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."