Thursday, May 20, 2010

Watching the Tour of California Stage 4


Wednesday dawned sunny, Nimue was going to be in school until 2:30, I had nothing scheduled for work, and Stage 4 of the Tour of California was scheduled to start at 11:00 in San Jose, with a respectably steep climb up Sierra Road just a few miles into it. With my legs tired out from the last few days I though to myself "I'll just ride across town along the flats, and find somewhere sunny near the bottom of the hill to park myself in the sunshine to read the Economist for a bit and watch the race."

Yeah, right.

I got to the base of the hill to find that there was a pre-race timed hill-climb event going on, plus a lot of non-event cyclists just going to see the race like me. I happened to arrive just as a batch of event riders were being released up the hill. Naturally, I had to follow them all up.

It was gorgeous. It was clear, the air having been washed clean of the usual brown haze by the previous day's rain. The road was overrun by happy cyclists, some seriously riding for a good time, others just looking for a good spot to watch the race. There was no traffic other than the occasional Amgen support vehicle honking its horn gently as it passed the continuous stream of riders. The riders generally were happy to chat to distract themselves from the shared suffering.

Sierra Road is steep. Not just run-of-the-mill steep, but seriously sustained leg-burning, lung-hurting steep, for about 3 miles of pavement and 1800 feet of elevation gain. Since it's not in the normal direction for me to ride from home, the last time I climbed it was on one of Stephan's Wednesday night rides more than 10 years ago.

Lacking rational judgment in these situations, I couldn't stop until making it to the top :) The views and the atmosphere demanded it, there were quite a few spectators already in place cheering the rest of us on, and my new bike, a Specialized Ruby with a triple, is delightfully forgiving on tired legs and body. Plus I managed to pass a bunch of people, which is unusual.

After taking in the view and the cyclist-party scene at the top, I rolled back down to the last steep bit just a few hundred feet down, staked out a spot, and settled in for a snack. At this point, it was still pretty empty, but I knew it would fill in as more people made it up.


The same spot 15-20 minutes later:


Over the hour or so I waited, cyclists continued to fill in any available spots on the side of the road. Everyone seemed quite jolly, having skipped out on their normal obligations gotten in some good exercise on a warm sunny day. Most had had a similar soggy wet experience as we did the day before for stage 3, so the warm sun and great views were welcome. As the race helicopter approached closer and closer and the official vehicles came up the hill, the anticipation was quite apparent. I waved at Chad way down at Moffet in the background even though of course he couldn't see. We all waved at the helicopter, the motorcycles, the car with the announcer and big speakers, the photographers and anyone else coming through.


Then came the racers. Like yesterday, there was a break of several riders who came a few minutes before the peloton; unlike yesterday, I was near the King of the Mountains point at the top of the hill and the leaders were thus working pretty darned hard.


Being in a spot that steep really makes is apparent how hard the leaders were working.


In contrast, the peloton seemed shockingly relaxed, as they knew that they'd catch up on the later flat parts of the stage and were smoothly working their way up the hill. I guess you have to be smooth when you're packed in that tightly with other riders.

Note the Radio Shack riders on the right side of the road where I was standing (Lance and Levi and the bunch) -- I had maybe stepped over the white line in the excitement, and was just thinking to myself "Hey, I've got a nice view now that the guy in red has finally stepped back", when I realized that I'd better step back too. Almost got runned over by them...


We all whooped and hollered for every last rider straggling up the hill and at all the team cars for good measure; then everyone headed back down or off for longer rides.

I love being able to ride from home to see two stages of a major race like this. An interesting feature of it all is that even though everyone who was there was ostensibly there to watch the race, which goes by very quickly, it was clear on the hill that the experience was at least as much about hanging out with a bunch of happy random cyclists on an interesting hill talking about rides and life while anticipating the arrival of the "official" reason everyone was out there.

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