Tour de Palm Springs

"Let's ride Palm Springs," I heard my wife suggest.
I groaned and launched a multi-phase protest:
"It's way too far; they start the ride at dawn.
It might be windy..." Kay continued on,
"We'll drive out Friday night and stay with Mom.
We'll do the ride and Sunday we'll drive home."
Like all good husbands trained for forty years,
I (sometimes) get the hint; I shifted gears.
"Okay. I'll sign us up and talk to Pete
To see if he and Linda'd like to meet
Us there to get some exercise and sun.
The tandem trikeys ride it; we'll have fun."

That first stanza is a highly accurate, almost verbatim repetition of a conversation Kay and I had back in January 2003 – well, except of course for a sprinkle of poetic license, a tad of gross oversimplication, my decidedly unreliable memory and that moderate dose of embellishment you have to expect from any story teller born and raised in the Deep South. But it really was her idea...

As we embarked on our first Tour de Palm Springs, I was very definitely feeling somewhere between tepid and trepid. This year again, some of those same reservations were there. Strong gusty winds were roaring even through mild-mannered coastal Oxnard on Thursday. But the winds stopped on Friday, and off we charged across LA's (wretched) afternoon commuter and weekend getaway traffic. We made it to Palm Springs by early evening and bumbled by Huell Howser and his TV crew to registration. For some reason, they didn't have us on their pre-paid list, but added us without question. The TdPS really is an unusual but interesting combination: a high-rent urban production with celebrities and big city resources, but for the most part with a casual, friendly small town attitude. It's a very efficient fund raiser for a lot of local charities, including the Boy Scouts and several Christian schools, interestingly enough – for a ride that began life as Spokes for Different Folks.

The numbers on the clock said four-three-oh;
I kissed my wife and said, "It's time to go."
We dressed in silence, letting her folks sleep.
A zillion clear bright stars then watched us creep
Outside to meet the sharp, dry heady thrill
Of predawn desert winter's crispy chill;
It's worth the hassle once a year at least.
We drove away to find our morning feast.
The local Denny's didn't fit our mood;
We settled for some Mac Jack pseudo-food.
The all-night drive-thru's coffee hit the spot
As we unloaded in the parking lot.

The two long rides start early, and it's a pretty good idea to get there around 6 AM, well before most of the local eateries begin serving. That first year, when we initially saw our favorite parking lot, it was empty, and we weren't at all sure it was legal to be there. But by 6:30 it's pretty well filled. The rides start from Palm Springs High School, which is about the right scale for an event of this size. The volunteers are for the most part pretty cool, perky and helpful, but it's early for them too, and there's a lot to set up and coordinate. It all works fairly well, though, and like a huge herd of lemmings, gradually all the riders find their way to the start area.

The TdPS start is a fairly elaborate production, with celebrities, bands and eventually a lady who sings the national anthem over the PA; I couldn't see if she was fat or not.

We look for all our friends and find a few
Before it's time for what we came to do.
With seven thousand cyclists, staggered starts,
A horde of volunteers with stalwart hearts,
Ten thousand traffic cones and miles of tape
Tame chaos so that we can all escape.
Each group sets off with lots of starts and stops
For traffic jams and lights and rent-a-cops.
All trikeys smile when they first hear the sound
Of scores of pedals clacking all around.
As bikers tiptoe, on and off their feet,
I stay clicked in and comfy in my seat.

There were about 25 folks from our VCRR group who rode this Tour. Kay and I had gone down early so that we could see off the guys who did the long rides (55 or 100 miles). By some random quirkiness, most of our group rode trikes this year. I don't think there was anyone new on this ride; it was Dave's first group ride on his new white and red LoGo. We saw maybe half of our guys (and gals) before the ride started, and then scooted back to get ready for our (foo-foo) little 25-mile jaunt. We rode with our neighbors and great friends, Pete and Linda, this year, doing it strictly for fun and frolic.

Good weather in the desert this time of the year is by no means guaranteed; the wind just before this ride served as a serious reminder that this event could perhaps be borderline miserable with a forty mile per hour scirocco trying to rip off parts of your face as you struggle to pedal up to Sky Valley. Last year the wind on Sunday was almost that bad; this year it rained as we were driving home the day after the ride. But for the last three years at least, the weather for the ride itself has been great. This year, especially, there was a slight overcast that diffused the strong desert sun just enough to take the edge off it. There was even a kind of solar halo, which at times seemed to have an unusual prism effect, with very narrow hazy rings of color as you looked up at it. It just doesn't get much better...

This year's the first I've gone the shorter route,
Without the need to hustle and to scoot.
We rode the twenty-five mile course, untaxed
To meet a schedule; we just cruised, relaxed.
There's lots of folks and kids who've never tried
To bike this far – their first big major ride.
Small tots on trailers, tagalongs (no trikes),
And grade school kids on subsized mountain bikes,
Rolled right along past older folks who smiled
At being outperformed by some young child.
At SAG stops, bands played pops; we drank and ate
And then rode on before it got too late.

Unlike the longer courses at TdPS, the 25-miler stays mostly in town, for the most part rambling around upscale housing tracts and golf courses. At the first SAG stop, one of (purportedly) thirteen bands was playing Rock Around the Clock as we pulled in –

When the clock strikes two, three and four,
We're gonna rock, rock, rock and rock some more...

I couldn't help but think of the hundreds of century riders who would in fact still be grinding their way around the course in midafternoon. With their hour plus headstart, our 55-milers were also reaching their first pit stop about then, almost twenty miles out. If recumbent riders have an easier time with bladder urgency than conventional cyclists because of lower prostate trauma, I'm not convinced they've all gotten the message...

We hung around the Doral for a while, letting other cyclists try our trikes, and meeting other strange(r) folks who were wearing gaudy semi-costumes, or riding with dogs and kids. One guy on a Penninger delta was pulling an older, handicapped person in a two-wheeled tagalong, with a Boston Terrier in a basket on the back. We were munching and sipping Gatorade as the band swung into the theme from Pink Panther – just about the perfect tempo for this bunch. People were almost dancing in the parking lot. When we finally pulled back out onto the course, they were playing the Flintstones theme...

They're a modern stone age family
From the town of Bedrock...

Yeah, I guess so; our cycles are about as primitive as modern transportation gets, and the lower desert is a very good facsimile of those old TV cartoon sets. I rode off singing, but Pete wouldn't even try to harmonize with me – especially that part that goes "We'll have a GAY OLD TIME!" Of course, he also still insists on a Red, White and Blue rather than a Rainbow spinny...

Near the Mission Hills golf course, one family caught up to us, with its youngest member being a seven(ish)-year-old boy on one of those scale model mountain bikes. That kid rode very well, and plenty fast enough to keep up with our group. To make things worse, he had a little tag under his seat that said 2 FAST 4U. But hey, he was drafting his sister, plus he had on a bright yellow jacket, which everyone knows is good for at least another 3 MPH on the flats. Although we had very graciously watched lots of twelve-year-old girls and grossly obese guys on those grossly non-aerodynamic 'comfort cycles' blow us off, this kid was the last straw. Pete and I both felt the need to ride up onto one of those swooshy sidewalks with lots of curves and contours, and show that little sucker we were up to his challenge. When we hit an area soaked by a runaway sprinkler system, it started to get really fun...

But while our foo-foo cruise was mostly about having fun, the two longer alternative rides at TdPS are a bit more serious get-outa-town and pedal through open desert outings. Compared to most similar rides in SoCal, the course is really not very hilly, at least. There's only one section that's even close to a switchback ascent, maybe an eighth mile long, and somehow even it's kinda cute rather than intimidating. There is one of those long shallow grinds, almost a straight line along Dillon Road as you slowly (or in my case, very slowly) peak out in Sky Valley. The first SAG stop is a bit far for a lot of bladders, but like all the others, it's very well stocked and attended.

Your speed picks up, with cyclists stringing out;
The open road's what any ride's about.
The fifty-five mile course may test your skills.
It goes through town to reach the first real hills;
A few switchbacks then onto Dillon Road,
A fast smooth drop before your bike is slowed
By climbing up to reach the first SAG stop –
Some quick refreshments, then you're near the top.
The high point comes as you keep going east,
And just before the rollers hit, at least
There's one quite steep short drop to fill that need,
To thrill your soul with one short blast of speed.

The eastern end of Dillon Road is a series of rollers or whoop-de-doos that I have to admit I honestly like, for some odd reason. With a little effort, you can get enough speed on the downhills to (almost?) make it to the top of the next one. Then this (longest) section of the ride ends with a right turn onto Thousand Palms Canyon Road. And at last the real fun begins...

There's one clear winner on this cycling course:
The drop down Thousand Palms, this tour's 'de force',
Swoops (fast!) along a winding two-lane road,
Beside a wash where water's clearly flowed,
And carved its path through piles of barren sand.
Though Mother Nature has the upper hand
Out here, worn asphalt makes its winding way,
So speeding cyclists have a place to play.
It's narrow, not too steep, just right,
To build up speed and hold it on your flight.
It's FUN to fly through this strange empty space,
As sun and wind are buffeting your face.

When we're haulin' down one of these long, steady, gradually sloping downhills like TPC, most of us fat guys are quite pleased to realize that on this part of the course at least, weight very directly equates to horsepower. The bigger and heavier the rider, the faster the bike, and the more of those guys who rode around us on the climb into Sky Valley we'll now go blowing past in return. The road really is too narrow, and I'm betting it wouldn't be much fun to be out there all alone on a bike, plus this year I heard some reports of fairly sizable potholes [Can you say spelunk, boys and girls?]. But all in all, I love Thousand Palms Canyon Road!

After you level out and recross I-10, you're pretty much back in the populated portion of Coachella Valley, and before long you join the tail end of the 25-mile course for one last SAG stop – strangely enough with only six miles to go – before rambling back into the high school compound. If you've recognized Craig's tail-faired Trice, done the math, and wondered how he managed to catch up before we left that last SAG – 49 miles for him, 19 for us – maybe I should point out that he had over an hour head start, plus there are lots of places to cut the course... Nah, just kidding; it's more likely that he had 20 or 30 fewer test riders on his Micro at the SAGs – oh, and rode about twice as fast as us as usual, of course.

Our riders, all alone or in small groups,
Complete their journeys on their chosen loops.
When ev'rybody's finished and returned,
Our muscles sore, our faces all windburned,
We try to get together at the school.
We all get T-shirts, which is pretty cool,
Plus bags from Trader Joe's with yummy snacks
To munch or stuff for later in our packs.
Replacing fluids, riding strange new bikes –
A push-me-pull-you tandem, all our trikes –
Is mostly how we wind this outing down;
Before we all load up and 'blow this town'.

Every year at TdPS, it's been fun to meet each member of the gang as everyone pulls in and finds the group, which this year was tucked into a neat little corner of PSHS's central plaza, sharing a few picnic tables behind a Spiderman baby bouncer. A few of our folks got at least a tad physically stressed at some point on their ride. There were tales of two-wheelers taking tumbles, close enough to touch. A brace of bearded braggarts strained our credibility with their maximum speed claims; on and on... Mostly it's just good fun to be in a strange special place and to share this kind of experience with people we really like. But gradually each of us began to realize that it was time to get on the road, or get a bite to eat, or a beer or back to the hotel for a much-needed hot shower... and the TdPS was finally all over.

Is this a perfect ride? No, of course not. One of our tandem teams discovered that cycling can be a contact sport, and had a front row seat for one of the numerous emergency vehicle arrivals; another was offended enough by the sloppy riding of some cyclists to post it on a trike forum. One of our trikeys felt that moving the second SAG stop on the 55-mile course a few miles farther down the course from where it was last year was well worth... uh, discussing(?)... with anyone who would listen (but she was smiling at the end of the ride when she... uh, discussed... it with us). Traffic driving back and forth from Ventura County... getting up so-o-o-oh early... YUCK! But hey, we'll be back next year. Maybe you'll be there, too?

POW Index

Last updated Feb 12 2005