Friday, February 23, 2007

Tour of California Stage 5 - Sideways In Solvang

Solvang– Danish for “sunny field”– was founded in 1911 on 9,000 acres of former Spanish land grant. The current English translation means “tourist trap where lots of cyclists and winos go.” For reference, both definitions are perfectly accurate.
Made recently famous by the movie “Sideways”, Solvang may now be better known in cycling circles as the place where Levi Leipheimer confirmed his victory in the 2007 Tour of California and the Pro Tour riders showed their superiority in the time trial discipline, taking virtually all of the top 20 placings.

The skies stayed blue on Friday but a constant, gusting wind made the conditions less than ideal for the riders as they made their way around the 14 mile loop north of town. Thousands of spectators lined the start and finish areas which were separated by only a few blocks of expo tents, coffee shops and faux Danish architecture. At least a quarter of the fans rode their bikes to the event, which tends to create a unique viewing dynamic. Love the guys in the full pro team kits as always. Saw a decidedly non-chicken-like fellow in the complete polka dot Rabobank gear (white shorts…oh my) and even saw a complete circa ’90’s Gan outfit with the blue and yellow patchwork shorts and aero TT helmet. Priceless.

Speaking of Michael Rasmussen…I had a chance to quickly chat with the Dane as he drank his coffee and tried to decide what kind of gearing he needed. Cool guy, kinda skinny, speaks perfect English. I told him that he would need his Mountain Biking skills for the rough patches of Ballard Canyon and then wondered if I had inadvertantly made him think about his disastrous TT in the Tour de France a few years back. I hope not. Anyway, I completely forgot to ask him what he thought about Solvang and if it was anything like Denmark. I have to think the Danes find this town rather odd. Dave Towle mentioned that it is likely similar to an American going to a burger joint in another country and having conflicting feelings of familiarity and dissatisfaction. I thought that was probably pretty accurate. Thanks for the analogy DT.

Okay, back to the race. A late time trial in a stage race is a unique event due to the widely varying motives of the riders. Domestiques, sprinters and those looking to build form generally have goals of merely making the time cut and staying upright. This was evident during Friday’s stage where riders went out on everything from road bikes with deep section rims to full TT bikes with a rear disc wheel. The wind played a significant factor in equipment choice but some of the decisions were likely based on motivation as well.

The early best time was set by young Tom Zirbel of Priority Health, bested shortly thereafter by CSC’s Fabian Cancellara. The reigning World TT Champ was visibly faster than anyone prior as he had an early start time and was likely far more interested in performing well than many of those before him. But once again, the guy is a tank. A very, very fast Swiss tank. Who’s favorite movie is Scarface. Uh…okay. I know he speaks English very well but I wonder if he saw it first with subtitles or not. Can’t imagine Tony Montana in anything other than Pacino-ese.

The surprise performance of the day was put in by Jason McCartney who bested Cancellara, Rogers and all of the other riders before him. Wings has been very impressive in this event so far and must be impressing Johann and the rest of the Discovery intelligencia. We all knew he was on good form after his day-long performance in Stage 3 but I can’t imagine that he was on many lists of potential podium finishers for Friday’s Time Trial. Wings is flying right now.

Jens Voigt presented by Chuck Norris came through as the first rider to break the 30 minute mark and received a huge round of applause for his efforts. I have been to a number of events featuring Voigt and he always gets an amazing reception from the crowd. Perhaps it is his friendly demeanor, entertaining accent and aggressive racing style…or maybe it is the fear of deadly roundhouse kick retribution for not clapping. I think the answer is D - All of the above.

With only a three second lead over Voigt in the overall, it was now up to Levi as the last rider on the course. The time checks put him at a slight advantage midway through the race but it was pretty suspenseful as he approached the finish. Apparently Johann was being a little less than honest in his communication and led Levi to believe that it was actually closer than it really was. The crowd was going crazy as Odessa Gunn’s husband came through in an amazingly fast 39:40 to win by 18 seconds.

Speaking of OG-Leipheimer…she and some other family members were milling around the press area after the event and had at least two dogs with them. The family members were wearing some rad GO LEVI shirts and I think the dogs were dressed up as well. It’s actually really cool that the Leipheimer’s are such public animal lovers and I appreciate the work that they do for the critters of the North Bay Area.

So…at the end of a wild and windy day in pseudo-Denmark, the locals were treated to some good old fashioned race of truth action and witnessed a score of the world’s best riders tearing through their streets. I must have overheard three or four people talking about their “personal bests” for the course and could hear the admiration of the professionals in their voices. It doesn’t necessarily take a personal history of cycling to appreciate the speed and skill of these racers but it certainly helps to have a frame of reference. Hopefully this event has raised the interest of an already cycling-friendly region even more.

Despite Levi’s victory and increased lead, the Tour of California is not over yet and I am curious to hear some of the strategies for Saturday’s stage from Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita. It should be a good one.

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