Tour de Palm Springs: 100 Miles With the Pros

What it's like to ride a century on the wheel of the Incycle-Cannondale pro team

We're accelerating up a long, gradual climb in the Tour de Palm Springs, which unofficially kicks off century season in California. It's early February, and the temperature is quickly approaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Palm Springs is a relatively flat century with just over 3,000 vertical feet of climbing, but we're going up this particular ascent very fast. That's because the group I'm with is being lead -- pulled, that is -- by the Incycle-Cannondale team. In other words, I'm riding 100 miles with the pros.

The team is off the front, pushing the pace. Glancing over the shoulder of the rider in front of me, I can see the top of the climb in the distance. I'm desperate to stay on his wheel and in the draft, that place of solace where you're immune from the wind. This wheel is my only hope of staying with the group. And yet I can see that my heart rate is already pinned high in the red zone. There's no way I can sustain this pace. The lactate is already pulsing into my leg muscles, and we still have 50 miles to go. I let up and quickly get dropped.

I later discover that my max heart rate is not 191 beats per minute (bpm), as I'd thought, but rather 192 bpm. That's the effort I gave to stay with the pros on that acceleration.

Micah Cloteaux is co-owner and manager of the Incycle-Cannondale team. In the world of professional road cycling, it's one step down from the teams you see competing in the Tour de France. It's known as a US or UCI Continental team. They primarily compete in North America on a modest budget with much younger riders on average. Cloteaux's team is a diverse mix of Columbian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and American riders -- up-and-comers who are mostly in their early twenties. Bike manufacturer Cannonade stepped up its support for 2015, which has given the team both more resources and legitimacy. The team was in Palm Springs for a training camp, and Micah invited me to ride along.

To be clear, the Tour de Palm Springs is not a pro cycling event. It's a charity ride with multiple distances ranging from five to 100 miles (the century). It's not timed. It's not competitive, and there's no podium. It's designed for riders of all abilities. For the Incycle-Cannondale team, it's a training ride. For me, however, it's an opportunity to ride with professional cyclists -- with people in the top echelon of the sport -- in order to put my own fitness goals into context.

My cycling goal for 2015 is to ride at a pro level. It's a somewhat obscure goal in terms of what "pro-level riding" means, which bakes in some flexibility. I have no illusions of competing with pros. What I mean in a qualitative sense is a level of fitness that enables me to ride with pros and hold my own in a training-ride setting. Which is precisely what took place in Palm Springs. The pace was being set by teammates Andreas Diaz, Orlando Garibay, Hunter Grove, and Efren Ortega Rivera. They were largely off the front and doing most of the work. My objective was just to keep up.

Aside from getting dropped briefly on that climb (and regrouping on the descent), we averaged 21 mph for the full 100 miles. That includes stop signs and lights, as it wasn't a closed course.

Nevertheless, there is still a ways to go in achieving that goal and riding at a pro level. In part because cycling also has clear quantitative measures. Quite simply, one's power-to-weight ratio (watts to kilograms) objectively determines whether one is, in fact, at the pro level. Few other sports or endeavors are as clearly or scientifically defined. So I have two fundamental options: lose weight or produce more power.

As for the Incycle-Cannondale team, they'll be competing in California's Redlands Bicycle Classic, April 8-12, and then New Mexico's Tour of the Gila, April 29-May 3, as the team pursues its own goals of winning races at the pro level and graduating to the international stage.