that I need to train fairly seriously.  I was already riding 3 times per week, but I needed to increase my distance.  Fortunately my buddies turned me on to a local cycling club, GABA (Greater Arizona Bicycling Association), that offered a free El Tour preparation series.  Every Sunday for 10 weeks they would have progressively longer training rides.  This would do two things for me:  a) it would give me the increased endurance I would need, and b) it would give me valuable group ride experience.  (For those who are planning a large ride/race and haven’t done a group ride yet, I strongly suggest lots of practice beforehand.  The dynamics and skills required are significantly different than a ride with your friends.  I plan to write more on this subject in another post soon…)

As part of the training there were actually 3 centuries leading up to the El Tour.  So, you might say that El Tour was technically my 4th century, but since it was the main event, I count it as the first “real” one.  You see, GABA also sponsors several rides during the year – much smaller, less attended than El Tour – two of which happened to occur right before the El Tour event.  (The timing is not a coincidence, of course – how better to prepare for the big ride than by doing less-crowded, but almost as long rides, right?)  Then, the 9th week of training was a 91-mile ride, which isn’t technically a century, but it’s close enough in my book!

The result of all that long ride training is that my previous fears of being able to actually complete 111 miles were totally gone.  I was now 100% confident I could make it.  Then suddenly I actually started thinking about making a good time.  You see in rides like this they give you different medals for finishing in certain times.  (You need to reward more than the top 3 people for finishing such a monumental event, right?!)  In El Tour if you finish the 111 miles in under 5 hours you get a “platinum” medal.  (This coveted elite status follows you everywhere and even gets you to start in the front of the line in other races.  “He’s a platinum rider” is a comment often made about really good cyclists.)  If you finish in under 6 hours you get a “gold” medal.  Under 9 gets you “silver”, and if you finish at all you get bronze.

So, I decided that, based on my previous training, my goal would be to finish under 7 hours, with a stretch goal of finishing in under 6.  The stretch goal is one that a lot of my friends who have been riding much longer than I have strive for, so I did’t want to be overly aggressive with my goal!  …Long story short, I finished in 6 hours 11 minutes.  Just over my stretch goal!  (And close enough that it made me want to come back stronger this year and get that gold medal!)

All in all it was an excellent experience.  People waving and cheering you on the whole way is really fun!  …The progressive-length training was key for me, as was learning to ride in a group – drafting in a pace-line, etc.  There is a great feeling of accomplishment at the end of the ride.  And, finally, I can say I’ve upheld the family tradition of completing the El Tour.  (Although matching my cousin’s feat of winning the thing, I’m afraid, will have to wait for another generation.  Maybe my daughter will become an expert cyclist some day!)

Let me know your experiences on your first century!  (Or what questions you have in preparing for one!)


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