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.

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