Photo courtesy of the Amgen Tour of California website
My friend Matt Davis once told me that I was doomed to live single. His contention was that I would never find a man who would sit and watch the Tour de France with me but also go to poetry readings. So far, he’s been right….
Of course when Billy Collins deigned to make a rare California appearance, it had to be on the same date as the most exciting day of the year for me, the day a stage of the Tour of California came to Mt. Baldy. Of course. Murphy’s Law strikes again. When I declined the ticket my daughter bought for me, I felt as if I were choosing between two heroes—Billy Collins or Levi Leipheimer. And yes, I realize how unique that makes me in the world, and no, it does not console me.
I say all this as prelude to my description of sitting yesterday with a group of warm, funny, cheerful Mt. Baldy folk who knew nothing of bicycle stage racing before our adventurous afternoon began, but who tried excitedly to educate themselves as the hours wore on and we watched the race progress online (via live coverage on Radio Shack’s Race Tracker). From time to time during the day, as we shared communal chips, guacamole and apple pie and chatted about water rights on the mountain and how much snow was still up top, my mind would be distracted as I envisioned my daughter—who will begin a Master of Fine Arts program in the fall because she is a fine poet in her own right—standing and chatting with Billy Collins after that evening’s reading. At some point, I wished I’d thrown one of Billy’s books in my bag. Two years ago when the same group of people invited me to join them for a Leonard Cohen concert in L.A., Tamara had brought along a book of Cohen’s musings, reading them aloud to us on the car ride into the city. Yesterday, in quieter moments, I imagined myself reading to my neighbors “Shoveling Snow with Buddha.” These are the fantasies that swirl in the mind of a writer. We learn early in life to keep them to ourselves.
For months prior to yesterday’s stage, on my drives to and from work, I would scan the race route, trying to figure out where the Best Spot would be to watch Stage 7. I finally decided on my buddy Vince’s driveway, as it fronts the highway at nearly the top of The Dreaded Switchbacks, and also because I enjoy Vince’s company. (When I’d asked if I could watch the race from his place, he casually remarked that he’d probably be playing tennis that day, but he’d leave me a key to his cabin in case I needed anything. I had to convince him that this bike race might be kind of a big thing.)
So there we were at Vince’s, seated comfortably in lawn chairs, watching hundreds of spectators and recreational cyclists mill around. Our normally quiet and peaceful mountain was abuzz with commotion. It was a gorgeous spring day with warm sun and clean mountain air. When stage coverage began online, Vince brought out his laptop and began to give us updates. “They’re on Glendora Mountain Road!” There was a break-away of eight riders trying desperately to stay ahead of the peloton, but they only had two minutes on the rest of the pack, and eventually most of them would fall away.
When the riders were on the return route along Glendora Ridge Road, we began to get excited. By now Tamara was holding the laptop, and she gave us updates based on locations we knew. “They’re passing Cow Canyon Saddle!” Since our location was so strategic, we’d amassed a small group of cycling fans and professional photographers who were waiting to make noise or shoot pictures as the cyclists came into view. We kept them apprised of the riders’ progress and in turn they exchanged insider information with us. One of the photographers was on staff for Team HTC and used to ride with Chris Horner. And yes, he replied to my question, he really is as great a guy in “real life” as he seems to be when interviewed on TV.
The riders sailed through Mt. Baldy Village in a matter of seconds, and then we knew they were just minutes away. CHP vehicles rolled up the switchbacks in advance, lights flashing, loudspeakers squawking, warning fans to stay off the road, the riders were coming. I know I asked Tamara to the point of being annoying if she could see (in the glare of the computer screen) if a rider in yellow was near the front of the pack. I wanted to know that Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer would be the first riders we’d see. They weren’t. They were third and fourth, so consequently, I snapped photos of the first two guys (hangers on from the break-away), and just started cheering along with everyone else when Chris and Levi rode by ten feet away. They were together, with Chris drafting off Levi, and they rode the final two miles of the grueling ascent that way, Levi leading his teammate and friend up the last steep incline. The minute they were past us, Tamara continued to call out updates as the crowd—bless their hearts—cheered for every single rider in the same way they’d cheered for the leaders.
By the time they reached the ski lift parking lot, Chris and Levi were alone on the road, the next rider many seconds behind. As they pulled up to the finish, Chris reached out and patted Levi on the back as a gesture of thanks. Levi reached back and they touched hands. This, in cycling, is a universal signal. It meant that Chris would “give” Levi the stage. He would allow him to roll ahead unchallenged to take the win and all the glory that came with it, because they’d ridden together all day, Levi helping Chris to keep his overall standing of race leader. It was a tremendous and heroic ending to an incredible day.
As it turns out, my kid did end up chatting with Billy Collins, just as I'd imagined it. Yep, that's her. Wow...
Aah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
And leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.
From "Shoveling Snow with Buddha," by Billy Collins