El Tour de Tucson Rolls into Downtown This Week

November 19, 2014

Riders cross the finish line at El Tour.

Riders cross the finish line at El Tour.

by Brad Poole

The countdown is under way for this weekend’s 32nd annual El Tour de Tucson, the cycling spectacle that draws thousands of riders from around the globe to southern Arizona, but it probably started long before you think.

“We’re in countdown mode for next year already,” El Tour spokeswoman Marilyn Hall said with a chuckle.

The cycling extravaganza is actually several races – 104, 75, 55 and 40 miles, plus shorter, non-competitive rides – combined with three days of bike-friendly events starting with a huge expo Thursday and Friday at Tucson Convention Center. The expo is free and open to anyone.

The rides start Saturday at various times and spots around the metro area, but they all end Downtown at Armory Park, where there will be food vendors and a beer garden (also open to the public).

The Perimeter Bicycling Association of America has this major athletic contest down to a science, and everyone is basically ready to pull the trigger, Hall said.

“We expect about 8,000 (cyclists), probably. It takes about 2,000 volunteers. We have hundreds of police from four municipalities,” Hall said. “We’re good to go. We’re ready.”

Riders cross the finish line at El Tour.

Riders cross the finish line at El Tour.

The event is more than just a race – it’s a charity fund-raiser. Perimeter, which also runs major cycling events in Mesa, Cochise County and Las Vegas, has raised more than $40 million for local charities over the years. This year El Tour alone is expected to raise almost $2 million for more than two dozen non-profits.

There’s still time to register to ride in El Tour. You can register online through Nov. 18, and you can register in person at the expo Thursday and Friday. There is no race day registration. Perimeter is also still looking for volunteers. For information about riding or volunteering, see the link below.

The Routes
Although the finish line for all of the races is at Armory Park, the starts are spread across the city.

The longest race, one that has drawn cycling legends such as Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond, is 104 miles. This race for experienced cyclists starts and ends Downtown, looping the city and including a climb into the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills and two river crossings (the weather report calls for dry, sandy river crossings this year). Spectators shouldn’t have much trouble finding this race, because it hits pretty much every part of town. Just find where the route goes through your part of town and wait.

The 75-mile race also ranges into the foothills, but includes only one bike portage. It’s also not for beginners, but it’s manageable for most serious amateurs. This race starts at Pima Community College East Campus, then loops north through the foothills, west to Interstate 10 and south to Armory Park.

Spectators will have plenty of family-friendly entertainment at Armory Park while they await cyclists.

Spectators will have plenty of family-friendly entertainment at Armory Park while they await cyclists.

The 55 mile race starts at the intersection of Swan and Ft. Lowell roads, then heads north and west to join the route for the longer races. This race is also not for most beginners, but avid riders should be able to make it. There is some climbing as with the longer distances, and you will notice the difference between 55 and 70 miles, trust me.

The 40-mile ride, which Perimeter says has become popular with families and youth riders, starts in Oro Valley near the intersection of Oracle Road and Rancho Vistoso Boulevard. This route is mostly downhill for the first 15 miles, then climbs gently to the Downtown Tucson finish. Your teenage kids’ ease on this ride will surely make you feel old, but if you’re reasonably fit, you can probably do it, even if you don’t think you can.

The non-competitive events include 15 and 5 mile fun rides, both of which take place entirely on the Loop, a multi-use paved path that stretches more than 30 miles around most of the city. Take your time on the fun rides. Stop and look at a lizard with your son. Watch a hawk with your granddaughter. Smell the roses. There are no winners or losers in a fun ride.

Parking and Transportation
You can park at TCC for Downtown El Tour events, but it will cost you. Other options include numerous city parking garages within walking distance of Armory Park. You can also park anywhere along the streetcar route and get off on Congress or Broadway just a couple blocks from the finish or use Downtown street parking, which is free on weekends.

If you are riding, you can just park at your starting point. Perimeter is providing free shuttles from the finish back to each starting line, so participants can make their way back. For more info on parking Downtown, click here.

A Personal Note

You never know what you'll see at El Tour.

You never know what you’ll see at El Tour.

As a journalist, I’m not supposed to inject my opinions into my work, but in this case I feel compelled. I will never profess anything but pure love for El Tour de Tucson, because I truly believe cycling saved my life and it certainly saved whatever shred of sanity I can claim. I know there are many, many folks out there who can say the same.

When the Tucson Citizen closed in May 2009, I lost my job as a reporter, and I was already neck deep in a smooth and amicable yet life-changing divorce. For some reason I still can’t explain, I was instinctively and immediately drawn to cycling.

I bought a $40 mountain bike at the Tanque Verde Swap Meet, even though I hadn’t owned a bike in years. I started riding it almost compulsively for several reasons – mental health, physical health, stress relief, distraction.

Over the next five years, I worked my way up the ladder from 5-mile rides on a decade-old steel mountain bike to 60-mile rides on a shiny new, unspeakably expensive carbon fiber road bike. No matter what I am riding or where, whether it’s a two block ride to the grocery store or a 50 mile workout on the Loop, it always makes me feel like a 12-year-old kid flying around town on a Schwinn Stingray.

Every. Single. Time.

So, I encourage you to go to El Tour, and help these cyclists enjoy the fruits of their labor. Some of these people have been training for months to ride in El Tour, and you should go watch them finish. Ride your bike there, even if it’s a rusty old Huffy you yank out from behind the shed. Urge them on. Cheer for them. Clap for them. Be proud of them.

Or better yet, be one of them.

For more information attending or entering the numerous events associated with El Tour de Tucson and Perimeter Bicycling Association of America, go to the El Tour website.