El Tour de Tucson: The perfect six-week training plan

Time to work out my weaknesses and set some goals

I’ve tried to spend the week since I made the decision to sign up for El Tour de Tucson as productively as possible.

First, knowing there were only seven weeks to get into whatever shape I could muster, I needed to ride a full week – to gauge my current form and identify weaknesses to work on in the next six weeks.

Second, I needed to ask around about El Tour so I could set a reasonable but challenging goal for myself.

Step one: Identify your weaknesses

It was a good week of riding. I rode easy on Monday, and then two hours each on Tuesday and Thursday with friends – a mixture of base pace with some extended hard efforts. On Wednesday, I added a mid-week climb up SouthMountain (a seven-mile, steep grade). I rested on Friday but did a 65-mile group ride on Saturday.

The turnout on Saturdays ranges from 30 to 60 riders. The route is mostly flat and focuses on five sprint points. There is a core group that is fast, fast, fast so this ride is a lung-sucking workout and I’m happy if I hang on to the front group without getting dropped (which, unfortunately, I often do).

Here’s what I learned: I have okay base fitness (so I’m sure I can complete the entire El Tour de Tucson) and I can hang with a fast group if I don’t take too many short pulls. My weaknesses are climbs of any length or grade and slow recovery from red-zone efforts (pulls in pacelines or the short accelerations you need to stay connected to a fast-moving group).

Step two: Set a reasonable goal

As for my recon of El Tour through my friends' eyes, it seems like it's going to be a slightly hillier six-hour version of my Saturday ride. According to them, I’ll need to constantly work to stay with a reasonably fast group of riders to post a good overall time. 

EL Tour de Tucson is not a race, but the top riders do race to set the fastest time. More than a few pros, former pros and local almost-pros go at each other to finish the course in usually just under four-and-a-half hours. That’s better than a 24mph average for 109 miles! Challenging for the lead is obviously not possible for me.

The next accomplishment to chase is to earn ‘Platinum’ status by finishing the ride in less than five hours. This distinction earns you a priority start position for the following three Tours. Some 450 of the 3,800 people with results in the ‘Open’ category last year finished under five hours.

My friends have all achieved this status and I am told that a start position near the front group (which requires getting to the ride two hours early, in the freezing desert cold) and a huge effort to connect with a sub-five-hour group is about the only way for a chance at Platinum.

Since my first goal for El Tour is to ride safely (no unnecessary physical risk),  taking the kinds of chances my friends say it would take to achieve Platinum in my first El Tour is not worth it to me.

A sub six-hour finish time is extremely respectable and earns you 'Gold' status in the event – priority queuing right behind the Platinums the following year. It would take an 18.1mph average to pull it off.

But even though the Tour de Tucson course has a notoriously flat profile, it does have some grade to it and, depending on the exact route, can be quite hilly in spots, so six hours is not a given for anyone. In fact, only one-third of the ‘Open’ class finishers clocked under six hours last year. Enough thinking about it. This is my goal: 5hr 30min.

Step three: Write the perfect six-week training plan

How does a 43-year-old ad sales executive with a spare tyre, coming off two weeks of travel for work, recovering from the flu, with the lung capacity of an Armstrong (Max, not Lance), who just got dropped on his normal Saturday ride, get ready in six weeks to pull off the longest ride of his life?

A three-pronged approach I tell you; a three-pronged approach. One, ride consistently without overtraining. Two, add in some hill climbing. Three, work on the ability to hold onto a speedy group.

I paint a poor picture of myself as a cyclist with my tongue firmly in my cheek. I have a pretty decent base; barring a week off here and there for travel and/or other maladies, I ride four to five times a week and log about 150 miles; some fast, some slow.

The distance is my biggest challenge – finishing the ride is mostly going to be about eating and drinking so I don’t bonk, and not killing myself with unnecessary effort at the beginning. The tricky thing will be holding speed over distance; getting into a group whose speed I can match, then hanging on.

Without getting too complicated and needing to find a coach, I plan to spend the next six weeks focusing on a different weakness on each of my weekday rides and then simulate El Tour riding on my Saturday group rides.

That translates into me doing an easy ride on Sundays or Mondays to keep the base alive, focusing on short sprint-like bursts on Tuesdays, sticking with the mountain climb on Wednesdays, working on taking repeated pulls in a fast small group ride on Thursdays and then riding all-out on Saturdays.

I will also try to stretch the Saturday 60 into 70, then 80 miles over the next few weeks, or find some other events to do along the way that challenge me for close to the amount of time I plan to ride in Tucson.

So that I give myself time to recover and adapt to the increased activity, I plan to drop the intensity in the fourth week (do all base-level riding) and then pick it back up until a few days before El Tour, when I'll back all the way off to be as fresh as I can on the day.

Let me know in the comments if this is a crazy or smart approach, and if you would do anything differently.

Next week

I’ll focus on getting the most out of every training ride this week but I know there are big gains for me by improving my approach to nutrition. I’ll be asking around about the food choices of my faster friends, and their approach to riding fuels and supplements, to see if I can pick up some fitness and speed through my diet. I’ll share what I learn next week.

Until then,

Steve M.

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