Drawing the golden ticket at our monthly bullpen meeting, where starving velo-journalists fight for coveted assignments, I’m assigned to cover a California charity classic, the Tour de Palm Springs, on February 9th, in the desert, in the middle of winter – snicker, snicker.
Charity cycling events, along with road races, were once the staple of weekend cycling. Racers raced while charity riders rode events put on by the local Lions Club, YMCA, Girl Scouts, and others to raise dollars for a cause. Racers tried not to crash so they could win not-so-prized prizes, charity riders tried to finish and earn a prized T-shirt. Everyone had fun.
Nowadays, the congested roads, never-ending urban development and not-so-cycling-friendly municipalities make road races all but extinct, and charity rides a threatened species. Even El Tour de Tucson, one of the largest charity cycling events in the US, is in serious financial trouble, awash in red ink and struggling to pay debts.
Are charity cycling events a lost cause? Not yet, at least at the Tour de Palm Springs.
|Ride:||Tour de Palm Springs|
|Location:||Palm Springs, California|
|Next event:||February 7-8, 2020|
|Distance:||9, 26, 51. 80, and 102 miles|
|Start:||Alejo and N. Palm Canyon|
On a cooler then normal February morning in downtown Palm Springs, thousands of riders roll underneath a giant banner to start the 21st annual event. The goal is to raise big bucks for local charities that help make Coachella Valley a great place to live, so the promoter pays big bucks to close the main road through town for the duration of the event – 36 hours.
Riders love the festive closed street setting, and it is worth it. Since 1999, the nonprofit group behind the event, CVSPIN (Coachella Valley Serving People In Need), has given more than $3.2 million to charities including Boy Scout troops, homeless organizations, high school bands, Desert AIDS Project, United Cerebral Palsy, and countless others.
For many riders today this is their biggest and only cycling event of the year. They are here to support Coachella Valley, CVSPIN and those in need, more than be a cyclist. Straddling road bikes, mountain bikes, city bikes, single speeds and a few not quite road worthy bikes, riders wearing everything from 70’s running shorts and tank-tops to full race kit, choose between 10, 25, 50 and 100-mile routes. I opt for the 100-miler.
The route travels from Palm Springs through a flat section known as “sandblast ally” past giant wind farms towards Desert Hot Springs. With staggered starts riders safely roll out at their own pace – like a herd of turtles, rather than jackrabbit style. I enjoy a leisurely pace and chat with friendly riders, including many Canadian snowbirds decked out in bright fluorescent yellow.
Once on Dillon Road we start the first climb, well, actually the only climb. It is more of a long false flat than a true climb. “Run what ya brung” is the order of the day as once cohesive groups come apart and new ones form based on rider fitness. A half-dozen racers roll by in full locomotive mode and I latch on, sitting in the draft “sweet-spot” at the back; I’ll only slow them down if I join the rotation.
A short rough section near mile 40 rattles teeth, ejects water bottles and provides everyone with the desert’s equivalent of cobblestones – heat cracks, heaves and humps.
Soon the route enters my favorite part of the Coachella Valley, miles and miles of agriculture fields filled with palm dates, citrus, broccoli, carrots, lettuce and colorful peppers. Police marshals secure rural intersections and wave riders through with a smile.
Around mile 90, the 25-mile course joins the 100-mile route with beach cruisers and rusty garage bikes mixing in with custom carbon road machines. Since it’s a charity event, and not a race, everyone politely rides together over the final miles past private palm lined golf courses, while a majestic snowcapped San Jacinto Peak towers above.
There are more picturesque rides in the area including Coachella to Joshua Tree National Park in BICYCLIST #149, and racier ones like The Desert Bike Club’s Flat, Fast and Furious in BICYCLIST #142, but if you want a great time on the bike while helping out those in need set your sights on riding the Tour de Palm Springs.