Hey there race fans. Instead of recapping all of the race action from Stage 6 of the Tour of California from Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita (which you should all know by now anyway), I will attempt to analyze some of the some interesting elements of what turned out to be a fascinating race. Whereas last year’s similar stage, held on a slightly different course, was something of a standoff, the penultimate stage of the 2007 edition was anything but controlled. With crashes, attacks, chases and a wild finish, the calm start down by the beach in Santa Barbara gave nary a hint of the action that would soon take place on the road to Santa Clarita.
Unfortunately, the biggest news of the day was that George Hincapie had broken his arm above the wrist during an early race fall with teammate Tony Cruz. Attacks were beginning to form at the same time and despite Levi Leipheimer’s request for a “Time Out” the field began to split apart. Levi was somewhat critical of these moves during the post-race interview but it is difficult to imagine the entire field just lollygagging around until both Cruz and Hincapie were back in the fold. The unwritten rules of cycling are unwritten because too many people disagree with them and break them under the guise of “That’s bike racing.”
Speaking of which, I heard the ever-popular phrase “That’s bike racing” a lot this week, usually accompanied by a shrug or a general “whatever” kind of tone. I heard it first in reference to the wind changes during the prologue that kept many of the top contenders from the podium. Then I heard it when people were questioning the official’s neutral finish ruling after the crash in Stage 1. In Solvang people discussed the possibility of the gusting winds throwing riders off course prior to the Time Trial and almost inevitably used the phrase. And most recently, Levi said it after declaring that he had wished the riders were “more polite” when his teammates hit the deck on Stage 6. There is a palpable attitude of acceptance that things will not always go as planned for most bike racers which I believe is a function of the inherent danger of the sport as well as a personality component that allows them to accept and fight through adversity and pain on such a regular basis. Hincapie’s remarkable ride after suffering his injury is a testament to these traits. It was terribly unfortunate but hey, “That’s bike racing.”
Anyway…bike racing is at its best when the action is animated and Stage 6 provided arguably the most drama and tension in the history of the Tour of California. After chasing down Mauricio Alberto Ardila Cano (that’s one guy with 4 names, not 2 guys with 2, by the way) of Rabobank, a group containing Stuart O’Grady and Michael Rogers got off the front and was soon joined by another chase, bringing the number of riders in the break to nine. With seven Pro Tour riders and two of the stronger domestic riders in Victor Rapinsky of Navigators and Danny Pate of Slipstream, the break quickly built sizeable gap on the scattered peloton.
Just in case anyone wasn’t aware, Stuart O’Grady is pretty much a total badass and as I chatted with some of the American riders before the start in Santa Barbara, he rolled by and ended up standing next to me for a while. Now, I’m not exactly a skinny guy for a bike racer but O’Grady made me feel like a little twig. The dude is seriously thick and it is quite evident standing next to him that you do not want to throw down with this guy. I don’t know what it is about those Australian’s but jeez, O’Grady and Menzies could be the new WWE Tag Team and make some extra coin in the off-season. Monsters.
So it was fitting that when O’Grady started barking at his breakaway companions to get to business, they pretty much all fell in line and worked well together. Would you just sit on a group when Sergeant O’Grady is yelling at you? Better to work hard and risk popping than feel the wrath of an angry Australian hard man, I always say. As such, the gap grew to over three minutes for the effort, as O’Grady became the virtual race leader on the road, having started the day only 1:20 behind Leipheimer.
It was about this point when Discovery finally got things back together, with Basso, Danielson, McCartney and the remarkable Hincapie all taking massive pulls and stringing out the field. The peloton began to spread apart as echelons formed with Disco effectively trying to put CSC in the gutter as Jens Voigt and Bobby Julich stuck to Levi’s wheel at the back of the train. There was a period of time shortly after Hincapie got back to the main field where he got on the front and ended up gapping everyone but Danielson by pulling so hard. It almost seemed like he was trying to bridge up to the break by himself but I have to think he just caught everyone off guard with his tempo. Honestly, Big George’s ride on Saturday was among the most impressive I can recall. Maybe the Stars and Stripes jersey is working a little Captain America magic because that was one heroic performance. I’d say he and Levi are square now after Levi’s help in the ’06 USPRO championships and GH’s efforts in this race. It’s all cyclical…doing the bull dance…feeling the flow.
The break stayed strong over the short but steep Balcom Canyon climb where all kinds of yahoos threatened to become a full-blown hazard to the safety of the racers. The Pope was running around on one side of the road while the Grim Reaper ran across from him. Two idiots, one in a USC shirt and another with the Norwegian flag painted on his chest, ran into each other and proceeded to bump Hincapie, forcing his hands off the bars momentarily. Honestly, I’m scared that some fool is going to take out a prominent rider and seriously tarnish the reputation of this event. I think that the organizers are going to have to put more security or something up there because it was frightening how close they were to a potentially race-altering accident there.
Speaking of idiots – what about the Eagle-helmet, football jersey, huge American flag-waving guy that seems to be at every race and runs alongside the road causing massive annoyance and problems? I know he’s from Texas(take that however you want), but other than that I just know that this guy is a serious hazard. I saw a great photo of him in handcuffs, being escorted by a police officer after the Sierra Road climb on Stage 3. Awesome, but they should have locked his ass up for the rest of the race. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for exuberant cheering and support but these fools that run alongside the road are not benefiting the riders at all. They are a dangerous nuisance and are doing it out of pure selfishness, so that they can either get on TV or have another story to bore people with. A true fan of the sport or anyone with even the slightest understanding of bicycle racing should have more respect for the riders. It’s a bike race, not a circus. Just ask Lance Armstrong, Giuseppe Guerini and Thor Hushovd if they think it’s a good thing to have the spectators interfere with the race. Now you can add George Hincapie to the list. RESPECT. I honestly can’t wait for a rider to pull a Wellens and just freaking sock one of these fools as they’re riding past. Once again, I vote for either Menzies or O’Grady to just hop off and start duking one of these chumps. That might make ‘em think twice. And I would LOVE it.
Anyway…despite the efforts of the breakaway, Discovery and Health Net ended up closing the gap and caught them just outside the finish in Santa Clarita. A hectic and scattered sprint resulted in Robert Forster doing a little tango with Fast Freddie Rodriguez and riding with one leg for a while. Some seriously good body control and gymnastics by the German but not exactly an ideal sprinting strategy. The big Argentinean JJ Haedo managed to find a clear line and took his fourth Tour of California stage win ahead of Greg Henderson, Bettini and Hushovd. University of Colorado alum Alex Candelario provided the best domestic result with an 8th place finish despite being blocked by the Freddie/Forster acrobatics.
Considering that JJ Haedo won again, I have to address a comment that T-Mobile owner/director Bob Stapleton made after Stage 4 into San Luis Obispo. He ended up saying, rather matter-of-factly, that Gerald Ciolek was faster than JJ. Now…I have mad respect for Mr. Stapleton and see him as a truly positive figure in the world of professional cycling but…let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. I know Ciolek is fast and all but Haedo is a freaking rocket when things go right and it would be really hard to validate a claim that anyone was faster than the Argentinean during the Tour of California. Give the German U23 World Champion a little time and he may deserve the title but for now, JJ Haedo is the best sprinter this race has ever seen. He seems like a genuinely good guy too, which is always cool.
At the end of the day, nothing really changed much but Stage 6 of the Tour of California was the most exciting day of the event so far and gave a hint of the growing CSC/Discovery rivalry and the potential of this race to become a true battle in future editions. Great weather (so far at least) and great racing like this will only solidify the reputation of this event as truly world-class. Now if we could only do something about these idiots on the side of the road…anyone want to join me with a Taser next year? I got my eye on that dude from Texas with the eagle helmet. If the cops don’t get him, I hope someone pulls a little vigilante justice next time. The responsible and respectful fans need to stand up to these clowns. In the words of the Weatherman, “Keep it classy California.” We have to be better than that – the racers and the event deserve it.