By David Ward
I can’t even begin to count how many organized rides I have participated in. I have to say, I believe I have enjoyed every one. What’s not to like? First and foremost, you are out riding your bike, typically on a ride you expect to challenge you at least somewhat. Also, most of us do it with friends and/or family. So you have good company. And you are riding with a whole bunch of other people who, like you, love this sport and enjoy a good organized ride.
But, what can detract from a good organized ride is just that: Good organization. Maybe there aren’t enough aid stations, or they promise a lot of good food and snacks and fail to come through. Maybe the aid stations are poorly placed. Or maybe they run out of food. Or perhaps by the time the slower riders arrive at the finish, all the booths and vendors are packing up and leaving, so there is no more free Coke or beer at the end, or the promised post race meal can no longer be had. Maybe they failed to have a water stop at the top of a tough climb.
Well, all those have happened to me. And when it does, it diminishes my enjoyment of the ride, leads to gripes from my cohorts and me, and just takes some of the fun out of the day’s experience.
But on April 6, my daughter, Marielle, and I participated in El Tour de Mesa, an event sponsored by Holualoa Companies and held in, you guessed it, Mesa, Arizona. On a stop a couple of years ago at a bike shop in the area during a visit to my daughter and her family, I had seen a flyer for El Tour de Mesa and thought then I should ride that some time with Marielle. Naturally, I soon forgot about that, but Marielle saw something on it about a month before this year’s ride and asked if we wanted to come down. So we did.
The packet pick up was a breeze (though admittedly we showed up early afternoon to beat the crowd), and we duly arrived early Saturday morning and lined up for the 6:30 a.m. start. El Tour offered two distances, a metric century and a metric half century. While we both lacked early year distance training, we opted for the 100 kilometer ride as it had much more appeal.
Starting in downtown Mesa, the route for the metric century headed north to where it met the Beeline Highway. From there, it rolled through the Salt River Recreation Area and Tonto National Forest as it circumnavigated Phoenix area’s East Valley landmark, Red Mountain. A couple of miles before the halfway point, the route turned onto Bush Highway which it followed for the next 12 miles before turning left onto Usury Pass Road which led up and over Usury Pass and back into East Valley. Once back in the valley, the route wound through East Valley and back to the start/finish in Mesa.
Well, I absolutely loved this ride. For starters, it is a beautiful ride. You have to appreciate desert beauty, and this was desert beauty at its best. With the frequent (for the Phoenix area) rains, and even some snow, the desert flowers were in full bloom and the desert landscape was as green (desert green, to be sure) and colorful as you will ever see it. To me, it was simply stunning..
Also, the aid stations were good. Organizers had made it clear in the registration booklet that there would be simple snacks, fruit and water at the stops. So, we were ready for that. We had a good breakfast before leaving, and took enough energy drink, bars and chews to get us through. The stops had pretzels (which I much appreciated for the salt), oranges and bananas,. They probably had a few other items too, but those were the snacks I liked.
Additionally, the route planning and control was amazing. All the intersections leading out of Mesa were controlled, as you would expect, and we were able to ride through with no stops. Also controlled was the one stoplight on the back side of the route so we could roll right through that. That was a bit of a surprise. But what astounded me was that for the last nearly 20 miles of the ride through East Valley and to the finish in Mesa, every single intersection with a stoplight or stop sign was also manned, and traffic was stopped to allow us to ride through. We must have ridden through 20-30 intersections on this ride, all manned. Except for the aid stations we stopped at, we never had to put a foot down till the finish. Incredible.
The frosting on the cake, though, was the stretch from where we left the Beeline Highway until after we had turned onto Usury Pass Road and ridden up and over Usury Pass. This tends to be a busy section of road, with narrow shoulders on Bush Highway for a good portion of the road. I know, because I have ridden over Usury Pass numerous times, and I rode on Bush Highway out to Saguaro Lake one time a few years ago. One must contend with a lot of traffic, including a bunch of big trucks pulling boats to and from Saguaro Lake, a popular recreation area.
For El Tour de Mesa, though, our lane for this stretch of nearly 20 miles was blocked off to traffic, with a pilot car alternately shuttling the traffic each way in the other lane. This section has outstanding mountain vistas, a lovely landscape of red rock contrasting with green cacti and the other desert flora , and on Bush Highway, the blue waters of Saguaro Lake . We could ride, climb and descend with a full lane at our disposal and enjoy the scenic desert landscape. It was a very special part of the ride.
Finally, with about 7 miles to go, we enjoyed a special moment. As we were riding down Lindsay Road, just on the back side of where Marielle lives, we saw a small group of people with a sign. It turned out to be Marielle’s husband and children, my wife, and another daughter and her son, all cheering us on. It was unexpected, and a thoughtful and touching moment.
El Tour was held in connection with Cyclo Mesa, Mesa’s family friendly bicycle festival. So, instead of a finish with just sponsors’ and vendors’ booths, there was also a zip line, a rock climbing wall, bungee trampolines, BMX stunt shows, and inflatable slides and bouncing houses, some of which my grandchildren took advantage of, and which made coming to the finish to meet us enjoyable for them. It was, indeed, not just an event finish, but truly a festival.
El Tour de Mesa was a real treat. A metric century was a perfect early season ride for me. There was not too much climbing, mainly the 3.5 mile climb up Usury Pass. As you can imagine, the Phoenix area does not have much real climbing, and many consider Usury Pass a huge challenge which, frankly, it isn’t. But again, it was just right for me at this time of the year.
Adding it all together, controlled intersections, a nearly 15-mile stretch with a full traffic lane for just us cyclists through the most scenic part of the ride, a beautiful desert landscape and sweeping views, and a daughter there ready to ride it with me, I plan to be back again for El Tour de Mesa.