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.