Saturday, May 19, 2012

Tour of California Stages 2 and 3

For variety this year, I decided to volunteer to help at the local stages of the Tour of California instead of just being a passive spectator.  Stage 2 ended in Aptos, near Santa Cruz, and Stage 3 started in San Jose -- both reasonably convenient locations to ride over to help.

Of course, that's not taking into account that my volunteer shift in Aptos started at 8:30 am.  I got an early start, leaving the house at 5:30, rode over to to the coast, checked in and helped make coffee for the other volunteers checking in, and headed over to the finish line area to set up and organize the process for the bike valet area.  I worked there until 1:00, then headed up the course in reverse, hoping to make it to the KOM (King of the Mountains, or top of the big hill in the parlance of normal people) at the top of Bear Creek road.

Given the published expected timing of the race, I wasn't sure I'd make it all the way up and over to that point before the rolling road closure happened -- there were 22 mostly uphill miles, and possibly less than 2 hours in which to ride them.  I really wanted to make it over to the KOM point, though, first because it's a good point at which to watch both the racers and the spectators, and second, I knew Chad and his friend Dave were there somewhere.  So, I pushed hard up the hill and crossed my fingers that the race would be running late.

It was highly entertaining to ride up the course backwards.  For one thing, riding through the finishing straight made it clear that the right turn right before the finish didn't allow space after the turn for a proper sprint.   It's one thing to see that on a map or on TV, but actually being on the ground really gives you a visceral sense of how critical a racer's position going into that corner was going to be. Then, as I headed up the course, I amused myself by observing the progression of people staking out their positions to watch the race.  Lots of other were riders riding down to spectate at the finish, and there were people setting up barbecues in the yards along the route and cheering any and all others going by.  Overall, a very festive atmosphere.  I was very tempted to pull over and watch next to one big table set up outside of a winery along San Jose-Soquel Road, just based on the number of bottles of wine they had put out.

Chad was waiting at the top, though, so I pushed on.  So many other riders were heading down the hill that I started to feel like a salmon swimming upstream.  At one point I caught up to another guy headed in my direction who was also trying to reach the KOM point in time, so we leapfrogged each other along Summit Road, and -- lo and behold -- made it to the top in time.  I cruised the crowd until Chad and Dave hollered at me, and then pulled over and tried to park my bike in a spot that (a) was stable and (b) wasn't in any poison oak.  Harder than it might seem, but successful in the end.

The fast climb to make it to that point was totally worth it -- since this was the last big climb of the stage, there were a ton of spectators, including many of the crazies that give hilltops at proper bike races such character.

There was chicken guy,

Oregon dude (a fixture at the big stage races in the US as far as I can tell -- you always see him in the video coverage running with the racers up the hill),

And my person favorite, the group of what looked like Santa Cruz students freezing in their star-spangled speedos.  Their girlfriends were strewing flower petals all over the road -- a nice touch.

 The riders whooshed by in several groups, exhibiting varying degrees of suffering.  The most amusing moment came when one of the stragglers squirted his water bottle across the pale goofballs pictured above.  He may have been behind, but had clearly maintained a sense of humor.

After the race went by, I rolled back home via the fastest possible route just in time to make dinner and plan my route for the next day's stage.

Not such an early morning on Wednesday, as I was set to be a course marshall somewhere on the course heading out of San Jose, so I got Nimue off to school at the normal time and rode over to check in at the Berryessa library branch.  I figured I would be given a spot along Piedmont on the way out of town, as the organizer lady had indicated that we were really only needed within the San Jose city limits, so my plan was to man my assigned intersection until the race went by, and then slowly and gently ride up and around the KOM point on Calaveras before heading home.  Tired legs from the day before, don't you know.

As I rode up to the check-in, I overheard the guy in line in front of me discussing which location he wanted with the organizer, as she had tried to give him a spot on Calaveras, and he wanted something at the bottom.  My ears perked up.  Calaveras?  Really?  Please, oh, please, oh please give me a spot on top of the hill!

And yay -- they did indeed want someone at the intersection of Calaveras and Felter, just downhill from the KOM point.  I quickly snapped it up, and then realized I would have to ride up the hill like the wind in order to get into position in time (which admittedly was an hour before the race was supposed to start).  Another fast ride up the hill for me...

I got up to the top with plenty of time to spare, of course -- Calaveras is not that hard or long a climb.  The lack of cones with which to block the side road was a little worrisome, but several cops and firemen trickled in to enforce the road closures, leaving me with little to do other than being a race ambassador.  (And spectator)  I spent a fine hour in the sunshine chatting with the curious locals about bike racing, pointing out good places for spectators and photographers, and generally answering questions, until the race zoomed by.

Notable in the picture above are Levi Leipheimer (3-time former winner of the race in the light blue and black Omega Pharma-Quickstep kit near the center of the frame), Tejay Van Garderen (black and red BMC just in front of Levi), Chris Horner (last year's winner, in black and white RadioShack-Nissan-Trek just in front of Tejay), and Tom Danielson ( blue Garmin-Barracuda kit in front of Chris).  I also saw our perennial favorite Jens Voigt -- I'd say there was more cheering for him individually than anyone else at that point.  I'm sure the cops all thought we were nuts.

After road cleared, I should have rolled directly down the hill and back home, but the day was yet young given that I got to go up the hill before the race went by, and it seemed like a good idea to continue along Calaveras by the reservoir and go home the long way.  The ride along the reservoir was indeed just lovely.  Happy happy happy.

Until I turned to go down Niles Canyon.  This is a fairly busy road, so often not much fun, but at least it is downhill so you can keep your speed up.

In theory.  It doesn't work so well on days when the headwind is howling up the canyon so furiously that the descent feels like a climb.  Argh.

After fighting my way down, I just couldn't face going across the bridge straight into the headwind, and convinced myself that it would be faster to follow my nose down Mission Boulevard and back through Fremont and Milpitas.  Thus started the comedy of errors:

There was still an ugly headwind.
It seemed that all stoplights turned red at just the wrong time.
I missed a crititcal turn (remember I hadn't planned on going this way so hadn't looked at a map) and ended up going over a couple of absolutely heinous freeway interchanges.
I had to go much further south than I remembered.  Hungry.  Didn't bring food to go this far.
After finally reaching the highway 237 bike trail and escaping the cars, there was a fence and sign half a mile down it that said "Trail Closed" with an unhelpful bike detour arrow pointed straight toward the barrier separating the trail from the freeway.  Not sure what that was supposed to mean.
Navigating out, I made several other non-optimal turns on the way home -- all in places where I followed the bike detour signs against my internal intuition.  Whoever put those signs out must either not like cyclists or have been smoking something...

Really, I could have done without the last 35 poorly-navigated trafficky headwind horror miles of that ride.

Looking at the map later, it was clear that it would have probably been shorter to have just continued down to the Dumbarton anyway.  Feh.  On the bright side, I guess, the really delightful rides stand out in all the more contrast to the icky ones.  And the day overall was quite entertaining once again.

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