Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tour of California - Riding the Stage 1 Course


This little story was intended as a freelance article for a cycling website.  That didn’t end up working out, so here it is, over a week late, when all the Tour of California racers have gone home or on to other races.

Tour of California – Riding the Stage 1 Course

What’s the best way to watch the Amgen Tour of California?  Well, if you’re wanting a blow-by-blow of the action, TV is really best.  If you want to see it live, you can catch the finish—which will have the biggest, loudest crowd—or, to get a better view of the riders, station yourself on one of the big climbs.

Watching live offers an extra treat for serious cyclists:  you can ride the course, or part of it, and then watch the racers.  What other sport lets you experience the venue firsthand mere hours before the race itself?  Imagine if you got to go throw a football around in your home team’s stadium, or play catch on the baseball diamond with your friends, just before a pro game.  But even that wouldn’t stack up to riding a bike race course, because with ball games the venue usually doesn’t matter much, whereas a bike race course makes all the difference in the world.

Today I rode the main loop of Stage 1 with my old cycling pal Dave, a couple hours before the racers, and then we drove to the finish in Santa Rosa.  Riding the course first gives you great insight into the race—how hard are those climbs, really?—and anticipating the race gives you more motivation during the ride.

Once the flurry of logistic details was behind us—driving, parking, deciding how many layers to wear (it was surprisingly chilly today)—we finally had nothing but open road to occupy us.  This give me the mental space to finally start thinking about the race.  I’d been distracted by the normal work and family obligations, and also—not incidentally—the Giro d’Italia, coinciding with this race but 6,000 miles and nine time zones away.  With many of the same teams racing in both places, I’ve about gone crazy trying to remember who’s racing where.

So as we made our way around the course today I finally had a chance to really think about the Tour of California.  Whom would I be rooting for and really watching closely?  It’s not as simple as supporting your home team; the sport is too international for that, and my favorite riders are the ones who have the most flair (think Bernard Hinault), or whom I feel some kind of special connection to.  A tricky aspect of pro cycling for Americans is finding ways to really care about the racers.  It doesn’t help that so many of them don’t speak English, and it’s no coincidence that my favorites tend to be from the U.S., the U.K., Australia, or Holland (where everybody knows English).

This morning I was thinking about Robert Gesink, the Dutch rider who won the best young rider’s competition in the Tour of California in 2007, his first year as a pro.  The next year, he won the toughest stage of this race.  But I’m mainly interested in him because last fall, he crashed training and broke his femur.  I did the same thing, a couple months later, and am looking to his progress for inspiration.  I cannot imagine being ready to race at any level, much less against a top pro field, two months from now.  I’m just happy to be on the bike at all.

I also have made it a hobby to track the progress of Laurens ten Dam, another Dutchman, who was sixth overall here last year.  I like to think of him as my old nemesis:  we used to race together.  I’d like to tell you I taught him everything he knows, but that’s not exactly true.  It’s not even true that I taught him everything I know.  In fact I taught him nothing, and only raced against him once.  This was in 2003, when he was an up-and-coming amateur and I was reaching my sell-by date.  We both raced La Marmotte, a brutal cyclo-sportif in France, and to be completely honest, I never even saw him.  He won and I was, well … a bit further back.  (Okay, I was 189th.)

One rider I’d like to see win this year is Tom Danielson.  He first caught my attention way back in 2004 when he won the Mount Evans Hill Climb in Colorado (where I grew up).  The record he set that day still stands.  Mount Evans is a brutal race:  twenty-eight miles of climbing, peaking at over 14,000 feet elevation—the highest paved road in North America.  More recently, Danielson has captured my imagination by really hitting his stride just last year, at thirty-three, when he was the top American in the Tour de France—his first.  I’m ten years older and always looking for encouragement that I’m not just running out the clock on my life.  (A few years back, my younger daughter, then around five, asked me, “Daddy, can you die of middle age?”)

Today I was feeling all my years and of course my weakened leg.  That my right leg warmer was sagging didn’t help my morale.  The weather wasn’t what I’d hoped—overcast, cool, and damp—but it was of course way better than last year, when I took my family up to Lake Tahoe to a rental cabin so we could watch the first Tour of California stage, only to get a foot of snow that morning and have the race canceled.  I wonder if there are still Europeans who expect to come out here and enjoy “Baywatch” conditions.  At least the locale is pretty:  quaint little towns like Occidental with old inns and a saloon; deep, lush ferns along the road; a giant hand-carved statue of Babe Ruth and his impressive girth (a true American-style athlete).

And it was as breathtaking as ever when, around Bodega Bay, the ocean first came into view.  I smelled it before I saw it:  a pleasantly rank, salty, briny smell.  This was a real ocean breeze, not like my “Ocean Breeze” scented shampoo which of course smells nothing like an ocean breeze (and good thing).  Does the Pacific smell different from the Atlantic ?  I didn’t get to ask any of our visiting European racers.

As we cruised along, my friend and I chatted.  All that’s worth reporting about this is that we mostly managed to avoid a sad and tedious topic:  doping in cycling.  I hope I’m not being naïve in saying things seem to be getting better.  For a couple years there, my riding pals and I couldn’t help gossiping about all the positive tests and ongoing cases and appeals and suspicions wracking the pro peloton.  Today, the topic of drugs only came up once.  As we began a tricky descent, Dave said, “If you wanna go fast, don’t let me stop you—just wait at the bottom.”  He’s got two titanium rods in his back and is understandably cautious.  My descending mojo is gone, too. 
“Dude, get real,” I told him.  “I’m such a timid descender now, I’m starting to get free Vagifem samples in the mail.”
“Tell me that’s not a real product.”
“It is!  I know a sales rep.  It’s prescription only:  you know, ‘Ask your doctor if Vagifem is right for you.’”
“Isn’t that name kind of redundant?  I mean, Vagiman I could understand … but fem?”
“So if you were on a strict regimen of Vagifem, would you call it a Vagimen?”
I know that’s not very enlightened of us, but we don’t smoke cigars or go on fishing trips or have poker night.  Maybe we were just giddy from managing a day-long furlough from our families—on Mother’s Day, no less.

If there’s a such thing as karmic voodoo, perhaps it struck me on the hardest of the KOM climbs.  It was a monster.  Dave took off ahead to school some other cyclists and to let me suffer in peace instead of watching me with pity, the way you’d look at a dog with a giant satellite-dish ring on its neck to keep it from biting its scabs.  My bad leg wouldn’t fire right and my good leg was getting progressively sorer from picking up the slack.  I’m too proud to ride a compact crank and was having a lot of trouble turning the pedals.  What if I just ground to a halt?  To buck up my courage, I started daydreaming about the latest heroic exploits of my favorite racers.  Since the Tour of California was just getting underway, miles behind me, I thought about the Giro d’Italia.

What I found most heroic might surprise you, given the new stars this year’s race has already produced.  I was thinking about the team time trial, and how the young Peter Stetina was dropped from his Garmin-Barracuda team just before the finish.  No, that itself wasn’t heroic, but I can only imagine he was absolutely on the rivet for most of the race.  He’s no slouch as a time trialist, but is built a lot more like a climber than a team time trialist—and here he was, supporting the winning ride with the best team in the business. 

As a national collegiate champion in theTTT, I know full well the immense pressure this event involves.  In a regular race, if you ride poorly you don’t doom your team.  Sure, they miss your support, but you don’t literally spoil the ride of every one of your teammates.  In a team time trial, there’s nowhere to hide.  If you take weak pulls, you doom the team.  You have to communicate well—which can include swallowing your pride and sitting out of the rotation a few times if you need to—and if you don’t communicate, you doom your team.  And a great stage racer like Stetina introduces another potential problem:  as one of their GC hopefuls, having finished 21st in last year’s Giro (the top American, and third in the young-rider classification), if he got dropped in this TTT, the team would have to consider waiting for him.  That could sink their chances at the stage win and the pink jersey.  He must have killed himself to not let the team down.

What does this have to do with me getting up this dang hill?  Well, Stetina dug deep and managed—though “only” being excellent at TTTs, to be brilliant in this one.  So maybe if I dug deep, I could manage, though being literally lame, to be competent on this climb.  And so I did.  It helped that spectators along the course warmed up for the real action by cheering me on.  One guy even took a bunch of photos, which was flattering until I remembered that nobody uses film anymore, and he was only practicing on me to better photograph the real racers later.  No matter:  I managed to grope my way to the top eventually.

At the finish, we got to watch the race on the JumboTron, seeing the same climbs we’d just been on, and even the same spectators:   “Look, there’s that dude with the Mohawk!”  Watching the JumboTron at the finish line is a lot better than watching your TV at home:  it’s like a really rowdy open-air sports bar.  As the racers approached, everybody started screaming and beating on the road barriers in unison, making a thundering racket you could feel through the ground.  It was almost frightening, reminding me of the power of a giant mob, but of course these were friendly fans.  The pack came by in a blur—my first in-the-flesh sighting of the racers.  And then it was over.  We watched the replays.  Glorious.

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