Las Vegas Century

October 18, 2003

Las Vegas, Nevada

80.4 miles

Bicycle:  Co-Motion Americano

Ride Info: Las Vegas Century

Finding myself with some free time on my hands, I decided to go to Nevada, one of only five states I had never visited. While looking for October rides in the area, I was captivated by the jersey design for the Las Vegas Century. Although I had no interest in gambling or the other craziness of Las Vegas, the ride promised a trip through the Red Rock Canyon area, which was featured on the jersey as well. Consequently, I found myself visiting the one town in the state that I would have otherwise avoided.

After a long drive through seven states, I crossed the Nevada state line on Friday afternoon. My first stop was at a casino in Mesquite to enjoy a dirt-cheap 16-ounce ham steak with eggs ($3.39). I found it interesting that the welcome center in Mesquite was actually run by the tourist bureau of Las Vegas, which was still almost 90 miles away, as opposed to most welcome centers which are run by a state or local tourist bureau. A little over an hour later (thanks to the 75-mph speed limit), I drove into the sprawling city. It was hard to imagine that this was the same town as in the classic Oceans Eleven, but I suppose a lot of things have changed since that movie was made in 1960 (the recent remake was okay, but the original with the Rat Pack was much better).

There was enough daylight left that I decided to see Hoover Dam. As a rare Midwesterner concerned with water issues, I felt that I had to make this pilgrimage to the Bureau of Reclamation's proudest achievement. West of Boulder City, I had to stop at a security checkpoint station. However, I didn't have any trouble convincing the guard that I wasn't a terrorist, just a guy from Illinois with a car full of junk. I parked at the fancy new visitor center's multi-story garage for a small fee (note: if one plans to walk across the dam anyway, the free parking on the Arizona side is a better deal).

Hoover Dam was named one of the original seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders of the United States.

Inside, I had to go through the equivalent of airport security to go on the tour. The in-depth "hard-hat tours" were no longer offered, so I settled for a fairly quick tour consisting of a brief presentation by a Bureau person, an elevator trip down to see the turbines at the foot of the dam and a walk through a few rooms of exhibits. After that, I walked across the dam to Arizona and back. It sure was something to look down over the side, following that vast, elegantly curved wall of concrete down to the diminished Colorado River bed. Predictably, I kept thinking of the song "Hoover Dam" by Bob Mould's band, Sugar: "Standing on the edge of the Hoover Dam/I'm on the centerline right between two states of mind."

"Standing on the edge of the Hoover Dam..."

There was heavy, slow-moving traffic on US 93 across the dam, and I'm sure the locals will be very happy when the planned four-lane bypass is completed in a few years. Professional drivers will be happy, too, since most commercial vehicles are not currently allowed to drive over the dam for security reasons. There were nice views of Lake Mead and a diversion tunnel from the Arizona side, but my dam pictures were complicated by the setting sun and late afternoon shadows.

The white rim of Lake Mead shows the high-water mark.

After walking briskly back to the Nevada side, I was lucky to get into the old visitor's center for the very last presentation of the day. Sometimes older is better, and this was my favorite display. It featured a 3-D map of the entire Colorado River Basin with major cities and water projects highlighted. It really tied together a lot of the reading I've done about various projects. Showing its vintage, the map's roads bore US route numbers rather than Interstate numbers (except I-15, whose signs may have been added later).

This old model was my favorite Hoover Dam exhibit.

Browsing in the gift shops afterward, I noted with amusement that Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner's classic critical history of the Bureau of Reclamation, was not among the books for sale. Their T-shirt selection was rather disappointing, so I just bought a cool shotglass, following a vacation tradition.

This was my souvenir shotglass. I guess the glass itself would be Lake Mead?

For more pictures from Hoover Dam, please visit this special supplemental photo page.

After suffering through the traffic one would expect heading into Vegas on a Friday night, I went to pick up my registration packet at the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) where the ride would begin the next morning. When they asked which ride I was doing, I said tentatively, "Well, I'm registered for the 108-mile ride." I wasn't so confident about the distance after completing a 66-mile ride a week earlier with a bit of difficulty. I knew I was pretty likely to bail out and do the 79-mile route instead. My training was pretty lousy, consisting of only once or twice a week on the bike over the past two months, and even at my peak this year my longest ride was under 90 miles. Adding to that the expected temperatures in the nineties, even the 79-mile ride was a bit optimistic. Most importantly, I had big plans for the rest of my trip that could be soured by a completely draining, miserable day on the bike. That could leave me feeling flat for several days, and I didn't want that to happen! I wouldn't have to make a final decision until the lunch stop at 60 miles.

My motel was only a mile or so from the RTC, on Las Vegas Boulevard a couple miles north of the Strip. I checked in just after dark. Since I was there, I felt like I ought to at least see the Strip, even though I had a feeling that I wouldn't like it. Heck, it just would have seemed wrong to spend the entire evening in my motel room. Maybe I'd find something for dinner, too. There was a bus for tourists that conveniently stopped right in front of the motel, so I hopped on. The bus was slow, so I bailed out after a mile or so and started walking. It became clear to me pretty quickly that this just wasn't where I wanted to be. Vegas has its fans, but I am not one of them. I thought the Strip was like the worst aspects of a bar on Friday night and a mall the day after Thanksgiving combined. There were lots of people, many of them obnoxious (especially those snap-it-in-your-face jerks distributing advertisements for female "entertainment"), some of them smoking and most of them walking too slowly. There seemed to be a casino, show, or amusement everywhere I looked. Everything from showgirls, Cirque du Soleil, roller coaster rides, and Celine Dion concerts, really anything you could imagine. My family actually gave me a hard time later for not gambling. Since I wasn't even employed, I thought it was smart not to gamble, anyway (I know, one could also say that a two-week vacation while unemployed isn't a great idea, either). Las Vegas was just a strange, uncomfortable place for me. The artificial world created out in the desert was just too bizarre. Just the same, the traveler in me soldiered on, documenting the sights with my camera. After walking south to the Excalibur, I headed back north. I walked all the way back to my motel, and I never found anything I wanted to eat for dinner.

The fairy-tale castle of Excalibur was as far south as I went on the Strip.

I didn't venture into the Frontier to watch the bikini bull riding. Honest!

A  drive-thru wedding chapel is one of those things we just don't have in Illinois.

A bit understated by Vegas standards, the Yucca Motel had a classic neon sign.

For more pictures from the Las Vegas Strip at night, please visit this special supplemental photo page.

Back in my motel room, I snacked on some macadamia nuts. After a total of eight or nine miles of walking on concrete (Hoover Dam plus the Strip), my knees were a little achy. That wasn't exactly the best restful preparation for a century ride. I asked for a 5:30 AM wake-up call, reasoning that it was really 7:30 back in Chicago. Of course, on Chicago time I didn't go to bed until 1 AM, but I chose to overlook that (by the end of my vacation, this mental trick which allowed me to sleep 4-5 hours a night while hiking, cycling and driving many miles started to catch up with me).

I was a little slow getting ready in the morning. Fortunately, my motel was only a couple minutes from the start. Still, by the time I assembled my S+S coupled bike and went to the starting area, most of the 108-mile riders were already gone. The 79-mile group was leaving in ten minutes. Never one for mass-starts and being registered as a 108-miler anyway, I went ahead and started on my own. The early miles were pleasant riding on uncrowded streets with bike lanes. Although Las Vegas is famous as a 24-hour city, things were pretty quiet away from the Strip on a Saturday morning. I chatted a bit with other riders, many of whom were from California.

Suddenly, I heard a funny noise that sounded like something stuck on my back tire. In fact, it turned out to be a puncture right in the center, and the sound was actually the air blowing on my rear fender. Oh well, I guess I was due for a flat. I took the pump and a spare tube out of my rack trunk. I had just turned the bike upside down and flicked the quick-release when a sag vehicle pulled up behind me. While many rides say that riders are responsible for their own flats (i.e., sags are for big problems only), this guy was quite happy to help. He was also much more adept than I, so after thanking him profusely I was back on my way in just a few minutes.

According to the route profile, the roads were steadily climbing toward Red Rock Canyon, a gain of 1,700 feet. It seemed pretty flat to me most of the way, though, as that ascent was spread over 20 miles. The first rest stop came near the edge of town after 11 miles (too soon, I thought). I refilled my water bottles and continued, anxious to see the canyon. There were many local riders coming the other way who were not riding the century. This was obviously a very popular training route. Not only was it a pretty area, but the roads were wide and while not too difficult, the hills at least provided more of a challenge than much of the relatively flat Las Vegas area.

This photo was taken of me by

This sign marked the boundary of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

This was the view from the wide, smooth road toward Red Rock Canyon.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area was indeed beautiful. My Moon Handbook for Nevada called it the "antidote to Las Vegas" --an escape from that nutty city. My only disappointment was that we didn't ride on the 13-mile scenic loop, just on SR 159. In retrospect, I should have gone back after the ride, but I had too many other places to visit on my vacation. The Red Rock Overlook at 18 miles provided a nice view.

Soon after, the route reached its furthest point west and began to head south. The next rest stop was in the tiny town of Blue Diamond, which reminded me of Lucky Charms: "Orange stars, pink hearts, yellow moons, green clovers and blue diamonds" (those were the marshmallow colors when I was a kid). There was a bike shop there off the main highway, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Some young girls were singing to provide entertainment. Maybe I was just being grouchy, but their voices really grated on me. The temperature had risen noticeably since the start, so I took a Succeed capsule to maintain my electrolyte balance.

The fine may not be enough to discourage people, but the biting will!

Blue Diamond had an amusing welcome sign.

Not too far beyond Blue Diamond, we turned east onto busier SR 160. Too quickly, we returned to the edge of the city. I feared that one day in the not-too-distant future, Las Vegas would extend right up to the border of Red Rock Canyon. This area was dusty with the desert sands disturbed by new development. Aside from that, this was a pleasant area to ride, a place where the traffic did not approach the capacity of the roads. That would change in a year or two.

There was another rest stop in the midst of ugly road construction near the crossing of I-15. Unfortunately, that wouldn't be the last construction I would see. The route continued into Henderson and the Sun City Anthem development. Maybe I'm the only one who remembers this, but in 1985, Little Steven Van Zandt formed a group of musicians called Artists United Against Apartheid (keep in mind, those were the days of "We Are The World," Live Aid, Farm Aid, etc.). An entire album was created, and its centerpiece was "Sun City," a song about a resort in South Africa where certain performers did big-money shows despite the resort's white-only policies. The refrain was, "I ain't gonna play Sun City." These days, with apartheid shattered and Del Webb's Sun City retirement communities, I wonder if someone hearing that song would ask, "So what do these guys have against old people?" Anyway, since "anthem" implies a song, "Sun City Anthem" especially made me think of that.

"I ain't gonna ride Sun Cit-tay...."

This part of the route had rolling hills, but I was feeling pretty good. I started thinking that maybe 108 miles wasn't out of reach. Then I reminded myself that I was only 45 miles into it. From my experience in century rides, I would say that 45 miles wouldn't even be 25% of the way through (the last 20 miles is like 50% of the ride--that's where it gets hard). For maybe five miles, I didn't see another cyclist and started to wonder if I had missed a turn. Predictably, as soon as I pulled over to consult my cue sheet, another rider passed by.

Leaving Sun City Anthem, I plunged down a hill and merged into a busy road coming in on my the right (Anthem Parkway), which was a little stressful (I ended up in the middle lane). I was happy to see the route turn off of this road quickly. After a couple of quiet miles, I turned onto Horizon Ridge Parkway for a long, hilly, heavily traveled, construction-obstructed stretch. Many orange and white barrels often constricted the lanes, making this part pretty unpleasant. On the bright side, sometimes perfectly good lanes were blocked off from traffic, so I took the liberty of guiding my Americano between the barrels to use them. There was one tough hill on Horizon Ridge Parkway, and it took more out of me than I expected. The lunch stop seemed further away than the cue sheet had said.

Entering O'Callaghan Park for lunch with 60 miles under my belt, I had a strong feeling that the 108-mile route was indeed too far. As I topped off my water bottles, I felt worse and worse. I ate some ham and cheese, took another Succeed and drank as much water as I could stand. The temperature had climbed into the mid-nineties and I was dried out. I sat at a picnic table in the shade for fifteen minutes or so. Forget the 48 miles out to Lake Mead and back--I wasn't even looking forward to the twenty miles back to the start. This had become an all-too-familiar and pathetic tradition in my 2003 invitationals. I would suddenly plummet from a sort of aerobic euphoria into a dehydrated and miserable state, usually at the last rest stop. Looking back after the ride, I identified the problem as a lack of focus. I had been well-hydrated through the first couple hours, but when distracted by congestion and construction on Horizon Ridge Parkway, I simply forgot to drink. Ultimately, my consolation was that I had felt considerably worse on other rides than this one, and that gave me enough encouragement to get back on the bike and head for the finish line. Cycling psychology is a strange thing.

About a mile after the lunch stop, the two routes split at Boulder Highway (US 93). A right turn would lead to Boulder City and Lake Mead, but there was no doubt that I would be turning left. Taking the shorter route was even easier to justify since I had just seen Boulder City and Lake Mead on Friday afternoon. Boulder Highway was very busy four-laned road lined with commerce, but it had wide, paved shoulders. I didn't enjoy negotiating the frequent right turn lanes, though. I noticed a number of people at every bus stop on this road. Considering that I rode nearly 11 miles on Boulder Highway and never saw a bus, service must not have been too good.

Sensing the exhaustion of the riders, the organizers of the century were wise to station a few people at two critical turns to make sure we didn't go off course. When directed at Desert Inn Road, I happily turned off of Boulder Highway. A mile later, another volunteer made sure I turned onto McLeod Drive. A bit later I was riding down quiet residential streets with modest homes. I saw a large family posing for photos in their front yard, perhaps celebrating a family reunion. Once again it had been some time since I saw another rider. Suddenly half a dozen hardcore roadies blew past, probably guys riding the whole century who had covered an extra thirty miles with only a fifteen minute head start on me. Yeah, they probably cheated, I laughed to myself... they actually trained for rides like this.

After the next turn, I was headed west toward the Strip. The Stratosphere Casino, the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River, loomed large at the intersection.

I crossed the Strip at the Stratosphere Casino, which meant I was almost finished.

Another fast group came past me, but I managed to hang with them in traffic for a short time. We went through a commercial district on Main Street (this was south of the older downtown casinos on Main), then turned briefly onto Charleston Boulevard to go under a railroad bridge. Having driven this stretch of road twice, I knew that this was probably the most dangerous part of the ride, so I hammered down the hill and back up, managing to get to a safer place before traffic caught up with me. Flashes of glory and adrenaline like this near the end of a ride can be a tremendous morale booster. Indeed, I finished strong. A small crowd cheered at the finish line and a few young women handed me some beads. A photographer documented the moment, then I continued on to my car. Final totals: 80.40 miles in 5:25:49 for a sluggish 14.8 mph average. The first part of the ride was much faster, but the last 25 miles or so were slower.

I took my time disassembling my bike and changing into some clean clothes. Each minute of action was followed by several minutes of sitting there thinking how awful I felt. The RTC BikeFest was going on during and after the century. I wasn't sure there would be anything of interest for me there since it seemed to be geared toward kids and locals. However, I knew I was in no condition to drive, so I figured I'd check it out. After a quick look around, I drank more water. I was really getting sick of plain old water, but that was all they had that I could drink. Then I sat down at a table to fill out a ride evaluation. I was probably a bit harsh, carrying on about the traffic and construction. The woman at the table was surprised to see me flip the paper over and continue on the other side (not surprising to anyone reading this lengthy report!). My reward for filling out the form was a raffle ticket for one of the drawings to be held in an hour or so. The other drawing was from my race number, so I went back to the car to fetch it.

I didn't know what to do with myself until the raffle, but I found a spot to lay down. There was live entertainment: a Tahitian band played rhythmic music as scantily clad young women danced, rapidly shaking all they had back and forth with the bongos. Remembering that I was in Vegas, this seemed almost normal to me (I'm not a prude, but it seemed a tad risque for an all-ages audience). Despite the constant percussion of bongos, I had little trouble falling asleep on the ground halfway through their performance. When I awoke, I felt so much better. The bongo men finished, and the raffles began. First, the big prizes were raffled to the riders--two bicycles. Next, they drew raffle tickets to give away small gifts from the various organizations with booths at BikeFest. The third item was a black and olive backpack from the Sierra Club. After drawing two tickets for people who weren't present, they announce my name! I quickly shook off any grogginess and charged to the stage waving my ticket. Since I had been planning to do some serious hiking on this vacation, it was the perfect thing for me. It was big enough for spare clothing and half a dozen bottles of water, just the right size between my too-small fanny pack and my too-big overnight pack. Indeed, this chance gift helped to shape the rest of my trip. With luck like that, maybe I should have gone to the casinos after all.

The jersey for this ride was excellent. Notice the slot machine 7's on the sleeves.

Everyone got a souvenir water bottle.

I took this picture of my backpack at LaMoille Canyon near Elko, NV the first time I used it.

Between my nap and my backpack, I was happy and alive again. Better yet, I now felt like doing the one thing I had really wanted to do in Vegas. On the way out of town, I stopped at In-And-Out Burger. I had never eaten at this legendary Southern California chain, but it promised to be great. Their claim to fame is that everything is fresh, never frozen. In fact, while I waited for my burger I watched someone putting one potato after another through a slicer to make fries. You certainly wouldn't see that at McDonalds! Their menu was very simple, just burgers, fries, shakes and soft drinks. Since I had studied their web site, I knew about their "secret menu" of variations not posted at the restaurant. I ordered my double cheeseburger "protein style" so it was wrapped in big, hand-ripped lettuce leaves instead of a bun. I also ordered a Diet Coke out of desperation for something with flavor after drinking so much water all day (I couldn't find my usual Diet Rite anywhere in Vegas). It was my first caffeine since January. My burger was fantastic. It had some kind of sauce a little like thousand island dressing, fresh lettuce and tomato, and tasty, juicy beef. I sorely wished I hadn't waited until I was leaving town to eat one. My recommendation for Vegas: skip The Strip, go to In-N-Out Burger!

A visit to Vegas isn't complete without a meal at In-N-Out Burger.

After my fabulous meal, I drove up to Beatty for the night, poised to visit Death Valley first thing on Sunday morning. My bike ride was over, but my vacation adventure was just beginning.

In general, the Las Vegas Century was a decent ride but not a great one. The organization was very good, and the sag and rest stop volunteers were helpful and kind. The T-shirt was just okay, but the jersey was excellent and the water bottle was a nice bonus. It was pretty expensive for one day at $45 (excluding the jersey) for the 79- and 108-mile rides--many rides cost half as much. If I lived there, I wouldn't have paid so much to do it, but as a visitor it was easier to justify (compared to the money spent to get there and back). At least some of the money was going to a charity, the Ronald McDonald House of Las Vegas. Red Rock Canyon was beautiful, but the scenic loop would have been even better. I saw pictures online from a few years earlier that showed cyclists riding on the Strip in the early morning that would have been pretty neat and memorable. Much of the route was forgettable, whether generic housing developments on the edge of town or strip malls on Boulder Highway. Unfortunately, Las Vegas is rapidly growing too large for this event to be really enjoyable. Much of the route had heavy traffic, and it will only get worse year after year. Perhaps the best hope for "saving" the Las Vegas Century would be to move it to the outskirts of town. Then again, each year more of the outskirts are swallowed up by the city. I guess the bottom line for anyone considering this ride is, do it now before it gets worse.

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