This week I had the pleasure of attending an incredible cycling event. Its official name is La Vuelta Lighthouse Tour of Puerto Rico, but most people simply call it La Vuelta. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t there to ride — there’s just no way I could handle an event like this (at least not right now). Instead, I rode along in the Tour Director’s comfortable and air-conditioned mega-truck, which gave me the absolute best seat in the house from which to watch the whole ride unfold. I’ve often wondered what it would be like be in a team car in the Tour de France or La Vuelta a Espana. I think this was probably pretty close. Either way, it was amazing.
Calling this event a “bike tour” is kind of like calling the New York Marathon a jog. I imagined it would be something like Cycle Oregon where people cover a lot of ground, but have the chance to stop, chat with the locals, snap a few photos and, perhaps, get an ice cream cone at some point. It wasn’t like that at all.
La Vuelta seems more like a multi-day stage race minus the sprint finishes. If you’ve ever fantasized about riding in the Tour de France and happen to be an extremely fit and capable cyclist, you will simply love La Vuelta. They hammer all day every day with a few quick stops for water and fuel.
In 3 days, La Vuelta encircles the entire island of Puerto Rico. The total distance is 375 miles. The shortest day’s ride is 94 miles. And, while the total elevation gain for the entire ride is only 11,000 feet, the few serious climbs on the route are STEEP. Some of the grades exceeded 15% and go on long enough that they’ve got to hurt. Riders are divided into three pelotons. The fast group rode at 25-30 M.P.H., the middle group at 20-25 M.P.H. and the “slow” group at about 18 M.P.H.
Police escorts and emergency vehicles formed rolling roadblocks so the pelotons could keep moving. Motorcycles carrying photographers darting everywhere and, for a while, even a helicopter added ambiance.
Every rider – including the slow pokes in the 18 M.P.H group – is an elite athlete. The only place you are likely to see more Iron Man Triathlon bracelets, jerseys, shirts, skullcaps and tattoos is at an Iron Man Triathlon. They are beautifully sculpted and bronzed and are a sight to behold in cycling gear. Most were wearing full team kits, which did a lot to add to the illusion of this being a stage race. Watching them ride was educational and inspirational. Most of them barely seemed fazed by the heat, mileage and difficulty of each day’s ride (though I’d like to think that at least some of them were at least a little tired). I do know that the maniac who founded La Vuelta got up at 3:00 a.m. the day after the event for an hour-and-a-half “spin.” I suspect he wasn’t the only one to do so.
The 30-person pre-ride the day before the big event was representative of the kind of bikes ridden in La Vuelta. High-end bikes all around. Many were pro team models. I’ve never seen this many Colnagos, Pinerelli’s, DeRosas and custom Ti bikes in one place in my life. Specialized was also well represented. To my surprise, there were very few Treks. It would seem style plays as important of a role at La Vuelta as does performance. There were also three Bike Fridays, which stood out like turds in the proverbial punch bowl. However, all three foldiphiles rode admirably, which I’d bet gave them a great deal of satisfaction.
It is clear that, as a spectator sport, cycling gets more respect in Puerto Rico than it does in the U.S. Cheering fans lined the streets in most towns. More importantly, most of the drivers caught in the rolling roadblocks, many of whom were more than a little inconvenienced by the ride, took it all in stride. It would sure be great if that same sort of attitude worked its way to the States someday.
While there was very little time for sightseeing, there are many beautiful parts of Puerto Rico. Some of the most stellar towns apparently get very few foreign visitors. Instead, they serve as weekend retreats for locals.
Puerto Rico is definitely a place I’d like to go back and visit. Who knows, if I remain as inspired by the whole event as I am right now, I might even someday attain the level of fitness required to ride this mother. That would be something. The travel editor from Bicycling Magazine who was there to write about the event old me if I ever did, he’d come back again and ride with me. Be careful, Bill, I just might cash in on that promise someday.
To see more photos, check out my flickr page. There’s a great photo montage done by a real photographer in 2009 on La Vuelta’s Website. To see the short posts I did during the ride, check out La Vuelta’s blog.
Update: I checked with some of the riders who were using Garmin bike computers. The steepest bits were somewhere between 17% and 20%.