Monday, December 18, 2006

The Tour of California Part 1

The Prologue of "The Inaugural Amgen Tour of California" (neither the riders or the announcers were seemingly allowed to just say "the Tour of California", it had to be the full-on mouthful) was held this past February 2006 in San Francisco, along roughly the same course featured in the Coors Classic events of the late '80's. The last prologue winner here in 1988 was none other than Davis Phinney, who went on to win at least five stages and the overall in what was likely his best performance and proudest race victory. Starting out across Embarcadero from the Ferry Building and finishing at Coit Tower, the course had a fairly flat start but then gradually steepened with each corner, culminating with nearly 15-20% grades for the last kilometer or so. The crowds were at least three deep along the latter stages of the course as spectators watched the riders flail all over some of San Francisco's finest inclines.

Bobby Julich was a strong candidate for the prologue win but ended up just off the pace. Bobby J kept a pretty low profile in this race even though he did manage a podium finish. It seems like he always kind of flies under the radar even though he is arguably the third best American cyclist of all time. Seriously, I'll hear arguments about the other great ones but Bobby J can make a pretty solid case for himself. You can kind of tell from this picture but one of the things that you notice about Julich both in person and on video is how easy he makes it look. The guy is seriously smooth on the bike. There is a scene in PRO when he bridges up to the break and looks like he's just cruising along the bike path on a Sunday afternoon. All the other guys are out of the saddle, rocking back and forth and he's just chilling with his hands on the tops and his mouth closed. Seriously smooth...and seriously fast.

Chris Horner rode strong and didn't need to bother with the TT space helmet, shoe covers or disc rear wheel. "Just give me the bike man, I don't need all that fancy stuff." I don't recall exactly where he finished on this stage - or in the overall for that matter - but that's irrelevant. I have determined that Horner is the most entertaining cyclist in just about every race he's in, no matter where he finishes. I don't know if it's the slightly maniacal grin he seems to have when ripping peoples legs off, driving at the front for Freddie in the sprint or annoying everyone by appearing to be able to go off the front at will, but the guy is just plain fun to watch race. Once again, like Bobby J, Horner is vastly underappreciated by most casual cycling fans. Outside of the guys that have had a fair amount of success in Europe, Chris Horner is probably the best American cyclist to have spent the majority of his career stateside. The recent stage wins in Switzerland and Romandie just confirm what everyone in the US scene already knew. Plus he's funny, brutally honest and eats hamburgers before and after shelling people. Cool.

Here is Jens Voigt trying to keep the ladies happy. Stuart O'Grady and Dave Zabriskie were right there and the crowd was all about Jens. "Hooly Mooly, these crowds in San Francisco are great" he said. Maybe not.

It's always weird when people just stand around and stare at the riders as they warm up. Everyone is usually really mellow and cycling fans in general are a pretty respectful lot, but still. Imagine if you were on your trainer at home or the excercise bike at the gym and there were like two-dozen people just standing around staring at you as you sweat. Not even talking to you but muttering things to each other and whispering your name, occasionally pointing to something either on you or your bike. I'm telling you, it's kind of weird. On the other hand, it is exceptionally cool that a fan can walk up to Jens Voigt, Stuart O'Grady and Dave Zabriskie and see how they warm up and prepare for an event like this. Can you imagine walking around the court as Shaq and D-Wade are shooting around before a game?

Leipheimer won the Prologue and got to start Stage 1 in Sausalito with the Race Leader's Brown... Jersey and fellow NorCal guy Mike Sayers seems to be heckling him a bit in this photo. "Come on man, the Gerolsteiner kit wasn't bad enough? What color do you call that?"

Levi was totally the star of the first few stages. As a Santa Rosa resident, he apparently helped with some of the course design and had a huge amount of support from the NorCal crowds. Mike Sayers doesn't get nearly the same amount of publicity but is also a popular rider in these parts among the people that follow the sport domestically. Now living in Sacramento, Sayers has been heavily involved in area High School and youth cycling programs throughout the state. I can't imagine how cool it would have been to race for a High School team. All I have to say is that Boulder High School would have won mad state and national cycling championships when I was there. By my count we had no fewer than 4 BHS Panthers hit the professional ranks and another half dozen or so that raced at a national level. I spent my first couple of years racing in California before moving to Boulder and I can safely say that it was like going from the Minors to the Major Leagues. The Juniors in Boulder are better than most Cat. 2's around the country. It looks like NorCal is trying to make a move though and I hope more programs like this start to spring up in other locations like the Pacific Northwest and Colorado.

The first stage began right by the Spinnaker Restaurant in Sausalito and made a couple of loops along Bridgeway before heading out to the coast through Mill Valley and Muir Beach, then up north along Highway 1 and back to Santa Rosa via Occidental. This section of Bridgeway is usually one of the most heavily trafficked roads for Bay Area cyclists because it is virtually the only way to ride between Marin and San Francisco. It's a great road, with a nice climb, spectacular views and it's basically a direct link from the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands down to the start of the Sausalito bike path which leads off into Mill Valley and the rest of Marin. The problem is that, being in downtown Sausalito, it is also one of the most popular tourist destinations so there are always tons of cars and even worse, random fools walking out right into the street in front of you. Johnny Law has also taken to handing out hefty tickets for the cyclists that dare to "jump" a red light or ride too fast through the 25 mph zones so it can be a stressful route at times. It was cool to see the whole road blocked off for the riders and made me wish I could jump out for a few "clean" minutes on this beautiful boulevard by the bay. Oh well.

With the exception of the last few miles into Santa Rosa, this had to be one of the prettiest stages of the Tour. Having been fortunate enough to ride just about all of these roads at some point, I think that this stage was a great illustration of Northern California at its best. Starting in downtown Sausalito, looking across the water at San Francisco and the East Bay, Freddy Rodriguez joked that he could see his house in Emeryville from the announcers stage. It would have been cool for the race to actually go over Mt. Tam and down into Stinson Beach but they instead took the easier route along Shoreline Drive and the coastal cliffs of Highway 1. Almost every winter a portion of this road slides off into the Pacific Ocean and the pavement can be unpredictable to say the least but the riders managed to negotiate it without too many incidents. I know there are some mountainous sections in the Tour de France and other European races where there is very little room for error off the side of the road but Highway 1 must be one of the most dangerous. A high-speed get off here and you could end up shark food real quick. Well, okay, you probably wouldn't make it all the way to the water but I doubt the rocky cliffs would feel too good on the way down.

Once the race got far enough north, the course cut back east through the lush forests, hills and vineyards of Sonoma County on its way back into Santa Rosa. Argentinian sprinter Juan Jose Haedo of the Toyota-United team took a strong win in front of thousands of fans packing the downtown area and got a huge early result for the new squad. I have to say, Santa Rosa really showed up for this race and hometown boy Levi Leipheimer, who nearly teared up as he pulled on the leaders jersey for a second day in a row. Levi is a pretty easy guy to like and was an ideal first leader of this race. I wonder how much the emotion of the whole event being in his backyard took out of him later in the event. I know he wanted to win the whole thing but I think that having the leaders jersey in his hometown was probably good enough.

More on the rest of "The Inaugural Tour of California" soon.

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