The alarm goes off and I jolt from my daze. It’s Saturday morning and I’m waking for the notorious group ride known as the Shootout. My sleep has been fleeting in anticipation of the early alarm—about three hours earlier than normal—but now that it’s time to rise, all I want is to close my eyes and roll back over, a typical perk of professional cycling.
The ride rolls out of a Starbucks adjacent to Arizona University in downtown Tucson. It’s a chilly thirty minute ride down from my apartment in the Catalina Foothills, but as any cyclist knows, adequate time must be allowed to fully prepare for a ride of such physical demand, and ego-driven importance. I choose 5:50 because it is a full ten minutes before my roommates will rise, and this will give me the necessary time to grab the best pans and start prepping my morning feast before the crowd fills our tight kitchen.
The conversation is an odd mix of rambling jokes and silence as we’re drunk with sleep but awakening to the aroma of coffee and the task of shoveling copious amounts of food into our not-yet-hungry stomachs. Our discussion will inevitably take a turn toward attire as we prep for the day ahead. Located in a desert, Tucson is surprisingly frigid in the morning but easily reaches the mid-seventies by noon. No matter which articles of clothing you’ve chosen, the first step out the door kicks you back. The sun has yet to rise and the first twenty minutes are a frosty experience; but then you’ll catch that first ray of sunlight and the change is startling.
The Starbucks is like all others, with a Santé Fe twist, and now with a heavy dash of European flair. Cyclists loiter around, some are pulling gear from cars; the brave roll in with winter gloves on and others take refuge inside, sipping their hot beverages.
The Shootout is quite similar to other large group rides in that there will be many riders sporting professional team kit. But here, when you’re inclined to ask that man drenched in BMC paraphernalia where he bought it, you come to the realization that it was earned. The little Garmin babies group together bantering about which one will be time trialing onto the ProTour team this year; it’s really quite amazing how many elite and professional riders come together for this unsanctioned Saturday morning ride. The locals are firing on all cylinders and praying for their chance to stick it to the out-of-towners. And then there are the newbies…
The ride rolls out promptly and more than a hundred riders slot onto tiny University Boulevard. Running parallel on both sides of the yellow line lay a pair of old train tracks waiting to grab the eager bikerist (that’s a few steps below the full-fledged cyclist), fidgeting around the edges of the mass. But make no mistake, nerves are present in all the riders, including the more experienced. It’s the early season and we’ve all been away from the peloton; while no one wants to have too much form now, pride often gets the better of us.
The ride rolls easily out of town, weaving through roundabouts and under I-10. Turning south the pace begins to lift as we hit Mission road. Riders are mixing about, catching up with familiar faces, and meeting new ones. The whole environment is jovial with few smiles giving away their true intent.
Around Ajo Way the imperceptible jockeying for position will begin, and by Irvington Road the shuffling has begun in earnest. The red light looms in the distance: Valencia Road, the cross street that marks the official start to the unofficial race. It feels like the group always catches this light and riders all try to slip their way forward. Some are tactful, gliding forward, others are more overt, simply riding around in the other lane.
The green flashes and suddenly the pace far exceeds everyone’s comfort level. At the front there’s an odd mix of riders rolling through and elevating the speed with others trying to stay in the action but out of the wind. No one wants to do too much work, but there’s an obligation to any rider strong enough to make their pull. This past week my single fleeting moment of leading the field required in excess of 500 watts.
Once you are convinced the leader is riding a motorcycle, the bridge comes into sight. I’m always relieved here, despite this being the most difficult part of the ride: I know it will ease up as we crest the rise. If you’ve made it this far, the rest is a relative breeze. What’s left of the group reevaluates their surroundings; deep breaths are had by all with the knowledge that the selection has been made. The next few miles pass by and the anticipation mounts as the final hill approaches. Mini lead-outs form as you ram into the base of the hill. The speed is on par with any NRC sprint, but here it’s more chaotic; the hill takes a little over a minute to climb if you do it well. But no one does. Riders jump left and right, take three to five hard strokes and they’re done, heads down and gasping for air. I’m convinced this is one of the most difficult finishes in all of cycling, classics be damned. No one is pipped at the line, no one soars across the imaginary line—the winner is the lonely rider who slogged their way the longest.
I’ve been that guy once. It was a strange satisfaction that I felt; I inched my way over the top and looked out upon desert. A few pats on the back and grunts of congratulations as others crawled over the top, but mostly just a mutual acknowledgment of the sufferings that we all just put ourselves through. The group accretes from behind and we roll lazily away. Some will veer right down Continental Road towards Madera Canyon, others will head back for town, but we can all be proud of our morning.
The group ride is a mysterious and beautiful thing. Clashes of personalities come together with different tasks at hand, but they are all symbiotically linked in this mass of bikes. Some come to meditate and have a mental break from the monotony of everyday life; others come to socialize, and yet others come to prove their superiority, and occasionally lack thereof. The beautiful organism that is a group ride welcomes all.