Monday, May 20, 2013

Volunteering at the Tour of California San Jose Time Trial

Last Friday, I amused myself by volunteering to be course marshal at the time trial stage of the Tour of California.  The course was interesting for a time trial, as the 19 mile course ended with a climb of about a thousand feet up Metcalf Road, at an average grade of just over 10% -- not your usual sort-of-flat route.  Needless to say, I was hoping to see some impressive riding in addition to making myself useful.

The organizers wouldn't give out location assigments before that morning (probably so that they knew people at critical corners were there and wouldn't flake out), so I rode my bike over to the volunteer sign-in early, and asked for a spot on Metcalf.

Oh please please please give me a spot on the hill.

Not quite.  They figured that no volunteers would want to get themselves up to the top of the closed road, so the best that was on offer was the corner at the bottom where the riders turned uphill.  Of course, I took it.

A fine and jolly choice it was, as you will see.

Since I had gotten my assignment relatively early, I had plenty of time to ride over and find my spot.  There was still about 45 minutes before I was officially supposed to be on duty, so naturally I took the time to ride up the hill.  It gets one in the mood for the race.

A lovely, though exposed, climb up into the hills east of San Jose.  Note how the road all of a sudden ramps up -- it maintains the 10%+ grade for nearly 2 miles as it winds into the hills.

I was glad that it was still early, as it was a bit of work going up on the relatively heavy commute bike loaded up with my lunch, reading material, and extra water for the day's activities.  I got to watch the team in charge of barriers put up fencing along a large part of the route.

It turns out that the fencing was thought to be necessary for two reasons:
1) The road is narrow
2)  Riders would be going up every two minutes with support vehicles on one side, and the other side had to be clear for said support vehicles to go back down and follow the next rider.
3) Overexcited spectators had to be prevented from doing stupid things.

Once I got back down to the bottom, I got to watch them put up the big inflatable red arch marking the front of the hill.

According to the guy in charge of the arch, the wind that was steadily picking up made it harder than usual to erect.  As I chatted with him, the whole thing bounced and danced erratically, and he eventually requested that a couple of us who were supposed to be managing spectators at the corner move up the hill 100 feet or so to keep an eye on the arch.

If you are running a time trial with riders racing the clock coming through every two minutes, the last thing you want is to have the sponsor's arch obstruct the course.

There were eventually three other volunteers posted at the same corner. All were crazy enough riders that the conversations while waiting turned to double centuries, bike touring, and the challenges and joys of putting one's kid on the back of a tandem.

I found a nice spot to plant myself in the small amount of shade available, and settled in to people watch and answer questions (the orange Amgen volunteer shirts made everyone think we know stuff).  There was a constant stream of spectators heading up on bikes and foot, a bunch of people doing a charity ride, then a race for juniors (some of the kids didn't look more than a couple of years older than Nim), and then the women's race started.

Silly course marshal vehicle

One of the things Chad and I had wondered about with this goofy time trial course was what kind of bikes the riders would choose:  the traditional super-aerodynamic but slightly heavier and worse-handling time trial bike suited for the early part of the course or a more normal road bike for the climb.

Many riders opted to do a bike swap.  Right at my corner.  It was a good spot.  Two helpers were stationed at the side:  one with the road bike; the other to grab the time trial bike.  The whole swap took about 5 seconds, and then the time trial bike would be thrown on top of the follow car as it went by.   Except the one that the car forgot to stop for. Most entertaining.

Pictured above: Alison Powers, doing her bike change.  What was particularly impressive was how little her forward movement slowed as she changed bikes.  She ended up taking second place for the women.

Finally, it was time for the main event.  By this point, there were enough spectators doing dumb things down at the corner that the head marshal asked me to move back down and plant myself in the middle of the road.  Now I had four tasks:  pleasantly telling people still heading up the hill to walk their bikes along the edge and watch out for team cars and finished racers coming down, keeping people from leaking out over the edge of the barricade at the corner,  watching the race myself, and keeping an eye on that dancing red arch.

Good thing I can multitask.  My poor eyeballs had to look in four directions at the same time.  I figured out pretty quickly that keeping my feet actually on the orange cone at all times was a good idea, lest I accidentally step back into the descending team cars.

By about halfway through, I though I had it all figured out.  Then from the corner of my eye, I saw the red arch buckle.

Argh.  Sprint up the road.  Throw hat into bushes as it fell off.  Grab air blower and sandbag while not getting tangled in rope, and help push big billowy red thing off to the side of the road.  Throw sandbags on top to anchor it all down.

Good thing all of us could multitask.  We got the collapsed arch out of the way before the next rider came through.  Apparently it was so windy that the fabric at one of the D-ring rope attachment points ripped out.

Ok, so now I was back down to three tasks.  It didn't take long for another task to be added, though, since it became clear that some of the riders were coming back down the hill with only a fuzzy notion of where they needed to go to get to their team bus.  As a result, they would stop at the corner and ask the two of us in Amgen shirts which way to go.

That was kind of cool.

It took a while to get the rider photography dialed in in the midst of all of this.  For a while, my focus timing was off, such that my happy orange bike in the background was in great focus with a fuzzy rider in front (Peter Sagan, this year's green jersey winner, in this case)

After a while, I figured it out, and got a halfway decent shot of Jens Voigt.  He's one of our favorites, as he not only is one of the hard men of the sport, and the oldest member of the pro peloton (at the same ripe old age as me), but also has a great sense of humor.  How can you not like someone who has "Shut up legs!" written on his top tube?  And he still attacks and wins a stage now and again -- in this picture he is wearing the "Most Courageous Rider" skinsuit due to his excellence attacking and winning the previous day's stage.

Something about the idea of a Most Courageous Skinsuit just cracks me up.

More riders going by in front, team cars and tired riders behind, spectators all around.  At one point, I turned around to answer the "Where's the bus?" question, this time in a pair of appealing European  accents and turned around to see two racers in RadioShack kit.  

Duh duh duh... That's Andy Schleck and Jens Voigt.  Talking to me.  (Or really, me and the other volunteer who was there.)  Eventually brain kicked in and answered.

They were cheerful.  And nice.  As they rode away, I finally realized I had my camera in hand and snapped wildly, figuring I had missed that photographic moment.  I got lucky though -- once home I realized I had this fabulous candid shot of Andy with California hills in the background:

On the other side, the race was still going on, with the last few riders still heading up.  When she saw the pictures, Nimue was amused by the fact that Matt Busche was riding, as his picture is on the Grape Nuts box currently on top of our fridge.  (I know, hard to see the resemblance, but she pointed out that he was on our cereal right away.)

And of course, here's a gratuitous shot of Tejay Van Garderen, this year's winner.  We've all been waiting for him to get a big stage race win, and he pulled it off at the tender age of 24.  He looked very very focused as he went through.

Phew.  Now we're done.  Time for the broom wagon.  After it went by, I hopped on a nearby bike trail and headed home to make dinner and put together maps for the next day's family race-watching adventure.

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