Sunday, May 20, 2012

A lot of good, a little bad, and one ugly moment: Amgen TOC Stage 7 Mt. Baldy

Photo by S. Kay Murphy.  Yes, the sky really is that blue up here.

If you've ever watched a marathon on television, you've witnessed the excitement as runners head toward the finish line, friends, fans and family cheering, sometimes running alongside to offer encouragement and support.  That's a little bit like what a mountain stage of a bike tour is like--only with a lot of insanity thrown in for entertainment value.

Yesterday by 8:30a.m. most of the parking turnouts along the switchbacks in Mt. Baldy were filled in with vehicles and small tents by folks who had driven up the mountain in the early hours of the morning to get a spot to watch the riders struggle up Baldy Rd. later in the day.  The weather was clear, bright and warm, and there was a great spirit of comaraderie among the fans.  I could feel it as I walked down to my buddy Vince's house to watch the race at 2:00.  By then, people were riding up the mountain in huge packs, creating a long, slow moving river of cyclists in the northbound lane (and only a few bombing the downhill in the southbound lane).  What I found endearing and a whole lot of fun was the enthusiasm of the fans for the courageous riders who had struggled their way up from the valley below.  The ascent of Baldy is absolutely grueling, and the switchbacks comprise the steepest, most difficult section.  So as folks came up around those hairpins sweating and rocking on their bike seats, fans would cheer and shake their cowbells and shout out words of encouragement:
"You got this!"
"Don't slow down!"
"Good job, kid!"
"Allez!  Allez!"

Occasionally, an individual would garner a particularly strong response from the crowd, such as the male rider wearing an American flag body suit chanting "T-O-C!" as he came around the corner, or the pretty young female rider sporting lovely butterfly wings affixed to her torso.  Yeah, she got a lot of cheers....

A great deal of cheering was being done by some young men from a cycling group who had taken up residence against some rocks by Vince's house.  They were nice enough young fellows--except for the trash they had spread on the ground, which included six empty beer bottles.  I asked them twice to pick them up before they left... but by then they had opened a bottle of champagne and were passing it around, so both times they blew me off.  For as much as they'd had to drink, it was truly amazing how lively they were, especially when the race finally made its way up to our spot.

TOC fans know by now how the drama played out:
Chris Horner, last year's winner of the TOC and my favorite to get it again this year, went out in an early breakaway and hung tough for all the miles up Baldy Rd., across Glendora Ridge to Azusa, around Sierra Madre Blvd. and back out Glenora Ridge to Baldy, then through the village of Mt. Baldy to start up the switchbacks with only one rider from the Colombian team, Jhon Atapuma, alongside.  From time to time in races, Horner will step up and become a machine.  He did so yesterday, a look of sheer willpower on his face, his legs pumping like pistons.  Dave Zabriskie, who, in winning the time trial on Thursday had taken the overall lead, fought to catch up, to maintain his overall lead with thoughts of winning this year's TOC.

But Robert Gesink, who survived a year from hell, losing his father and breaking his leg in a bad crash, decided today was his day.  And having ridden most of the day in the midst of the peloton, he still had some gas in the tank when he got to the switchbacks.  When he made his decision to go, there was no holding him back.  He pedaled away from the main group and began reeling in poor Chris Horner who was moving forward on nothing but courage.  By that time, the rider from Colombia had sped ahead of Horner, hoping to win the stage, but Gesink had other plans.  He caught and dropped Horner, then sped ahead with only a few meters to spare, finally sprinting (where do these guys find the strength?!?) to overtake Atapuma and roll across the finish line first, giving him the win of the stage plus allowing him to take the yellow jersey from Zabriskie.

And I would have been a tad disappointed at that last bit, had it not been for an ugly incident that occurred before the race was over.  Last year, after the stage ended, we were thrilled to see, a short time later, all the Big Boys riding back down Baldy Rd., flying down the descent for the sheer joy of it.  The Amgen folks provide shuttle buses should the riders want a lift down the mountain, but most of them came down the way they went up--that is to say, by the same route, only this time all they had to do was hold on for dear life.  Many of the pleasure cyclists accompanied them, so you had this great migration which came in waves as hundreds of cyclists flowed down the mountain in the southbound lane of Baldy Rd.  What happened yesterday was that a few pleasure cyclists, having watched the leaders finish, wanted to head down early, while many of the pros were still racing to the top.  Mike Sullivan, the personable Amgen volunteer stationed at our corner to keep the riders safe, kept having to ask riders not in the race to stop and wait until the remainder of the pros had gone around the corner toward the finish.  When he stopped one rider and asked him to wait, the rider responded with a four-letter expletive.  At that moment, we all recognized Dave Zabriskie.  (Yes, it was him; several people in the crowd confirmed it, and there was his race tag, #18, still clipped to his bike.  And yes, he said, "Fuck," either "Fuck off" or "Fuck that."  We all heard him loud and clear.)  Over the years, I've written about Zabriskie, followed him in the Tour de France and on Twitter.  I know he was frustrated, exhausted, dehydrated, whatever.  In my book, that still doesn't excuse him for disrespecting someone who volunteers his time to keep riders safe during a dangerous event like the TOC.  After his nasty response, he just kept riding downhill.  Oof.  It made me sad.  My heroes are nice guys, not sore losers, so Zabriskie has lost my respect... unless, of course, he'd like to offer an apology to Mr. Sullivan, in which case I might be able to forgive him.  Eventually.

At any rate, cheers to Robert Gesink!  And a hearty bravo! to all those folks who rode up Mt. Baldy yesterday to watch the race and cheer on their favorites.  We've still one more stage to go today, so I'm going to be cheering (from a comfortable spot on my sofa, Phil Liggett) for Gesink.  The Universe has a way of reimbursing us; there is no gain without some loss, but there is no loss without a gain of some kind.  Ride like the wind, Robert.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Vive la breakaway!

Photo from official Amgen Tour of California website: Sylvain Georges finishing Stage 6 ahead of the pack

It is not unusual in a stage race to see, shortly after the start of a stage, a single rider or small group take off in a breakaway and try to maintain their momentum until the end of the day.  Rarely are these riders successful, as the power of the peloton is simply too strong.  (Many riders pedaling in a group, taking turns in the front so that others can ride in the slipstream, can ride faster overall than a single rider or small group.)  But every once in a great while, a breakaway will get far enough away fast enough so as to make the gap between them and the peloton too long to close before the finish line is reached.

Such was the case today with French rider Sylvain Georges.  He rode out early on a breakaway that began as seven riders, then became six, then five, then three, then one.  Georges refused to fold, pushing himself to the absolute limit of his strength.  Keep in mind, today's stage was 150 miles long.  Sylvain Georges et al broke away from the pack after the first mile.  So for 149 miles, Georges rode as if the devil was nipping at his heels.  This, after riding over one hundred miles a day for the five days previous.  Strength?  Courage?  The words seem inadequate to describe such a performance.

Within the last 3/4 of a mile, Georges could see the peloton's advance behind him like a locomotive bearing down on him.  His support crew in the AG2R team car drove along beside him, shouting to him over and over in French to ride faster.  His pace never faltered until he rolled across the line.  At that point, he looked ready to collapse.  But he'd pulled off an amazing upset, out-riding some of the best climbers in the world to take the stage win in Big Bear.

Yes, Phil Liggett, I did stand and cheer in my living room and applaud for him.

What will happen tomorrow when all these same riders undertake the grueling climb up the mountain where I live?  I don't know.  But I'll be watching from my buddy Vince's house, right there on the final hairpin turn of the switchbacks.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

And just like that...

Photo from official Amgen Tour of California website

Dave Zabriskie is now the overall leader in the Amgen Tour of California.

Just as our circumstances in life can turn on a dime--we forget to clean the lint filter in the dryer a time or two and next thing you know, the house is on fire... or on a whim we pick up a single lotto ticket and the next thing you know, we're picking out a new Tesla Roadster--so go these stage races in cycling.  By tomorrow afternoon, people will have forgotten how much they talked about Peter Sagan in the past five days, and those fortunate enough to have gotten his autograph will be wishing they would have gotten Zabriskie's while there was still an opportunity to catch him away from the press.

Dave is a great cyclist with a lot of heart and courage, and I have enjoyed watching him battle it out in the Tour de France on quite a few occasions.  He'll be wearing the leader's jersey tomorrow... but Zabriskie is not the best mountain climber; time trialing is really his forte, as we saw today when he raced across the line with the fastest overall time.  I was hoping for more from Levi Leipheimer today, but it appears that he is indeed hampered by his still-knitting broken fibula, so I don't think we'll see him in the front of the pack on the climbs tomorrow and Saturday.  But who knows?  At this point, it's still anybody's race--though the pros will tell you that the spoils in this war will go to the man who is the best climber.

Tomorrow the guys will ride from Palmdale to Big Bear.  Good heavenly day--it's just one long, drawn out charge up a very steep hill, as it will be on Saturday when they come to Baldy.  Both days will offer some pretty dramatic scenarios.  Hang tough, DZ!

Cycle. Sprint. Repeat.

I'm not one to say "I told you so," so I won't.  But...

Peter Sagan has gone on to win the 3rd and 4th stages of the Amgen Tour of California, in addition to his wins in the first two stages.  Impressive.  But...  You have to understand how professional cycling works, if you're new to this game.  It's not like all 140 guys roll out in the morning and the first one across the line 120 miles later is the winner.  Well, I mean, that's true, but it's not every man for himself.  Individual cyclists ride as members of teams, and it is the young and strong team members of Liqui-Gas Cannondale who are setting the pace in the peloton (the group of cyclists as a whole), protecting Sagan as he moves his way to the front, then catapulting him forward (by way of having a strong rider in front of him so that he can ride in the slipstream until the last seconds) so that he can be first across the line.  Liqui-Gas has always fielded an impressive team, but this year for the ATOC, they're stronger than anything else out there, at least for now.

These first days of the tour are similar to the first week of the Tour de France, in that they are characterized by consecutive stages of long rides (115-120 miles), with maybe some hills or small mountains thrown in, then a sprint finish.  Over time, the cyclists will tire, which will change up the overall standings.

And something else that will change the overall standings:  A time trial.  Today's stage in Bakersfield will not be a road race, but rather an individual time trial, in which riders will compete exclusively against the clock.  The man with the fastest time today wins the stage.  In the past, this is an event that has brought Levi Leipheimer to the top of the overall standings.  But with his still healing broken leg, it will be interesting to see how the day turns out.  No one is expecting Peter Sagan to win today.  But this young man is fired up, so we'll just have to see what happens.

I am thoroughly enjoying the coverage of the race on NBCSports with much beloved Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen commentating.  Good job, lads!  Keep up the good work!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Amgen ToC: Keep your eye on Peter Sagan

Photo from the official Amgen Tour of California website

Young Peter Sagan has won the first two stages of the Amgen Tour of California, but not without his share of trials and tribulations.  A stage winner in last year's ToC, Sagan rode smart yesterday in the first stage, sticking toward the front of the peloton as much as he could, waiting for his chance to sprint for the final win.  In the last miles of the race, he drew toward the front.  Then disaster struck six miles from the finish line:  A flat tire forced him to the side of the road, and someone from a team car jumped out and switched out his tire in under 20 seconds--which was just enough time for the entire peloton and all the team cars to roll past him.  Frantically he pedaled, jumping in and out of the spaces between cars until, just moments before they all reached the line, he joined the peloton, somehow wove himself through all the traffic and sprinted across the line in first.  Dang.  Give that boy a beer--and you can, because he's over the legal drinking age--but at 22, just barely.

In today's stage, Sagan used yesterday's tactic of staying safe in the peloton.  But in a bike race of this magnitude, no one is safe, and as Phil Liggett will say, you never know what you're going to find when you roll around a corner.  Today, what Peter Sagan found was a pile up.  A number of riders went down, and he found himself on the pavement, a bit shaken and appearing to favor his left arm.  He sat on the ground for precious seconds, checking his collar bones for fractures and stretching out his arms and back.  Finally, he was up and back on the bike.  Credit his valiant team members from Liquigas Cannondale for keeping him rolling through the remainder of the race, then setting the pace so high in the last miles that no one could break away to sprint for the finish.  They brought Peter home nicely, and he won Stage 2.

On another note:  I cannot express how thrilled I was to hear Phil Liggett say today that George Hincapie is set to ride in the Tour de France in July.  If all goes well, Hincapie will set a record as the first man to ride in 17 Tours de France.  Oh my Buddha, George, that's awesome.  Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.  Just don't crash out in the ToC.  Oh no, now I've jinxed you!

Last year's ToC winner, Chris Horner, is looking strong and confident.  He is biding his time, of course, not trying to win stages right now, just keeping his overall time with that of the peloton.  Soon, very soon, I think we'll see some action from Horner.  Can't wait!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

It begins

A few of my friends believe that, for some unknown reason (at least to me), I became enamored of Lance Armstrong some years ago and began to watch professional cycling as a result. The truth is, I began watching cycling in the early 1980’s. At that time, there was an arrogant young punk named Greg Lemond who gifted the United States with some long-denied respect in the cycling world. When Lance came onto the scene a decade or so later, he was an arrogant young punk, too. But I liked his style, and it was fun, in those first years, to watch him battle it out with the Europeans in the Tour de France.

His fierce courage and bull-headed determination—especially after the cancer years—made the sport more interesting, for certain. But seeing those qualities plus an indomitable spirit in all my cycling favorites over the years is the lure that brings me eagerly back every year to planning 21 days in July around the Tour de France. Add to that, of course, the drama and intellectual stimulation of cycling’s particular chess game.

At least once a year someone mentions to me that they find cycling “boring,” or they don’t see what all the excitement could be about regarding ‘a bunch of guys in spandex riding bicycles.’ Which actually just reveals they’ve never watched a race. If you can’t appreciate the elite level of athleticism in these ‘guys in spandex,’ try riding 115 miles at an average speed of 30mph. Throw in some steep uphill climbs and maybe some sections of the road paved with cobblestones from the Sixteenth Century. If you’re still alive afterward, let me know how your ride went.

With the debut of Amgen’s Tour of California seven years ago, I now have a mini-drama right here in my own backyard in gorgeous sun-drenched California to look forward to every May. And that race begins today.

In recent weeks, the spring classics in Europe have been going full tilt, and fortunately for me, NBC Sports has been providing great coverage. I’ve watched big Tom Boonen win the Tour of Flanders and then, a week later, Paris Roubaix (his fourth win in the latter, tying a record). He will be here this week with the new team, Omega Pharma Quick-Step, and I’m excited to see how he negotiates the tough terrain of Mt. Baldy next Saturday.

Levi Leipheimer, a favorite of mine for years, will also be riding in the Amgen ToC this week. Levi survived a wicked crash in the second to last stage of the Paris – Nice race some weeks ago, only to be hit by a car during a training ride last month which result in a fractured fibula. Levi has won the ToC before, though he is saying at this point he doesn’t expect to be a contender in the overall standings. His leg is still on the mend, so props to him for coming out and competing anyway. How could he not? The ToC begins in Santa Rosa, where he currently resides.

Here’s hoping all my favorite guys ride safe, ride fair and sans performance enhancers for the next week. As I did last year, I will no doubt post quick daily updates on the race—if I’m not too busy watching.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Against the dying of the light

I have a friend, Willma (yes, that’s how it’s spelled), who lives in Sedona, Arizona. Of the writers I know personally, she is the most prolific. Some years ago, as I prepared to introduce her as guest speaker to my writers group, I asked her to remind me where she’d been published. She handed me a list with over thirty national publications on it—including Popular Mechanics.

“Wow!” I said. “How does a woman with a background in literature sell a piece to Popular Mechanics?”

“Well,” she replied, “you can sell a piece anywhere if you have the right slant.”

Thus her role as my mentor began. That same year I sent her something I’d written about The Grandson. She sent it right back, telling me, “Drop the last paragraph. You don’t need it. Make the second to last paragraph your first paragraph. Then send it to the Home Forum section of the Christian Science Monitor.” I did. And earned $185 for a piece that took me an hour to write.

A year ago, Willma published a memoir, Iron Grip. If you’re married, consider how you would respond if your spouse lost both of his hands in an explosion. Imagine if it happened in the first weeks of your marriage…. As I read through Willma’s book, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a true story, that the energetic, caustically funny, positive and productive woman I knew had endured a depth of heartache I had never known.

In recent weeks, Willma released a novel, Braving House Calls. The word is out that it’s funny, which doesn’t surprise me; her previous two memoirs, Just Pencil Me In and Something's Leaking Upstairs, reflect her wry sense of humor at life’s unpredictability. I’ll be grabbing the new book for my Kindle next time I’m down the mountain.

I sent Willma an email yesterday to let her know I was looking forward to coming out to AZ for her birthday party next month. Her reply said in part:

I still lead four writer workshops, each meeting twice a month. This is my “social” life—as much meet and greet as I want or need. And I have moved to the apartment next door to the one where you visited me. While I was able to move all the light stuff in boxes, my son Alan and another friend moved all the big stuff in two hours.

She also said she’s looking forward to that birthday party in June. Because, you know, you only turn 90 once.

Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light

~ Dylan Thomas